Sunday, September 13, 2015

`Dying Is Nothing'

Until nearly the end he was writing, and for this we love him and his work even more. Italo Svevo, Ettore Schmitz, like his best-known creation, Zeno Cosini, was a good-hearted and well-intentioned procrastinator who saw the comic potential in procrastination, a late-bloomer who burst like a garden into flower. Like Chekhov (and unlike his English teacher and friend, James Joyce), he is one of the rare lovable practitioners of literature. If I were permitted to pack only one volume when shipped to Devil’s Island, it might be Zeno’s Conscience. After almost twenty years of writerly silence, Svevo self-published his novel in 1923 at age sixty-one. As a young man, Eugenio Montale met Svevo and his family, and was the first critic in Italy to champion his work. In “Italo Svevo in the Centenary of His Birth” (The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays, 1982), written in 1961, Montale says: “By now, he has entered the small number of our necessary writers.”
In September 1928, Svevo and his wife Livia set out for the Alpine spa at Bormio where he had taken the “cure” for smoking several years earlier. Among other things, Zeno’s Conscience is the great modern epic of smoking and Zeno’s futile attempts to stop. In Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer (1966), P.N. Furbank writes:
“During their stay at Bormio Svevo was writing continuously, and one day, from the next room, Livia heard him exclaim: `After all, I can die, can’t I? I have known what it is to be happy.’ On the day they were ready to leave for home he was still in the middle of writing when Livia called him to say the car was waiting.”
Accompanied by their grandchild, Paolo, they were driven away by their chauffeur. On Sept. 12, during a heavy rain, when their car was crossing a bridge near Motta di Livenza, the driver lost control of the vehicle and it crashed into a tree. Svevo was the only one who seemed seriously injured. The late William Weaver writes in the introduction to his 2001 translation of Zeno’s Conscience:
“Svevo had a broken leg, some cuts and bruises, but he was also suffering from severe shock; the doctor quickly realized that the injured man was dying. Letizia [Svevo’s daughter] and her husband arrived the next morning [Sept. 13]. At a certain point one of his visitors was smoking, and Svevo asked him for a cigarette. It was refused. Svevo replied: `That really would have been the last cigarette.’ He died that afternoon at half past two.” Furbank reports that when Svevo saw his wife crying, he told her: “Don’t cry. Dying is nothing.”
[See Joseph Epstein on Svevo here and here.]

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

I am intrigued, given that you included the Svevo novel in your top ten, how you did so, granted that the novel must have been read by you in translation, albeit a good one by William Weaver. So much of the merit of the other novels you included (all written in English) resides, presumably, in the quality of their english prose. I ask this having read the novel in Italian 37 years ago at Cambridge university while studying for a degree in Foreign Languages.