Here are some quick notes on Italo Svevo’s A Life, composed hastily in an ill-advised fit of procrastination:
All of Svevo’s work occupies the space between expectations and their brutal frustration. The greater his protagonists’ disappointments, the more poignant their plight. In every case, we laugh at the oblivious party even as we pity him: in A Life, Alfonso stupidly imagines that city life will be more glamorous than it is bureaucratic; in A Man Grows Older, Emilio imagines his paramour is a high-minded creature commensurate to the loftiness of his love; in Zeno’s Confessions, Zeno imagines that he’s cut out for ill-defined greatness (in fact, he’s the portrait of bourgeois ordinariness); and, most obviously, in A Perfect Hoax, Mario imagines that his book is to be translated into German and met with critical acclaim, when in reality he’s doomed to remain a literary non-entity. These more general instances of frustrated expectation find their analog in more concrete distillations of the theme. Small ironies abound.
But perhaps most ironic of all is that Svevo’s works are peppered with comical instances of precisely the inverse—cases where consequences come, through strange twists of fate, to align with feigned intentions. Pretense, for Svevo, is a more powerful force than sincerity. When a character only pretends to desire a certain outcome, the outcome almost unfailingly comes about: Zeno only pretends to want to marry his wife, but the result is an exuberantly happy marriage; Zeno’s friend only pretends to want to kill himself, but the result is an accidental suicide; Mario makes some investments on the basis of false information, but they all prove profitable; Alfonso thinks he’s just pretending his mother is sick as an excuse to go on leave, but when he arrives in his hometown, he discovers that his mother is fatally ill. Svevo challenges the logic of agency by calling the assumed relationship between an action and its consequences into question. Causality we know it is inverted. The less we want something, the more likely it is to occur. The correlate, of course, is that desire becomes a barrier to its own fulfillment.
In any case, I think A Life has promise, but it ends too hastily. It’s difficult to write a good novel about someone so ploddingly inept—someone interesting precisely because of his persistent akrasia, his inability to escape the boring cycles in which he’s mired himself—because it’s difficult to end such a novel satisfactorily. A character like Alfonso is consigned to a life of monotony, and it’s hard to write a novel about monotony that is not itself monotonous. Besides, endings are antithetical to monotony: they constitute disruptions that not only break up the banality but also counteract it. Alfonso’s suicide isn’t consistent with his character, and, worse, it undermines Svevo’s efforts in the rest of the book. Alfonso’s life is tragic precisely because it’s ineluctably ordinary. To snuff him out with a bang rather than a whimper is to negate the premise that made the novel worth reading to begin with. A Life is about Alfonso’s initial desperation and subsequent reconciliation, about his horrifying capitulation to the smallness of his life. Suicide is too dramatic–and too courageous!–by half.
It’s difficult but possible to pen a more satisfying ending to a book of this nature. Svevo’s later efforts in Zeno and A Perfect Hoax and, to a lesser extent, A Man Grows Older are successful, and works like Notes from Underground or No Exit manage to end without ever really ending, by intimating that their characters’ mental games go doggedly on and on. (I’m not a huge fan of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, but it does provide an ingenuous solution to the challenge posed by the necessity of ending a novel about unending torpor. That’s a book that really doesn’t end.) A Life is a good realist novel, but it remains a few inches short of a great one.
But! I still love Svevo with all my heart, and he more than makes up for his initial failings in his later stuff. Still very worth reading!