A Perfect Hoax
Italo Svevo, trans. J.G. Nichols
79 pp. Hesperus Press Limited. $12.44
For about a month now, I’ve been increasingly obsessed with the “Italian” author Italo Svevo. I place “Italian” in skeptical scare-quotes because Svevo was an unusually international specimen: his native language was the Triestine dialect, but he was educated in German and wrote in Italian (somewhat clumsily, several Italian-speaking sources report). He came to literary fame late in life, when his Irish friend and English tutor, one James Joyce, sent his novels-in-translation off to a handful of French critics.
Nothing about Svevo’s writing or the body of criticism it spawned is straightforwardly Italian, and Svevo’s work seems to me to be more of a piece with a tradition of fraught, fin-de-siècle literature that erupted across Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. (Comparisons with various German authors cry out for elucidation, but I’m holding off on posting related thoughts re. Svevo’s magnum opus, Zeno’s Conscience, because I’m trying to write an essay that I hope to actually, you know, publish. Whom, you ask, would print such an essay? In all probability, no one, which is why I imagine it will end up here in the end.) For now, I’ll confine myself to a discussion of Svevo’s masterful novella, A Perfect Hoax, which I think can be placed into interesting dialogue with Honoré de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece.” (Why keep a personal literary blog if not to embark on such aggressively untimely, thus unpublishable, analyses!?)
A Perfect Hoax centers on Mario Samigli, a mediocre businessman and aspiring novelist. Mario’s only tangible literary output is One Man’s Youth, a novel that he published at his own expense to resounding critical indifference. By the time we meet Mario, he’s spent the better part of his life mired in literary inactivity. He works at a bank, tends to his invalid brother, and feeds crumbs to the sparrows in his backyard. Despite his long hiatus from the world of arts and letters, “he continue[s] to think of himself as destined for glory, not because of what he ha[s] done or hope[s] to do, but because a profound inertia…[holds] him back from destroying a conviction formed in his mind so many years before.”
Ostensibly in preparation for his eventual comeback, Mario writes short fables inspired by the sparrows in the yard. “A famished young sparrow happened one day to find many crumbs of bread. He believed he owed them to the generosity of the larger creature which he had never seen, a ponderous ox grazing in a field nearby. Then the ox was slaughtered, the bread no longer appeared, and the sparrow mourned his benefactor,” one reads. Ultimately, Mario comes to rely on his fables at least as much as the birds in his yard rely on his charitable crumbs. His short allegories are the scraps on which his ambitions feed, his naive but ingenious way of embracing literary creation without exposing himself to the unbearable prospect of defeat or failure. When we first encounter Mario, he is a miracle of self-containment, drawing on his inner imaginative resources to construct a seemingly impregnable sense of promise and self-worth. He is improbably but profoundly happy.
But Mario’s contentment depends on the indefinite deferral of the fulfillment of his dreams. “How do you manage to be happy if you’re not waiting for something?” he wonders. His life can remain pleasant only “so long as he [is] making an effort to escape from it”–that is, only so long as he can take refuge in an imagined future more satisfying than any actual future could be. His unlikely Eden, so heavily reliant on a sense of eternal anticipation, is shattered when his dreams are both fulfilled and dashed–when his friend Gaia, a petite bourgeois salesman, plays a cruel prank on him, convincing him that a German publisher wants to translate and popularize One Man’s Youth. Mario, who believes that he has finally attained the recognition he’s always deserved, is credulous. Most of novella is devoted to describing Mario’s inner life as he cycles from contentment to elation to vanity and, finally, once he’s realized he’s been tricked, to devastation.
Watching Mario’s fall from the paradise of concerted self-delusion is like witnessing a car crash or a crime, an event that we want to condemn but cannot help but enjoy. Svevo evokes a schadenfreude as cruel as it is disquieting. As we read on, rapt, our cringes are transformed into shivers of pleasure. The success of A Perfect Hoax depends on our ambivalence, our complicity in the prank on the one hand (we become willing co-conspirators, laughing along at Mario’s obliviousness) and our desire to avert or mitigate it on the other (we hate ourselves for laughing). If we were any less amused by the joke, A Perfect Hoax would be no fun; but if we were any less disturbed by it, and, crucially, if we were any less disturbed by our own amusement, the novella would have no depth.
Svevo trades in a peculiar and almost anti-literary currency of shame or inadequacy. Reading A Perfect Hoax, I’m reminded of Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke, which features a memorable scene where a character attempts to commit suicide with what she believes are sleeping pills and what are actually laxatives. Her explosive diarrhea compounds her sense of despair and foolishness–her sense that world’s frivolity cannot match her inner seriousness. The moment is tragic-comic, and the disparity between the nobility of the girl’s intentions and the baseness of her situation looms large. She wants to be taken seriously, by herself and by those around her, but in the end she cannot keep from laughing at herself. Like Kundera, Svevo pits his protagonist’s literary ambitions against his childish gullibility. Tragedy arises at the intersection of hits and misses, high expectations and attendant disappointments: the more grandiose Mario’s sense of literary worth, the more painful (and hilarious) it is when he ends up in a big pile of undignified shit.
Like so many of Svevo’s other characters, Mario initially tries to minimize the risk of succumbing to the explosive diarrhea of indignity by withdrawing from the literary world altogether, nursing what he sees as latent potential without putting himself at any real risk. I promised to leave Zeno out of this, and I will, but several similar passages are to be found in Svevo’s second novel, A Man Grows Older: “In art as in life,” the protagonist Emilio “regarded himself as being still in a preparatory stage, secretly considering his genius to be a powerful machine in process of construction but not yet functioning.” And in A Perfect Hoax, Mario reports, “I am fine doing nothing, because I do not fail.” This is a very specific malady–not just inertia, but inertia that takes itself to be preparatory.
For Svevo, art is something one is, not something one does. An artist is defined as such not by the art he produces but rather by the richness of his inner world, by the loftiness of his sensibilities, and, crucially, by remaining in a state of permanent pre-production. To defer the production of the artwork, the writing of the novel, is to prolong the life span of the artist or writer. Without our projects, what is left of us?
Which brings us to Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece,” another tale of artistic impotence. “The Unknown Masterpiece” follows Frenhofer, a masterful artist unable to complete the perfect painting. He devotes years to the project without success. When he is finally induced finish the the work and show his friends his efforts, they are shocked to discover an empty canvas, the object of so much over-analysis and revision that its content has been entirely negated. In the end, Frenhofer burns all his canvases and dies of unstated causes–at his own hand, we suspect, metaphorically if not literally.
In “The Unknown Masterpiece,” a battle is staged between art and life. Frenhofer’s erotic relationship to his unfinished and unfinishable painting, La Belle Noiseuse, parallels the relationship of a younger painter, Poussin, to his devoted mistress, Gillette. While Frenhofer initially refuses to show La Belle Noiseuse to Poussin, claiming that she is his “bride” and that to expose her to a foreign gaze would be “an infamous profanation,” Poussin readily offers Gillette up to Frenhofer as a model. (There’s just so much good stuff in here!!!!!!) Art and life are inverted: the old man treats his painting as if she were a real-life lover, while Poussin debases his real-life lover, regarding her only as the basis for a future painting. (“I shall still live on as a memory on your palette; that shall be life for me afterward,” Gillette assures him.) Art surpasses life, becoming more alive than life itself: Frenhofer “anticipated the triumph of the beauty of his own creation over the beauty of the living girl.”
In the end, however, the completion of Frenhofer’s Belle Noiseuse destroys not only the painting but also its painter. If art and life converge, it is because great art consists in in constant motion, not the static stuff of an inert canvas. (When he criticizes a friend’s mediocre portrait at the beginning of the story, Frenhofer points out that the work’s subject “is glued to the background, and that you could not walk round her.”) By definition, then, art precludes the possibility of a finished product. It requires movement the whole way through. The real masterpiece is Frenhofer himself–the fluid artist, not the stationary work of art.
Before his friends persuade him to unveil his painting, Frenhofer’s refusals display a glimmer of understanding: “Ah! love is a mystery; it can only live hidden in the depths of the heart. You say, even to your friend, ‘Behold her whom I love,’ and there is an end of love.” To reveal a painting, to render a cherished mental image externally accessible, is to sap its mysterious power. For Frenhofer, as for Mario, who relishes the sweetness of an endless waiting, a painting must remain invisible, a text illegible, to retain its poetry.
“The Unknown Masterpiece” is a cautionary tale. Its spinon the impossibility of verisimilitude is dark: to aspire to perfection, it suggests, is crippling. A Perfect Hoax, on the other hand, is almost heartening. To put off the act of creation is not so bad after all, if it means continuing to live the happy life of an aspiring artist. So Mario continues to do, recovering his former joy by writing more and more unpublishable fables.