Confessions of Zeno (Twentieth Century Classics)

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9780140181852: Confessions of Zeno (Twentieth Century Classics)

In 1907 novelist James Joyce was engaged as Svevo’s English tutor in Trieste, and in the process they developed a friendship. When Joyce read Svevo’s novel La coscienza di Zeno (Confessions of Zeno), he was so impressed with it that he encouraged the writer to publish it, and later helped to promote it. While Joyce became enthralled with the latest novelistic techniques —particularly the stream of consciousness and indirect free style— to get inside the mind of his characters, Svevo accomplished the same thing without the new tools. Zeno’s consciousness is not the flowing of a stream, but the cascading, torrential avalanche of details that is the essence of humanness in all aspects: from low double entry bookkeeping, business, and economics, to manipulations of the Stock Market, to moral dilemmas, and raw passions. Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno belongs to the comic tradition of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, though not in the realist manner, but rather in a psychological vein. After reading a few pages the reader will have no doubt that he is confronting a paradoxical juxtaposition between things of the mind and things themselves. Zeno —the narrator and eponymous hero— on the surface is a hypochondriac, neurotic, quirky, solipsistic, self-examining and self-serving bourgeois; deep down, however, he is love and goodness incarnate, not by design but by the whims of life. Although Svevo wrote many other works, his opus magnum will remain his Confessions of Zeno. While Proust and others wrote lengthy psychological novels, by their sheer length and density, they become soporific. Not so with Zeno, which is intriguing, suspenseful, engaging—never boring, a magnificent tour de force.

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Review:

The pliant protagonist of Italo Svevo's 1923 classic Confessions of Zeno is, among other things, a bumbling businessman, a guilt-ridden adulterer, and a hardcore nicotine addict. What Zeno Cosini most definitely is not is wordless. For the novel is in fact a dense and comically excruciating exercise in self-revelation, undertaken by the narrator as part of his psychoanalytic treatment. Zeno never finds a cure for his affliction, which seems to be a strain of continental angst. Yet his reflections remain as audacious as they are exhaustive--and, much of the time, masterfully absorbing.

As we soon discover, Zeno is a master is the convoluted rationalization. He concocts numerous reasons why his "last cigarette" needn't truly become his last; he strives endlessly to convince himself that he loves his wife; he tirelessly justifies an awkward affair, all the while vacillating between a paralysis of action and a lazy submission. "My resolutions are less drastic and, as I grow older, I become more indulgent to my weaknesses," Zeno proclaims early on. (Later he backpedals even further, confessing that his "resolutions existed for their own sake and had no practical results whatever.") As a last-ditch tactic, he transmutes his disappointments into inevitabilities--an act of creative bookkeeping that becomes steadily creepier as the narrative unfolds.

There are times, to be sure, when Zeno seems to grasp that life isn't merely feints and games, that subterfuge and dark motivation aren't the whole of human transaction. Yet he always retreats back into his extravagant, consoling fantasies. Perhaps that's why Svevo's book still has the power to discomfit: Zeno's ingenious whitewashing of an indifferent world feels alarmingly like the fictions we tell ourselves on a daily basis. --Ben Guterson

From the Inside Flap:

As a form of therapy, Zeno's doctor advises him to write his memoirs. The patient reconstructs the events in his life into a palatable reality founded upon compromise and rationalization.

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