The project I couldn’t avoid

Celebrating 100 years of Zeno’s Conscience with a new translation

No novel captures the sprit of the city of Trieste like Italo Svevo’s masteriece, La Coscienza di Zeno. I grew up in the city, and walked through the very streets Svevo mentions, sat down to have coffee in the cafes where he sat and discussed literature with his friend and English teacher, James Joyce. I walked past the building where the author was born thousands of times. And when I read the novel for the first time, I immediately recognized the familiar rhythm of our dialect (disguised as “proper” Italian — Tuscan, as Zeno would call it).

The novel kept calling me back. And when I read it a second time I knew I was meant to translate it to recreate Svevo’s humor, irony, and uniquely Triestine outlook for English-speaking audiences.

Here’s the introduction to my 100-year Anniversary Edition of Zeno’s Conscience, which includes annotations on the history and culture of the city of Trieste, and the first translation into English of the passages in dialect.

Italo Svevo and Trieste: introduction by Peter Palmieri — translator

Italo Svevo was the pen name of Hector Aron Schmitz, born of a German father and an Italian mother in the city of Trieste in 1861. The pseudonym can be translated to “Italian Swabian” (Swabia being a region in southern Germany) which perfectly sums up the ambiguity over his self-identity. The year of his birth was an important one in the history of Italy because it marked the country’s unification. But it was a unification that did not include the city of Trieste, which had been part of the Habsburg monarchy since 1382.


Trieste was the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian empire (after Vienna, Prague, and Budapest) and its most important port. It was a lively center of business where three different cultures met and blended: the Italian, the German, and the Slavic.
Svevo’s father was a successful businessman whose wish was to prepare his oldest son to carry on the management of the family firm. Svevo went to boarding school in Germany before returning to Trieste to finish his studies. Tragedy struck the family when young Hector returned to his natal city: his father’s business suffered financial ruin, and the previously privileged young lad was forced to get a job.


He was able to get a position as a correspondence clerk at the local branch of the Unionbank — a job he’d keep for eighteen years, dreading every single workday according to his accounts. By now, Hector had discovered his true passion, literature, and would spend his free time reading at the public library. And he began to write stories, articles, and plays under various pseudonyms (when asked why he didn’t use his own name, he said he couldn’t stand to see that single lonely vowel in his last name, oppressed by no less than six consonants).


His writing brought him modest local success but he couldn’t penetrate the larger Italian market. Svevo’s first language was the Triestine dialect , his second German, and Italian was only a third language which he was forced to remediate at school following his return to Trieste from Germany. His writing style differed quite a bit from the lyrical Italian literature of the day, being more pragmatic, less stuffy, more… Triestine. It was largely looked down on in the elitist Italian literary circles. Svevo’s retort was that Italian writers, with their fancy Tuscan dialect, were unable to write without a dictionary open by their side.


He published two novels at his expense, A Life, and As a Man Grows Older, neither of which received much notice. He was quite pleased when he received a negative review because he felt it was an improvement over being utterly ignored.
Discouraged, Svevo stopped writing. He “tossed his pen into the poison ivy” and would not publish any work for twenty-five years — what some critics consider to be the longest writing hiatus in the history of literature. Writing was a complete waste of time, Svevo claimed, but when pressed, he’d admit that writing was a fine activity; it was publishing one must avoid at all costs!


By now, Hector Schmitz married Livia Veneziani: one of several daughters of a man who had invented a special marine varnish that prevented rust and barnacle build-up on ships. He went to work for his father-in-law, who dispatched him to England, where Svevo was able to secure an incredibly lucrative contract to re-varnish every vessel in the English navy.


His frequent trips to England required Svevo to improve his rather rudimentary English. So he went to the Berlitz language school of Trieste to secure a tutor. His new tutor was a very bright twenty-four-year-old Irishman with whom he’d develop a strong and long-lasting friendship, in large part due to their mutual love of literature. The teacher’s name was James Joyce.


After they had grown to know each other, they mutually revealed they were writers and exchanged pieces they had written. Joyce quickly read both of Svevo’s novels and thought they were brilliant. In return, Svevo read and critiqued the first three chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, providing the necessary encouragement to continue the project that had been plaguing him.


It was Joyce who convinced Svevo to retrieve his pen from that bush of poison ivy. Then, World War 1 broke out. Being a British subject, James Joyce would be forced to leave the city of Trieste, but the two friends would maintain an active correspondence.
Joyce was living in Paris when Zeno’s Conscience was published. Like Svevo’s prior two novels, the book received little attention in Italy. But James Joyce loved it. He began sharing it with all his literary friends in France. The book was translated to French and soon became a success on the continent. In fact, Zeno’s Conscience is the first, and perhaps only Italian novel to have enjoyed success abroad before in its own homeland.
As Svevo was toiling on Zeno’s Conscience, Joyce was working on his own novel, the book that would become his masterpiece: Ulysses. He kept a photograph of his friend Hector Schmitz in front of him on his desk, the inspiration for his most memorable character, Leopold Bloom.


Zeno’s Conscience would not have existed were it not for James Joyce, but perhaps, Ulysses would not have been written were it not for Italo Svevo.
Italo Svevo did finally gain the recognition in Italy he had so yearned for, and it was said that no one ever enjoyed his success more than he did. He carried his head and shoulders high and straight as he frequented the elegant literary coffee shops of the city, many of which are still in business to this day. When he was complimented for being the author of the first modernist novel in the Italian tongue, Svevo accepted the compliment, then rushed to a bookstore where he asked the bookseller to give him half a dozen modernist books so that he could find out what was meant by “modernism”.
Tragically, his success was not long-lived. In September of 1928, Hector Schmitz was a passenger in an automobile involved in an accident outside the city of Treviso. At first, the accident did not appear too serious, but Schmitz suffered respiratory complications, possibly due to his life-long smoking addiction. As he lay in his hospital bed, he asked for a cigarette. The doctor would not let him have one. “Too bad,” Svevo said. And then, borrowing a line from Zeno Cosini, his best known protagonist, he said, “It would have been my last.” He died shortly thereafter.


Zeno’s Conscience is largely autobiographical, though it’s so imaginative that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the fine line between fact and fiction. One hundred years after its original publication, it remains hilarious, insightful, provocative, and eerily prescient.
I am deeply honored to help celebrate the centenary of the publication of this novel with a new translation. I feel a special bond with this novel. I grew up in the city of Trieste, less than a mile away from where Svevo lived with his family and his in-laws. James Joyce’s younger brother, Stanislaus, was one of my mother’s English teachers at the University of Trieste (my aunt attended the lectures in the standing-room-only lecture hall too, though she wasn’t registered as a university student). Whenever I go back to visit, I walk the streets of my childhood, which are the very streets Zeno walks in this masterpiece, and I get to sit in the same cafe’s where Joyce and Svevo sat to discuss literature and life.


I once listened to a lecture by an Italian professor of literature who claimed that Zeno’s Conscience is a novel that could be set in any Italian city, because Svevo does not spend much time describing the city’s architecture or panorama. I think Svevo would agree with me that nothing could be farther from the truth. Zeno’s Conscience could only be set in Trieste. The spirit of the city shines through in every scene and in every character, through their humor, melancholy, deep irony, and unique perspective on life. I think that Italian literature professor, just like the literary critics of Svevo’s time, simply didn’t get the joke. But I think that, with this new translation, you will.

Peter Palmieri
August 9 2022

Adriatico

Fabio sat on his beach towel and gawked at the form bobbing on the flat blue surface of the Adriatic. He rested his chin on his spindly knees, his bony arms wrapped around bronzed legs.  Despite the warmth of the late August sun, a shiver snaked down his spine and made the downy blonde hair stand at attention over the goose flesh of his sinewy forearms.  He stole a look around him.  No one had noticed yet.

To his left, on the half-moon terrace overlooking the gulf, a plump lady in the one-piece canary swimsuit lay in her cloth recliner, eyes half-opened. Her chin jerked down and jolted upward again yet she somehow managed to clutch onto her glossy magazine plastered with blown up photos of celebrities’ legs pocked by cellulite.  Just in front, a scrawny teenager with dark peach-fuzz over his lip drew a finger down the calf of an aloof, olive-skinned beauty who lay prone on a bamboo mat, her bright red bikini flaunting her precocious shape. Even the lone seagull overhead seemed intent on expending the slightest effort as it drifted in the lazy breeze, adjusting the pitch of its wings just enough to stay fixed in place.

It seemed too late to say anything now.  People would wonder why he hadn’t spoken up earlier.  They would blame him.

When he first saw the white sphere emerge in the glimmering water from the corner of his eye, he thought it was a jelly fish.  But it was too white – not translucent at all.  Perhaps it was a lost soccer ball. That got his attention, made him focus.  Then he realized there was something attached to the ball, partly submerged: a ghostly shape just under the surface of the water.  It was a still body.  The sphere was its head, covered in a white swim-cap.  He recognized it as one belonging to a lady who had scolded him that very morning for dripping water as he leaped over her towel. It was “La Madama”. At least that’s what Fabio’s mom called her, miming her peacock swagger and pompous elocution for her son’s delight.

Fabio bit his lower lip and tried to appear nonchalant.  Surely, someone would notice her.  Behind him two retired gentlemen with bathing trunks pulled over their navels leaned on the narrow granite counter of an aluminum framed concession stand and sipped white wine spritzers.

“I bought a loaf of bread the other day,” one told the other. “ Three Euros!  The next day it was hard as the sole of my boot.”

The taller man rubbed his white-haired chest and smirked. “It’s the sawdust.  They add it to the flour to reap a bigger profit.  It’s all a farce.”

His shorter companion nodded with satisfaction.  If the act of complaining was a form of reassurance for the city’s elders, evoking conspiracies was a downright comfort, especially in the languid days of summer.

“And the tomatoes nowadays…  They have no flavor at all.”

The tall man took a deep drag from his cigarette and exhaled through his nostrils.  “It’s all the chemicals and pesticides they inject.  To kill us off, so they can stop paying our pensions.”

Maybe he could tell them.  They were the closest thing to men on this part of the waterfront.  They would know what to do.  But the short man had seen him drip water on La Madama’s towel.  What if they blamed him? Accused him of drowning her as an act of revenge?

Oh, why did I wait so long?  Sure, at first he thought La Madama was just drifting the way he liked to do with his goggles and snorkel, counting sea urchins on the rocky seabed until his fingers pruned up.  But she had no snorkel… and she just wouldn’t come up for air.  He should have stood up and yelled something.  Alarm, alarm! Drowning woman!  But if he was wrong, he’d have looked like a fool.  La Madama would have probably scolded him again; maybe even tugged him by the ear.  He just hoped someone else would notice. Why did no one notice?

The seagull alighted on the aluminum ladder on the side of the seawall, just above the floating body.  If it only squawked it would surely draw someone’s notice.  The boy glared at the bird, tried to will it to make a noise.  Instead, it just preened its wing feathers with its jaundiced beak.

Fabio surveyed his surroundings.  The woman in the yellow swimsuit snored softly. The peach-fuzzed teenager bent down to whisper in red bikini’s ear. The short man at the concession stand yawned and rubbed his round belly while his tall companion craned his neck to be inspect a mole on his shoulder.  Fabio picked up a pebble and launched it at the perched bird.  There was no squawk but enough of a flutter as the bird took flight to catch the attention of peach-fuzz mustache who peered at the water and wrinkled his brow. A second later his eyes widened and he jumped to his feet.

“Help! Someone help!” he shouted. He waved his arms over his head in a way that struck Fabio as comical –  like a cartoon character signaling at a locomotive just before it leveled him.

All around, people sat up, turned and took notice with drunken, plodding movements; still too confused to make any sense of the situation as if they had been awakened from a heavy slumber.  A few people finally made their way to the water’s edge.  Murmurs turned into frantic shouts. Fabio breathed a sigh of relief.

It took several men to hoist the body out of the water and lay it on the seawall. It was all bloated and pasty like a giant squid.  The olive-skinned beauty sat up, trembling, wrapped a towel around her chest and let out a strange whimper.  Fabio rested his chin back on his knees and tightened his lips to suppress a laugh.  The legs of a bystander blocked the boy’s view of La Madama’s face.  Then the legs moved and Fabio saw her. Her mouth was partly open and oozed a milky froth, the lips the color of an eggplant’s skin.

A man pressed his ear on the woman’s chest, put a finger on her neck, turned to the others and shook his head. There was a collective shrug.

But her eyes! Couldn’t anybody see? Wasn’t anyone aware? Had no one noticed how those hazy marbled eyes glared at Fabio knowingly, inquiring, Why did you wait so long, my boy?