Tuesday, April 18, 2017

“…an eye open at the top of the most profound helplessness” – Laudomia Bonanni’s The Reprisal

An impressive literature has grown up around Italy’s partisans, those resistants who, particularly after the September 1943 ascension of Marshal Badoglio in Rome and the flight of Mussolini’s government to the town of Salò in the north, took to the hills to fight against Germany’s ferocious response to these events and against the Fascists who helped the Nazis along. Warfare under these circumstances became largely a series of attacks, raids and brutal reprisals against civilians, a civil war within the larger conflagration engulfing Europe.

Laudomia Bonanni’s short novel The Reprisal (La Rappresaglia) is as direct an approach to this subject as its title suggests. Bonanni, who grew up in the mountainous Abuzzo region where she sets her novel, goes for a particularly harrowing example of the types of reprisals that took place during the winter of 1943-44. A woman carrying hidden arms is seized by a small group of Fascist men and an adolescent boy hiding out in an abandoned monastery near the end of the war; discovering that she is in the late stages of pregnancy, they elect to delay her execution until she can deliver the child.

This is not a new literary topic, the examination of emotions and moral questions transpiring between the condemned and their accusers, but Bonanni’s choice of protagonist allows her to explore a range of issues around female independence and assertiveness; male attitudes towards women, sexuality and maternity; the complicity of the Catholic Church in the conflict; and above all the struggle to find dignity and meaning in a world ripped apart by war pitting neighbor against neighbor. In addition, The Reprisal is a rare work that attempts, albeit over only a few of its 140 pages, to deal with the suspicion-filled postwar co-existence of persons so recently committed to killing one another. Bonanni also cleverly evokes an image of the Holy Family, sans Joseph, the woman’s bare monastery cell echoing the simple manger where the Christ child was born, a fixed point to which other visitors are drawn: the monastery’s priest, a couple of wandering shepherds, two passing German soldiers, and two of the Fascists’ wives, who arrive with supplies. These last, complicit but at the same time aware enough to know that their husbands’ decision will haunt them the rest of their lives, serve to underscore Bonanni’s themes of an endless cycle of reprisals, the participants inescapably linked “by a chain,” and of the potential of women to break the cycle and chain.

Bonanni’s story makes for a close and intense reading experience. Her characters stand out starkly, as though conceived for the stage. Most memorable, certainly, is the woman herself, La Rossa, a paragon of fierce defiance who, by driving a wedge directly between her male captives’ divergent views of women as sexual objects and as revered mothers, exposes their weaknesses. Through caustic, pointed barbs and lengthy remonstrations, she strips the men of their pretentions to morality and compassion, leaving their violence and inadequacy raw and exposed. And yet Bonanni never allows La Rossa to become a caricature; her own weaknesses and vulnerabilities are on full display. When the oldest among her captives, Babaro, refuses to hand her over to the Germans because of the deal they have all made to spare her child, La Rossa responds with a searing mixture of contempt, sarcasm and palpable desperation:

“The child, eh, they pass the buck. Your good conscience is anxious for the innocent. You have captured me, kill me then. Go ahead, hand me over to eh Germans. They do not make a fuss, those people. They kill quickly. I want you to hurry up.” She was shouting now. “C’mon, riddle me right away. You have to shoot here, make a sieve of this whore’s belly with everything that’s inside it. Man’s semen, ha-ha. I’d like to use my nails to tear out the fruit of your filthy race of male hypocrites.” She was crumpling her skirt, panting as if her belly were fatally weighing her down.

Bonanni reveals this male hypocrisy again and again, for example through the Fascists’ risible attempt at a Christmas celebration and the priest’s insistence on ritual and absolution while the sentence against the woman hovers above all their futile attempts to live beyond the length of the chain that binds them. As the birth approaches, one of the men, Annaloro, anxiously exclaims, “We need boiling water. When my wife is giving birth, I am always given the job of boiling water.”

“Just to get you out of the way,” La Rossa teased, recovering in a moment of temporary relief. “Are you afraid I might get an infection in the next world?”

The adolescent boy, himself a victim of the war, his legs burned by a fire set by partisans, serves as foil and contrast to the older men around him, poignantly and painfully taking on their worst excesses yet retaining the emotional immaturity of a child. At once the most vicious and vulnerable of the males in the story, he plays a critical role in developing Bonanni’s themes regarding innocence and the responsibility of the world towards children.

What distinguishes The Reprisal from many other stories of partisan warfare is not only its focus on female experience, but also its employment of a highly imaginative narrative strategy. First Bonanni offers the conceit of a hidden story, proclaimed in the novel’s first lines: “These facts have never been revealed. No one has ever breathed a word. Everything buried. Soon the last shovelful of dirt will drop, so to speak, since I, the last, am old.” She also parcels out her difficult tale in small chunks, ten chapters divided into six numbered sections each that the translators, in their introduction, liken to cantos. Given the intensity of the story, one is grateful for this manner of structuring that, akin to the Kaddish in Jewish liturgy, provides an almost ritualistic and rhythmic quality for sustaining one’s engagement with difficult subject matter.

The most striking feature of the novel, though, one which only gradually reveals itself, is Bonanni’s unusual use of first person narration. Her narrator, already in the first lines announcing his role, slips in and out of the story. Sometimes he is present and referred to by the other characters – chastised at times by the woman, for example, and explicitly called by her “a witness here, our assiduous schoolteacher.” At other times he appears so detached an observer that one questions his existance as a living being, as he does himself: “But was I there? Maybe I wasn’t.” All we know for sure is that he is described as a teacher who has accompanied the Fascists to the monastery, “assigned to surveillance…alone and suspect” and “the only one who had refused a weapon.” He also clearly operates as an explicit literary invention of the author, serving as witness not simply to observe events but also as a literary vehicle for the telling of the tale, in this latter role functioning as a locus for the novel’s overarching theme concerning the responsibility implicit in the act of witnessing. Through this alternating presence and ineffability - and especially through the narrator’s behavior at a critical moment - Bonanni brilliantly entwines the reader in her witness’ responsibility, forces the reader’s own moral self-examination. Not content merely to tell a riveting war story, Bonanni never loses sight of her narrative as an explicitly literary enterprise that calls attention to how a tale is told and to the responsibilities involved in telling it. Adding additional complexity to these themes, Bonanni alludes to a notebook La Rossa has kept to recount her own story, a missing text with which the witness - and the reader - must reckon.

Bonanni, who published her first stories in 1927 and rose to fame due to winning a writing contest and to having been cheered along by poet Eugenio Montale, did not live to see The Reprisal published. Rejected when submitted for publication in 1985, the novel did not appear in Italian until 2003, nearly 20 years later, and evidence exists that Bonanni had worked on the manuscript since the end of the war – a span of some forty years. 70 years later, readers of English can be grateful to have access to a classic of World War II literature. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Invitation to Join in Reading Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

Image from Vittorio De Sica's film version of Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1970)

Dorian (Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau blog) and I have been discussing for some time a group effort at taking on Italian writer Giorgio Bassani's 1962 novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This work is the most well-known of Bassani's novels, which collectively form his "Ferrara Project," an interlacing narrative cycle about his native Ferrara, each volume of which nonetheless stands on its own. 

The story centers on Ferrara's Jewish community during the 1930's, and in particular around the middle class narrator and his increasing fixation on Micòl, daughter of the aristocratic Finzi-Contini family, whose garden and tennis court become a sanctuary for several of the city's young Jews under Mussolini's Fascism and the Race Laws of 1938. Bassani's intensely personal novel - his own father was among the nearly 200 Ferrarese Jews deported to concentration camps in 1943 and murdered there - stands among the most powerful acts of witness to the Holocaust. 

Three English translations of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis exist, by Isabel Quigley, William Weaver, and Jamie McKendrick. Dorian and I will both be reading the Weaver translation. We plan to post about the novel the week of May 22, and invite all of you to join in reading the book with us. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In and Out: Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel

One night, too many years ago, I successfully battled my parents to be allowed to stay up to finish watching a movie on TV that had me completely mesmerized. I’ve never forgotten the world that film opened, but it’s taken me decades to get around to reading the novel on which it was based: Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel (1929). Enthusiastic reception to the book by bloggers Jacqui, Caroline and Dorian, however, led me to pick it up at last.

The distance between my childhood fixation on the film and my middle-aged encounter with the novel is more than temporal. Watching the film again for the first time in all those years after finishing the novel, however, I saw reasons for its having made such an impression: Greta Garbo’s over-the-top melodramatic acting; a character so drunk he stumbles all over his room then falls onto a bed and off of it, entwined entirely in a satin bedspread; a scene exciting to a ten year old of a thief jumping from a high balcony to another above a busy street. I recalled being especially transfixed by the hotel’s revolving door.

This revolving door provides the organizing principle of Baum’s novel, a simplistic one summed up in the novel’s final line: “The revolving door turns and turns – and swings…and swings…and swings…” Elsewhere Baum is more explicit; her omniscient narrator compares the Grand Hotel, “not inaptly,” to “life in general.” The guests, coming and going, ensconced in their separate rooms, inhabit separate solitudes. Yet the Grand Hotel serves as a crossroads. The diverse guests make fleeting acquaintances and liaisons at times intersecting the “downstairs” employees and breaching social codes that govern the world outside. A porter’s wife has a child; at the same moment, a murdered man is carried out of the hotel through the hotel’s ever turning, revolving door.

Baum achieves her task - to make of this simple conceit something interesting - by populating her novel with grand characters. Although they give the impression of having begun life as stock figures, Baum adorns and supplies enough complexity to keep the reader engaged with them: Grusinskaya, a famous ballet diva well aware of her shelf-life; Baron Gaigern, a goodhearted and debonair thief; Herr Preysing, a rotten-hearted provincial businessman desperate to please a domineering father-in-law; and Flämmchen, an attractive young typist intent on a career in film. Grand Hotel is most certainly a novel with its eye on nascent Hollywood, where the Jewish Baum, invited there to write the film’s script, would spend the last half of her life due to Hitler’s rise. Serving as the center of the novel’s action is Kringelein, a terminally-ill accountant determined to acquire a modicum of dignity after 27 years of servitude in Preysing’s factory and to live out his remaining days in the splendor in the Grand Hotel, and whose acute awareness of mortality shakes up the rigidities of the social mores and upstairs/downstairs class dynamic that govern the hotel’s guests and employees.

The ready-made setting and the explicitness of its operative metaphor feel pat; the character development feels slightly additive. Still, Baum’s strong writing sustained my interest. She throws into her narrative an attempted jewel theft by Gaigern that serves to amplify suspense and gives the novel a “Pink Panther”-esque caper element, milks Kringelein’s carpe diem moments for all they’re worth, and, astonishingly, even manages to make Preysing’s drawn out business meetings engrossing. In addition, in inventing the whole genre of the hotel novel, she cleverly uses a zoom effect (perhaps also advertising the novel’s cinematic consciousness), in giving her characters intense close-ups then pulling her camera back to reveal not only their commonality, but also a hint of their temporal replication, as new guests will arrive to replace the ones we’re allowed to see over the action’s brief span of a few days, and who have themselves replaced previous guests (a conceit presented literally in kindred spirit Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train, a “cheap motel” take on Baum’s “Grand Hotel” genre). Through Grusinskaya, Baum also alludes to other hotels in other cities of the world – a universal multitude of way-stations.

But it’s really the historical context and the small details that count here. Like Katherine Ann Porter’s Ship of Fools, the confined setting serves as a microcosm for issues of class, station and gender. Baum’s Grand Hotel of 1920’s Berlin also slyly manifests the residual and still fresh scars of the First World War. In one understated example, the one-armed elevator operator is replaced by the subsequent shift’s one-armed elevator operator. Baum also casts an eye on devastated Germany’s crippled efforts to greet the future, as seen in a corrupt lie told by Preysing to save himself from economic ruin. Floating through the novel like a symbol of Germany caught between the past war’s wreckage and whatever the future may bring, is one other curious figure, Doctor Otternschlag, who literally holds life and death in his hands since he carries about morphine both for medical emergencies and for his own anticipated suicide. He has two faces – also literally – as one side, neatly divided from the other, presents a ghastly war wound into which is fitted a glass eye. A cinephile may make of that what he or she will.

Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film adaptation, seen now from my middle-aged perspective, improves upon Baum’s novel by confining the action to the hotel, whereas Baum wanders unnecessarily beyond its revolving door, for example by putting Grusinskaya on stage and by having Gaigern take Kringelein on a fast drive and up in a airplane. The film uses two clever visual devices to convey this concentration, one a stunning image of the hotel’s cylindrical atrium and the other an overhead panning shot of hotel switchboard operators busily connecting guests to one another and to the outside world. But the film lacks the subtlety of Baum’s characterization, and its rendition of the Baron’s encounter with Grusinskaya, for example, comes off as downright clumsy compared to the psychological elaborations present in Baum’s nuanced treatment.

As a vehicle for demonstrating its characters’ aspirations and desires, heightened by the hotel’s lending of glamour to life, as well as of their painful, sordid, corrupt fallibilities, Grand Hotel has its charms as well as something beyond charm, a poignant and troubling glimpse of Europe between the wars and of Berlin’s internationalism, a convocation of open-ended possibilities before the sanitizing iron heel of the thirties would come along to quash them. Little of all of that had been apparent to the ten year old watching the film, nor, reading Baum’s novel as an adult, did I experience the kind of immersive fascination I’d had way back when. Even so, one would be hard put to enter Baum’s glimpse of glittering, complicated lives passing through her Grand Hotel without experiencing a youthful yearning to be a part of its in and outs, ups and downs, and myriad goings-on -  as well as a more mature and dark, intractable and too human sense that one has, like it or not, already checked in.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Creature of the Air - George Stewart's Storm

A recent succession of crazy winter storms in California has had me thinking of George R. Stewart’s 1941 novel Storm, a book I’d have been unlikely to pick up had it not been urged upon me by a bookstore owner eager to clear the shelves of his shuttering store. Its back cover featured an illustration of San Francisco from the air (encouraging: local interest); the dust jacket promised the story of a catastrophic storm slamming into the Golden State (also encouraging: I’d recalled once reading that among the most powerful hurricanes on record had occurred off California’s coast); and finally (amusing if not so encouraging) the blurbs on the back were of the subtly ambiguous sort one sometimes discovers to be backhanded: “I shouldn’t be at all surprised to see it set a new style in fiction;” “It’s marvelous that the effectiveness of the treatment equals the originality of the idea!”

Well, I thought, at least it’s about San Francisco. Perhaps it’ll be entertaining.

A quick visit to Wikipedia, however, gave me two more pieces of information I might hold against the book. First, Storm, featuring a Junior Meteorologist fond of naming storms after his girlfriends, directly led to the convention of using women’s names for hurricanes until the introduction of a non gender-specific system in 1978. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the “J. M.,” as he’s known in the novel, didn’t get overruled by his boss, the Chief Meteorologist, more inclined to reference conquering historical figures such as Hannibal, Marshal Ney and Genghis Khan - though one shudders at the directions that nomenclature plan could have taken. Second, the troublesome “J. M.” bestows upon the menacing storm of the book’s title the name “Maria,” which apparently inspired Lerner and Loewe to write “They Call The Wind Maria,” the popular ear-worm from their musical, Paint Your Wagon.

Once I opened the book, further disappointment: the two elements that had drawn me to the novel scarcely figure into it at all. Most of the action takes place in the Sierra Nevada, not in San Francisco. In fact nothing notable about the city even features in Storm, which might have been written by someone who’d never visited the place. Second, the colossal hurricane I’d expected never occurs. Maria is a big storm, and drops lots of rain and snow on California, which in most years the state needs badly. But having experienced big winter storms in California, I can attest that Maria is simply not that spectacular. In fact, there’s exactly nothing spectacular about it. I kept waiting for ruinous disaster. There’s always a mildly suspenseful hint of the possibility of things getting worse, but then – suddenly - nothing happens. If Irwin Allen had taken this approach, only a floor or two of his tower would have been an inferno, probably quickly extinguished by a competent and fast-thinking team of custodians.

“Custodians,” though, actually lie at the center of Storm – I mean, aside from the storm itself, which clearly serves as Stewart’s chief protagonist and antagonist. Narratively following in the vein of John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, Stewart’s novel is a montage of anecdotes arranged together to demonstrate how different people with different roles are affected by and react to disaster. Readers will also recognize this arrangement as one common to Hollywood disaster films: a set of stock characters populates the affected setting, whether it be a capsized ship, a damaged airplane, or a town threatened by earthquake, fire, tsunami, pandemic, zombie invasion, sharknado, or  [insert-calamity-here] .  In Storm these characters consist primarily of nameless workers whose jobs require them to battle the storm’s ravages: snowplow drivers, telephone switchboard operators, linemen, an airline pilot flying through the storm, an airport supervisor, meteorologists (of course), plus a panoply of “ordinary people” including someone named Max and someone named Jen - unmarried young lovers who drive from Reno to San Francisco and disappear on the way back as though in punishment for sinful contamination by the Barbary Coast. Stewart also conjures a few animal characters: an owl fried on an electrical line, a coyote that tramps through the snow sniffing unusual odors emanating from Man (this is the kind of novel in which “Man” must almost always be capitalized), and perhaps the best drawn figure in the entire book, one of the few to merit an actual name, Big Blue, a wild boar that gets swept into an overflowing creek, clogs up a drainage pipe, and causes the railroad to be washed out. This poor porker aside, most of Stewart’s portraits call to mind those featured on WPA murals or socialist-realist propaganda posters: heroic workers whose individual contributions serve the greater cause. The men are competent, courageous, burly (we glimpse one reading an issue of Ranch Life). The leaders among them hold titles like “the Chief” or “the General,” the latter a retired military man in charge of flood control in the Sacramento River Delta. Stewart seems largely uninterested in the women, who tend to fret a lot, and his attitude seems well summed up by the Chief Meteorologist’s declaration that “Storms are hussies!” Small wonder the J.M.’s sexist naming system achieved such traction.

Storm is written in a style that wears a lab coat and speaks with a philosopher’s voice. It’s marked by a slightly authoritarian and even more slightly, almost affably pedantic ponderousness concerning the condition of Man. Fortunately, Stewart limits his rhapsodizing about Man’s powerlessness against Nature mostly to the initial paragraphs of each chapter, one devoted to each of the 12 days from the storm’s birth in the western Pacific to its petering out over the U.S. east coast. Occasionally, though, his high-flung meditations turn on mildly provocative conceits: “As a crab moves on the ocean-bottom, but is of the water, so man rests his feet upon the earth – but lives in the air. Man thinks of the crab as a water-animal; illogically and curiously, he calls himself a creature of the land.”

Several other strengths balance out and even outweigh the book’s deficiencies. First, it’s a romp of a story; I gulped it down at one sitting. It is also, despite taking a wide-angle view, extremely well sourced. According to the jacket, Stewart spent a full two years conducting research for the book, particularly in meteorology, and as in a mathematics problem set, he has shown his work. In fact, Storm may well be the perfect gift for the Junior Meteorologist in your family. Stewart’s understanding of the formation of storms and of the globally linked series of phenomena that produce weather appears formidable, at least to a lay reader. Stewart fairly broadcasts understanding of this interconnectedness, that a winter storm in California is also part of a larger weather system that has no regional boundaries:

…even a perfect solution of the problem would unfortunately have brought no comfort to the sweltering people of Uruguay and Argentina. While Chicago newsboys were crying, ‘Six die of cold!’ twenty-two persons were treated for heat-prostration in Buenos Aires, and a man dropped dead in the Plaza Belgrano.

Stewart also offers up numerous fascinating descriptions of the interaction of air masses, reminiscent of the similarly granular and scientific descriptions of tides and currents in Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands.

For those interested in regional history, Storm contains an impressive wealth of detail about communications, transport and emergency response systems in California prior to WWII. One will learn more than one ever wanted to know.

Finally, Stewart’s vocation as a Professor of Literature – he taught at Berkeley for years and wrote a study of Bret Harte - can’t help but poke its head into his narrative, with frequent references to writers and philosophers. Even Gertrude Stein’s “Pigeons on the grass, alas” gets turned to parody when “Seagulls on the grass, alas” indicates a menacing shift in the weather (though Stewart’s parody falls rather short compared to James Thurber’s expert milking of this phrase in  “There’s an Owl in My Room”).  

Storm is an entertaining and engaging contribution, and would likely have been better known had not its 1941 publication date coincided with the U.S. entry into that other great storm, World War II. Though Stewart employs metaphors of combat throughout, even explicitly acknowledging the role of the First World War in influencing the vocabulary around weather, a reading capable of finding direct metaphorical correspondence between the storm and the expanding war would appear tenuous. Put another way, Stewart is seriously interested in weather, and besides, the book’s themes of social cooperation and group effort in the face of calamity need no more explicit tweaking for a reader to conform them to historical context. But in the novel’s anticipation of “earth system science” – the holistic, stochastic view of natural forces at work - Storm is especially apparent and even prescient. Stewart displays a keen understanding of human interconnectedness and the absurdity and danger of holding narrow views that ignore it or that shun empirical evidence. If for no other reason than Storm’s depiction of this visionary approach, the novel’s contemporary relevance outweighs its dated aspects. But even those have their appeal; I could not help experiencing nostalgia for a period I did not live through in wishing that writers still produced novels like this one, fat with regional detail, defiantly optimistic, and cognizant of global interrelatedness and of the imperative of recognizing our entwined destinies. 30 years later, following what a more or less direct path from Stewart, another Californian, Stewart Brand, would emphasize and popularize these last themes through the image of the whole earth as photographed by the Apollo space missions.

Views of the earth from space today reveal tens of millions of dead trees in the Sierra Nevada, a result of the previous five years of drought, and since California’s dry season approaches, I may be ready by summer’s end to take on a subsequent George Stewart novel, with another succinctly encompassing title: Fire. If for some reason that doesn’t provide enough in the way of catastrophe, Stewart’s next, best known work, Earth Abides, is said to depict the apocalyptic end of civilization. Cheers.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"In the mind of this idle writer" - Italo Svevo's Senilità

For a striking example of what else was happening in Italian literature contemporary to Gabriele D’Annunzio, one could hardly find a writer more different than Italo Svevo in his 1898 novel Senilità. Though I read the work two months ago, Senilità proved such a knockout that I’m determined to post about it.

I’ll start with the book’s title, which began as Il Carnavale di EmilioEmilio’s Carnival - the choice of translator Beth Archer Brombert (the book has been previously translated as the lifeless As a Man Grows Older). However, Senilità appears parenthetically on cover and title page to acknowledge Svevo’s insistence that this, the book’s original published title, was indispensable. In the book’s introduction, Victor Brombert argues that “carnavale,” with its etymology rooted in “denial of the flesh,” better conveys the work’s central thematic concerns to English readers on whom the nuances of the curious word “senilità” might be lost. Brombert defines the term, in the context of Svevo’s writings, as a kind of “ironic ennui…a permanent premonition of life as disaster, a deep skepticism concerning one’s own potential, a ceaseless mediation on vulnerability and death, a wisdom that can be put to no use…” – well, his catalogue of approximations goes on.

The word’s seemingly endless and ambiguous suggestions sum up the more or less entrenched psychological state of Svevo’s chief character, 35-year-old virgin Emilio Brentani, both office clerk and fiction writer – “two occupations and two objectives that were quite distinct” - just one of many contrarieties that plague Emilio’s life. Primary among these, however, is his pursuit of Angiolina, an alluring young lower class woman about whom, from the novel’s first line, we know Emilio feels conflicted:  “With his first words to her, he wanted to inform her straight away that he had no intention of getting involved in a serious relationship.” Even as Emilio begins courting Angiolina and taking strolls with her about town (we are in Trieste, still a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, late 19th century), he tries to rationalize his desire by pinging back and forth between two extremities. First is a devotional but condescending Pygmalion-like attitude aimed at elevating Angiolina’s coarser manners and simple intellect:

Would it not have been better to make her less honest and more calculating? Once he asked himself the question, he had the brilliant idea of taking upon himself the education of the girl. In exchange for her gift of her love, he could give her only one thing: an understanding of life and the art of enjoying it.

Emilio thinks of Angiolina as “Ange” while in this mode, yet quickly shifts to an opposing pole of moral indignation and jealousy concerning any attention this young allumeuse gives to other men, whose antennae clearly pick up on the glances that go everywhere, perhaps indicating even her availability.

Emilio’s conflict is amplified by his admiration for and envy of a debonair and worldly friend, Balli, a handsome sculptor, who warns Emilio away from the “vulgar” Giolina though is not himself immune from her pull. Finally, Emilio must also navigate the psychological tensions his new relationship creates with Amalia, the lonely, homely sister with whom Emilio has lived and cared for since their parents’ death.

Between this domestic obligation and the thirst for adventure, the duties of office and aspirations of art, and especially between sexual desire and a compulsion to justify it both morally and socially, Emilio inhabits a solipsistic shadow-land of indecision, impulsiveness, and self-absorption. In thrall to Angiolina, he ignores Balli’s advice. He ignores his sister’s needs, with devastating results. Having written one unpublished novel –  “the story of a young artist whose health and talent had been ruined by…a heroine in the style of the time: part woman, part tigress” – he lets his writing languish, turning all of his attention to making headway with Angiolina while alternately condemning her for not being the woman he expects her to be.

250 pages of such indecisiveness and navel-gazing could test any reader’s patience, but Svevo pulls it off through a darkly comic tone, an especially nuanced and humanizing psychological depiction of his characters, and by shifting points of view and indirect narration that permit the reader to observe his creatures, even the duplicitous Angiolina, with sympathy. Unlike those of Svevo’s other principal characters, Angiolina’s thoughts remain hidden from us, underscoring her objectification. Externally, though, we witness her relative poverty, simplicity, and almost poignant inability to refuse the attentions she attracts. Emilio’s first visit to Angiolina’s home reveals her humble station in a manner that divides the reader’s perception between Emilio’s self-absorption and sympathy for Angiolina’s situation. Despite Emilio’s almost intolerable “senilità,” his flashes of self-awareness illuminate the novel’s psychological landscape such that one longs for him to see the daylight he continually extinguishes, often comically: “Emilio then lamented his sorry fate but with so much self-irony that he cleared himself of all ridicule.”

Further engaging the reader’s interest is a complex set of psychological transferences between Emilio, Angiolina, Balli and Amalia as their “elective affinities” attract and repel under Svevo’s obvious interest in Freud. My reference to Goethe is intended. Svevo’s novel fits awkwardly in the context of other Italian literature from the period, as this Trieste native of German-Italian-Jewish origins (real name Ettore Schmitz) seems aligned more with writers from the north (I thought of Theodore Fontaine and Stefan Zweig, as well as Arthur Schnitzler’s erotically-charged La Ronde, which appeared just a year before, but those of you who’ve read more Germanic literature than I will know better). Senilità is so pared down to the bare bones of the relationship’s psychological underpinnings – what little exists in the way of description functions largely as staging – that one can scarcely believe Svevo and D’Annunzio were contemporaries. Far from D’Annunzio’s indulgence in fin-de-siècle decadence, Svevo already anticipates the claustrophobic psychological novels of Alberto Moravia. Even the conquest of Angiolina, when it finally arrives, is reduced, linguistically, to a comically unadorned fact, brutally stripped of romance and anathema to the fantasies that Emilio has nurtured for more than half the novel: “Then she gave herself to him, or more precisely, she took him.”

In fact, Senilità is so deeply introspective, its scope focused so tightly on Emilio’s ruminating psychological state, that little light from anything else gets through, the narrative being notable for what it excludes. A case in point is a scene during Trieste’s annual carnival in which Emilio learns from Balli that Angiolina may be betraying him with a common umbrella vendor. Where a realist like Zola might have leapt at the opportunity to describe the masks, costumes and revelry in the streets, Svevo shoves all that out of sight to focus almost entirely on Emilio's alternately murderous, alternately forgiving anxiety. The chapter plays out in a void as existential as physical, as Emilio wanders the dark streets hoping to catch Angiolina “in flagrante,” the city appearing to the reader as Emilio must see it: empty unless the object of his elusive search seems to come into view:

In the distance he thought he saw her again. A reflection, a shadow, a movement, everything took on the shape and demeanor of the phantasm that eluded him. He started to run, hoping to catch up with her, not calm and ironic as he had been on the slope of via Romagna, but firmly intent on becoming violent with her. Happily, it was not she. In his misfortune, Emilio felt as through all the violence he had been about to unleash on her was now directed to himself, leaving him breathless and without hope of reason or control. He bit his hand like a lunatic.

In a similar manner, the social and historical context of the novel remains in the margins. One does, though, gain an acute sense of male prerogative in Trieste, a manner of behavior in which sexual mores are codified in ways constitutionally unattainable to the emotionally immature and mercuric Emilio. In that first visit to Angiolina’s home, he feels a pang of both jealousy and envy at seeing photographs of numerous men on her bedroom walls, including one whom, he recalls, had once said to him, “The women I deal with are unworthy of constituting an offense to my wife.”

As one might expect, none of this mental tumult ends well for the parties involved. One would be unlikely to want to read the novel Emilio might have constructed from his experience, as the insipidity of so many of his ruminations, by themselves, would be nearly unreadable. But the authorial distance Svevo imposes upon his poor author allows us to see both how Emilio might have written his own story and how he would have gotten it wrong, an ironic detachment and sentimentality that eclipses an ability to see himself as he is. In addition, the patient arc of Svevo’s vision cements Emilio’s tortured thoughts together at this remove, creating an indelible portrait of a soul wrapped up in illusion, aware of it only in intermittent glints and glimmers, yet unable to achieve the action necessary to surmount his own weaknesses.

Fortunately, Svevo’s exquisite novel triumphs in Emilio’s place. It’s small wonder that James Joyce, who promoted the literary career of Svevo after discovering the writer in one of the English classes Joyce taught in Trieste, admired the novel so much that he could recite its final pages from memory. One can imagine a young Emilio serving as the model for the young boy in Joyce’s “Araby,” burning with shame at having his romantic illusions shattered. Yet he is no young boy, and it would be difficult to imagine any epiphany truly taking hold.