Tzum | Review: Italo Svevo – A Life

A glimpse into the soul of a tragicomic antihero

All in all, office life is little documented in the literature. Except for JJ Voskuil’s entertaining seven-part cycle The desk Until recently, I did not know of any novels in which the absurd world is depicted. But look, Italo Svevo – the pseudonym of the Jewish-Italian Ettore Schmitz (1861-1928), with The Confessions of Zeno as the most famous work—has changed it: in his A life we meet the office slave Alfonso Nitti, an insignificant clerk who fills his days in a bank branch with the boring, mind-numbing work that must have been even more miserable in the belle époque, long before the computer was introduced. Many letters are copied and posted, numbers are transcribed in registers and so on.

What hasn’t changed since then are the power plays and pecking orders that everyone must conform to. Recognizable types such as the despotic department head, the grumpy accountant, the jovial colleague who likes to keep the mood alive with corny jokes and other office tigers still populate many open offices today, only taking their eyes off their computer screens for weak coffee from the machine or sit down in a cold room with a table that is too long. The vicissitudes of Nitti’s office life, with its minor and major dramas, frictions, mischief, petty rivalries and embezzlement against each other, are still relevant today.

As for that coffee, Alfonso Nitti was certainly better off than Voskuil’s characters because he worked in Trieste, Italy, where a decent cup of comfort is not hard to come by. Perhaps he had a better fate than the farm and factory workers who toiled for days on end for starvation wages, but that is not to say that Nitti’s professional life was a pleasure:

Since he had become an employee, his organism could no longer use the abundant energy for the effort that life on earth demanded of the arms and legs, and the meager intellectual activities in the office could not control it, so with the surplus of energy in the scar, when his brains were set to work building entire worlds. The center of his dreams was always himself, his own boss, rich and happy.

The class differences between junior office clerks and directors were significant in Svevo’s time. Our tragicomic anti-hero finally sees an opportunity to rise through the ranks when he meets Annetta, the director’s daughter. Because of his attachment to her, he regularly visits the boss’s house, which earns him more respect in the office and also the prospect of a more favorable career. But it also makes him particularly vulnerable: when the relationship with Annetta is disturbed, Nitti’s whole plan naturally falls apart…

Svevo is often referred to as one of the standard bearers of the psychological novel. He translated Freud and also seems to have been deeply imbued with his teachings: Nitti appears as a vessel full of unspoken desires and frustrations, a being who appears to want to make rational decisions but is in fact the plaything of his subconscious. Only the brief visits to his hometown seem to give him respite, in the city of Trieste – a living organism and in this novel a sinister place – Nitti inevitably falls victim to the rat race:

With its white houses built in a semi-circle along the coast, the city stretched its arms towards the sea, and it seemed that this shape had been created by a huge wave that pushed it back to the center. She was gray and sad; a cloud thickening over the city seemed to be produced by her, for it was joined to her by her mists, the only trace of her vitality. It was in there, in that hive, that men toiled for gold, and Alfonso, who had learned life there, and who thought it was only there, took a deep breath and freed himself from the vault of mist in his escape.

Nitti’s eventual banishment to the accounting department – dubbed “Siberia” by his colleagues – is the prelude to his self-destruction, after a life in which all the good intentions of this “misfit man”, as the original title read, have completely gone. wrong. His fate raises old questions that may never be definitively answered—especially about free will, which proves problematic, if not absent, in Nitti’s life.

Dan Peters

Italo Svevo – A life. Translated from Italian by Frits Altvater. Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam. 408 pp. €20.

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