Pity poor Zeno, tormented by his weakness for cigarettes, guilt about his mistress and unresolved tensions with his father. At his psychoanalyst’s suggestion, Zeno writes his memoirs, but the result is the imperfect recollection of an intelligent man blindsided by swirling desires and frozen by inhibitions.
Zeno, the prematurely aged protagonist of Italian Jewish writer Italo Svevo’s comic masterpiece “Confessions of Zeno,” deeply resonated with William Kentridge when he first read the book in college.
“How could this person writing in Trieste in the 1920s know how it felt to be in Johannesburg in the 1970s,” Kentridge asked about Italy’s modernist answer to Proust, Joyce and Kafka, at the beginning of a telephone interview from his home in South Africa. “Not feeling at the center, at the edges of the real world, Svevo has his finger on doubts and indecisions that felt so familiar to me.”
A respected international artist and theater director, Kentridge had already begun preparing a new oratorio to investigate split consciousness before he remembered the strikingly similar dynamic between surface appearances and hidden truths at work in “Confessions of Zeno.” After two years of workshops, “Zeno at 4 a.m.,” the latest multimedia theatrical collaboration between Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company, appears this week as part of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series, becoming only the latest example of an unexpected renaissance of Italo Svevo.
In the past few years, artists in many countries have found Svevo’s ironic voice and uncertain characters to express the state of permanent exile that is beginning to define us all in this fragmented, globalized world. Similarly, his milieu of polyglot Trieste, a dollop of Mitteleuropa on the Mediterranean, symbolizes many writers’ longings for a lost cosmopolitan ideal.
The Italian film director Francesca Comencini premiered “My Father’s Words,” loosely based on “The Confessions of Zeno” at the Cannes Film Festival last May. A new translation Svevo’s 1898 novel “Senilita” was published this month and a reprint of his wife Livia Veneziani Svevo’s “Memoir of Italo Svevo” was issued this summer. The transsexual Welsh travel writer Jan Morris has just published her nostalgic coda “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.”
“Trieste is a place people are beginning to notice,” Fred Plotkin told the few dozen people gathered at the Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble to hear him read from “La Terra Fortunata” a few months ago. Plotkin’s new cookbook about the multicultural cuisine of the northeastern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and its capital Trieste includes a Jewish recipe for polenta with anchovy. “Give Tuscany a rest,” he urged.
“Zeno at 4 a.m.,” drawn from “The Last Cigarette,” the famous first chapter of “Confessions of Zeno,” is the first part of a larger piece titled “Confessions” that will premiere in the spring at the Documenta in Germany. The Lincoln Center program begins with the haunting eight-minute Kentridge film “Shadow Procession.” In the second section, two-dimensional puppets made of torn paper are filmed and projected on large screens. Zeno, played by actor Dawid Minnaar, sweats out an insomniac’s night of dreams haunted by the ghostly presence of his father, sung by bass Otto Maidi. The onstage string quartet plays original music by Kevin Volans.
“Watching the making of the puppets and the projection of the shadow illusions is the formal equivalent of the divided self,” librettist Jane Taylor said in a telephone interview last week from Minneapolis, where she was on hand for the American premiere at the Walker Art Center.
“Zeno is a figure always deflecting matters of real significance, floating on the surface and evading matters at the heart of being,” Taylor added.
The piece is especially relevant post-Sept. 11, she says, because the experience of “watching great forces during our lives and never feeling empowered to take control,” which characterized the “malaise of our generation of South Africans” will now be better understood by Americans.
Like Zeno, probably named after the Greek word for foreigner, Italo Svevo (the pen name of Ettore Schmitz) lived in a constant state of unrest. For this, he embodies the city’s multiple identities and fierce pride. Born in 1861 in Trieste to a German-speaking Hungarian father and Italian mother, Svevo aspired to literary fame, but after the self-financed publication of his first two novels in the 1890s made no impact outside of Trieste, he despondently devoted his energies to running his father-in-law’s successful naval paint business. Musicians and artists continued to gather for the frequent parties at his home, but Svevo’s frustrated pen remained silent.
Fortunately, in 1907 Svevo befriended a young James Joyce, then teaching English and completing “Dubliners.” After “Confessions of Zeno” was first published in 1923 and seemed destined for failure, Svevo sent a copy to Joyce in Paris, who convinced the French literary elite to declare it a work of genius. An important French journal devoted an entire issue to his writing, and Svevo finally achieved the critical validation he craved at age 64.
Even Schmitz’s pseudonym expresses his divided identity. Italo Svevo translates as “Italus the Swabian,” fusing the Italian and Germanic cultural heritage he shared with his hometown. A major cultural crossroads, Trieste imported both psychoanalysis and anti-Semitism to Italy. Svevo’s friend Edoardo Weiss was the first Italian to translate Freud. Trieste also has the ignominious distinction of being the only Italian city with its own concentration camp. Over 5,000 Jews and other partisans were killed at the converted rice factory San Sabba, and 25,000 were sent to death camps elsewhere.
Italo Svevo did not live to see the Jewish community murdered and dispersed; he died in an auto accident in 1928. His wife, 13 years younger, escaped Trieste in August 1943 with a trunk stuffed with his letters, journals and manuscripts. “Buffeted by the storm of racial persecution, I fled,” Livia Veneziani Svevo writes, the only allusion to her Jewish origins in “Memoir of Italo Svevo.” In the preface to the new edition from Northwestern University Press, P. N. Furbank notes that she “is in one respect deliberately misleading. There is no reference in her book to the very important fact of Svevo’s Jewishness.”
Though he attended Jewish schools and had a bar mitzvah, Svevo had little use for this heritage, marrying Livia Veneziani, his first cousin once removed and the granddaughter of a converted Jew. The ceremony was civil, and Svevo later agreed to be baptized to ease his wife’s doubts. He was first buried in the Jewish cemetery, but a few years later Livia reinterred his body in her family mausoleum in the Catholic cemetery.
Svevo is said to have contributed background and other details for Leopold Bloom, the half-Jewish hero of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but his three novels have no Jewish characters. Yet Svevo’s verbal, obsessive and self-critical male protagonists squarely fit into Jewish literary tradition. Unlike Kafka, whose love of Yiddish theater and attempts to learn Hebrew are well-documented, Svevo made only passing, ironic references to his Jewish identity in private writings.
“Jewish themes appear in a transposed way,” says Victor Brombert, who added that it’s “noteworthy” that Svevo wrote about Shylock in his first published writing, around 1880. The emeritus Princeton professor of comparative literature says that Svevo was “proud to offer the article as a gift to his father on his birthday.”
Many critics consider Svevo’s shorter 1898 novel “Senilita” superior to “Confessions of Zeno,” a view held by Beth Archer Brombert, whose new translation was just published by Yale University Press. First translated as “As a Man Grows Older,” “Senilita” (the Italian word for senility, or the state of inertia) was retitled “Emilio’s Carnival,” after the protagonist Emilio Brentani, a failed writer tormented by his affair with a promiscuous younger woman.
Northwestern University Press had planned to publish this year the first new English translation of “Zeno” since 1930, but the book is held up in contract disputes and “delayed indefinitely,” according to a spokeswoman. Archibald Colguhoun’s new translation of Svevo’s first novel, “A Life” (1892), is due in March by Puskin Press.
Brombert says that the greatest challenge in translating “Senilita” was that Svevo did not use a “rich vocabulary. It may be another deliberate irony: but I didn’t want to render it in English to feel that there’s no color, but I didn’t want to over-color.”
Even the wealthiest Triestines preferred to speak in dialect, so writing in standard literary Italian was yet another source of anxiety for Svevo. He longed to study Tuscan Italian in Florence, but tied to his provincial city, Svevo retained, like the most contemporary of writers, a “distrust of the very words they must necessarily depend on,” says Victor Brombert. n
“Zeno at 4 a.m.” runs Wed., Nov. 14-Fri., Nov. 16, 8 p.m. and Sat., Nov., 17, 3 and 8 p.m. John Jay College Theater, Amsterdam Avenue and 58th Street, Man. (212) 721-6500. $40.