Thursday, March 03, 2011

Zeno’s Conscience: The Story of My Marriage

Those who have not yet experienced marriage believe it is more important than it is. The chosen companion will renew, improving or worsening, our breed by bearing children: Mother Nature wants this but cannot direct us openly, because at that time of life we haven’t the slightest thought of children, so she induces us to believe that our wife will also bring about a renewal of ourselves: a curious illusion not confirmed by any text.

(All quotes from the book use the translation by William Weaver.)

I’ve been home for a few days but have had a bothersome head cold that has erased all desire to read, write or think. Hopefully it will clear up soon. This chapter focuses on Zeno’s life shortly after his father dies in which he attempts to play the roles of businessman and suitor. During Zeno’s business and social dealings he meets Giovanni Malfenti. Giovanni takes the younger man under his wing, becoming like a second father to Zeno. Eventually Giovanni invites Zeno to his home to meet his daughters (Ada, Augusta, Alberta, and Anna) and, while never stated but understood, possibly marry one of them.

Eight year-old Anna is too young for marriage but the other three are described as Zeno meets them. He tells himself he will be a stern judge of the girls, yet he acknowledges he has no idea what qualities he desires. He meets Augusta first: “How could anyone have called her beautiful? The first thing you noticed about her was a squint so pronounced that if someone tried to recall her after not having seen her for a while, that defect would personify her totally.” Fortunately Ada and Alberta are lovely and Zeno chooses Ada for pursuit.

Zeno bumbles along, undermining his suit in almost everything he does. As an unreliable narrator Zeno proves to be both maddeningly clueless and prescient. He realizes he has turned his courtship into a “stupid adventure, which actually shames me” but he does not stop his actions, continuing with the shameful aspects and the courtship in general. Not completely bound by social convention because of her age, Anna tells Zeno he is crazy every time he leaves their house. It is easy to be swept up in the story but every once in a while Zeno brings the reader back to the reason this book exists—at the orders of his psychoanalyst he writes about his life in order to help understand his problems. Like everything else in his life the reader quickly realizes Zeno has no control of his life even though he thinks he does.

Many times Zeno walks up to the edge of the awareness that he is not in control nor does he perceive reality accurately but he always veers away from those realizations. As I said, he can be cannily accurate of himself at times and he provides one of his best evaluations: “For all my efforts I achieved the result of that marksman who hit the bullseye, but of the target next to his.” It is painful to watch his courtship because it is clear to everyone else that Ada wants nothing to do with him. Again and again, his contradictions undermine his efforts: “So I set out to win Ada and I continued my efforts to make her laugh at me, at my expense, forgetting that I had chosen her because of her seriousness.” I will skip the fateful day of his marriage proposal(s) because the whole section has to be read to be fully appreciated but I will say watching him propose to all three eligible sister within a few minutes was as funny as it was painful.

The beauty of Italo Svevo’s creation exists in this comic pain. Zeno’s contradictions depict the incongruity between what he says and what he experiences. He believes “it’s surely easier to change oneself than to reshape others” yet he never achieves any of his set goals, whether it’s sticking with one course of study or stopping smoking. He believes in his potential to improve himself and even delays asking Ada to marry him “because of some doubts about myself. I was waiting to become nobler, stronger, worthier of my divine maiden.” He proposes, not because he became any of those things but because a worthier suitor appeared on the scene.

I want to note two topics in this section. The first subject centers on Zeno’s focus on death: “[B]ut to her it seemed wrong to live only in preparation for death. I held my ground and asserted that death was the true organizer of life. I thought always of death, and therefore I had only one sorrow: the certainty of having to die.” As always, the reader has to wonder if Zeno is telling the truth but the contradiction rings true for the character—death may be the “true organizer of life” and Zeno may think about it constantly but he resists any benefit because of his sorrow. He believes “What’s definitive is always calm, because it is detached from time” but time’s progress constantly haunts him, denying him the calm he seeks. His one moment of contentment occurs when his marriage proposal is accepted: “I no longer had to resolve anything, because everything had been resolved. This was true clarity.” We will see if how long that contentment lasts.

The second subject falls under Zeno’s inability to see things as they really are. It turns out Zeno suffers from another disease than just life: “I, who, when I opened my mouth, got things wrong or misled people because otherwise speaking would have seemed to me pointless. Without being an orator, I suffered from the disease of words. Words for me had to be an event in themselves and therefore could not be imprisoned in any other event.” His trouble starts with seeing reality, then move on to expressing it: “I act like a friend of mine, a very refined painter who, when he portrays beautiful women, thinks intensely also of some other beautiful thing, for example of a piece of lovely porcelain. A dangerous dream, because it can endow the dreamed-of women with new power and, when seen again in the light of reality, they retain something of the fruits and flowers and porcelain with which they were clad.” When he pursues Ada he doesn’t see her as she really is, instead imagining an Ada that doesn't really exist, “whose cheeks I had assiduously polished, whose hands and feet I had made smaller, whose figure I had thinned and refined.”

Svevo sets up a lovely comparison of his creation to real life. Potential father-in-law Giovanni describes seeing a woman injured as she disembarked from a tram: “With some exaggeration, Giovanni described his anxiety on seeing the woman preparing to make that leap, and in such a way that she was obviously going to fall and perhaps be crushed. It was quite sad to foresee it all and to have no time to rescue her.” The reader sees Zeno setting himself up for a fall time after time, but anxiety is replaced with mirth because of Svevo’s touch. We couldn’t rescue Zeno if we wanted to but the point is we don’t want to rescue him—we want to see what will become of him in his fall.


nn said...

I read it a long time ago, in school, and forgot everything except the reviews on it. Your posts do not make me want to go back to it (not your posts' fault, of course!)

Dwight said...

Ah, too bad. The more I get into this the more I enjoy it. It definitely has a Don Quixote feel to it, which I know doesn't appeal to everyone.

Unknown said...

been studying La Coscienza all the way over in London at university and your wonderful comments have truly helped add insight into my initial reading!

Thanks a bunch!

Dwight said...

I'm glad to hear it was helpful. My pleasure.