Today in Literary History – September 13, 1928 – the death of Italo Svevo

The German-Italian novelist Italo Svevo died on this day in 1928. “Italo Svevo” was actually his pen name. His real name was Ettore Schmitz (known to his friends as Hector) and apart from his literary endeavours he was also, thanks to an advantageous and loving marriage to an heiress, a wealthy businessman.

In late 1928, at the age of 66, he had been experiencing some health problems and chose to visit a spa near his home in Trieste, Italy. On the return trip, with his daughter and grand-daughter with him, his chauffeur lost control of the car in a rainstorm and crashed into a tree. Svevo died in hospital from his injuries the next day, September 13, 1928.

Twenty years earlier Svevo had decided that since his company (which produced paint for ships) had a branch in London and he spent part of the year there, he really should learn to speak English. He hired a tutor, a young Irishman recently arrived in Trieste, named James Joyce.

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It was some time into his tutorship that Joyce let Svevo know that he had ambitions to someday be a writer. Svevo, or Schmitz, confessed that he himself had published two novels under a pseudonym. Thus began a long and happy friendship.

Joyce later based Leopold Bloom, the hero of his novel Ulysses, partly on Svevo. Joyce also lobbied for Svevo’s novels to be translated into French and English.

Svevo’s most famous book is La coscienza di Zeno, published in 1923 and first translated into English as The Confessions of Zeno. It was translated again in 2001 as Zeno’s Conscience by the wonderful William Weaver (the translator of Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco and others) which is where I first encountered it.

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The novel takes the form of a journal that a man named Zeno is keeping at the request of his Freudian psychiatrist. It is a funny, revealing, stream of conscious narrative.

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Zeno shares many traits with Svevo, especially his desire to quit smoking, a major theme in the novel.

One story, true or not I can’t say, has Svevo, who had succesfully quit smoking, asking for a final cigarette while he was dying in the hospital, but being refused it.

His last words were said to be, “But it really would have been my last one.” He died an hour later.

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