Svevo wrote the classic novel Confessions of Zeno (La coscienza di Zeno) and self-published it in 1923. The work, showing the author's interest in the theories of Sigmund Freud, is written in the form of the memoirs of one Zeno Cosini, who writes them at the insistence of his psychiatrist. The novel received almost no attention from Italian readers and critics at the time.
The work might have disappeared altogether if it were not for the efforts of James Joyce. Joyce had met Svevo in 1907, when Joyce tutored him in English while working for Berlitz in Trieste. Joyce read Svevo's earlier novel, Senilità, which had also been largely ignored when published in 1898.
Joyce championed Confessions of Zeno, helping to have it translated into French and then published in Paris, where critics praised it extravagantly. That led Italian critics, including Eugenio Montale, to discover it.
Svevo, of mixed Italian, Jewish, and German background, was a native of Trieste, which was an appendage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War. He spoke Italian as a second language and, according to some critics, wrote it badly. Like his hero, Zeno Cosini, Svevo was a businessman who developed an interest in the theories of Sigmund Freud.
Confessions of Zeno never looks outside the narrow confines of Trieste, much like Joyce's early works, which never left Dublin in the last years of Ireland's years as a British colony. Svevo brings a keenly sardonic wit to his observations of Trieste and, in particular, to his hero, an indifferent businessman who cheats on his wife and lies to his psychiatrist and who is trying to explain himself to his psychiatrist by revisiting his memories.
There is a final connection between Svevo and the character Cosini. Cosini sought psychoanalysis, he said, in order to discover why he was addicted to nicotine. As he reveals in his memoirs, each time he had given up smoking, with the iron resolve that this would be the "ultima sigaretta!!", he experienced the exhilarating feeling that he was now beginning life over without the burden of his old habits and mistakes. That feeling was, however, so strong that he found smoking irresistible, if only so that he could stop smoking again in order to experience that thrill once more.
Svevo likewise smoked for all of his life. After being hit by a car while crossing the street, Svevo was brought home, where his health rapidly failed. As death approached he asked his wife for a cigarette, assuring her that this really would be the last one.
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