"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Italo Svevo: Girl Trouble

One of the most enduring - and usually comic - situations in Western literature is when an older man forms a relationship with a younger woman. From the Latin and Greek comedians and satirists through Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" to Nabokov's Lolita, and right up to the present with Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) writers have revelled in this particular stereotype - for stereotype unfortunately is what it usually turns out to be. The man is invariably presented as a hopelessly infatuated and undignified old goat and the young woman as a scheming trollop. But Italo Svevo's As a Man Grows Older, which I have just put down, is one of the most subtle explorations of such a relationship I have come across.

Beautifully written with an exactness of insight into human psychology, Svevo's novel was first published in Italian in 1892 as Senilità and translated by Beryl de Zoete in 1932. It was re-issued in 2001 by New York Review Books with a brief but incisive introduction by James Lasdun. It is about a fortysomething insurance agent in Trieste, Emilio Brentani, who falls for an eighteen year old girl "with big, blue eyes and a supple, graceful body". They meet in the street in Trieste (one of my favourite cities) and he announces rather drastically: "I am very much in love with you, but it is impossible that I should ever consider you as more than a plaything. I have other duties in life, my career and my family." So far so clichéd. But the novel soon develops a rich complexity as the tables are deftly turned. Although the beautiful Angiolina is serially unfaithful she is also presented as a real living character and when Emilio resolves to renounce her after discovering the truth about her he realises, too late, that he cannot live without her. Svevo's first novel (this is his second) was rubbished by the critics and he abandoned writing for 25 years to work for his father-in-law's paint firm. Deciding that he needed to learn English he hired an obscure 25 year old Irishman who taught English in Trieste. His name was James Joyce. It was Joyce who came up with the English title of this book and who helped Svevo to get the second novel published (though he refused to break his rule of never puffing other writers' works in print and wouldn't write an introduction). It is refreshing to see a writer taking an old theme and completely recasting it. Highly recommended!


Andrew said...

I hadn't heard of Svevo which. given the utter paucity of my reading of Italians isn't surprising. I am at the moment re-reading one of teh very few exceptions to my ignorance which is Lampedusa's masterpiece, The Leopard, which could be similarly described as subtle, exact, profound & yet all rendered with an elegant lightness of touch.

Nicholas Murray said...

The Leopard indeed is great. Svevo's more famous book is The Confessions of Zeno, translated these days as Zeno's Conscience. Don't knock ignorance, which I share, because it enables you to make marvellous discoveries all the time. I'd hate to have read everything and heard of everything because life would contain no more surprises.

Andrew said...

Though I have read a book with Zeno in the title: Zeno of Bruges by Marguerite Yourcenar, though I think I recently saw that it tends to be known under a different title.