Throughout the rest of the book, the original figure is becoming very common […]. How to fix it? I do not know. Perhaps it will be possible by reworking the last chapter, or by having it preceded by another […] In short, think about it, and give a logical conclusion to the story, what without it.

Poor Svevo. He had had to wait over a month to read, in February 1923, this ungenerous judgment on his third novel, Zeno’s conscience, which the publisher Cappelli had agreed to publish, but only for a fee and recommending a linguistic revision entrusted to the author of this letter, the writer and journalist Attilio Frescura.


Yes, you got it right: the novel is judged so severely – not only that on the level of linguistic correctness, but also on that of narrative construction – one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian literature of the twentieth century (and beyond). So unlikely to be crushing, this judgment, as to make critics and scholars think that it could not have been expressed on the novel we know and on the ending that we all, for love or force, have read, with that apocalyptic page, reported in every anthology self-respecting scholasticism, about an end of the world caused with a new explosive by a man like all the others, but a little sicker than the others.

No autographs, no drafts, no preparatory materials, nothing at all: of one of the most important novels of literary modernity we only have the first edition, and therefore it seemed possible (to some critics even necessary) to hypothesize that Svevo accepted the suggestions of his reviser and applied them in extremis on a final originally different to rewrite it until it becomes the memorable one that has come down to us.

Some even went so far as to suppose that Italo Svevo (born Aron Hector Schmitz in Trieste on December 19, 1861 and died in Motta di Livenza, province of Treviso, on September 13, 1928) also delegated this type of intervention to the reviser who had already allowed him to make linguistic changes.

Because Svevo, by Attilio Frescura, appears to have a high opinion. Just read the first letter he wrote to him, on January 10, 1923, when Cappelli revealed the name of the reviewer to him: a letter published for the first time in the columns of Corriere della Sera more than fifty years ago by Armando Meoni, on August 17. 1969.

While admitting that he hadn’t known any of the books before di Frescura, Svevo declares himself moved and admired by the reading of those (three!) that he immediately obtained and puts himself in an attitude of reverential humility towards their author, widely confessing the limits of his own language (That is the German grandfather that prevents me from appearing better Latin?) and education (I am not a man of letters). Frescura (but not the only one) perhaps takes the disarming submissiveness of this confession a little too seriously and responds with condescending arrogance to this wealthy businessman who, even though he knows he is writing like an Ostrogoth, wants to buy the luxury of publish a third novel at his own expense.

Other than humble and submissive, however. The find these days of Svevo’s subsequent reply allows the elderly writer from Trieste to free himself from the uncomfortable kneeling position towards his younger corrector in whom the text of the first letter had immortalized him.

Leafing through the inventory of the Primo Conti di Fiesole Foundation online, in fact, I was lucky enough to find the answer with which Svevo, on February 15, 1923, the same day on which Frescura’s haughty judgment and advice is delivered to him, resolutely refuses, even if diplomatically, both.

Edition and commentary on this letter, also made possible by the availability and competence of the head of the Archive, Maria Chiara Berni, will be published in a forthcoming article in the Historical Journal of Italian Literature, together with two other letters from Svevo which have so far been partially unpublished. But the importance of the discovery suggested the opportunity to communicate it also in a place not reserved for insiders, highlighting some salient points, starting with the final final refusal of any further intervention on the novel.

That public resolutely the novel as it is it buries under the polysyllabic weight of an adverb the critical ghost of the insecurity of a Swabian inclined to accept suggestions and advice. Even when with apparent compunction he fully accepts the reproach of prolixity expressed by the auditor, Svevo definitely excludes that Frescura can remedy it by putting himself in his place. Even on the linguistic level (where the Trieste writer condemned to his dialect, with commercial studies carried out partly in Germany behind him, had accepted the revision) there is a covered counterattack, with that nod to the diffusion among Italian literati of Frenchisms that make good company (badly common half joy?) to the Germanisms that the pedantic Frescura attributes to him.

But on the level of the narrative construction that Svevo becomes more explicitly aggressive, unleashing the weapons he had acquired with his European readings: he accuses Frescura of not having understood Zeno as a type (and that is interesting for his own banality, as the aforementioned Zola wanted) and, above all, of not knowing Freud enough to understand novel and character. Diplomacy pushes him not to accuse Frescura of Freudian ignorance directly, but to put in the middle of the authoritative scientific popularizer of the Corriere della Sera of the time (that Dr. Ry who had to read regularly, since he also mentions him elsewhere): of course However, Svevo had to put his stiff reviser among the chickens who cannot laugh at articles on psychoanalysis because they do not know Freud.

Other than demeaning psychological and cultural subjection. The businessman about to leave for London ends up liquidating, albeit elegantly, the auditor and his advice, begging him to urge the publisher Cappelli to impose greater haste on Rocca San Casciano, the headquarters of the printing house.

Despite Svevo’s insistence, Zeno’s conscience will not be published around Easter, but at the beginning of May, but certainly this delay is not to be attributed (as it has been hypothesized) to the interventions in extremis of the author who is anxious to apply the suggestions of the reviewer: and if it seemed to someone that the published ending says exactly what Frescura wanted him to say only because, evidently, he was already saying that ending, perhaps too subtly or subliminally for a contemptuous and not very empathic reader to realize.

April 3, 2021 (change April 3, 2021 | 21:59)

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