Recommendation

Italo Svevo's "Confessions of Zeno,"

By Ken Kalfus

"I have never known life without desire, and illusions sprang up afresh for me after every shipwreck of my hopes, for I was always dreaming of limbs, of gestures, of a voice more perfect still."

In Post Road #1, Sven Birkerts briskly offered some book recommendations, including on his list Italo Svevo's "Confessions of Zeno," a plaudit that deserves additional supporting material. The novel was the work of the second great writer living in Trieste in the years before and after the First World War; the first was Svevo's friend James Joyce, who shared his modernist passion for unraveling the knotted workings of the ordinary mind. In Svevo's case, the mind belongs to one Zeno Cosini, something of a Bloomian failure: in business, in friendship, and in love.

Zeno's not a common Italian name, is it? I assume that Svevo chose it as a reference to Zeno's Paradox, whose runner is declared to cover half a race's distance in a given time, half of the remaining distance in half that time, and so on, an infinite progression the prevents him from ever reaching his destination. Thus Svevo's Zeno constantly frustrates himself through half-measures: the crucial business deal he can't close, the affair of the heart he can't consummate. In lush, comic convolutions, Zeno confesses how his over-fine scruples have brought him disaster. For all his neuroses, Zeno's an immensely appealing character, with whom we're already intimately familiar. He's the guy that we intellectuals and conscientious types are always trying not to be.