martedì 26 maggio 2015

“Tante veritá e bugie”: the mysterious affairs of Zeno Cosini

Italo Svevo
by Olga Lenczewska



Zeno Cosini, the main protagonist of Italo Svevo’s novel La coscienza de Zeno, is perhaps one of the most amusing and complex literary characters in modern Italian literature. Whilst telling his story in the first person in a form of a autobiography, as ordered by his psychoanalytic doctor, he manipulates the facts and lies to the reader – or maybe he is not sure himself what happened in reality and what happened in his head. Zeno is the first literary example of Freud’s psychoanalysis, which Svevo was influenced by – yet after having read the novel, one is not sure if psychoanalytic treatment really works.

Already in the opening chapter, Prefazione, written by the psychoanalytist who treated Zenos, the reader is warned about the unreliability of the following Zeno's account of his life. The doctor refers to Zeno's autobiography as a collection of “tante veritá e bugie”, not providing moreover a means of distinguishing between the truths and the lies: “Se [Zeno] sapesse quante sorprese potrebbero risultargli dal commento delle tante veritá e bugie ch'egli ha qui accumulate!”.

Zeno's way of viewing the world results in his alienation from the reality. Every decision he makes is not entirely “his own” but made in order to please somebody else or to falsely appear as a certain personality. This is strengthened when Zeno often visits the Malfenti family. He feels foreign and maladjusted to it, and therefore does or says things he normally would not do or say. As comments a literary critic Vittorini, “Zeno si presenta come lo straniero (xénos) che viene ammesso nel microcosmo del salotto dei Malfenti (un “paese del tutto sconosciuto”)” [Vittorini 2003: 72]. By achieving partial detachment from the society Zeno hopes to escape the social determinism. Yet he does not escape the social determinism but rather follows its norms without consciously deciding to do so or applying a special meaning to them (as for example in the case of the proposal to Augusta). He mimics the behaviours of the others and repeats the schemes of the society: marriage, commerce, family, and death, which are not simply chapters of a book but a thematic autonomy that represents the norms of the society to which Zeno conforms.

I will focus on portraying the protagonist's undecidedness and maladjustment to the society by analysing the reasons for his decision to marry Augusta Malfenti and the general story told in the chapter La storia del mio matrimonio. At the beginning of La storia del mio matrimonio Zeno confesses that “puó perció essere che l'idea di sposarmi mi sia venuta per la stanchezza di emettere e sentire quell'unica nota”. This is clearly not a common reason for wanting to get married, especially as Zeno decides to do so not because of having found the love of his life, but through analysis of the very concept of being a husband. The social normativity and the things that are regarded as “typical”, such as getting married, begin to dominate his own free will and the ability to make responsible decisions based on his own, individual needs. Zeno chose (or was driven into) proposing to one of the Malfenti daughters. This was perhaps the effect of the close bond he had with Giovanni Malfenti. It can be said that the paternal affect of Malfenti which was reciprocated by Zeno was the cause of him wanting to marry one of Malfenti's daughters. He did not so much choose one of them for her own qualities, as for the perspective of having Malfenti as his father-in-law.

Zeno decides to propose to Ada, a woman he truly admires and perhaps is in love with. Yet when she rejects him, he immediately goes on to propose to Alberta and Augusta almost in one go. This grotesque situation – proposing to three sisters at the same evening – is quite amusing to the reader but at the same time reflects a serious problem of Zeno's: the inability to feel something deeply, to be hurt by the rejection of the beloved one, to stop himself from acting without thinking it through first. The act of proposing loses his meaning, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that gains a different one: that of being an element of the social game, of conforming to the norms. In effect, Zeno becomes Augusta's husband without wanting to or loving her. The choice of Augusta, the least appealing of the Malfenti sisters, is portrayed as random and absolutely unpredicted.

Once married, Zeno comes to realise he loves his wife. What he admires in her is the stability of her life and the order she imposes on things. Augusta truly loves Zeno, too, and brings to his life comfort and order; she consoles and absolves him. She is a mother-figure in the book, not only to their children but also to Zeno himself, and in fact she reminds Zeno of his mother. He finds in her something totally opposite to his own character. Augusta has an opposite view on the truth to Zeno. Whilst for the protagonist the semantic meaning of the words alternates from one situation and social context to another, and the truth is often not what actually happened but what Zeno wishes had happened, Augusta is far away from Zeno's truth relativism: “Da ogni sua parola, da ogni suo atto risultava che in fondo essa credeva la vita eterna. Non che la dicesse tale: si sorprese anzi che una volta io, cui gli errori ripugnavano prima che non avessi amati i suoi, avessi sentito il bisogno di ricordargliene la brevitá. Macché! Essa sapeva che tutti dovevano morire, ma ció non toglieva che ormai ch'eravamo sposati, si sarebbe rimasti insieme, insieme”. Moreover, she lives in the tangible reality and controls the present issues whilst Zeno tends to be absent-minded and the major part of his life is happening inside him, in his reflections and analysis, what is reflected by both the novel's title and the dominance of descriptions of his thoughts over dialogues. As a result of this, Zeno and Augusta have two opposite views of the world. Neither changes the other's view. There is a huge distance between the “A” of the Malfenti daughters and the “Z” of Zeno; it represents a distance from the beginning to the end, from a word to a life. Zeno is detached from the reality and lives in his own world of illusion and projection that is more familiar to him than the reality; he views everything that happens through the lens of his desires and wishes.

When Zeno he decides not to tell Carla, his lover, that he actually loves his wife (she thinks he does not), he tries to justify it by saying that in fact he is not sure whether he loves Augusta or not, and that none of the moments he spends with Carla is appropriate to reveal the truth. Similarly, during his affair with Carla he admits that he has more excuses to innocently visit her than needed, admitting thus that the official reasons are just excuses to make love to her, whereas after having ended the relationship he presents himself as a passive victim of circumstances and Carla's seduction, saying that the love for music was the primary rational motive for the many visits he paid her.

In sum, Svevo's La coscienza de Zeno describes a few episodes from the life of a character who is a literary representation of the first generation of people suffering from an existential condition called “life”. He analyses the reality rather than simply lives it, and, consequently, the life he leads conforms more to his own alternations and projections of the reality than the authentic, “objective” world. Thus he is maladjusted to the society he is supposed to function in and every decision he makes is not truly his own, but a means of conforming to the society's norms. The most prominent example of such an act is, as I tried to show, his decision to propose to and marry Augusta, the least appealing of the Malfenti daughters. Zeno is, moreover, unable to face the consequences of his previous decisions (he, for example, repeatedly cheats on his wife) and lies to himself about the morality of his actions.

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