Starting from my last year in high school, the idea of leaving the house without a paperback in my coat or pants pocket was untenable. I read a novel every two or three weeks--sometimes more, sometimes less--a habit only interrupted by college when I was forced to read what "they" wanted, instead of what "I" wanted.
I knew when I was reading a good book because it felt as if I was standing on a precipice with all the sights and sounds of the world whirling in the vortex around me while I was unscathed. As long as it was in English, or rendered into English, I was willing to give it a try. More and more, my tastes led to the classics. I was that poor unfortunate who didn't know what a "genre" novel was.
Looking back, it was no accident this evolved into writing novels, mostly under the tutelage of Hayes Jacobs, head of the writing program at the New School in NYC for many moons--godfather to hundreds if not thousands of aspiring authors. Hayes was ying to my yang--an ardent technician--while my goal was to get the words down. I was his hard working student who took his advice seriously and didn't quit.
This went on for eight years with my greatest pride being that none of the courses were ever taken for credit. Only chumps got writing degrees. I wrote perhaps three or four novels this way, none of them accepted by publishers, until I buckled down and wrote what I thought was my doorway into the literary life, encompassing all I learned before, yet despite all my self-admonishment, when it too was rejected I tumbled into a heap with barely the strength to open my therapist's door once a week.
I was 33. I couldn't read novels any more; the last was A Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez. Thereafter, I perused the novels every so often at the St. Mark's Bookstore in the East Village, across from the apartment, written by those I'd thought would be my peers, saw the spaces between the words much more clearly than the words, and left to go to the movies, a play, or sit in front of the TV in utter disgust at the evil nature of fate, my own in particular.
The reason I tell this story is that after 30ty years, I've finally read another novel with that feeling again. (I'm also writing one, but that's another story.) It was brought to my attention not in the book reviews, but in the travel section of the NYTIMES a few weeks ago beckoning readers to visit the city of Trieste, Italy. (5/1)
It seems James Joyce, yes, that James Joyce, soon after his self-exile from Ireland moved to Trieste and became the English tutor of a man named Ettore Schmitz. Many years before, Ettore wrote a couple of novels, published at his own expense, and when they were ignored by the establishment and received no readers vowed to never write a novel again. He spent the intervening years working in the family factory--carefully guarding its formula for underwater boat paint--a comfortable life but totally incomplete.
Ettore Schmitz aka Italo Svevo
Joyce, many years his junior, was then writing Dubliners, his collection of short stories, and hadn't written a novel yet, let alone published one. He asked to look at Ettore's long forgotten and abandoned offspring. He recognized their value and encouraged his student to try again. Ettore did and eventually sent him the script of what is now translated as Zeno's Conscience under his nom de plume Italo Svevo. He ran into the usual prejudice and intellectual claptrap--the arbiters who trusted their minds but not their hearts.
James Joyce aka Jimmy J.
Joyce, no longer in Trieste, hailed it and sent it to his prominent friends who were influential in getting the book published--in French, not Italian. The Italian poet Eugenio Montale then championed the book and led to its publication in Italy. It was a critical and financial success, with few detractors--Svevo was 62 years old. He finally received the recognition that he despaired would ever be his for five years, when he died in a car crash in 1928.
With that build up it would have been a grave disappointment if I'd been unable to get past the first page, but that is decidedly not the case. Zeno's Conscience is unforgettable. It starts with a chapter on a man's battle to quit smoking, a perfect metaphor for all of ones "bad habits," and establishes the central character as one of the great anti-heroes of modern literature. He then oversees his father's death--a man whose nearly last act is slapping the face of the son who has so disappointed him.
When Zeno marries it is to the "ugliest" daughter of a wealthy merchant with four daughters after he asked two of her siblings to marry--a woman he does not love, but who loves him and with whom he finds contentment.
It is the utter inescapable caprice, "originality" as he says, and unreasonableness of life that Svevo captures--no easy task--the mind of a man on the edge of propriety who carries in his pocket a letter from a psychiatrist that informs people he isn't crazy. That he lies to his analyst is typical. Schmitz alias Svevo, alias Zeno Cosini, can't help himself, the poor fool, he tells the truth as he sees it and suffers from it. Zeno ain't "nice," but he's totally real. The book has aged like a piece of Peter Luger porterhouse.
And if this isn't enough: Joyce used Ettore Schmitz and his character as the model for Leopold Bloom in his novel Ulysses, yes, that Ulysses. The resemblance is unmistakable to anyone familiar with the two works. Joyce also used Livia, Svevo's loving wife, as the personification of the River Liffey in Ulysses--the golden haired Anna Livia Plurabelle. The two men remained friends until Svevo's death.
As far as I know, Bloomsday, celebrated throughout the English speaking world, is the only such literary event honoring a character in a book--a character created by an Irishman about a Jewishman. That provides it with an undeniable significance, especially coming at the time it did--on the eve of Europe's dark night.
Thus Ettore AND his alter ego live on as few ever have or ever will--a hero and an anti-hero--a man who is "faithless" according to the "faithful" and couldn't bring himself to stop smoking. A representative of how we actually live rather than our pretensions.
It don't get no better than that, you can't make the good stuff up, trust me. It's the only hope I have left.
Technical credits: Mercedes Arnao