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1928: A Great Writer Who Refused to Publish for Decades Dies

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Aron Ettore Schmitz (1861-1928), better known by the pseudonym Italo Svevo: Wearing a hat, mustache but no beard, elegantly dressed in white high-collared shirt with dark tie and jacket,.
Aron Ettore Schmitz (19 December 1861 – 13 September 1928), better known by the pseudonym Italo Svevo Credit: Giac83, Wikimedia Commons

On September 13, 1928, the Italian writer Italo Svevo died, several days after being injured in a car accident in Motta di Livenza, near his native Trieste. He was 68.

Although Svevo had been writing for most of his life, it was only late in his life that critics noticed him and readers began to buy his books. That pleasant change had taken place in large part due to the efforts of James Joyce, who had gone to great lengths to get his older friend's works translated from Italian and published abroad.

Aron Ettore Schmitz, as he was called at birth, was born on December 19, 1861, in Trieste, then part of Austria. (A few years later, it became part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire; after World War I, it was annexed by Italy.) He was the sixth of the eight children of Francesco Schmitz, a German-Jewish dealer in glassware, and the former Allegra Moravia, a Jewish native of Trieste.

Aron grew up speaking German and the Triestine dialect of Italian. As his biographer P.N. Furbank has noted, the pen name “Italo Svevo” -- meaning “Italus the Swabian” -- was an indication of the “hybrid” identity Schmitz felt.

He attended Jewish primary school, after which he was sent to a German-speaking boarding school near Wuerzburg, Bavaria. After graduating secondary school, in 1880, he wanted only to work as a writer. His father, however, expected him to enter business, and he returned to Trieste to begin studies at the Istituto Superiore Revoltella, a commercial college.

Punished for marrying a Jew?

Francesco Schmitz, in the meantime, invested all of his capital in a glass-blowing firm, which, when it failed, left him not only bankrupt but also barely able to function.

To support the family, Ettore left school, and began working in the commercial correspondence department of the Unionbank of Vienna, in Trieste, a job he held for the next 18 years. All of Svevo’s free time, however, was devoted to reading and writing, and he began publishing stories and essays at almost the same time he started working in the bank.

His experience in the bank also served him as subject material for his first novel, “A Life,” completed in 1888, which concerns a bank clerk who pursues the daughter of his boss, only to run from her when she yields to him. Like all of the rest of his early novels, “A Life” was self-published.

In 1896, after both his parents were dead, Svevo married Livia Veneziane, a cousin and a practicing Roman Catholic. He had no interest in religious life himself – he insisted on a secular wedding ceremony -- but after Livia became seriously ill, following the birth of their first child, and imagined that her illness was punishment for marrying a Jew, Svevo offered to undergo baptism.

Modest ambitions

After bringing out his second novel, “Senility” (called “As a Man Grows Older” in English), in 1898, and seeing it go nowhere, Svevo resolved to cease publishing, though he continued writing. As he explained, "Write one must. What one needn't do is publish." 

The following year, he began working for his father-in-law, who owned a highly successful factory for marine paint. For 25 years, he published nothing.

Given the assignment of opening a branch of the paint company in England, Svevo began taking English lessons at the Berlitz school in Trieste, where his teacher was a young James Joyce.

Joyce, who knew Ettore as “Hector,” shared sections of his own “Dubliners” with his student, and Svevo reciprocated with some of his own work. Joyce urged him to continue writing, and Svevo self-published in Italian what became his most famous novel, “Confessions of Zeno” in 1923.

A new kind of novel, “Confessions” is the memoir of Zeno Cosini, who has written it at the request of his psychoanalyst, to whom he has gone to for help in understanding his addiction to tobacco.

Joyce showed “Confessions” to two French critics, who arranged for its publication in their country. Its enthusiastic reception there led Italian critics to reconsider Svevo’s work, and finally, in what ended up being the final years of life, he began to receive the recognition that had previously eluded him.