Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Emilio's Carnival" by Italo Svevo



"Emilio's Carnival" is a passport.

Italo Sevo, as you might have guessed, was from Italy, although his prose is more Svevo than Italo and very Mitteleuropa, with his hometown of Trieste being a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during his residence.

the scribe first heard of Svevo while he was browsing at Book Soup up on Sunset Blvd. There was another book of Svevo’s there (title forgotten) that was done up in a bright yellowish-orange card stock with a neat painting inlaid to a small panel on the cover.

Books, whether we like to think much about it or not, are objects. The contents themselves remain code directed at varying types of minds, but the cover and size and ink and font are confected for the eyes, and usually with an aim to please them.

the scribe can admit that he will buy a book if it looks good as objet d’art.

A few years ago at the Sky Bar Halloween party (by the pool) the scribe went as a French intellectual with a long jacket, beret, horned rim glasses and big green book of Montaigne’s writings. He and Mrs. Scribe stole the show, she dressed as the French intellectual’s little French maid. There are many who think Mrs. Scribe’s black stockings and garters were the cause of the coupling’s social triumph, but Mr. Scribe says it was the book, even if observers could not tell the drawings within were by Salvador Dali.

But we digress.

According to the guy who wrote the introduction of the edition with which we are here concerned, Victor Brombert, Svevo’s real name was Ettore Schmitz.

He wanted to write as a young man, did, and then quit, “wounded by unsuccess,” according to Brombert. He got married, had kids, and worked in the wife’s family’s paint business. Years passed, lots of them, and he met James Joyce who was in Trieste teaching English.

Joyce liked his book. You can fill in the rest.

The book’s real name is “Senilitá.”

Here’s how Brombert describes the condition: “[I]t suggests a special sensibility (some people are indeed born old); or better still, a special kind of inertia of the dreamer, a modern version of acedia, or ironic ennui - devoid, however, of the metaphysical dimension Baudelaire gave to that term. ‘Senilitá’, in Svevo’s perspective, accompanies the tragic sense of existence; it represents a permanent premonition of life as a disaster, a deep skepticism concerning one’s own potential, a ceaseless meditation on vulnerability and death, a wisdom that can be put to no use, an awareness of the unavoidable loss of that which one never possessed, a suffering sharpened while consciousness views itself as object and subject.”

Anyway, Joyce liked the title “Emilio’s Carnival” for the English edition. Svevo was against it, dead-set against it, and to show you what happens even after you’re a famous and dead scribe, there’s the title that stands: Jimmy Joyce’s title rather than the author’s.

The book entails the wacky interior ups-and-downs of Emilio (it’s his carnival) who lives alone with his sister, doesn’t have a very exciting career, and, because of these circumstances, falls for a girl from the working classes named Angiolina.

She’s quite hot this girl, hot enough to interest other men in the class above her own. Emilio becomes a lover she can apparently take or leave, acceptance often a question of whether she’s in trouble and needs him at a certain point.

He slowly, or maybe quickly, catches on to the fact that the girl of pure and fleecy soul he’s concocted to match this girl of pure and peach skin is a fake; that looking virtuous and being virtuous are completely different things.

Of course, he’s dipping downward and, in the conventions of his time, worthy of his own disgust so that he really never feels up to protesting her transgressions with much fervor. When he does, she invariably puts out, which tends to wash whatever thing he’s been cooking up during idle days out of his frenetic brain.

Simultaneously, he’s living with his sister Amalia. Amalia did not wander out of Ayn Rand story. She is needy, dependent, meek, and suffering from low self-esteem, and itn doesn’t get any better for her once he starts skulking around with Angiolina, sexing her up at home while mom’s in the dining room mopping.

A working girl’s gotta do what a working girl’s...

Anyway, she’s no good, and his best friend Stefano Balli, a sculpture, does what he can to convince Emilio of this, but to little avail. She shines, she is bright, his life does not, is not. She calls, he comes.

It doesn’t work. He tries to teach her his intellectual brand of socialism only to learn she hates her own class and would rather whore herself than be identified and bound to it. He tries to teach her virtue, she responds with chronic, almost innocent, lying.

Angiolina calls...

Somewhere while this has happened, Emilio’s sister Amalia has sunk into an alcoholic dissipation. So consumed is he with the, “should I, should I not?” of life with Angiolina that Emilio doesn’t realize Amalia needs help until it’s too late.

Even in her dying night, he heads off to Angiolina for one more row that finally ends it.

If you want to know what happens next, well, nothing happens. Which is somewhat the point of the thing and why “Senilitá” is a better name than “Emilio’s Carnival.”

Worth a read. A look at the sexual tension festering beneath the mores of early 20th century European and bourgeois values and a fine example of how Sigmund Freud was burning a new consciousness into the best minds of his era.

“Trieste,” Brombert writes, “itself became a literary subject for Svevo, whose writings remain associated with city’s physical and mental setting, much as Balzac is linked with Paris, Joyce with Dublin, and Kafka with Prague.”

So take a trip to Trieste.

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