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Italo Svevo: “My moments with Dostoevsky and Joyce", Translated by Aurora bernardini

From Hector Schmitz’s (1861-1928) oltretomb memories: “My moments with Dostoevsky and Joyce”

Translated by Aurora Bernardini*

I may confess, now, that at the age of 13 I was sent by my father to the Brüssel’sche Institut of Segnitz on the Main, where I started suffering from a quasi-pathognomonic behavioural sign largely ignored in psychologist’s diagnostic usage, namely anhedonia.

It must have been because of my age (I was too young to be separated from my dear brothers and my loving mother) but the fact is that I developed a kind of conviction of my own unlovability –an expectation of rejection, and the consequent mischievous reaction -- together with the feeling of being oppressed by an unaffordable burden, just like what happened to Hamlet, as I read in the book by Shakespeare I got from a lottery, at the Institute.

My life was dense: I’m not going to recall here its more crucial moments but two of them which finally put an end to my anhedonia. Apart from my marriage with a rich and loving wife, the people responsible for the changing of my usual feelings of inferiority were Dostoevsky and James Joyce.

Why Dostoevsky? Because of his Notes from Underground.

I found in this book -- written in 1864 after his Siberian exile -- what I needed to recover from my first complex. “And if, sometimes, the advantage for a man might consist in wishing for himself and for others what is bad, and not the beneficial?” [...] Reason, Will..., what man really needs is a will which depends on the devil knows what, and perhaps we should thank God for that.”

As I said, my life was dense. When I finished school in the eighties, my father’s glass factory failed. During the bankruptsy I started working in a Bank: I hated it, but it lasted for 18 years. The burden was almost unbearable: ugly, poor, rejected, I depicted my suffering in my first novel One Life, (1893) whose protagonist commits suicide.

In 1904, a young Irishman settled down in Trieste and started teaching at the Berlitz School. I needed to improve my English (I had married, I’d finally left the Bank and I had to travel thanks to my new job at my father in law`s plant) so ... I asked James Joyce to give me private classes. Our sympathy was reciprocal and we became friends. I carried with me my burden and my new novel, Senility. Emilio Brentani, its protagonist, was afflicted by a senility more psychological than anagraphic: the same as mine. “Do what you want to do, finally. Do not fill yourself with remorse. [...] Will is life, the more vantageous of all advantages and in certain occasions mother nature doesn’t ask for our opinion: we have to accept it as it is.” Does it not sound like Dostoevsky? “And do not rely on psychoanalysis: it’s dangerous to explain to a man the way he is done: leave it to literature.”

It’s what I did.

*Writer, translator and professor at Univesity of São Paulo

James Joyce and Italo Svevo

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