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In Senilità, Svevo tells the story of the amorous entanglement of Emilio, a failed writer already old at thirty-five, and Angiolina, a seductively beautiful but promiscuous young woman. A study in jealousy and self-torment, the novel traces the intoxicating effect of a narcissistic and amoral woman on an indecisive daydreamer who vacillates between guilt and moral smugness. The novel is suffused with a tragic sense of existence, and the unbreachable distance between one consciousness and another. Svevo's unmistakably modern voice subtly captures rapid shifts in mood and intention, exploiting irony, indirection, and multiple points of view to reveal Emilio's increasing anguish as he comes to recognize the dissonance between himself and his world.
His family? Only one sister, neither physically nor morally burdensome, pale and petite, a few years younger than he, but older by nature or perhaps by fate. Of the two, he was the egoist, the younger one. She lived for him like a selfless mother, but that did not prevent him from talking about her as though her destiny were a separate one bound to his own. Bowed by so many responsibilities, he thus went through life with great caution, circumventing every kind of risk at the price of enjoyment and happiness. At thirty-five he was discovering in his soul unsated longings for pleasure and love and the bitterness of having experienced neither, and in his head a fear of himself and of the weakness of hischaracter; really more a suspicion than a proven fact.
Emilio Brentani's career was further complicated because it comprised at the same time two occupations and two objectives that were quite distinct. From an insignificant job in an insurance company he earned just enough for his small household. His other career was literary, which, aside from a minor reputation more gratifying to vanity than to ambition, yielded him nothing and demanded even less of him. For many years, after having published a novel highly praised by the local press, he had done nothing, more out of inertia than distrust in his talent. Printed on inferior paper, the novel yellowed in the bookseller's stockroom. At the time of its publication Emilio had been considered a great hope for the future, but since then he had come to be regarded as an exemplar of literary respectability, inscribed in the city's meager artistic ledger. The first judgment was not revised; it evolved.
Because he was keenly aware of the worthlessness of his own work, he did not glory in the past, although he did believe, in life as in art, that he was still in a preparatory stage, that the deepest recesses of his being harbored an ingenious mechanism of great power, not yet functioning but still under construction. He continually lived in impatient anticipation of something his brain was sure to produce: artistry of some kind that would come to him from some source, wealth, success-as though the age of youthful creativity had not already passed him by.
Angiolina-a blonde with big blue eyes, tall and strong but slender and lithe, her face aglow with vitality, her complexion a golden amber suffused with the rosiness of robust health-walked beside him, her head tilted to one side as though bent by all the gold that enveloped her, her eyes fixed on the ground, which she tapped at every step with her elegant parasol as though she were trying to make a reply to the words she was hearing gush up from it. When she thought she had understood, she said, stealing a glance at him, "How strange. No one has ever talked to me that way." She had not understood and was flattered to see him assume the unexepected role of protecting her from danger. The affection he was offering her appeared to be brotherly tenderness.
With those introductory remarks, he felt secure and spoke in a manner better suited to the circumstances. He showered her blond curls with lyrical declarations that his long frustrated desires had polished and refined, but in his own ears they sounded new and young again, as though born just then in the azure of Angiolina's eyes. He had the sensation, not experienced in years, of composing, of extracting ideas and words from deep within himself. A sense of relief endowed that moment of his unfulfilled life with a strange unforgettable quality of repose, of peace. A woman had entered it! Radiant with youth and beauty, she would brighten it, making him forget his sorry past of yearning and solitude, promising him future joys which she would surely not withhold.
He had approached her with the notion of a casual and brief adventure, like those he had so often heard described but which had always eluded him or were not worth remembering. This one had certainly started out as casual and brief. Her parasol had fallen at just the right moment to provide him with a pretext to approach her and instead-as though by design!-it caught in the lace at her waist and could only be detached after much indelicate pulling. But once he caught sight of that astonishingly pure profile, that splendid vitality-to rhetoricians, depravity and vitality always appear to be irreconcilable-he restrained his impulse, fearful of miscalculating, and in the end became so entranced in his admiration of a mysterious face whose contours were both lovely and well defined that he found satisfaction and happiness merely in that.
She had told him little about herself. At the time, completely taken as he was with his own emotions, he did not even hear that little. She was doubtless poor, very poor, but for the moment-she had announced this with a touch of haughtiness-she did not have to work for a living. That made the adventure all the more appealing, since the proximity of hunger is an antidote to pleasure. Emilio's inquiries were therefore not exhaustive but he was convinced that his logical conclusions, even if based on such slim evidence, were enough to reassure him. If the young woman, as one would be led to believe by the candor of her glance, were respectable, he would surely not be exposing himself to the risk of corrupting her. If, on the other hand, her profile and her look were false, then so much the better. In either case there was room for enjoyment, and danger in neither.
Angiolina had understood little of his opening remarks, but she visibly had no need of additional commentary to understand the rest; even his most convoluted language carried an unambiguous ring. Her naturally bright tints returned to her lovely face, and her hand, perfectly shaped though somewhat large, was not withdrawn from Emilio's very chaste kiss.
They stopped for a long while on the Passeggio di Sant'Andrea and looked out at the deep-blue calm of the sea under a star-filled moonless sky. A wagon went by on the avenue below, and in the profound silence around them, they continued to hear the noise of the wheels on the uneven ground long after it passed. They found it amusing to follow the sound as it grew fainter and fainter until it faded into the total silence and were delighted that it vanished at the same moment for both of them. "Our ears are very much in tune with each other," Emilio smiled.
He had said all there was to say and felt no further need to speak. He interrupted a long silence to say: "Who knows if our meeting will bring us luck!" He meant it. He felt the need to question his happiness out loud.
"Who knows?" she repeated, trying to express in her own voice the emotion she heard in his.
Emilio smiled again but this time he thought he should conceal it. Given his stipulations, what kind of luck could possibly befall Angiolina from having met him?
Then they parted. She did not want him to accompany her back to town, and so he, reluctant to leave her so soon, followed her from a distance. What a lovely figure! She walked with the easy stride of a healthy body, her step secure on the slick muddied street. How much power and grace were united in those movements as sure as a feline's.
As luck would have it, the very next day he learned much more about Angiolina than she had told him.
He ran into her at noon, on the Corso. His unexpected good fortune made him greet her playfully with a grand gesture of sweeping his hat almost to the ground. She replied with a discreet nod, enhanced by a magnificent shimmering glance.
A certain Sorniani, small, skinny, and sallow, rumored to be a great skirtchaser, and unquestionably vain and gossipy to the detriment of other people's reputations as well as his own, took hold of Emilio's arm and asked him how he happened to know that girl. They had been boyhood friends but had not exchanged a word in years. It took a beautiful woman passing between them for Sorniani to feel the need to approach Emilio.
"I met her at a friend's house," he replied.
"And what is she up to now?" Sorniani asked, implying that he was familiar with Angiolina's past but was considerably put out not to know her present.
"I wouldn't know," he answered, adding with feigned indifference, "She looked to me like a decent girl."
"Not so fast!" Sorniani said with assurance, as though to infer the contrary. Only after a brief pause did he correct himself. "I don't know anything about her now, but when I did know her everybody thought she was respectable even though she was once in a somewhat equivocal situation." Without any further urging from Emilio, Sorniani related that the poor thing had come close to a sizable fortune but, out of her doing or someone else's, it turned into a disaster of no small proportions. In her early youth she had captivated a certain Merighi, a very handsome man-a quality Sorniani was willing to recognize even though the man was not to his liking-and a prosperous businessman. He had approached her with the most honorable proposals. He had taken her from her family, for which he had little respect, and brought her into his own mother's house. "His own mother!" Sorniani exclaimed. "As though that fool"-he was determined to make the man out to be foolish and the girl disreputable-"couldn't have taken his pleasure with the girl somewhere else and not under his mother's eyes. Then, after a few months, Angiolina went back to her own home, which she should never have left, and Merighi and his mother left town, giving the impression that they had been ruined by misbegotten speculations. According to others, the story went somewhat differently. It is said that when Merighi's mother caught Angiolina in one of her disgraceful intrigues, she threw the girl out of the house." Unsolicited, he continued to elaborate other variations on the same theme.
Since it was all too obvious that Sorniani enjoyed wallowing in this titillating subject, Brentani retained only what he considered completely trustworthy, that is, facts that were doubtless common knowledge. He had known Merighi by sight and remembered a tall athletic figure, just the man for Angiolina. He recalled having heard him described, or rather criticized, as unrealistic in business, a man far too daring who thought his dynamism could conquer the world. In short, from people he saw daily at work Emilio learned that Merighi's daring had cost him dearly: he ended up having to liquidate his business under disastrous conditions. Sorniani was therefore wasting his breath because Emilio thought he now knew exactly what had happened. Because Merighi, impoverished, his confidence shaken, no longer had the courage to start a family, Angiolina, who was to have become a rich and respectable upper-class woman, was now becoming a plaything for Emilio. He was overwhelmed by deep compassion for her.
Sorniani had seen with his own eyes Merighi's demonstrations of love. On a number of Sundays he had seen Merighi waiting patiently at the entrance to the church of Saint Anthony the Great for Angiolina, on her knees before the altar, to finish her prayers. And the whole time his gaze was fixed on that blond head gleaming in the shadows. "A double adoration," Emilio thought with emotion. It was easy for him to intuit the tenderness that kept Merighi rooted to the threshold of the church.
"An idiot," Sorniani said in conclusion.
Through Sorniani's account, his own adventure gained importance in Emilio's eyes. His anticipation of Thursday, when he was to see her again, became feverish and his impatience made him garrulous.
His most intimate friend, a sculptor by the name of Balli, was immediately informed of the meeting the day after it took place. "Why shouldn't I also have some fun, when I can do it at so little cost?"
Balli heard him out in amazement. He had been Brentani's friend for more than ten years, but this was the first time he had ever seen him excited about a woman. He was instantly alarmed by the danger that threatened Brentani.
"Danger, me? At my age, with my experience?" he protested. Brentani often talked about his experience. What he thought could be called experience had been extracted from books and consisted of regarding his peers with great distrust and great contempt.
Balli, on the other hand, had put his forty years to better use, so that his experience better qualified him to judge his friend's. Though less cultivated than Brentani, he had always exercised over him a kind of paternal authority, which Emilio not only accepted but desired. For despite a joyless but in no way threatening existence and a life in which nothing was unexpected, Emilio needed approval to feel secure. Stefano Balli was tall and strong, with boyish blue eyes in one of those tanned faces that never grow old. The only trace of his age was the silver streaking his chestnut hair. His beard was neatly trimmed, his features regular and a bit hard. His observant eyes could nonetheless grow soft when animated by curiosity or compassion, but turned steely in conflict or in even lesser disagreements.
Success had not smiled on him, either. From time to time a jury had praised individual elements while rejecting his projects, so that not one of his works found a place on any of the many squares in Italy. Nonetheless, he had never felt the despair of failure. He was satisfied with the admiration of one or two artists, convinced that his originality was what prevented him from enjoying celebrity and the acclaim of a wide public. He continued to live according to his own ideal of spontaneity, a certain willful roughness, a simplicity, or, as he said, a perspicuity that would reveal his artistic self, purified of all borrowed ideas or forms. He did not consider that the outcome of his work might demean him, but no amount of rationalization would have saved him from discouragement if his extraordinary personal success had not given him the satisfactions he concealed and even denied, but which contributed in no small way to maintaining the proud carriage of his fine slender figure. His interest in women was much more for him than the mere satisfaction of his vanity, although he was too ambitious to love; it amounted to success, or something like it, since the women who loved the artist also loved his art, however little suited it was to feminine taste. And so, unshakably convinced of his genius and feeling loved and admired, he maintained his air of superiority with no pretension whatever. In art, his judgments were harsh and tactless, and in society he was less than considerate. Men did not care much for him, and he sought out only those he knew were impressed with him.
Some ten years earlier, he had come across Emilio Brentani, very young at the time, an egotist like him but not as lucky, to whom he had taken a liking. At first he appreciated him simply because he felt admired; much later, habit made his friend more valuable, almost indispensable. Their relationship was shaped by Balli. It became more intimate than Emilio's prudence would have wished, in the way that all of the sculptor's few relationships were intimate. Their intellectual exchanges remained limited to the plastic arts, and in that they were in perfect agreement, for on that subject there was only one idea, Balli's: the retrieval of the simplicity or spontaneity which the so-called classicists had taken from those arts. It was an effortless agreement. Balli did all the teaching; his pupil made no attempt to learn. They never discussed Emilio's complex literary theories, since Balli despised whatever he did not already know. Balli's influence went so far as to affect Emilio's manner of walking, talking, gesturing. Masculine in the truest sense of the word, Balli gave, he did not take, and when he and Brentani walked side by side, he felt that he was being accompanied by one of the many women he held in thrall.
Excerpted from Emilio's Carnival (SENOLITÀ) by Italo Svevo Copyright © 2001 by Beth Archer Brombert. Excerpted by permission.
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