Sunday, 17 June 2012

The eventual flowering of the real Mr Bloom

Ettore Schmitz, 1861 - 1928, published
novels under the pen name Italo Svevo.
Modernism. Ha! Yes, it can be difficult. And also there's an element of a Cinderella complex operating within it. Such as celebrations of Bloomsday, 16 June, the day James Joyce's character Leopold Bloom steps out of his front door to flaner the streets in Dublin. Lit geeks are getting together to applaud a man who kept his mortal coil together during his life by teaching English to foreigners in the foreign cities he resided in, while writing novels at night or on days off. The misunderstood peripatetic genius, now vindicated! Enthusiasm! It's a modernism thing. Pushing stylistic boundaries to get closer to the truth of existence, the way people really are. Rejecting as outdated the old forms of expression that you learned so well as a youth, and finding new ways to tell the human story. Ways that reveal the actual mechanisms of life lying behind the sad tropes and clumsy lexical gestures of famous writers, no matter how loved or celebrated they were. You are unforgiving and critical because immortality awaits you despite the fact that you hate your job and nobody cares about your abstruse literary lucubrations. You fool.

At the turn of the 20th Century there were only so many options available for young, intelligent and intellectual wannabees. So we see Joyce teaching English, Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon translating business letters, and Ettore Schmitz clerking at a Triestine bank. It was a double life, the life these aesthetically-inclined fin-de-siecle misfits and losers dedicated to the austere and demanding muse of Modernity. Occasionally - just once in a blue moon! - two such individuals might bump together to enthuse over Shakespeare or rip the living guts out of Walter Scott, while enjoying a bottle of wine in a comfortable bourgeois drawing room in the late afternoon. The consolations of misanthropy were rare indeed.

In 1907, while living in Trieste (1905 to 1915) Joyce took on Schmitz as a student and I like to think the two men occasionally drank together while having a discussion about the things they really loved, and knew a lot about, after class finished in the afternoon. I also assume that the bond the two men formed during these tetes-a-tete led to Joyce modelling Bloom on Schmitz during the composition of Ulysses, which took place from 1914 to 1921. Because I, too, fell in love with Schmitz, during my undergrad days at uni in the 80s, and I even wrote my thesis on him. It wasn't a very good thesis but it passed, and maybe that's the point.

As if life were a novel, Joyce fully returned the favour of having been understood. Not only did he use Schmitz in his outline of Bloom but he championed Schmitz's novels in Paris, where he next ventured, securing a French translation of Schmitz's 1923 novel La Coscienza di Zeno, and this influence - yes, there were people who appreciated Joyce during his lifetime, but not that many - led to Eugenio Montale, an Italian poet (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in that same year of 1925), pushing for acceptance of Schmitz - who wrote under the pen name Italo Svevo - in his native Italy.

Cinderella strikes again, folks. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's vindication time once more. Svevo's novels had all been self-published beginning with Una vita (1892) and then Senilita (1898). The gap separating these two early novels from his final big work in 1923 is explained by the pain the lack of critical recognition for his work had caused Svevo. He had married in 1896 and after the critical failure of his second novel decided to put his energies into the business of his wife's father, eventually taking over the firm. It was a successful business making coatings used on ships to repel marine accretions using a secret chemical formula. Work led to travel around Europe. The fact that Svevo returned to writing novels at the age of 60 is an indication both of how much he loved literature, and of how disenchanted he had been with being ignored in the mainstream. It may also have been that exposure to Joyce reignited the old spark. He died from complications resulting from a car accident, aged 66.

Not many people outside Italy now read Svevo, unlike Joyce, who is globally admired and whose difficult Ulysses remains a contentious matter for many. (We won't even mention Finnegan's Wake, thank you.) But I see Svevo walking down the street in Trieste alongside his good friend, the painter Umberto Veruda, talking about books. Talking about psychoanalysis, the poems of Schiller, the writings of Marx. Shooting the breeze while all around him the perplexing machinery of industry and commerce rattled on like a restless merry-go-round. Veruda died in 1904, and in 1907 Svevo met Joyce. In the noughties before the Great War. The end of the extraordinary 19th Century, which had been a time of cultural refinement and fantastic economic growth. It was now the beginning of a new era of motorised speed, long-distance telephone calls, brilliant electrification of Europe's streets and houses. Modernity for all meant new ways of talking about the world. A few men and women - just a few - set about finding out how to write the future. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we remember them, lest the world forgets.

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