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Humor in Hopelessness

March 13, 2010

Joseph Epstein in WSJ:

The best bookon quitting smoking was written by neither a physician nor an ex-smoker but by a middle-age businessman in Trieste who was finally unable to break the habit himself. His name was Ettore Schmitz, changed for publishing purposes to Italo Svevo—standing for the Italian Swabian—and the book, a novel, is called “Zeno’s Conscience” (or, in an earlier translation, “The Confessions of Zeno.”) The work of a pessimista bonario, or good-natured pessimist, it is a comic masterpiece, ranking with “Don Quixote,” “Tristram Shandy” and perhaps four or five other comic novels in world literature.

Svevo’s subject is the weakness of the will, or abulia, and how a dreamy nature has little chance up against the temptations set out by the amazing and obdurate reality of life. In “Zeno’s Conscience,” Zeno Cosini, an unexceptional Trieste businessman, pits his will against the enslaving habit of smoking, the complexities of courtship, the delights of philandery, the discipline required by business, and loses every time, yet cannot quite be said to go down in defeat. [More]

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