Italo Svevo and Adam Tooze (and Kwasi Kwarteng)
So, in his book about the real hero of modern literature, historian Franco Moretti put me on to Italo Svevo’s 1922 novel Zeno’s Conscience. It’s a brilliant and prophetic book. With our hero, businessman Zeno Cosini, we walk the streets of Trieste, a port city at the edge of a collapsing empire and at the edge of the most unfortunate century, with the most annoying and loveable (and most unreliable) unreliable narrator you’ll ever meet.
This narrator is right up-to-date – he disdains psychoanalysis but claims to be writing all this down for his analyst in Vienna (Doctor S, probably Sigmund Freud, who actually treated Svevo’s brother). He’s a hypochondriac who knows all the latest ailments and treatments, apparently in robust health but surrounded by sick people. An egomaniac but only in the sense that you are too, in your private thoughts.
And, in the text, Zeno’s right there, on the cusp of the modern, at the beginning of the long twentieth century; all that revolution, industrialisation, despoilation, globalisation – and war after war – just over the horizon.
He’s a modern man, a complicated subject like you or me, a secular bourgeois. He’s superstitious but not religious, a terrible businessman who prospers by accident. In the book he becomes a kind of comic avatar of the emerging scientific capitalism of the early 20th Century. The whole petty theatre of modern business is here: international trade, company law, buying and selling shares (in Rio Tinto among others), fiddling the books, surplus stationery purchased in error, shipping and warehousing, HR dilemmas…
There’s a huge stock market loss (and an unlikely recovery), a catastrophic purchase of 60 metric tons of Copper Sulphate from a company in England, a sequence of terrible deals made from Zeno and his brother-in-law’s comically badly-run office (apparently staffed by the cast of the Carry On films – Carmen is Joan Sims, Luciano Jim Dale and Guido Kenneth Williams – prove me wrong).
The story ends with an intriguing perspective on the catastrophe of the Great War from the other end of Europe – from the complicated, multi-party territorial war over Svevo’s beloved Trieste. I won’t spoil the ending but it brings the story to a grand and moving conclusion.
Anyway, I’d just finished Zeno’s story – buoyed by his optimism, his readiness to transcend the darkness of war and death, to enter a rational new world of telephone calls, intercontinental travel, electric light and nation states – when I read Adam Tooze’s latest Substack. It’s about the latest explosion of stupidity and venality in British politics and the ripples it’s caused in the world economy in the last ten days. I experienced an unaccountable tingle of connection between the two stories.
Tooze starts with a fairly close-up view of events in Westminster and the City but his essay quickly spirals out through British and world markets and winds up in a very big (and quite bleak) picture indeed:
The hazards that we face in the global financial markets are entirely human-induced, macro-risks. They are the results of a contradictory, incoherent and hazardous profit-driven system, which the status quo underwrites.‘The bond market massacre of September 2022’, Adam Tooze
I feel like every time Tooze sits down to document some new human catastrophe these days he can’t help observing that whatever the latest planet-scale fuck-up is, it’s actually also a symptom of something bigger and more final. His last two books documented the financial crisis (Crashed) and the pandemic (Shutdown). The next one will document the final global collapse triggered by Kwasi and Liz’s sixth-form science experiment in the UK economy. It’ll be called ‘Spavined’ or ‘Wrecked’ or ‘Knackered’ and it’ll have a big picture of Liz Truss gurning at the Queen on the cover.
Svevo, who was a pal of James Joyce, documented Europe’s entry into modernity. Tooze is observing the way out.
- Adam Tooze’s excellent Substack is free (he asks for voluntary donations), he also explains topical economics stories on his Foreign Policy podcast. His two most recent books – Crashed and Shutdown – are proper blockbusters of history written while it’s happening.
- Michael Wood’s review of Zeno’s Conscience in the LRB is terrific. You’ll find a few different translations out there and the book was known as ‘Confessions of Zeno’ in earlier English versions. The Penguin Classics translation is by William Weaver.
- I have a Trieste obsession. I fantasise about retiring to an apartment overlooking the harbour. Jan Morris’s book about the city is brilliant.