Italo Svevo and Adam Tooze (and Liz Truss 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. So now I know it’s a brilliant and prophetic book. In the 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 unfortunate 20th Century. He’s the most annoying and loveable (and most unreliable) unreliable narrator you’ll ever meet.
This narrator is a very up-to-date Austro-Hungarian. He’s an enthusiast for the latest Viennese fad psychoanalysis—we learn that he’s 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, a chemist who knows the composition of all the new remedies, apparently in robust health but surrounded by sick people. An egomaniac – but only in the sense that you would be too, if you were writing everything down for your analyst.
And, in the text, Zeno’s right there, on the cusp of the modern, at the beginning of the long 20th 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 late 19th Century. The whole petty theatre of modern business is here: the awkwardness of foreign trade, company law, buying and selling shares (in Rio Tinto, supplier of copper to the hypermodern boom industries of electricity and telegraphy – he’s at the bleeding edge), fiddling the books (and worrying about getting caught 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—change my mind).
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—and I’m all 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:
Does it really make sense to perpetuate a system in which disastrous financial risks are built into the profit-driven provision of basic financial products like pensions and mortgages? Yes the central bank can act as the fire brigade, but why do we such a dangerous situation as normality. Why do the smoke detectors fail again and again? And why is the house not more fire proof? It is time to ask who benefits and who pays the cost for continuing with this dangerously inflammable system.‘The bond market massacre of September 2022’, Adam Tooze
I feel like every time Tooze sits down to document a 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 be about the 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 the pair of them gurning in hard hats on the cover.
Svevo, who was a pal of James Joyce, documented Europe’s entry into modernity. Tooze is documenting the way out.
- Adam Tooze’s 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 good. 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 review books on Goodreads so I don’t forget I’ve read them.
- I’ve got a bit of a Trieste obsession. I’ve been there once in my life but I fantasise about retiring to an apartment overlooking the harbour. Jan Morris’s book about the city is brilliant.