Born into a large Jewish family (his mother had 16 children, 8 of whom lived) in Trieste. Sent by his father to a special college for the sons of Jewish businessmen in Wurtzburg, Austria. Returned to Trieste at 17, moving in artistic and Irredentist circles (the Triestine painter Umberto Veruda was his closest friend) and studying business at the Scuola Superior di Commercio Revoltella.
A decline in the family fortunes forced him to abandon his studies and begin working as a clerk in the Banca Union in Piazza della Borsa, an experience which would provide the setting for his first novel, Una Vita’, published in 1892. In 1891, he began teaching commercial correspondence at the Revoltella (where Joyce would teach 25 years later). In 1895 he married Livia Veneziani, daughter of Gioachino Veneziani, the owner of a factory for a special nautical paint.
With his entry into the family business, Svevo’s lifestyle and ambitions changed radically. After the birth of his daughter Letizia, he converted to Catholicism. In 1898, he published Senilità. In 1903 he went to London to oversee the opening of a new paint factory, and would return repeatedly over the next decade. The need for a greater proficiency in English, which Svevo already knew, led him to begin taking lessons with Joyce, probably in mid-1907.
United by their literary interests and ironic intelligence, the two men began an intense, though very ambivalent relationship that would last until Svevo’s death. Svevo showed Joyce his two novels, and Joyce’s admiration for Senilità would prompt Svevo to begin writing again. Joyce likewise showed him his own work, reading ‘The Dead’ to Svevo and his wife, and showing him the first three chapters of Portrait. Svevo was also an extremely useful and generous contact for Joyce, finding him students, giving him loans and facilitating his contacts in Trieste.
Svevo’s Jewishness also began to interest Joyce increasingly, and the Irish writer’s intense study of Svevo’s character and background would provide much of the information used for creating the character of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. Svevo, whose interest in psychoanalysis dates from as early as 1909-10 (his brother-in-law Bruno was one of Freud’s patients) may also have been the first to introduce Joyce to Freud. However, the relationship between the two men was always restrained, with Svevo maintaining a certain distance and haughtiness due to his social class (at least in the presence of others) and Joyce at times resentful at what he felt to be a subservient role (much later he would say that he never entered Svevo’s house except as a paid servant, in what seems an excessively harsh and ungenerous assessment of their relationship).
After Joyce’s final departure from Trieste in 1920, the two men continued to remain in touch, though their relationship increasingly took the form of established authors collaborating in each others careers, with Joyce being instrumental in making Svevo known to a wider audience in France and England and Svevo holding his famous conference on Joyce in Milan in 1927. Joyce also told Svevo that he was using Livia’s hair in his characterisation of Anna Liva Plurabelle in his new ‘Work in progress’ and expressed his unreserved admiration for La Coscienza di Zeno.
Svevo died in a car accident in September, 1928.
>> also see “Italo Svevo”
>> also see Svevo Museum