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Day 16

Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo

p. 318—p. 336 (“But did that axiom apply also to Guido?”)

September 28, 2022 by Claire Messud

Zeno’s dream—not his first, of course—upsets Augusta because she feels it reveals his continued attachment to Ada (an attachment he is always at exhausting pains to deny—methinks he doth protest too much!). Does the truth lie more in dreams than in wine? “When you are caught dreaming, it’s hard to defend yourself,” Zeno says: stripped of the superego, the id will have its day…

When Zeno decides to quit the office and stop working with Guido, he is amazed to discover he can’t stop going—he’s addicted to work, as he has been addicted to smoking and to his mistress. That someone so devoted to self-scrutiny, so endlessly self-absorbed, would after years understand himself so little—isn’t that one of life’s great paradoxes?

The wise accountant Olivi tells Zeno that he and Guido must liquidate their company, “only as a formality”—the rules of business being as hypocritical and arcane as those of society. Not understanding this, Guido rages against Olivi’s advice; and Zeno quickly crumbles, deferring to Guido on account of his “manly assertion.” So often we ignore our knowledge or instincts when someone else performs authority or certainty…

Zeno’s great revelation is that life is “very original”—a broad statement, but a true one. It’s uncertain, it’s unexpected, it’s filled with serendipities, patterns, emotions—but something as simple as Zeno’s childhood question “am I good or bad?” has no answer, even decades later, for “the adult who had already passed the midpoint of his life.”

…What he decides, hilariously, is that “We could…show ourselves to be good, very good, always good, and this was what mattered.” Zeno, indecisive though he is, is the opposite of Hamlet, who says to his mother, “Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’”—but in the 20th century, seeming is all…

Daily Reading

Day 1

p. 3 (Preface)—p. 20 (“I was too busy missing other things.”)

Day 2

p. 20—p. 37 (“But I would have been amazed to see him really happy, alone and old as he was.”)

Day 3

p. 37—p. 60 (end of “My Father’s Death”)

Day 4

p. 61—p. 80 (“It’s surely easier to change oneself than to reshape others.”)

Day 5

p. 80—p. 98 (“On the crowded Via Cavana, therefore, I had thought more purposefully than in my solitary study.”)

Day 6

p. 98–p. 117 ("'Good for you, Zeno. You’ve earned your keep.’”)

Day 7

p. 117—p. 139 (“all the flotsam accumulated in my nerves would have been swept away by it.”)

Day 8

p. 140—p. 162 (“unless it was crushed beneath an entire speeding train.”)

Day 9

p. 162—p. 185 (“I had found something more than a mere pretext for doing what it was my desire to do.”)

Day 10

p. 185—p. 209 (“I continued acting the sick man.”)

Day 11

p. 209— p. 232 (“wine shouts it, overlooking whatever life has subsequently added.”)

Day 12

p. 232—p. 253 (“but on some crowded city street”)

Day 13

p. 253—p. 271 (end of chapter)

Day 14

p. 272–p. 296 (“I would not torment myself any more for having wanted to play that false role of Mentor.”)

Day 15

p. 296—p. 318 (“the Ada who had scornfully repulsed me no longer existed, unless my medical books were mistaken.”)

Day 16

p. 318—p. 336 (“But did that axiom apply also to Guido?”)

Day 17

p. 336—p. 357 (“…unless I was supported by all the members of the family.”)

Day 18

p. 358— p. 378 (“I would say this to Ada herself at the first opportunity.”)

Day 19

p. 378—p. 394 ("I would find, at tomorrow’s opening, the high level of that morning.”)

Day 20

p. 394—p. 418 (“…I must throw away these playthings.”)

Day 21

p. 418—End

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