- James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship by Stanley Price
After reading Stanley Price’s James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship, I wondered whether it should come with a printed notice: “WARNING: Contains Alternative Facts.” Trieste has always presented notable difficulties for the “outside” scholar, but rarely have I seen a text so riddled with errors, misconceptions, and baseless surmises, and they seriously undermine any claims to credibility or other values the book might have had. What is even more disconcerting is that many of these errors could have been avoided by simple fact-checking or by paying closer attention to the main sources that the author claims to have used—or by a proper proofreading. For example, at the end of his brief introduction (9), after making two erroneous remarks concerning Joyce, Price tells us that Svevo’s La Conscienza di Zeno was published in Paris in 1926 (it was published in Bologna in 1923) and that its author died three years later (Svevo died in 1928, hence two years after the alternative date of publication).1 He would thus not seem to know the publication date of Svevo’s most important novel nor his date of death, but, given that the correct dates appear later in the book, we are left to conclude that the author simply could not be bothered to weed out these glaring inconsistencies from his final text.
Price’s method is that of “parallel lives,” complete cradle-to-grave biographies of the two writers, intercut with their “strandentwining” relations over a period of more than twenty years in what is undeniably one of the most important—and opaque—literary friendships of the modernist period (U 3.37). If Ettore Schmitz (Svevo’s real name) remains the principal model for Leopold Bloom, then he somehow underpins some of the most revolutionary and unsettling aspects of Ulysses and therefore merits whatever attention we, as readers of Joyce, can give him. Unfortunately, the subject of Svevo immediately highlights the author’s shortcomings: Price does not seem to know Italian, which, while perhaps not a fatal handicap, leads him to make repeated and often egregious linguistic errors and, more importantly, forces him to rely almost exclusively on English translations of Svevo’s works and on English-language sources. This means, for example, that he cannot read most of the shorter fiction or plays and can use only very limited or secondhand portions of Svevo’s voluminous correspondence which is fundamental to understanding the Triestine writer’s psychology and many aspects of his daily life; at the same time, essential biographical studies (such as Fulvio Anzellotti’s Il Segreto di Svevo) and the vast critical corpus, which is primarily in Italian, remain inaccessible.2 Price’s first-hand knowledge of Trieste [End Page 367] is also limited to a few afternoons of wandering about the city, and his knowledge of Italian culture, history, and even geography is also approximate and often mistaken, and needlessly so (is Google not available in Dublin?). Sometimes Price’s errors appear as virtually self-invalidating, as in his repeated insistence that Svevo wrote his works in the Triestine dialect, a misconception that is frankly mind-boggling. With the exception of one short play, unpublished during his lifetime, Svevo wrote all his works in Italian. How can a literary biographer not be aware of the language in which his author wrote nor understand the distinction between a local dialect, like Triestine, and the official, national language?
While one of his basic sources for Svevo’s life is John Gatt-Rutter’s excellent and thoroughly researched Italo Svevo: A Double Life, Price repeatedly either cannot get his facts straight, or he prefers to cherry-pick from other sources, even when they are demonstrably wrong or misleading or have been thoroughly debunked by Gatt-Rutter and others.3 He seems especially fond of Livia Veneziani’s (Svevo’s wife’s) self-exculpatory and extremely unreliable memoir, Vita di mio...