Online Edition: Summer 2004

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A Perfect Hoax

Italo Svevo

translated by J.G. Nichols

Hesperus Press ($12)

by Eric J. Iannelli

Italo Svevo began writing A Perfect Hoax, the story of an aging "man of letters" who achieves what he believes to be his long overdue recognition, in 1925—a time when the author himself was receiving belated critical acclaim for his two early novels as well as his recently published masterwork, The Confessions of Zeno, thanks to a helpful push from his English tutor, James Joyce. This overt basis in autobiography makes A Perfect Hoax fertile territory for idle literary theorists looking to bind the man more tightly to his work. It also provides Tim Parks, the eminent translator of Italian, with a topic for his brief foreword.

Svevo's novella engages the same theme on which he would establish his lasting reputation: the convoluted intricacies of self-deception. Here he proves that he can craft a thoughtful, entertaining narrative about the all-too-human propensity to construct a comfortable version of reality in 70 pages as expertly as he did in the several hundred pages of Zeno. It is this, not the Easter egg hunt of deliberate autobiographical links, which amply justifies Hesperus Press' decision to republish A Perfect Hoax in a new translation by J.G. Nichols.

The hoax of the title unfolds when Enrico Gaia, a spiteful travelling salesman with a fondness for practical jokes, plans to dupe his na•ve acquaintance Mario Samigli. Ever since publishing a poorly received novel at his own expense four decades earlier, Samigli has been drowning in delusions of literary grandeur. He credits his unknown work for influencing the younger generation of writers. He even wonders if the leaders of the invading Austrian army will hang him as a subversive or reward his genius. Samigli further cultivates his false self-image by writing trite fables—as inert as "little mummies"—about the local sparrows.

Spurred by a mixture of resentment and hostility, Gaia convinces Samigli that a representative from a prestigious Viennese publisher has been spotted in town among the crowds celebrating the end of The Great War. This man, he says, is looking to publish a German edition of the long forgotten novel. Naturally, Samigli puffs with pride and arrogance. Like the mischievous praise of Samigli's gout-afflicted brother, Giulio, Gaia's flattering lie dovetails with the soi-disant author's concept of how things are and ought to be. This kicks off a daisy chain of ruses and fabrications, all of which Gaia has engineered to shove Samigli out of his waking dream.

Were Svevo's characters less pathetic, they would be contemptuous. The kindest reading of the antihero still pegs him as an inept, pretentious fool. The faux publisher's representative is described as simply "uglier than Gaia," the primary prankster himself being a short, paunchy, rheumatic man with the "hoarse voice of a boozer" who "limped like Mephistopheles" on account of his arthritic legs. Not even the characters' meager achievements are exempt from criticism. One Man's Youth, Samigli's novel, "might have been considered dead if in this world things could die when they had never been alive."

The prose of Nichols's translation is more restrained than that of William Weaver's The Confessions of Zeno, but it's safe to say that this quality is not a side effect of translation; rather, it speaks to a difference in Svevo's choice of narrator and tone. Whereas Zeno is warmer, garrulous, more informal, A Perfect Hoax is told at a superior remove, partly resembling Samigli's fables. (Only once does the story slip into the first person with "I am sorry to say it, but...") The narrator speaks disparagingly—and therefore honestly, we assume—of Samigli's book, slightly less so of Gaia's modest itinerant profession; yet he refers to the salesman's hoax as "a work of art" and the practical joker in general as "a kind of artist." Iago is cited as a particularly admirable example.

We run into an issue of semantics at this point, possibly an intentional one on Svevo's behalf. A practical joke is not synonymous with a hoax. A hoax is designed to swindle, to dupe, to benefit one party at the unwitting expense of another. A successful practical joke, however, hinges upon the assumed good humor (or, more accurately, forgiveness) and retroactive complicity of its butt. The failure to properly distinguish between the two terms in A Perfect Hoax is not the fault of Nichols's thesaurus; nor is it the double meaning of "burla" in the Italian title. Instead it alerts readers to the narrator's predisposition: even while relating a tale of one man's astounding self-deception, this supposedly disinterested individual is unaware of his own biases and emphatic slants on the story. Likewise, the reader who mocks Samigli, Gaia, and the narrator for their skewed realities fancies himself equally immune to self-deception. Consequently he is just as guilty as the objects of his ridicule.

Still, all this jaded headshaking over the follies of humanity does not wholly suit Svevo, for there is something of the optimist in him. He makes certain that Gaia's malicious machinations are compensated by Samigli's wrath and a final stroke of good fortune. Moral debts are paid off. Balance is restored. It is not an entirely realistic or credible ending, but it is a satisfying one because, for one reason or another, we like to believe that this is how stories should end. Svevo knew this, and it fascinated him. It's why he kept returning to this theme.

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