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First edition of Senilità
Senilità is Italo Svevo's second novel, published in 1898. The novel's protagonist is Emilio Brentani, an inept man torn between his longing for love and pleasure and his regret for not enjoying either.
In the novel, Svevo addresses the problems of ineptitude and of the inability on the part of the protagonist to manage his own inner, sentimental life. The indecisiveness and inaction with which Emilio deals with affairs in his life lead him to shut out his memories, leaving him in a state of spiritual old age (hence the title "Senility").
- Emilio Brentani, 35, is a failed Triestine intellectual, lost in recollection of the small victory of having written a novel. He works as a clerk in an insurance company. It is not often that a person is conscious of his own limitations, forced by fate to accept a role below that which is desired. His listlessness, defined through his ineptitude, puts him constantly on the losing side.
- Amalia, Emilio's sister, mirrors him in everything and in all evils and weaknesses; after all, her name is in harmony with that of her brother (Amilia versus Emilio).
- Stefano Balli, sculptor: Emilio states that this is his best friend, an alter ego, and another self. It is true that the two spend a lot of time together, but in reality Balli is a person who is quite different from Emilio: a strong personality, Stefano clearly stands out from his friend with his efficiency and energy.
- Angiolina Zarri: Angiolina, Emilio's mistress, is an exuberant person with a turbulent love life. Of all the characters, she is the only one capable of realizing her own true development without too many scruples. However, this is primarily a development as perceived from the perspective of Brentani in his ineptitude. She, along with Balli, constitutes the "healthy" center in the quartet of protagonists.
Emilio has a modest life in a shared apartment with his sister Amalia, who, not having too many relationships with the outside world, is mainly limited to taking care of him.
One day Emilio meets Angiolina and falls in love with her, and causes him to neglect his sister and his friend Stefano Balli, balancing his few artistic recognitions with his successes with women. Emilio tries to explain to Angiolina that the relationship between the two will be subordinate to his duties, such as those in the confrontations of his own family. He is unable to realize that in reality, Angiolina will need to grab the knife by the handle, to invest less sentiment and to feel less, making this relationship unofficial.
Stefano does not believe in love, and tries to convince Emilio to just have fun with Angiolina, who in the rest of Trieste has a bad reputation. Emilio ends up, instead, opening his heart to this woman, going so far as to disregard the evidence from his friends who have tried in vain to warn him: in fact, Angiolina starts to show some interest in an umbrella maker and for the same Stefano Balli. Moreover, as indicated at the beginning of the novel, the agreement that Brentani desires is that of a bond without commitment.
Stefano, meanwhile, begins to frequent Brentani's house with greater regularity. In an ironic twist, Amalia falls in love with him. His masculine charm thus draws in both female protagonists. Emilio, jealous of his sister, pushes Stefano away, while Amalia begins numbing herself with ether. She ultimately becomes ill with pneumonia (this attitude towards life by Amalia is a much closer comparison to the suicide of Alfonso Nitti, the protagonist of the novel Una Vita (A Life). The illness leads to her death.
Emilio stops attending to Angiolina, despite loving her, and pushes Stefano Balli away. It is then that you learn that Angiolina has fled with a bank cashier to the capital of the Empire, Vienna. The novel ends with a meaningful image: years later, in remembrance, Emilio sees the two idealized women according to their own desires and merged into a single person, with the appearance and character of his beloved sister.
Reading the novel
Greatly appreciated by James Joyce, who strove for the success of the second edition, the novel approaches the style of the Irish writer in that it is essentially introspective and aims to shed light on the inner life of Emilio.
There is a certain irony from the author in comparing the personality traits of the principal figure, Brentani, with those of Svevo. Brentani's ineptitude is in fact ruthlessly laid bare by the narrator, who sees the protagonist as a person who is in a sense ill and, ultimately, even senile. The reader is drawn into this complicity with the narrator, and immediately recognizes Emilio's limitations and inadequacy. A true counterexample to the failed figure of Brentani is that of Angiolina: far from existential reflections and scruples of any kind, Angiolina takes advantages of the occasions that allow her to progress and to always enjoy new advantages. Her character evolves in Brentani's eyes. At first he seeks to consider her an angel and giving her the improbable nickname of "Ange"; later, however, the girl is even called "Giolina" by Balli because of her stature. In the change of the character's name, the author clear highlights her gradual affirmation. The opposite argument applies for Amalia, Emilio's true alter ego, who slowly wears down.
The death of his sister suggests that the existence of the protagonist is in danger and that an awareness of consciousness is necessary to prevent a deterioration into further shame, as what happened to the protagonist in the previous novel (death). This is a destiny that Emilio manages to avoid, albeit with difficulty. The awareness of consciousness that is lacking in Senilità is depicted in great detail in the next novel, La Coscienza di Zeno (Zeno's Conscience).