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Arts: The comic genius at number 67

Residents of a south London street were mystified when English Heritage unveiled a plaque to a dead foreigner. Who was Italo Svevo and what was the fuss about? By Paul Bailey
Last Wednesday, the Italian Ambassador Luigi Amaduzzi unveiled an English Heritage blue plaque on the facade of a modest house in Charlton Church Lane, London SE7. It was here that the great novelist Italo Svevo, whose real name was Ettoro Schmitz, lived from 1903 to 1913, and for a short period after the First World War. During his time in London, Svevo worked as the representative and manager of the paint firm that was owned by his parents-in-law. His first task was to negotiate a contract with the Admiralty to supply anti-corrosive paint to the Royal Navy. The Admiralty agreed to the terms, but made one proviso - that the Veneziani family should set up a subsidiary firm and factory in England. This was duly arranged, at premises in Anchor and Hope Lane, Charlton. Svevo eventually moved into 67 Charlton Church Lane. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the newly founded Charlton Athletic.

The ceremony took place at noon, in the presence of Fulvio Anzellotti, who is the great-nephew of Svevo's wife Livia. He gave a charming speech, in which he pointed out that Svevo preferred the company of ordinary Londoners to the kind of people who frequented the literary salons of his native Trieste. Professor Brian Maloney, an expert on Svevo's work, spoke of the author's life in Charlton, of his loathing of English coffee (if there is such a thing) and his early problems with the climate. When it was especially cold, Svevo would go to bed fully dressed. Svevo, who had taken English lessons from James Joyce, managed to get by in the language, and discussed politics and other lofty matters with a smith and fitter named DD Richards, whose business was next door to the Veneziani factory. He developed a taste for English beer, read The Times carefully from cover to cover (he had a particular relish for murder trials), and enjoyed travelling on the tube and in buses, listening to the conversations of his fellow travellers.

Some of Charlton's residents were mystified by last Wednesday's proceedings. The ambassador's car, a sleek and capacious Alfa Romeo bearing the number plate ITA 1, is not the kind of vehicle they are accustomed to seeing in what is still a predominantly working-class area. Isabel Quigly, who translated Livia Veneziani Svevo's memoir of her husband, was approached by a passer-by who asked "What's going on here?" She replied that a plaque in honour of a famous Italian writer was to be unveiled. The man snorted with disgust: "I hate the bloody Italians. They were on the wrong side in the last war." He did not join the small crowd of admirers and members of the Charlton Society who had gathered on the pavement.

When the ambassador finally pulled the cord and the red curtains parted to reveal the plaque, quite a few of us felt tears in our eyes. A novelist who ranks with Proust, Kafka, Musil and his friend James Joyce as one of the enduring pillars of Modernism was being acknowledged as the occupant of a terraced house in a distinctly unfashionable part of the sprawling city. In that very house Svevo started writing his unfinished masterpiece Short Sentimental Journey, and in a series of essays, not yet translated into English, giving his impressions of London in the aftermath of the Great War. He would, no doubt, have delighted in the occasion, and the sight of the beaming mayor of Greenwich wearing his chain of office.

Svevo's books are out of print in Britain. It is possible to buy Lampedusa's The Leopard, but not Confessions of Zeno, which is arguably the greatest comic novel of the 20th century. Psychoanalysis had reached Trieste, via Vienna, when Svevo began work on it. Is there humour to be found in the discipline of Freud? Svevo finds it in the scenes between Dr S and his patient Zeno Cosini, who is attempting to give up smoking. Zeno is forever lighting up the "last cigarette". The jokes here are of a subtlety, not to say deviousness, unmatched in any other novel I can think of.

Svevo is humble in the face of his characters, as his first biographer in any language, PN Furbank, observed, so that the reader is sometimes on Dr S's side, sometimes on Zeno's. A lesser writer would have set up Zeno Cosini, who is breathtakingly self-obsessed, merely to knock him down. Easy satire held no interest for Svevo, who belongs among those rare geniuses who actually like the men and women they create on the page. Zeno has all the characteristics of the cafe bore, buttonholing whoever is around and talking, talking, talking. As VS Prichett notes, in an essay entitled "The Clown", "Zeno has one saving virtue; he never believes his own self-justifications. Zeno is just as happy when he is grotesquely wrong as when he is accidentally right. He is always on the damaging and humbling search for truth."

Zeno cannot but help to make a fool of himself, but the sensitive reader does not respond with mocking laughter. There is tenderness in Svevo's complex delineation of him, and the laughter that greets his misadventures, his absurd fantasies, is of a generous kind.

Literature abounds in death-bed scenes, either anguished or sentimental. When Zeno's father, with whom he has nothing in common, is dying, Zeno is causing havoc at the sick-bed, starting arguments with everyone present. The old man sits up in bed, and his son assumes that he is going to be embraced, but his father accidentally hits him on the cheek and dies. It's a comic moment, but a disturbing one as well.

Svevo paid for his books - A Life and As A Man Grows Older, which were both written in the 19th century - to be published, and much of the criticism he received was adverse. He could not live the life of the successful writer - a Thomas Mann, or a Somerset Maugham - even if he'd wanted to, which is doubtful. He produced his fiction in relative obscurity, for his own amusement, which is why it has retained its freshness and subtlety. It is as if he had no one to please but himself. He achieved fame in his last years, but was fated not to bathe in it for long. He died as the result of a car accident. He is reported as saying to his daughter Letizia: "Don't cry. Dying is nothing," before passing away.

Svevo is famous now, and will remain so. It is nothing less than a literary crime that Beryl de Zoete's loving translation of Confessions of Zeno is not available to younger generations of readers. But the plaque is there in Charlton, and perhaps someone passing by will be curious enough to wonder who Italo Svevo was and then have the great fortune to discover his writing.

It is thanks to the efforts of John Gatt-Rutter, author of Italo Svevo: A Double Life, PN Furbank, Hans Michael Bensel and Nicholas Jacobs, who have been quietly pestering English Heritage for years, that 67 Charlton Church Lane has become a monument of sorts. Furbank, who re-introduced Svevo to English readers, was unable to attend the touching ceremony, but he sent his blessings.