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A Very Old Man

A Very Old Man


by Italo Svevo, translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall, introduction by Nathaniel Rich

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A Very Old Man collects five linked stories, parts of an unfinished novel that the great Triestine Italo Svevo wrote at the end of his life, after the international success of Zeno’s Conscience in 1923. Here Svevo revisits with new vigor and agility themes that fascinated him from the start—aging, deceit, and self-deception, as well as the fragility, fecklessness, and plain foolishness of the bourgeois paterfamilias—even as memories of the recent, terrible slaughter of World War I and the contemporary rise of Italian fascism also cast a shadow over the book’s pages. It opens with “The Contract,” in which Zeno’s manager, the hardheaded young Olivi, expresses, like the war veterans who were Mussolini’s early followers, a sense of entitlement born of fighting in the trenches. Zeno, by contrast, embodies the confusion and paralysis of the more decorous, although sleepy, way of life associated with the onetime Austro-Hungarian Empire which for so long ruled over Trieste but has now been swept away. As always, Svevo is attracted to the theme of how people fail to fit in. It is they, he suggests, who offer a recognizably human countenance in a world ravaged by the ambitions and fantasies of its true believers.

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681375939
Pages: 144
Publication Date:


Frederika Randall’s translation manages to capture the infinite variety of Zeno’s self-delusions, from being forced out of the business he’s spent his entire adult life doing, to being a grandfather and (briefly) a mistress-keeper.
—Tom Bodwen, Book Beat

The very old man is still a fabulist, and his lies still have marvellous staying power. . . . As ever, his circumstances clash with his imaginings – and as ever, it is reality that ultimately gives way and transforms.”
—Becca Rothfield, New Left Review

It’s always fascinating to see a great writer’s work in progress; this is no exception
—Corinne Segal, Lit Hub

For Svevo, life itself is a fatal pathology, the human condition a sickness for which there is no cure. There exists a treatment, however: laughter. Though the miseries of old age and fear of death are central to his late stories, a huge amount of laughter occurs in A Very Old Man.
—Sigrid Nunez, Harper's

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