Read A Life Online

Authors: Italo Svevo

A Life



Translated from the Italian by
Archibald Colquhoun


Mother dear,

Your sweet letter only reached me last night.

Don’t worry about your handwriting; it has no secrets for me. Even when there’s some word that’s unclear, I can make out what you mean when your pen runs on, or think I do. I re-read your letters again and again; they are so simple, so good; just like you.

I even love that paper you use! I recognize it; it’s sold by old Creglingi, and brings back to mind the main street of our village back home, twisty but clean. I can picture where it broadens into an open space with, in the middle Creglingi’s shop, a low little place with a roof like a Calabrian hat. He is inside, busy selling papers, nails, grog, cigars or stamps, slow but flustered, like a man in a hurry, serving ten customers or really only serving one while keeping a wary eye on the other nine.

Do give him my regards, please. Whoever’d have thought I’d ever want to see that crusty old miser again?

Now, Mother, you mustn’t think it’s bad here; I just feel bad myself! I can’t get used to being away from you so long. What makes it worse is the thought of you being lonely in that big place so far out of the village where you will insist on staying just because it belongs to us. And I feel such a need to breathe some of our good pure air coming straight from its Maker. Here the air is thick and smoky. On my arrival I saw it hanging over the city like a huge cone, like winter smoke in our fireplace at home, but we know it’s purer there at least. The other men here are all or nearly all quite content, not realizing one can live so much better elsewhere.

I felt happier here as a student, because my father was still alive and made much better arrangements for me than I ever realized! Of course he had more money. My room is so tiny it makes me miserable. At home it could be a

Mother, wouldn’t I do better at home? I can’t send money because I have none. On the first of the month I was given a hundred francs; that may seem a lot to you, but here it goes nowhere. I try as hard as I can, but the money won’t do.

I’m beginning to realize, too, how hard it is to get on in business, just as hard as to study, as our notary Mascotti says. Very hard indeed! My pay may be envied, and I realize I don’t earn it. My fellow lodger gets one hundred and
twenty francs a month; he’s been at Maller’s for about four years and does work
which I could only take on in a year or two. I’ve no hope or chance of a rise in pay before.

Wouldn’t I do better at home? I could help you, work in the fields myself even, and get a chance to read poetry in peace under an oak tree, breathing that good undefiled air of ours.

I want to tell you all about everything here! My troubles are made worse by the way my colleagues and superiors treat me. Maybe they look down on me because I don’t dress well. They’re just coxcombs, the lot of them, who spend half their day in front of their mirrors. An ignorant lot! Why, if someone handed me any Latin classic, I could comment on it all; but they wouldn’t even know its name.

There, those are my troubles, and one word from you can cancel them all. Say the word, and I’ll be with you in a few hours.

After writing this letter I feel calmer, as if you’d already given me permission to leave and I were about to pack.

A hug from your affectionate son,



, Luigi Miceni put down his pen and slipped on his overcoat, short and smart. On his desk something seemed out of order. He arranged the edges of a pile of papers exactly in line with it. Then he glanced at the order again and found it perfect. Papers were arranged so neatly in every pigeon-hole that they looked like booklets; pens were all at the same level alongside the ink pots.

Alfonso had done nothing but sit at his place for half-an-hour and gaze at Miceni with admiration. He could not manage to get his own papers in order. There were a few obvious attempts at
them in piles, but the pigeon-holes were in disorder; one was too full and untidy, the other empty. Miceni had explained how to divide papers by content or destination, and Alfonso had
, but, from inertia after the day’s work, he was incapable of making any more effort than was absolutely necessary.

Miceni, when just about to go, asked him, “Haven’t you been invited round by Signor Maller yet?”

Alfonso shook his head; after his outburst in that letter to his mother such an invitation would have been a nuisance, nothing more.

Miceni was the reason Alfonso had alluded in his letter to the haughtiness of his superiors, for this invitation was often
by Miceni. It was customary for every new employee to be invited home to the Mallers, and Miceni was sorry Alfonso had not been asked, as this first omission might mean the end of a custom to which he was attached.

Miceni was a frail young man with an unusually small head covered with very short curly black hair. He dressed as if he could allow himself a few luxuries and was as neatly kept as his desk.

It was not only in dress that Alfonso differed from his colleague. He was clean, yet everything he wore, from his freshly-ironed but yellowish collar to his grey waistcoat, showed untrained taste and a wish to avoid spending. Miceni, who was vain, would tease him by saying that his only luxuries were his bright blue eyes, their
effect spoiled, according to Miceni, by a thick, ill-kept,
beard. Though tall and strong, he seemed too tall when standing, and, since he held his body bent slightly forward as if to ensure balance, he looked weak and rather vague.

Sanneo, the head of the correspondence department, now
in. He was about thirty, tall and thin, with light, faded hair. Every part of his long body was in constant movement; behind his glasses moved pale restless eyes.

He asked Alfonso for a book of addresses and, as the word did not occur to him at once, tried to show the shape of the book with his hands, trembling with impatience. On getting it, as he was nervously flicking over the pages, he gave Miceni a polite smile and asked him to stay on as he had more work for him. Miceni at once took off his overcoat, carefully hung it up, sat down, took his pen and awaited instructions.

Alfonso did not like Signor Sanneo’s brusqueness, but he had to admire him. Very active, though physically weak, Sanneo had a formidable memory and knew the tiniest detail of every little
deal, however long ago. Always alert, he wielded his pen with speed and ability. On some days he would work ten hours
, indefatigably organizing and registering. He would discuss some petty detail intensely, as Alfonso knew from copies of letters he happened to see.

“Why does he put so much into it?” Alfonso would ask himself, not understanding the other’s passion for his work.

Sanneo had a defect which Alfonso learnt of from Miceni. He was inclined to pick favourites capriciously and persecute those out of favour. He seemed quite incapable of liking more than one person in the office at a time. Just then his favourite was Miceni.

Signor Maller opened the door and, after making sure Sanneo was there, entered the room. Alfonso had never seen him before. He was thick-set, rather tall. His breathing could be heard at times, though he did not suffer from shortness of breath. He was almost bald, with a thick beard, cut short, fair to red. He wore gold-rimmed glasses. Red skin gave his head a rather coarse look.

He did not glance at the two clerks, who had got to their feet, or answer their greeting. Handing a telegram to Sanneo with a smile, he said: “The Mortgage Bank! We’re in on it!”

This message from Rome had been expected for days and meant that Maller & Company was entrusted with underwriting the share issue for the new Mortgage Bank.

Sanneo understood and went pale. That message deprived him of the hours of rest on which he had counted. He controlled himself with a great effort and stood listening attentively to the instructions given him.

The issue was to take place two days later, but Maller & Company had to know the names of subscribers by tomorrow evening. Signor Maller mentioned some companies to which he particularly wanted offers sent. Others were to be addressed to clients to whom other similar offers had already been made. That very night some hundred telegrams were to be sent, prepared many days in advance without addresses and leaving blank the number of shares, which were to vary according to the
of the company. But the work which would so prolong office hours consisted of letters of confirmation to be written out and dispatched at once.

“I’ll be back at eleven,” concluded Signor Maller. “Please leave on my desk a list of the companies telegraphed and a note of the number of shares offered them, and I’ll sign the letters.”

He went off with a polite greeting not addressed to anyone in particular.

Sanneo, who had now had time to resign himself, said jovially to the two young men, “I hope we’ll be done by ten o’clock or before, so that when Signor Maller gets back he’ll find the offices empty. Now to work.”

He told Miceni to tell the other correspondence clerks and Alfonso, the dispatch clerk, about the new task, then hurried out.

Miceni re-opened his closed ink-pot, took a packet of writing paper from a drawer and flung it on the table.

“If I’d gone off punctually on my own business, they’d never have laid hands on me to make me spend the night here.”

Alfonso walked off with a yawn. A dark narrow passage joined his room to the main corridor of offices, still lit, with doors all alike of black frames and frosted glass. Those of Signor Maller and Signor Cellani, the legal adviser, had their names in black on a gilt slip. In the harsh light the deserted corridor, its walls painted in imitation
marble, the door jambs shadowless, looked like one of those
studies in perspective, made only of lines and sight.

At the end of the passage was a door smaller than the others. Opening this and leaning against the door post, Alfonso called, “Signor Sanneo says we’re all staying till ten tonight.”


The question was equivalent to a reply. Alfonso entered the room and found himself facing a thick-set youth with wavy
hair and a low but well-shaped forehead, who had got to his feet and was leaning in a defiant attitude, with fists clenched
, on the long table at which he wrote.

This was Starringer, who had rejected all other promotion to take the vacant post as dispatch manager, thus getting at once the higher pay he urgently needed.

“Till ten? When do we eat then? I’ve worked all day and have a right to leave. I’m not staying!”

“Shall I tell Signor Sanneo that?” asked Alfonso timidly, always timid with those who were not.

“Yes … no, I’ll tell ’im myself!” That resolute “Yes” meant that he was off whatever the consequences; the rest he said in a lower tone. Then suddenly he realized that he could not avoid this new chore and burst into a violent rage. He blamed the correspondence clerks, yelled that when he himself was a clerk (a period he often referred to), they all worked hard during the day but went home at regular hours in the evening. That day he had seen Miceni
in the passage and twiddling at the lock on Ballina’s door. Why did they waste time like that? Scarlet in the face, veins
on his forehead, he advanced on Alfonso. When he spoke of the clerks, he held out an arm and pointed at the correspondence department. Alfonso explained that they were not being kept back for any normal work, but that a new job had been given them at the last minute. Starringer’s rage did not lessen, but he stopped shouting. “Ah, so that’s it!” he said, and he shrugged his shoulders exaggeratedly.

Letters written during that day lay on the table, some already sealed. Taking no more notice of Alfonso, Signor Starringer seized one, sat down and with a trembling hand copied the address into a book in front of him.

Sitting in the passage was a boy called Giacomo, who had joined the bank on the day after Alfonso. He was fourteen, but his pink and white skin and shortness made him look no more than ten. Although Giacomo laughed and joked all day with the other
, Alfonso was sure he was homesick for his native village of Magnago, and felt fond of him.

“Till ten tonight,” he said, touching his chin.

The boy smiled and looked flattered.

Signor Maller came out of his room. He had put on his
, and its cape was hanging from his shoulders. This made him seem taller and slimmer. Alfonso said “Good evening,” and Signor Maller replied with a nod to him and Giacomo. He had a way of making collective greetings.

Santo, Signor Maller’s personal messenger, followed his master along the length of the passage to open the front door for him. He was a little man, not old, bald and with a fair beard colourless in patches. People said he led an idle life, as he had nothing to do but look after Signor Maller, while other messengers served the offices.

On returning to his own room, Alfonso found Miceni already writing away. The latter was rather short-sighted and almost touched the paper with his nose as he wrote.

The telegrams, written out but unaddressed, were on Alfonso’s desk; so was a letter in Signor Sanneo’s handwriting to be copied in confirmation, and finally a list of five companies to which offers were to be sent.

“Only five?”

“Yes,” replied Miceni. “The pay-clerks are writing some out too. We’ll be done by half-past nine or so.”

He had not raised his head; his pen continued running on over the paper.

Alfonso put an address on a telegram, then transcribed it on to a letter. He began reading the telegram; it gave a brief account of why the Mortgage Bank was founded and hinted discreetly at a promise of Government support and mentioned how difficult it was to join the syndicate. “We offer you as priority …”, and a blank space followed, which Alfonso filled in with the number of shares offered. The letter was much more detailed. It went into
the need for new large banks in Italy, and how the new bank was therefore certain to flourish.

Miceni told him to jot the first letter down fast as it was to be written out by the other clerks, but Alfonso was incapable of
fast. He had to re-read every phrase a number of times before transcribing it. Between words he would let his thoughts run on to other subjects and then find himself with pen in hand, forced to cancel some part in which he had absent-mindedly deviated from the original. Even when he managed to turn his whole attention to his work, it did not proceed with the speed of Miceni’s because he could not get the knack of copying mechanically. When he was attentive, his thoughts were always on the meaning of what he was copying, and that held him up. For a quarter of an hour nothing was heard but the squeak of pens and from time to time the sound of Miceni turning pages.

Suddenly the door opened with a crash. On the threshold, standing rigid for an instant or two, appeared Ballina, the clerk who was waiting for Alfonso to hand over Sanneo’s letter so that he could make other copies from it.

“What about that letter?”

He was a handsome fellow with a clever, rather sly look, a pair of Victor Emmanuel moustaches, but with an untrimmed beard. He was smoking, and the smoke he did not blow away—he would gladly have absorbed it to relish it the more—was filling his moustaches and covering his face to the eyes. His working jacket must once have been white, but was now dirty yellow, except for the cuffs which were quite black from nib cleaning. He worked in a little room with a door on to the small passage, like Miceni’s room.

Miceni raised his head with a friendly smile. Ballina was always popular, as he was a jester, the bank jester. But that evening he was not in form and was complaining. He had been
in his information office till then, and now he found he had to do other work; he did not even know if there would be any supper left for him that night. He was pretending to be more miserable than he really was. He once amazed Alfonso, whom Ballina called a
, by telling him that towards the end of the month he lived on Scott’s Emulsion given him by a doctor
relative. He had well-to-do relatives who must have been a help because he was always speaking well of them.

Sanneo came in, rushed as ever; he was followed by the
adolescent’s face of Giacomo, carrying a big pile of paper at which he was staring with excess of zeal.

Sanneo asked Ballina rather roughly why he was not yet writing.

“Well …” exclaimed Ballina with a shrug, “I’m waiting for the letter to copy out.”

“You’ve not had it yet?” Then, remembering that Alfonso was
to hand it over, he went on, “Hasn’t he done even one yet?”

Alfonso, shaken by the Sanneo’s angry look, rose to his feet. Miceni, still sitting, observed that he had not yet finished one either. Sanneo turned his back on Alfonso, looked at Miceni’s
and asked him to hand it over to Ballina as soon it was done. He went out in the same rush, preceded by Ballina, who wanted to show that he had gone straight back to his own room, and
by Giacomo strutting and banging his feet on the floor to make himself sound important.

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