It was Brecht, with his cynical mind, who remarked on the reluctance of 20th-century novelists and their readers to discuss the workings of business. Since this country alone publishes some eighty novels a week it is a bit difficult to generalize very reliably about them, and maybe there is the odd businessman hero lurking among all those spies, doctors, nurses, space-monsters, delinquents, advertising men and (God help us) writers. But one doesn’t get that impression. Where the Victorian novelist was unashamedly fascinated by the main motive force of bourgeois life people today prefer to leave such sordid matters to the Sunday Times’s excellent Insight team. Occasionally some work of fiction will put forward a fabulous caricature of business on the very highest level of tycoonery, as in Graham Greene’s England Made Me or Thomas Hinde’s For the Good of the Company, but the informed study from within, like Roy Fuller’s Image of a Society, is now extremely rare. Only Bristow, in the Evening Standard’s strip of that name, maintains a flimsy link between the world of the imagination and the facts of commercial life. Significantly, Bristow’s great work Living Death in the Buying Department was never published.

Living Death in the Buying Department. That could easily have been the title of a novel by Italo Svevo, the Triestine businessman-author who was born just over a hundred years ago and died as a result of a motor accident in 1928. Life, death (or more particularly old age) and business were three of his main themes, together with a closely lived and closely observed family life and its subversion, at any age up to and including the deathbed, by those beautiful girls for which Trieste is quite as famous as for its commerce or its shipping. It was as if a sceptical 19th-century bourgeois realist had somehow survived to grow 20th-century eyes; the social and professional miseries of a bank clerk in A Life, his first novel, literary ambition in a mercantile setting (a recurring subject), the catastrophically incompetent ‘Business Partnership’ that forms one of the long episodes of The Confessions of Zeno: all are seen with a marvellous mixture of intimacy and detachment, with great psychological insight but at the same time with an innocent lightness that dries out into patches, then whole areas, of a special self-deprecating ironic wit.

For a long while Svevo was a word-of-mouth author: the kind whose books are read because of unrelenting personal recommendation and published in defiance of commercial good sense by publishers who are themselves addicts. He never wrote much—the three novels (the third being Senilit`, or As a Man Grows Older), three novellas (of which The Hoax is the most brilliant), some early plays of no special distinction and a number of short stories, essays and fragments which remained unpublished even in Italy until the 1950’s. As with Thomas Love Peacock there was a long gap in his life when he wrote nothing at all. What he did write failed to please the critics, who virtually ignored him until he was in his middle sixties, then turned him into a kind of elderly problem child: il caso Svevo, a case. And if there is even now something extraordinarily personal about the discovery and enjoyment of his work it is perhaps because he put so much of his own character into his fictions. They seem above all the expression of a wise, likeable and refreshingly unpretentious man.

Ettore Schmitz, who took the pen-name Svevo, stands very much on his own at a special crossroads where Balzac meets Freud, the bourgeois world runs into modern scepticism, and Italian, German and Slav cultures all overlap. Trieste for a great part of his life was Austrian; his own education was partly German, hence his Italian-Swabian choice of name; one of the doctors in Zeno—health is both a preoccupation and a joke in Svevo—has the Triestine Slav-sounding surname of Coprosich. On top of all this he was Jewish, and as a result lived and worked within a family ambience that was close even by Italian standards, his father-in-law being both his employer and his first cousin by marriage. The smallness of the society round him is tacitly reflected in his concentration on quite small themes: the deaths of a mother (in A Life), a sister (As a Man Grows Older), a father (Zeno), the difficulty of giving up smoking, the unexpected twists of the market, the absurdities of love and of marriage. There is little direct description of Trieste or the surrounding countryside, and no indication of the writer’s Jewishness, even in his autobiographical notes. Yet both are present by implication in all his writings, which could have come from no other background. Few people have made such substantial and profound books out of such superficially slight and inconsequent material, held together by ridiculous small-scale interlockings and by a complete consistency of tone and outlook.

‘Not an amateur of rare books, but an authentic living human being,’ wrote Ilya Ehrenburg, who met him rather surprisingly at a grimsounding French pen banquet in 1927. ‘He smoked one cigarette after another . . . . ’ The description is quoted in P. N. Furbank’s new book on Svevo, of which about a quarter is devoted to an analysis of the works and the rest to a biography of the writer. How far such biographies are of relevance to any artist’s works is always a debatable question, which right-thinking critics nowadays tend to meet with a stout denial, though there is also Picasso’s extreme view that he would not have bothered to look at Cézanne’s paintings if Cézanne had led a life like that of Gide’s friend the socialite painter Jacques-Emile Blanche. In Svevo’s case what matters is the stuff of his work, not the style, and such a lot of the stuff is himself—not his experiences so much as his problems, reflections and judgments—that his life is all of a piece with his writings. This was already evident, in an innocent kind of way that would surely have delighted him, from his wife’s small memoir published in Trieste in 1950; the photographs in particular were like illustrations to the novels, while the love and pride shown were just what might have been expected from Zeno’s Augusta, one of the most detachedly observed (and absent-mindedly acquired) wives in all literature. Furbank’s book naturally lacks this particular Svevian irony, but it is of the greatest interest to aficionados and a necessary complement to the (still incomplete) five-volume Secker and Warburg edition of the works. For the English reader it is the only study of its kind.