Italo Svevo and Adam Tooze (and Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng)
So, in his book about the real hero of modern literature, historian Franco Moretti put me on to Italo Svevo’s 1922 novel Zeno’s Conscience. It’s a brilliant and prophetic book. With our hero, businessman Zeno Cosini, we walk the streets of Trieste, a port city at the edge of a collapsing empire and at the edge of the unfortunate 20th century, with the most annoying and loveable (and most unreliable) unreliable narrator you’ll ever meet.
This narrator is a very up-to-date Austro-Hungarian. He’s an enthusiast for the latest Viennese fad psychoanalysis — we learn that he’s writing all this down for his analyst in Vienna (Doctor S, probably Sigmund Freud, who actually treated Svevo’s brother). He’s a hypochondriac who knows all the latest ailments and treatments, a chemist who knows the composition of all the popular remedies, apparently in robust health but surrounded by sick people. An egomaniac but only in the sense that you are too, in your private thoughts.
And, in the text, Zeno’s right there, on the cusp of the modern, at the beginning of the long 20th century; all that revolution, industrialisation, despoilation, globalisation — and war after war — just over the horizon.
He’s a modern man, a complicated subject like you or me, a secular bourgeois. He’s superstitious but not religious, a terrible businessman who prospers by accident. In the book he becomes a kind of comic avatar of the emerging scientific capitalism of the late 19th Century. The whole petty theatre of modern business is here: awkward foreign trade, company law, buying and selling shares (in Rio Tinto, supplier of copper to the hypermodern boom industries of electricity and telegraphy), fiddling the books (and worrying about fiddling the books), surplus stationery purchased in error, shipping and warehousing, HR dilemmas…
There’s a huge stock market loss (and an unlikely recovery), a catastrophic purchase of 60 metric tons of Copper Sulphate from a company in England, a sequence of terrible deals made from Zeno and his brother-in-law’s comically badly-run office (staffed by the cast of the Carry On films — Carmen is Joan Sims, Luciano Jim Dale and Guido Kenneth Williams — prove me wrong).