“Who’s Afraid of Italo Svevo? Routes of European Modernism between Trieste and Virginia Woolf’s London”

Modern Language Quarterly (2024) 85 (1): 29–52.
The Triestine author Italo Svevo spent a considerable amount of time in London and its environs between 1901 and 1926. His experiences there influenced his modernist writing, including Zeno’s Conscience, his most famous novel. Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press was the first to publish Svevo’s work in English. His story “The Hoax” marked their first translation from Italian and his short story collection The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl and Other Stories their second, helping shape the press’s international modernist program. Despite residing in the same quickly changing city in the same period and despite their literary connections, Svevo and Virginia Woolf have rarely been compared. They have been difficult to envision together in part because their gender, backgrounds, and nationalities separate them. By exploring Woolf’s and Svevo’s shared modernist networks, including London’s influence and Hogarth Press, this article reveals Svevo’s significance as an author who has not easily fit Anglophone paradigms of modernist fiction and whose associations with Woolf contribute to the growing challenges to nation-based literary histories.


My works, “Italian Ghetto Stories: A Transnational Literary History” (2023), “The Emergence of Austro-Italian Studies” (2023), “For a Jewish Italian Literary History: From Italo Svevo to Igiaba Scego” (2022), and “Superman in Italy: The Power of Refugee Artists” (2022) are described below.

Forum Italicum published a special issue “Critical Issues in Transnational Italian Studies” (Summer 2023), edited by Serena Bassi, Loredana Polezzi, and Giulia Riccò. The issue’s wide range of scholarship provides a series of views on where Italian studies is, is headed, and should head. It includes my articleItalian Ghetto Stories: A Transnational Literary History” that examines Italian ghetto stories, which are distinguished by confusions of time, continuities, tourism, reflections on collective identities, and movements in and out, in order to outline one potential literary history. In contrast to German-language and Anglophone literary ghettos, Italian ones are generally absent as a critical category from literary debates, though they appear in works by Leon Modena, Israel Zangwill, Rainer Maria Rilke, Umberto Saba, Giorgio Bassani, Elsa Morante, Caryl Phillips, and Igiaba Scego, among others. A transnational approach can bring together works that have not been considered collectively because of disciplinary formations. Italian ghetto fictions expose the disheartening continuities of prejudice and, relatedly, have generally not been considered together because of restrictive ideas about the nation as an organizing principle.

With Salvatore Pappalardo, I co-wrote “The Emergence of Austro-Italian Studies,” for a special issue (New Directions in Austrian Studies: Empire & Post-Colonialism), edited by Tim Corbett, of the Journal of Austrian Studies. (Summer 2023): 63-73. The article charts the emergence of Austro-Italian Literary Studies with a focus on the complexities that such a categorization entails. Austro-Italian Literary Studies owes much to the disciplinary expansions of Habsburg and Austrian Studies, fields that build upon the multicultural, polyglot, and multiethnic heritage of Central Europe. This short article (which could have been infinitely expanded) addresses Habsburg Italian modernism, Austro-Italian postmodernism, and other works of literature as well as the developments in Literary Studies that make Austro-Italian intersections important sites for explorations of identity. Salvatore Pappalardo and I have both worked on Austro-Italian questions, especially in terms of Trieste, since graduate school. This issue of the Journal of Austrian Studies, as the next one will, brings together a range of pieces about the field of Austrian Studies. Our article, as so many in the issue, show the present expansion of “Austrian Studies,” which also builds on a long history of transnational, intercultural, and multilingual contexts and study.

In a recent (September 2022) issue of Italian Culturethe official publication of the American Association for Italian Studies and edited by Lorenzo Fabbri and Ramsey McGlazer — I published “For a Jewish Italian Literary History: From Italo Svevo to Igiaba Scego” 40 (2): 31–53. This article, as my one on Italian ghetto fiction, relates to my current book project on the Jewishness of Italian literature by outlining part of the project.  I argue that recognizing Jewishness as a crucial part of modern Italian literary history offers one path for discussing the current and historical diversity of Italian culture. The first section discusses key twentieth-century Italian authors — Giorgio Bassani, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Elsa Morante, and Italo Svevo — not to assess how Jewish they are, but to illuminate the Jewishness of modern Italian literature, which prompts a reconsideration of the construction of Italian identity. The second section, “Jewish, Black, and Italian: The Archival Fictions of Helena Janeczeck, Claudio Magris, and Igiaba Scego,” scrutinizes how these three authors interrogate Italy’s role in the persecution of Jews, racial violence, and colonialism, drawing on historical documents that show the gaps in dominant discourses and asking readers to reflect on how historical narratives have been constructed. Being more cognizant of Jewish Italians, their backgrounds, and their representations in literature contributes to the growing analyses of Italy’s diversity, adding to examinations of Italian literature that focus on belonging, borders, migration, and colonialism.

Edited by Helen Solterer and Vincent Joos, Migrants shaping Europe, Past and Present: Multilingual Literatures, Arts, and Cultures (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines the sustained contribution of migrants to Europe’s literatures, social cultures, and arts over centuries. My chapter, “Superman in Italy: The Power of Refugee Artists” (96–130), investigates an Italian collection of refugee stories from 2018, Anche Superman era un rifugiato: Storie vere di coraggio per un mondo migliore (co-edited by Igiaba Scego and UNHCR) to analyze key elements that Italian literature brings to discourses about migration literature, including questions about who is included in this category and the connections between texts and authors across time. Arguing for the importance of including untranslated works in debates about migration literature, the chapter puts Anche Superman era un rifugiato in conversation with two well-known collections, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (2018) and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns (2019) in order to trace how Italy is positioned in these three migration literature anthologies. Italy decenters ideas of one-directional migratory movement, because its history, geography, and politics highlight the complexity of describing migratory movement and the issues with assuming all countries follow similar models in terms of migration and its representations. The chapter ends with a discussion on how Anche Superman era un rifugiato reveals the connections between colonialism, migration, racism, and antisemitism in Italian history and criticism.

Migrants Shaping Europe was the subject of a recent New Books Network podcast. The volume has five sections: 1) A premodern cultural history, 11) Migrating in Spanish, III) Migrating in Italian, IV) Migrating in French, and V) Arts of Migration. My section, Migrating in Italian, includes chapters by Akash Kumar and Tenley Bick. In Chapter 4, Akash Kumar analyzes Sicily in the poetry of Ibn Hamdîs and Morocco in Dante’s Divine Comedy, in part to decolonize the way that these medieval authors are too often separated and interpreted via the lens of nationalism and nineteenth-century disciplinary formations. In Chapter 6, Tenley Bick examines the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino’s 2008 work, Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa (Gateway to Lampedusa, Gateway to Europe), located on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia than Sicily. Bick reveals how the artwork’s placement, materials, and modifications, including interventions by other artists, reveal not only the complex, varied, and often conflicting reactions of Italians today to migration from Africa, but also the connections of these varied reactions in terms of Italian colonization and decolonization. All three chapters in this section discuss works in terms of openness, and interpret Italy as a space that has always been a crossroads and created art that represents its hybridity