Translated by J.G. Nichols
Mario Samigli was a man of letters, getting on for sixty years old. A novel he had published forty years before might have been considered dead if in this world things could die even when they had never been alive. Mario, on the other hand, faded and feeble as he was went on living very gently for years and years the kind of life made possible by the bit of a job he had, which gave him very little trouble and a very small income. Such a life is healthy, and it becomes healthier still when, as happened with Mario, it is flavoured with some beautiful dream.
That dream, rooted in his opinion (and no one else’s, not a single critic) of his forty-year-old, unread novel One Man’s Youth, supplies the fertile ground for the hoax that dominates Italo Svevo’s tidy novella. It is a staple commandment of the con-man’s handbook that “an honest man cannot be conned”. A Perfect Hoax is based on a slightly revised version: “A humble man cannot be hoaxed.”
Most of the time, Mario keeps his dream well-hidden but occasionally it does become apparent. For example, periodically he can be heard “judging living and dead authors decisively, and even citing himself as a precursor” but his friends are willing to overlook that “seeing himself blush as even a sixty year old can, when he is a man of letters and in that situation.”
And it is not as though Mario has never been given a hint that his “dream” bears no relation whatsoever to reality:
At the outbreak of the Italian war Mario was afraid that the first act of persecution that the Royal Poice would carry out in Trieste would involve him — one of the few Italian men of letters remaining in the city — in a fine old trial which might send him to dangle on the gallows. This filled him with terror and at the same time with hope, making him now exult and now blanch with terror. He imagined that his judges, a full council of war, composed of representatives of the whole military hierarchy from the general down, must have read his novel, and — if there was any justice in the world — studied it.
Mario expands his dream to include the idea that that studying would spare his life, a reward for the quality of his novel. Indeed, his life is spared, but by other means — not even the persecutors bother to read it. His response is to compose a short, daily fable featuring the sparrows outside his home: “A literary development he owed to the police who, however, showed themselves to be quite ignorant of the local literature, and who, during the whole course of the war, left poor Mario in peace, disappointed and reassured.”
Before we get to the hoax itself, let me quote one of those fables since Svevo offers frequent examples in the book as a counterpoint to the developing story:
I wish I could abolish the warfare on the little horse chestnut in my courtyard in the evening, when the sparrows try to find the best place in which to spend the night, because it would be a good sign for the future of humanity.
It is hard for a reader not to feel sorry for Mario — we all have our favorite “one-book” authors who come to mind when we consider his state. His egotism is well-contained, rarely exposed and hurts no one; surely he doesn’t deserve to be punished for it.
It is the evil Gaia, a travelling salesman, one of Mario’s two friends who “was about to be revealed as his bitterest enemy.” Gaia is a failed poet and a lover of playing tricks; Mario’s self-satisfaction both reminds Gaia of his own literary failure and offers fertile territory for the perfect hoax even if it is “loaded with real hatred”.
The hoax itself is deceptively simple. Gaia recruits a German friend whom he presents to Mario as the representative of Westermann Publishers of Vienna. They want to publish a German translation of One Man’s Youth and are willing to pay any price (the agreement is evenually for two hundred thousand crowns), with Gaia taking a “commission” of only five per cent.
The two tricksters are so pleased with themselves that they actually dissolve in laughter during the “negotiations” at a Trieste cafe, but Mario, hopelessly entranced that his work is finally being recognized, conveniently decides to ignore it. The price that he pays as his “dream” slowly evaporates forms the bulk of the novella.
It is fitting that Mario writes his little fables because that is the best approach to take to A Perfect Hoax. Svevo wrote and self-published his first novel, Una Vita [A Life], to almost universal silence, at the age of 32. His second, Senilita [As a Man Grows Older] was self-published five years later, again at his own expense and again to no notice. Comparing those titles to Mario’s would seem indication enough that Svevo knows exactly whose ego he is mocking with this book.
Svevo’s own dream began to take shape in 1907 when James Joyce became interested in his work and the two formed a lasting friendship. Even then, it was not until 1923 (30 years after Svevo’s first book appeared) that Joyce persuaded his French publishers to produce a translation of what has become Svevo’s best-known work, The Confessions of Zeno. For Svevo, the dream literally did come true and he spent his last years giving talks on his own work. A Perfect Hoax was published in 1929, a safe distance from Svevo’s own uncertain dreaming.
A Perfect Hoax is best taken as a literary curiosity, Svevo’s own confession of where his own lack of humility might have taken him. The Hesperus Press edition that I read features an introduction from author Tim Parks which discloses this bit of history — far from spoiling the novella, I found it essential in supplying some contextual depth since the fictional story here is pretty slim.
I’ve already confessed that Mario attracted my sympathy; Svevo treats him very gently, for entirely understandable reasons. Knowing that the author was baring some of his own dreams only made my sympathy more genuine. A Perfect Hoax isn’t a great work by any means but it offers a very revealing insight to what was going on inside the head of one author, who did eventually succeed rather than falling a victim to a hoax. One can only wonder how many other authors have similar dreams — and might be more likely to share Mario’s experience if some version of Gaia decided to take aim at cruelly exposing their dream.