(Everyman's Library Classics & Contemporary Classics)
by Italo Svevo
Translated by William Weaver with an introduction from the translator and
a Preface by Elizabeth Hardwick
Originally Published 1923
First English Translation 1924
This Edition 2000
The "sad guy being sick and mourning his fate" is the early 20th century equivalent of the 19th century marriage plot: It doesn't describe EVERY novel from the time period, but does most of them: Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide, Young Torless by Robert Musil, every D.H. Lawrence novel, Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce, Tarr by Wyndham Lewis, most of the male characters in Edith Wharton novels, Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, Amok by Stefan Zweig, everything by Franz Kafka, everything by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc, etc, etc.
At the very least, this points towards a shift in the Audience for the novel- more young men, both writing and reading, and probably reflects the fact that in the 20th century the idea that a novel could be "high art" was beginning to take shape thanks to the a rapid growth in literacy, college education and print journalism. Svevo exists at the perphiery of this market, an Italian of German background, writing in regional Italian, but fortunately friends with Jame Joyce, who tutored him in English while Joyce lifted in Trieste.
Self published and ignored by the Italian press/critical community, Joyce took a copy of Zeno's Conscience and showed it around London and Paris, securing publication and translation, and is probably more responsible for Svevo obtaining an Audience for his work than any other person.
The Zeno of Zeno's Conscience is a wealthy but wish-washy businessman from Austria controlled Trieste prior to World War I. The book takes the form of a recollection inspired by a request from his Psychoanalyst to remember the past. During the course of his reminiscences, he gets rejected by the woman of his dreams, marries her sister, cheats on his wife, and has an unsuccessful business with his brother in law. It's fairly conventional 20th century fiction, but I guess the fact that it was written in Italian in 1923 makes it notable. And of course, the sponsorship of James Joyce is important. 423 pages!