A Sentimental Journey To Charlton SE7 With Ettore Schmitz

Ettore Schmitz/Italo Svevo

The Italian writer Italo Svevo (Ettore Schmitz) lived in England, in particular in Charlton, in the early part of the twentieth century in connection with the family marine paint business he had married into–in doing so, he combined the biographies of Primo Levi and Sherwood Anderson (who each had paint factories) with that of Evgeny Zamyatin (who lived in Newcastle for a time making ships).

There is a book of Svevo’s London writings, which has also been translated into English by the Svevo Museum in Trieste, as below.

Though he had some (many) reservations about English life, Svevo expressed the hope that his daughter could be brought up here:

Se tu sapessi come io vedo nella faccia di ogni miss che passa la felicità di vivere e di essere libera.  (page 32)

É certo che una ragazza che abbandona l’Italia per l’Inghilterra fa buon affare: Conosco abbastanza questo paese per sapere che le donne vi sono molto più felici che non da noi.  (page 156)

I was also interested in things like the description of the ways of commercial travellers, who stayed away from home for months at a time and had their own elaborate rituals for eating in company with strangers.  I also wondered whether society had in fact grown simpler since the time Svevo was writing about, since I don’t think these particular groups and subgroups exist now, at least not in the same multiplicity.  What you do have of course is communities from many different national/ethnic/linguistic backgrounds, which is something completely different from Svevo’s time.

The interest in Charlton for Svevo seems to have been that it was somewhere everyday, not fashionable like Blackheath or industrial/working-class like Woolwich.  So from that point of view it was somewhere resolutely unliterary, and probably a good thing too in view of his unsuccess with literary circles at home in Trieste.  As a man in a foreign country whose language he knew imperfectly, he also had what must have been the welcome opportunity to go and watch the local football tea, a leisure activity that didn’t require any linguistic skills.

Così quando vado ad una comedia inglese sono sempre dolorosamente sorpreso che anche il secondo atto—con un’ ostinazione incredibile—sia detto in inglese, perché la fatica d’intendere il primo m’esaurì.  (page 222)

However, he displayed a properly matter-of-fact attitude to the 1908 Olympics:  Ieri sono stato con Nicoletto al grande concorso atletico internazionale. (page 123)

Here’s a picture of the blue plaque on the house where he lived at 67 Charlton Church Lane:

and here’s the house itself:

together with the view down Charlton Church lane–his factory was in Anchor and Hope Lane, on the other side of Woolwich Road:

Of Charlton Church Lane he said:

Church Lane è una strada linda in erta contornata dalle piccole brune case inglesi. Qui le casette sono tutte botteghe: latterie, macellai, tabaccai, venditori di giornali e anche di telerie. In genere vi si trova di tutto. La bottega occupa tre quarti della casa. Entrando in una di cotali case si resta stupiti come si posso avere una cucina, due camere da letto, una stanza di ricevere coll’inevitabile pianino in uno spazio dove noi metteremmo un porta ombrelli. Ma le povere padrone di casa sono alpiniste; hanno la cucina e una stanza sotto terra, una stanzuccia a pianterra, due al primo piano ed una al secondo. Church Lane diventa volgare più che si scende. Le case hanno il giardino di dietro; davanti c’è la bottega. Salendo invece Church Lane l’aspetto delle case va affinandosi; ognuna ha il suo giardino anche davanti….Così avvenne a Charlton la mia capitale ove la vicinanza delle enormi fabbriche di Woolwich ammorbò l’ambiente e fece fuggire i signori.  (page 168)

Meanwhile–in fact a number of decades later–my earliest memories are of living in Elliscombe Road, which branches off Charlton Church Lane.  We shared the first floor of number 55 (on the right in the picture below), and that pebbledash looks horribly and frighteningly familiar too.

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2 Responses to “A Sentimental Journey To Charlton SE7 With Ettore Schmitz”

  1. @Artforexample Says:

    what an extraordinarily beautiful blog! Wow! And how dedicated of you to go and track down the blue plaque…

  2. Irena Says:

    Great stuff! I actually come from Trieste and lived not far from Charlton and have commissioned a piece on Svevo for the Brockley Jack theatre 19-23 February 2019. I also happen to have translated part of the book of his London letters into Italian for the museum. Though I don’t consider myself an expert…. But it’s a great story.
    Irena, in-words.co.uk

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