Pirandello began his writing career at the turn of the century, a time of philosophical and scientific breakthroughs. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Henri Louis Bergson had helped dismantle the Aristotelian and Hegelian trust in reason, fixed truths, and stable systems, while Sigmund Freud had opened the door to the unconscious and Albert Einstein was close to unleashing his theory of relativity. As Mattia Pascal in Pirandello's Il fu Mattia Pascal (1904; translated as The Late Mattia Pascal, 1923) paradoxically remarks, the unveiling of man's anthropocentric fallacy destroyed his illusion of being the center of the universe and brought about his misery. The collapse of anthropocentric ways of thinking arguably brought about the end of the traditional novel and affirmed its essential impossibility no less for Pirandello than for James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Robert Musil. For the Italian writer life is a continuum, a flux, or chaos to which one tries to give form and meaning in order to function and be able to relate to others. At the same time, Pirandello writes in L'umorismo (1908; translated as On Humor, 1974), the form and meaning applied for the purpose of stemming this flusso incandescente (incandescent flux) kill life in the end, since life bespeaks motion and transformation, while form connotes stasis, stagnancy, and death. He argues that form, which refers to the ideas, concepts, and systems one imposes on chaos to make sense of it, constitutes a paradoxical effort; at the precise moment when form takes hold of life, life itself ceases. His works suggest that such irony cannot be helped; in order to function in this world, people must continue to fabricate neat systems and categories in which to constrain the impetuous flux of life. He said of himself in 1893, although the following was not published until it appeared in Nuova Antologia on 16 June 1933, "Sono figlio del Caos; e non allegoricamente, ma in giusta realtà, perché sono nato in una nostra campagna, che trovasi presso ad un intricato bosco, in forma dialettale, Càvuso, dagli abitanti di Girgenti" (I am a son of Chaos; and not allegorically, but literally, because I was born in the countryside near a very dense thicket, named Càvuso in dialectal form by the inhabitants of Girgenti).
Pirandello was born on 28 June 1867 in Girgenti, Sicily, seven years after "la felice annessione" (the happy annexation), in the words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his novel Il gattopardo (1958; translated as The Leopard, 1960). He was the oldest son of Stefano and Caterina (Ricci-Grammitto) Pirandello, both of whose families had ties to the Risorgimento, the movement that helped achieve independence and unification for Italy. Stefano had fought with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian patriot, and Caterina's father saw action in the early battles of the Risorgimento. Even with this background, however, Pirandello harbored an atavistic pessimism about mankind and human progress. Yet, the patriotic spirit of his parents might explain, at least in part, his disturbing embrace later of Fascism and Benito Mussolini's nationalistic dreams. An examination into the ideas of Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana, Pirandello's Sicilian literary forefathers, might also shed light on his acceptance of the Fascists. Verga and Capuana adapted the positivistic naturalism of French literature to formulate its Italian counterpart, verismo, in which belief in literature as a human document is undermined by a fatalistic disbelief in social change and improvement. As Prince Fabrizio says in Lampedusa's Il gattopardo, "Tutto deve cambiare perché tutto rimanga lo stesso" (Everything must change in order for everything to remain the same).
As a boy with a sensitive psyche, Pirandello was profoundly affected by the incompatible behavior of his parents. Stefano was a domineering and violent father, while Caterina mothered her children in a gentle and docile manner. Long after the writer had left home, unhappy memories of his parents continued to haunt him and surfaced repeatedly in his narratives. Stefano had a sulfur-mining business, where the young Pirandello worked for a summer before realizing that he was not suited for such a job. The intense work experience inspired parts of his 1913 novel I vecchi e i giovani (translated as The Old and the Young, 1928) and some of his most moving Sicilian stories, including "Ciaula scopre la luna" (Ciaula Discovers the Moon), "Il fumo" (Smoke, 1904), "Lontano" (Far Away, 1904), "Donna Mimma" (1918), "Lumìe di Sicilia" (Sicilian Limes, 1902), "La giara" (1912; translated as "The Jar" in Better Think Twice About It! and Twelve Other Stories, 1933).
Pirandello's feelings were often wounded by Stefano's outbursts and hot temper, but he felt quite close to Caterina, whom he perceived as a victim, or a martyr, and thus the personification of abnegation and sacrifice. His father led a libertine way of life, which was common in the bourgeois milieu, in which a man satisfied his sexual urges with prostitutes or mistresses, while his wife functioned as a mother and nurse for him as well as for their children. This situation distanced Stefano's son from him, for Pirandello worshiped his mother and scorned his father. Pivotal in Catholic culture, the dichotomy between the mother-Madonna and the erotic woman-mistress--on which Leonardo Sciascia wrote in Pirandello e la Sicilia (Pirandello and Sicily, 1961)--was central to Pirandello's life as well as to his work. This dichotomy was reinforced when, at fourteen, he found out that his father was committing adultery with a cousin; Pirandello caught them at their usual meeting place and spit in the woman's face. He tried to exorcise the resentment and hatred he felt toward his father in an autobiographical short story titled "Il ritorno" (The Return), first collected in Tutt'e tre (All Three, 1924).
Pirandello was uneasy with and even feared sexuality, especially that of a woman--tentative feelings that were anchored in another adolescent trauma. Once, intrigued by death and dead bodies, he entered the morgue and soon detected, behind a marble table where a corpse lay outstretched, two bodies intertwined in sexual intercourse. Because of this incident, love and death were often connected in his psyche. Happiness in love does not exist in Pirandello's stories, and eroticism is constantly associated with misfortune, suffering, and death, as seen in stories ranging from "Un cavallo nella luna" (collected in Un Cavallo nella luna: Novelle, 1918; translated as Horse in the Moon: Twelve Short Stories, 1932), where the protagonist dies because of too much unrequited sexual drive, to "Lo scialle nero" (The Black Shawl, collected in Lo Scialle nero, 1922), in which the desired woman throws herself from a cliff. In "La veste lunga" (The Long Dress, 1915) Didì's discovery of her sexual maturity drives her to commit suicide, while in "Il viaggio" (The Journey, 1912) Adriana's final sexual fulfillment coincides with her death.
In 1880, when Pirandello was thirteen, Stefano moved his family temporarily to Palermo because of a crisis in his sulfur-mining business. Enrolled in the classical lyceum there, the young Pirandello produced many poems and continued to write verse for a long time; although he never became truly successful at the genre, his first published book was Mal giocondo (Joyful Sorrow, 1889), a volume of poetry whose title encapsulated his ironic outlook on life. In 1886 he entered the University of Palermo in order to remain near his fiancée, Lina Pirandello, a cousin to whom he had become engaged immediately upon graduation from the lyceum. Yet, he soon felt the constraints of family duties and expectations, and, with the financial and emotional support of his father, he left for Rome to live with a maternal uncle, Rocco Ricci-Gramitto, and to study at the university there.
By the late 1880s Pirandello's pessimistic view of life was already well established, as shown in a letter he wrote to his sister Lina on 31 October 1887:
La meditazione è l'abisso nero, popolato di foschi fantasmi, custodito dallo sconforto disperato. Un raggio di luce non vi penetra mai, e il desiderio di averlo ti sprofonda sempre più nelle tenebre dense. . . . Quando tu riesci a non avere più un ideale, perché osservando la vita sembra un'enorme pupazzata, senza nesso, senza spiegazione mai; quando tu, in una parola, vivrai senza la vita, penserai senza un pensiero, sentirai senza cuore--allora tu non saprai che fare: sarai un viandante senza casa, un uccello senza nido. Io sono così.
(Meditation is a black abyss, inhabited by dark ghosts, guarded by a desperate distress. A ray of light never penetrates it, and the desire to possess it sinks you more and more into darkness. . . . When you arrive at the point of no longer having an ideal because by observing life you see it as a big puppet show . . . without meaning . . . when you, in a word, live without life, think without mind and feel without heart--then you will no longer know what to do: you will be a raven without a home, a bird without a nest. I am so.)
Pirandello wrote these words while a student at the University of Palermo. Although he was still a few months from departing for Rome, his letter suggests that he knew he was soon leaving Sicily for good, with the exception of brief visits. Nonetheless, while major European cities such as Rome, Bonn, Milan, Paris, and Berlin served as the stages of his artistic activity, the island of Sicily remained a powerful force in Pirandello's psyche, as his early stories attest. In short fiction such as "Il libretto rosso" (The Red Booklet), "Mal di luna" (Moon Sickness, 1925), "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine!" (1915), and "Il figlio cambiato" (The Changeling, 1925), he takes the reader into the archaic, mysterious, and magical world of the island. This powerful Sicilian component also runs through most of his novels and plays. His complexity and originality of thought lie in how he combines an archaic culture (Sicily) with the philosophical discourse of modernity, resulting in his paradoxical personality and a fascinating production that escapes categorization.
Pirandello did not stay long at the University of Rome, where he concentrated on literature and classical languages. A critical remark he made during Latin class caused his professor embarrassment and rage, convincing Pirandello to pursue his academic studies elsewhere. Upon the recommendation of Ernesto Monaci, a professor of philology at the University of Rome, he chose the University of Bonn, in Germany, as his next place of study. Monaci's influence also led Pirandello to continue his philological studies there, and he graduated with a thesis on the dialect of Girgenti; Laute und Lautentwickelung der Mundart von Girgenti (translated as The Sounds of the Girgenti Dialect and Their Development, 1992) was published in 1891. In Bonn he encountered for the first time young women who had not been educated by nuns, could take walks by themselves or in the company of young men, and attended dances. Acknowledging in letters to his sister his appreciation for the freedom and independence of German women, Pirandello himself became involved with an emancipated girl. He wrote several sentimental poems for the young woman, Jenny Schulz-Lander, that resulted in Pasqua di Gea (Easter of Gea, 1891). In accordance with conventional southern Italian customs, however, he did not marry Jenny but rather a young woman his father chose for him--Antonietta Portulano--in a betrothal that resembled a tidy business deal. Antonietta's father invested his daughter's dowry in Stefano's sulfur mine, while the latter gained a wife for his son.
The daughter of a widowed father whose obsessive jealousy verged on the pathological, Antonietta had been raised in a convent; her mother had died in childbirth, largely because she had refused medical help. Antonietta and her sisters were not allowed to go out, even if accompanied, except for Sunday Mass, and even then their father made them walk with their eyes down. Their home had bars on the windows, through which the girls were also forbidden to look out. Pirandello had been in Rome when the betrothal to Antonietta was proposed by their fathers, and he went to Agrigento to meet his future bride, spending about a month there. The daily visits--not longer than two hours--were always in the presence of various family members; the men talked together on one side of the room, while the women did the same on the other side. During these visits Antonietta was not allowed to raise her eyes or look at her fiancé. When he returned to Rome, Pirandello searched for an apartment for the both of them and wrote letters of an upsetting nature to his young bride-to-be, as seen in this missive of 15 December 1893:
Non so spiegarmi quel che sento mentre ti scrivo. E neanche tu potresti intenderlo, conoscendo in quali condizioni di spirito io mi trovassi prima di venire da te, in Sicilia. Io immaginavo la vita come un immenso labirinto circondato tutt'intorno da un mistero impenetrabile. . . . A che scopo andare? e dove andare? L'errore è in noi, nella nostra mente, e il male è nella vita, un male privo di senso.
(I cannot explain what I feel as I write you. Nor could you understand it, since you are unaware of my mind's condition before I met you in Sicily. I imagined life to be an immense labyrinth surrounded by an impenetrable mystery. . . . Why should I go? and where? The fault is in ourselves, in our minds, and the evil is in life, a senseless evil.)
They married in 1894 and had three children in quick succession: Stefano was born in 1895, Lietta in 1897, and Fausto in 1899. The birth of their children, along with the loss of her dowry in 1903--because of incompetent management by Pirandello's father--caused Antonietta much anxiety and stress, and she grew seriously mentally ill. Antonietta's breakdown affected her husband profoundly and proved pivotal to his writing career. Pirandello, who viewed madness as a latent condition quite capable of unpredictable eruption, mined her psyche and extracted many ideas from it for his fiction. Through writing he was able to exorcise his own latent madness, if only for brief periods of time, but Antonietta had no such outlet. In time her illness worsened and made family life progressively harder.
Though averse to the literary cafés and salons of Rome, which he targeted through the caustic satire of his novel Suo marito (1911; translated as Her Husband, 2000), Pirandello socialized with a few Sicilian writer friends--among whom was the verismo novelist Capuana. Capuana convinced Pirandello to try writing fiction instead of poetry, and the result was L'esclusa (1908; translated as The Outcast , 1925), written initially in 1893 and titled "Marta Ayala." Although published seven years after its serialization in La Tribuna in 1901, L'esclusa is understood to be Pirandello's first novel, and many critics also consider it, along with his second novel Il turno (1902; translated as The Merry-Go-Round of Love, 1964), a work of verismo. Yet, in his dedication of L'esclusa to his friend Capuana, Pirandello describes it as an umorista (humorous) novel--perhaps because of two certain works that had recently appeared. By the time L'esclusa came out in book form, he had already written and published both Il fu Mattia Pascal, considered his third novel and an umorista work, and the philosophical, book-length essay L'umorismo, which Pirandello incidentally "Alla buon'anima di Mattia Pascal, bibliotecario" (Dedicated to the late Mattia Pascal, librarian).
In L'umorismo Pirandello elaborates on his personal theory of humor as an aesthetic type. Published in 1908, together with Arte e scienza (Art and Science), in order to win the position of professore ordinario at the Rome Magistero, the essay is divided into two parts: in the first he provides a literary history of humor, whereas in the second part he introduces and articulates at length his original ideas on humor. In particular he differentiates between "il comico" (the comic) and "l'umoristico" (the humorous):
Vedo una vecchia signora, coi capelli ritinti, tutti unti non si sa di quale orribile manteca, e poi tutta goffamente imbellettata e parata d'abiti giovanili. Mi metto a ridere. Avverto che quella signora è il contrario di ciò che una vecchia rispettabile signora dovrebbe essere. Posso così, a prima giunta e superficialmente, arrestarmi a questa impressione comica. Il comico è appunto un avvertimento del contrario. Ma se ora interviene in me la riflessione, e mi suggerisce che quella vecchia signora non prova forse nessun piacere a pararsi cosí come un pappagallo, ma che forse ne soffre e lo fa soltanto perché pietosamente s'inganna che, parata cosí, nascondendo le rughe e la canizie, riesca a trattener a sé l'amore del marito molto più giovane di lei, ecco che io non posso più riderne come prima, perché appunto la riflessione, lavorando in me, mi ha fatto andare oltre a quel primo avvertimento, o piuttosto, più addentro: da quel primo avvertimento del contrario mi ha fatto passare a questo sentimento del contrario. Ed è tutta qui la differenza tra il comico e l'umoristico.
(I see an old lady with dyed hair, greasy with some horrible pomade, and clumsily made up and dressed in youth clothing. I start laughing. I perceive that that woman is the opposite of what a respectable old lady should be. I could therefore superficially stop at this comical impression. The comic is, in fact, the perception of the contrary. But if now reflection takes over and suggests to me that that old woman perhaps feels no pleasure whatsoever in dressing up like a parrot, but that probably she is suffering and does it only because she is pitifully deceiving herself, hoping that by hiding her gray hair and wrinkles, she can keep the love of her much younger husband, then if this is the case, I can no longer laugh at her as before, because precisely this reflection, working inside me, made me move beyond that first perception, or rather more inside: from that first perception of the contrary it made me arrive at this sentiment of the contrary. The difference between the comic and the humorist is all here.)
That is, umorismo involves feelings and perceptions that are more complex than those produced from purely comical writing.
The philosophy of umorismo weighed heavily in Pirandello's mind when L'esclusa appeared as a book in 1908. As the title conveys, L'esclusa reveals the trait of exclusion from society as an essential component of the artist's life. Set against a verist Sicilian backdrop, as if in homage to Capuana and Verga, the story tells of Marta Ayala, who is accused of adultery by her husband and banished from their home; yet, in the end she is paradoxically accepted again into her family and into society after committing the adultery of which, at first, she had been wrongly accused. Pirandello's humorist touch is to strip life of the rigid, deterministic forces of fate and cast it into the hands of chance, which toys with rules and laws, turning expectations topsy-turvy. In L'esclusa the reader senses the enormous weight of appearances and the inconsistency of what are called "facts." Like Nietzsche, Pirandello claims that facts do not exist--only interpretations, which are as tangible, laden, and real as supposed facts. Marta is condemned by an appearance, or by an interpretation, and is accepted again because the actual fact--the adultery she finally engages in--is not acknowledged. These ideas, the core of Pirandello's philosophy, are also present in the play Cosí è (Se vi pare).
In addition, the novel constitutes an indictment of the Sicilian family, society, and the harsh Catholicism that oppresses, and exacts heavy tolls from, women. Pirandello's attack against the church is particularly fierce in a scene suggesting that Marta's rejection is sanctioned: a fanatical crowd stops during a village procession to bang against her door the statues of the saints Cosmus and Damian, turning them into instruments of her ostracism. The male characters in the story, especially fathers and husbands, are clearly the villains; Marta's own father shuts her out, trying neither to ask her any questions nor to understand any possible answers. The domineering, aggressive traits of the padre-padrone (father-master-owner) dynamic are exposed with a vehemence that belies Pirandello's own repression and fears. The death of Marta's father and the descent of the family into poverty, however, bring about her deliverance and liberation. She resumes her studies and becomes a teacher, enabling her to support her family; thus, she assumes the paternal role: "La madre e la sorella lodavano il suo coraggio, la paragonavano al padre per l'energia, per la volontà" (Her mother and sister praised her courage, comparing her to her father for her energy and willpower). Her own pride is evident when she exclaims, "Ho sollevato dalla miseria mia madre, mia sorella: esse vivono ora per me, di me!" (I raised my mother and sister from their poverty: they now live because of me, of me!). Marta is buoyed by the success of her efforts and a new sense of herself: "E in fondo al cuore si sentiva inebriata della propria generosità, giacché ella nell'intimo suo non s'era mai acchetata all'offesa che il padre le aveva fatto, condannandola cecamente, precipitando la famiglia nella miseria" (And deep in her heart she felt intoxicated with her own generosity, since she had never forgiven her father for the insult he gave her by blindly condemning her and plunging the family into misery).
Pirandello's second novel, Il turno , satirizes arranged marriages, paternal authority and greed, and the treatment of women as a commodity. Chance plays with human plans and upsets selfish, paternal designs when the young and beautiful Stellina Ravì is forced by her father to marry the seventy-three-year-old Diego Alcozèr, married four times previously. Her hope that he will die soon is frustrated, but because of Stellina's strong aversion to remaining a wife to the elderly Diego, the marriage is annulled--with the help of a lawyer, Ciro Coppola. While he seems to act on behalf of his young brother-in-law, Pepè Alletto, who is in love with Stellina, Ciro instead ends up marrying her. The unpredictable nature of life plays a final trick on him, too, however, when in a frenzy of jealousy he dies of apoplexy. At the bed of the dying man, Stellina is assisted by Pepè. Perhaps the time for their love has finally come, but the reader cannot find out for certain since Pirandello ends the story here. He lets the reader imagine what happens next.
The year 1903 was particularly difficult for Pirandello. The huge sulfur mine in which Stefano had invested his capital, as well as Antonietta's entire dowry, was flooded, and the loss had been absolute and overwhelming. Upon receiving the news, Antonietta became ill with a form of paralysis that kept her in bed for months--thus began the mental illness that continued for the rest of her life. Distressed by his wife's condition and pressed by material needs, Pirandello contemplated suicide, but his responsibility for their three small children compelled him to seek more work. He produced stories for various magazines at an incredible pace, gave private lessons in German and Italian, and committed himself to writing a novel for serialization in the journal Nuova Antologia. Out of the distress, anger, and depression of this period grew his third novel, Il Fu Mattia Pascal , a work that presents itself as an antinovel from the start. Debunking the structure of the traditional narrative, it begins at the end, recounting in first person the life of the narrator, who has died twice. As much metanarrative as it is narrative, Il Fu Mattia Pascal validates the dichotomy between life and literature, or between action and contemplation; as Pirandello often said, "la vita o si vive o si scrive" (life is either lived or written). A forerunner of the character Zeno Cosini in Italo Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno (1923; translated as The Confessions of Zeno, 1930), Mattia Pascal is from the start the typical, inept antihero whose excessive reasoning blocks him from taking action. All his attempts at establishing a life end in failure: he loses his job, his marriage is unhappy, and his twin daughters die soon after their birth. At the start of the book, just as at the end, the protagonist has become the "Late Mattia Pascal"; his death has been recorded in the city registers, and he decides to accept it. Retreating to an abandoned library, housed in a deconsecrated church that is frequented by fat mice, he writes the strange story of his life.
He announces his plans in the two premises to his story. The second premise, "premessa seconda (filosofica), a mo' di scusa" (written as a disclaimer), questions the precise act of writing a novel and--along with chapter 12--constitutes the core philosophy of the book. In the second premise the late Mattia Pascal curses Copernicus, longing for the times when the earth did not turn, or rather when men believed that the earth did not turn, both of which mean the same thing for Pirandello. Before Copernicus, man thought of himself as the center of the universe, which, he believed, had been constructed to serve him. In chapter 12 the peculiar character of Anselmo Paleari, an expert in theosophy, astrology, and psychic forces--quite fashionable subjects in Pirandello's time--expands on this topic. According to Anselmo, the difference between ancient and modern tragedy consists in a simple rip in the paper sky of a puppet theater, a rip that, he argues, transforms Orestes into Hamlet:
La tragedia di Oreste in un teatrino di marionette! . . . Ora senta un po' che bizzarria mi viene in mente! Se proprio nel momento culminante, proprio quando la marionetta che rappresenta Oreste è per vendicare la morte del padre sopra Egisto e la madre, si facesse uno strappo nel cielo di carta del teatrino, che avverrebbe? . . . Oreste rimarrebbe terribilmente sconcertato da quel buco nel cielo. . . . Oreste sentirebbe ancora gl'impulsi della vendetta, vorrebbe seguirli con smaniosa passione, ma gli occhi gli andrebbero lì, a quello strappo, donde ora ogni sorta di mali influssi penetrebbero nella scena, e si sentirebbe cader le braccia. Oreste, insomma, diventerebbe Amleto.
(The tragedy of Orestes in a puppet theater! . . . Now you just listen to what odd idea came to me! If right at the culminating point, just when the puppet that represents Orestes is about to take revenge for his father's death on his mother and Egistus, a rip were to appear in the paper sky of the puppet theater, what would happen? Orestes would suddenly become disconcerted by that rent in the sky. . . . Orestes would still feel the impulses of revenge, he would want to pursue them with intense passion, but his eyes would keep going up there, to that rip, from which all kinds of ominous influences would infiltrate the scene, and he would feel his heart sink. Orestes, in short, would become Hamlet.)
The protagonist of the ancient tragedy is a hero because he lives, fights, and dies in a limited world made of certainties, of absolutes. He is confident in the justice of his pursuits. The protagonist of the modern tragedy, on the other hand, is aware of his minor role, the smallness of reality, and the relativity of his certainties and beliefs. For Hamlet, no absolutes exist in the world, and there are no certain paths to follow. By questioning, doubting, and faltering, he becomes the antihero and thus Pirandello's referent for Mattia Pascal.
In Il fu Mattia Pascal Pirandello attacks the bourgeois family and provincial life. Mattia Pascal and his brother, Roberto, are two good-for-nothing boys, specimens of a typical bourgeois family cared for and spoiled by a self-sacrificing mother, who adores them and whom Mattia Pascal, in particular, worships. This Oedipal relation is underscored by the absence of the father, who disappears before the beginning of the story. Later, Mattia Pascal's unbearably oppressive marital situation, his desire for freedom, and an unexpected win at a roulette table give him the possibility of escaping and disappearing forever. After a period of enjoying total freedom with no ties and no name, he starts to feel the need to resume social contacts and settle down in one place; for these reasons he invents for himself the identity of Adriano Meis. The character he creates and his original life story function in the realm of fiction, but the paradox of Mattia Pascal's situation soon becomes apparent when he realizes that he cannot live and enjoy total freedom at the same time; Adriano can only live outside life. This artificial construction falls apart as soon as feelings overcome reason, particularly when Adriano falls in love. At that point life pulls Adriano in again, shattering the fiction Mattia Pascal created, and the only way out is to kill the fiction. By then, however, society has completely canceled even his own identity, and the character, the late Mattia Pascal, consequently chooses to lock himself in the library--himself a work of fiction--and write his own story.
Of the seven novels Pirandello wrote, only two have a woman as a protagonist: L'esclusa and Suo marito. Throughout his life he complained about opportunistic and corrupt managers and press agents, and Suo marito gave him the chance to lay bare the substance of his complaints. In the 1911 novel he depicts the conflicting relationship between art and its role as a commodity through the interactions of an artist and her manager. Silvia Roncella, a writer, represents artistry at its most pristine; completely oblivious to her monetary worth and uninterested in success, she writes essentially out of compulsion. Her husband, Giustino Boggiolo, who acts on Silvia's behalf as her press agent and manager, is, however, the mastermind behind her success--insofar as he is able to "sell" her writings to the media, the critics, and the public. He eventually becomes convinced that he, not his wife, is the real author of her plays, since Giustino is the one who brings them to the stage and sees that they are produced:
Faccio tutto io! . . . Lei lavora a casa; io faccio fruttare il suo lavoro fuori. . . . Sono io. . . . tutta opera mia . . . Quello che fa lei . . . ma sì, niente, sarebbe come niente . . . perché la cosa . . . la letteratura, capisci? è una cosa che . . . puoi farla e puoi non farla. . . . Oggi ti viene un'idea; sai scriverla, e la scrivi. . . . Che ti costa? Non ti costa niente! Per sé stessa, la letteratura, è niente; non dà, non darebbe frutto, se non ci fosse . . . se non ci fossi io, ecco! Io faccio tutto.
(I do everything! . . . She works at home; I make her work bear fruit outside. . . . It is I. . . . all my work. . . . What she does . . . but, yes, nothing, it would be like nothing . . . because the thing . . . literature, understand? is something you can and cannot do. . . . Today you have an idea; you know how to write it, and you write it. . . . What does it cost you? It costs you nothing! In itself literature is nothing; does not give you anything, it wouldn't give you any result, if it weren't . . . if it weren't for me, look! I do it all.)
In Suo marito Pirandello strikes out at the world of literary salons, critics, and journalists--all those "parasites" who exploit the work of others. Unfortunately, this novel remained in print for only a short time because of the polemic that ensued when the writer Grazia Deledda recognized herself and her husband as the main characters. The book was quite close to Pirandello's heart, and he returned to it later in his life; by the time of his death, he had revised the first four chapters and begun the fifth. The book was republished several years after Pirandello's death. Thus, on the level of a metanarrative, the novel reflects the process of artistic creation. Such an interpretation, moreover, takes the reader into Pirandello's psyche, where the strongly upheld dichotomy between art and life reveals the author's own complexes about procreation, the flesh, and sexuality, all of which surface repeatedly as themes in his short stories. For example, doubts about paternity are expressed in "O di uno o di nessuno" (Either of One, or of No One's); man's strong need of woman is evoked in "L'uomo solo" (Man Alone); "In silenzio" (In Silence) explores the duality between mother and erotic woman; and "Felicità" (Happiness) celebrates maternity in itself, completely apart from sexuality, while suppressing the significance of paternity.
Pirandello selects a woman to represent the artist in his novel in order to underscore the incompatibility between procreation and artistic creation, as well as the superiority of the latter over the former. Silvia's fame as an artist--the success of her plays, in fact--coincides with both the death of her son and her renunciation of maternity and marriage for the pursuit of her art. Pirandello's appropriation of the maternal role for the artist also emphasizes his artistic androgyny. Just as little doubt exists as to whether he places some of himself in his characters, he undoubtedly feels the most intimate identification with, and tenderness for, his female characters--for, above all, Silvia in Suo marito. He portrays her not only as the spokeswoman of his ideas about art but also as the author of the play that establishes Silvia's success, called La nuova colonia (The New Colony); seventeen years after the publication of Suo marito, Pirandello himself wrote a play of the same name for the actress Marta Abba, his muse. In the rewriting of the novel that he undertook prior to his death, he changed the title of the play to L'isola nuova (The New Island), probably to prevent his readers from identifying La nuova colonia, the published play, with La nuova colonia, the play in Suo marito. Clearly, in this case, the author was inspired by his character.
While writing novels, Pirandello never stopped composing and publishing short stories. "La tragedia di un personaggio" (The Tragedy of a Character, 1915) came out the same year as Suo marito and is fundamental to an understanding of the novel. Like the six characters of Pirandello's Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore, Dr. Fileno is seeking an author for a fantasy in which he gains eternal life, though not by way of birth from the womb of a woman. Rather, he seeks the unending existence of fictional characters, whose lives he views as spiritual and eternal, unlike people's lives, which are material and limited. He exclaims, "Mi dica lei chi era Sancho Panza! Mi dica lei chi era Don Abbondio! Eppure vivono eterni perché vivi germi--ebbero la ventura di trovare una matrice feconda, una fantasia che li seppe allevare e nutrire per l'eternità" (You tell me who Sancho Panza was! You tell me who Don Abbondio was! Yet they live eternal because as live embryos they had the chance to find a fertile womb that was able to nurse and raise them for eternity). Pirandello in effect compares a story to a womb and suggests the superiority of the mother-author over the mother-woman. In "Colloqui coi personaggi" (Talks with Characters) his dead mother comes to visit and talk to her son just as the other characters do. The appropriation of the birth metaphor reaches culmination here, in that Pirandello becomes the mother-author of his own mother at the moment when she becomes his character and thus his own creation.
Pirandello's only historical novel, I vecchi e i giovani , was published as a book in 1913, but parts of it had appeared earlier in serialization between 1906 and 1908 in Rassegna italiana. He described it in a letter as "il romanzo della Sicilia dopo il 1870, amarissimo e popoloso romanzo, ov'è racchiuso il dramma della mia generazione" (the novel of Sicily after 1870, a very sad and crowded novel, which contains the drama of my generation). Scholars have long criticized I vecchi e i giovani for its excessively lengthy, fragmented narrative; long-winded and with too many characters and subplots, it reads as dispersive and even destructive prose. The critic Carlo Salinari in his Miti e coscienza del decadentismo italiano: D'Annunzio, Pascoli, Fogazzaro e Pirandello (Myths and Consciousness of Italian Decadentism: D'Annunzio, Pascoli, Fogazzaro, and Pirandello, 1960) correctly reads this novel as the expression of Pirandello's awareness of three historical failures--the Risorgimento movement, the ideals of unification, and socialism--and seems genuinely disappointed by the writer's pessimistic perspective. Pirandello's criticism is not only sociopolitical but also philosophical, even existential. His position, on the other hand, is both Sicilian, in the fatalistic sense expressed by Fabrizio Salina to Chevalley in Il gattopardo--that nothing is going to change--and in line, at the same time, with the crisis of ideologies professed by Nietzsche. The Risorgimento, socialism, and unification, having no equivalents in reality, are nothing but mental constructions and abstractions invented by men; moreover, each person attributes his own personal meaning to such constructions and abstractions. Through writing I vecchi e i giovani, Pirandello employed an established genre--the historical novel--to undermine the book from within and attack history and ideology on the level of structure as well as of content. Far from limiting I vecchi e i giovani, however, the fragmentary nature of the novel, which critics attribute to Pirandello's lack of a global vision, constitutes its coherent structure. For the one who must demonstrate the absurdity of history and who sees in history only a series of events lumped together by chance, such an unorganized structure is the appropriate form for an historical novel.
I vecchi e i giovani is centered on a variety of characters who live out their various scenes of personal drama. Pirandello suggests that all a person has in order to understand what is supposedly history are the individuals who make it, each individual with his own particular drama. In a short story that Pirandello wrote at the outset of World War I, "Berecche e la guerra" (Berecche and the War, collected in Berecche e la guerra, 1919), the protagonist Berecche makes a similar argument. What one learns from books, he contends, is nothing but an abstraction, a few lines in which "questa atrocissima guerra . . . sarà ristretta" (this atrocious war . . . will be reduced); history books will carry "nessun cenno di tutte le piccole storie di queste migliaia e migliaia di essere oscuri" (no sign of the little stories of those thousands and thousands of obscure beings). I vecchi e i giovani tells the story of two generations of the Laurentano family, who constitute a microcosm of the various ideologies at work in the novel. The Laurentanos are living examples of the isolation and estrangement of individuals. Ippolito represents the past, reactionism, stasis, and the attachment to an epoch long dead--hence his love for archaeology. His sister, Donna Caterina, in contrast epitomizes the revolutionary instinct, personifying the hopes, both deluded and betrayed, of the Risorgimento. Locked in a tenacious and proud isolation, she mourns the collapse of ideals in which an entire generation once believed. Between these two opposites is the third sibling, Cosmo Laurentano, another embodiment of the old generation who reflects the impossibility of synthesis. Cosmo calls aristocracy the Risorgimento, and socialism "poesie" (fiction), or a poor man's mental constructions. At the most prosaic of moments he also calls them "minchionerie" (nonsense), "di cui gli uomini si servono per riempire in qualche modo questa minchioneria massima che chiamiamo vita" (which men need to fill up somehow this biggest nonsense of all that we call life). Though each has his or her own ideology, the three Laurentano siblings share an estrangement from the world.
The young generation, deluding itself in its own pursuit of ideals, is represented by Lando Laurentano. Whereas Cosmo, located on the periphery of life and able only to reflect on it, stands for the impossibility of any synthesis, the socialist Lando experiences firsthand precisely this impossibility; with his frustrations, failures, and hopes, he evokes the necessary alternation between illusions and delusions and between theory and practice. Learned, studious, and a lover of books like his uncle Cosmo, Lando nonetheless knows the danger that books present. Aware of the abstractness of theories, he feels the urgency to put them into practice and to experience in person the contrast between life and form. He senses such an urgency in his physical shape, in his ideas for stopping the indistinct flux of life, and in the external reality that man tries to imprison through social rules and political ideologies. For this reason, forced into a period of inaction, he had "immerso tutto nello studio delle nuove questioni sociali" (plunged into the study of the new social problems) in the hopes of instilling in the oppressed people a will to overturn all the rigid old forms.
While the events recounted in the novel, such as the Sicilian Fasci, a revolutionary movement, and the scandal involving the Bank of Rome, are real and easily verifiable, Pirandello's aim is far more than an historical recollection or interpretation. The events serve as a backdrop for his negative existential message, as do the characters in the novel. Besides Lando, there is his faithful friend, the humorist-philosopher Lino Apes, who "aveva più volte dimostrato a Lando che, dicendosi socialista, mentiva con la più ingenua sincerità; si vedeva non qual era, ma quale avrebbe voluto essere" (had more than once demonstrated to Lando that, by declaring himself to be a socialist, he lied with the most naive sincerity; he saw himself not as he was, but as he would have liked to be); Lino's "naive sincerity" is the kind of oxymoron that Pirandello was fond of exposing. Yet, this humorist--who removes the mask of fiction from his friend's face--is quite aware that "quella nudità arida e inquietante" (that arid and disquieting nudity) deprived of its fictions "ci appare orrida nella sua crudezza impassibile e misteriosa" (appears to us horrid in its imperturbable and mysterious crudity), and man can only bear such unmasking for brief instances. If life is indeed an incandescent flux that "e non conclude" (does not conclude), Lino remarks, "l'uomo deve concludere; ha bisogno di concludere; o almeno di credere che abbia concluso qualcosa" (man must conclude; he needs to conclude, or at least he needs to believe he has). Because man is life constrained in a form, he requires stable points, a "sense of an ending," in the words of Frank Kermode; man needs a conclusion, as Lino suggests, "anche se illusoria" (even if illusory). This message is also what old Cosmo relates at the end of I vecchi e i giovani. Cosmo can no longer act because "ha capito il gioco" (he has understood the game); that is, he has understood that outside the fabrications one considers as truths, there is nothing. Therefore, one is better off being deluded, since the alternative is estrangement and total inaction.
In 1916 Pirandello published Si gira (Shoot!), first serialized the previous year in Nuova Antologia. He revised the novel several years later as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore (1925; translated as Shoot: The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematographer Operator , 1926). Si gira was the first Italian novel by a noted author on the new art of cinema, a medium that from the start fascinated and intrigued Pirandello enormously. The narrative at first denounces, however, the dehumanization of life by the "civiltà delle macchine" (mechanical age) that speeds up and mechanizes life. Before becoming a cameraman, the title character, Serafino Gubbio, studied philosophy and literature; as stated in the translation of Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore, he had "the worm of philosophy gnawing his brain." What he learned from his studies, he says with sarcasm, is "che mi sono allontanato con orrore istintivo dalla realtà. . . . Guardo ormai tutto, e anche me stesso, come da lontano" (to draw back with an instinctive shudder from reality. . . . I now look at everything, myself included, as from a distance). In Il Romanzo del Novecento (1971) Giacomo Debenedetti describes Si gira as the most autobiographical of Pirandello's novels, where the identification of the author with his character is quite transparent. Serafino's profession is a natural expression of his personality, in that camera work requires objectivity, coldness, and abstraction. No feelings must accompany the shooting of a movie, for Serafino is merely "a hand that turns a handle." This judgment, however, does not please him, since he foresees the day when even his hand will no longer be needed, and he will be replaced by a machine. Pirandello implies that machines will supplant man and eventually destroy him.
Another critic, Romano Luperini, argues in Introduzione a Pirandello (Introduction to Pirandello, 1992) that Si gira is Pirandello's masterpiece. While its open structure, flashbacks, and stories-within-a-story easily categorize it as an experimental novel, the plot of Si gira resembles that of a movie drama typical for that era. A story of passion, abandonment, and jealousy, it centers on a femme fatale who is killed in the end by one of her suitors during the filming of a hunting scene for a movie under production. The suitor, Aldo Nuti, is supposed to shoot the preyed-upon tiger, as the script requires; instead he shoots the actress, Varia Nestoroff, whom the tiger then tears to pieces. Serafino records this bloody, violent scene in its entirety; his own arm apparently glued to the camera, he himself seems to turn into a machine and loses his voice from the shock. Such estrangement from life, already seen in Il fu Mattia Pascal, serves as the main theme of Si gira and characterizes the essence of Serafino, whose name harks back to Seraphim, the rank of angels that stand in the presence of God. The prototype of the passive observer, he is detached from life and limits himself to recording, rather than living, it; Serafino's self is reduced to the hand that operates a machine. The silence that overcomes him at the end of the novel sanctions not only the total estrangement of the artist from life but also his reification of "il silenzio di cosa" (the silence of an object).
Although Pirandello returned to it to make revisions, Si gira commenced the end of novel writing for him. He wrote only one more original novel, Uno, nessuno e centomila (1926; translated as One, None, and a Hundred Thousand, 1933), and the growing impossibility of writing more can be seen through the theme of estrangement in Si gira. He discerned the irony, or the paradoxical trap, of alienation from life--how it underpins the act of writing yet also prevents one from making sense of life.
In 1915, the year that Si gira appeared in serialization, Italy succumbed to pressure for intervention and entered World War I. At first Pirandello was in favor of the war; he considered it the Fourth War of Independence, or a continuation of the Risorgimento. Stefano, his oldest son, volunteered to fight and was soon wounded and captured. Fausto was called up but became ill with tuberculosis, and through his father's intervention he was allowed to come home. Pirandello poured his anguish and his contradictory feelings about the war into short stories such as "Berecche e la guerra," "Cronaca di Marco Leccío" (Chronicle of Marco Leccío, 1919), and "Quando si comprende" (When One Understands, 1918). Through them he tried to rid himself of the guilt that gave him no respite. He had filled his children with patriotic rhetoric and thus felt responsible for their decision to fight; at the same time he was crushed by the shame and cowardice of his own decision to stay home. Moreover, Antonietta's agonizing fear for her enlisted sons exacerbated her mental illness. She started to torment her husband and their daughter, Lietta, with accusations of betrayal, even of incest, and tried to commit suicide. After her mother's attempt, Lietta was sent to live with an aunt in Florence, and after Stefano returned from the war in 1919, the family agreed to commit Antonietta to a mental institution, where she remained until her death on 17 December 1956.
Although Pirandello had from a young age written dramatic pieces--including some quite original ones in dialect for the Sicilian actor Angelo Musco--the great phase of his theatrical writings actually began in this period with the 1917 premiere of his play Cosí è (Se vi pare), an extraordinary synthesis of his relativistic philosophy. The premieres of Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore and Enrico IV five years later in 1922 also increased Pirandello's fame. In addition, six chapters of Uno, nessuno e centomila had already been published in January 1915 in the journal Sapientia, and several years later the work was serialized in its entirety in La Fiera Letteraria between December 1925 and June 1926.
As an antinovel, Uno, nessuno e centomila constitutes Pirandello's farewell to the genre of the novel and heralds his growing focus on writing plays. In an interview published in the Messaggero della domenica in 1919, he called Uno, nessuno e centomila the complete synthesis of all he had done in the past and planned to do in the future. The protagonist Vitangelo Moscarda clearly recalls Mattia Pascal, narrator and protagonist of Il fu Mattia Pascal. They share a rivalry with, and hatred of, their fathers, who are absent from the inception of both narratives. If the main theme of Il fu Mattia Pascal is the opposition between life and form, or between action and contemplation, the essence of Uno, nessuno e centomila bespeaks opposition as well--Pirandello's disbelief in the existence of the self. Only masks exist--masks created by people and through which they try to interpret the chaos of existence.
Resembling a summa philosophica (comprehensive philosophy), the novel is divided into eight books, each of which is further broken down into short chapters. Moscarda informs the reader from the start that he is "della razza di chi rimane a terra" (of the race of the earthbound)--that is, of the race of contemplative beings, or those who observe and do not live. Though married, he fails to procreate. He does not work but lives off the income from his father's bank, well managed by two associates. Life has withdrawn from him, and his world consists only of thought:
Ero fatto per sprofondare a ogni parola che mi fosse detta, o mosca che vedessi volare, in abissi di riflessioni e considerazioni che mi scavavano dentro. Mi fermavo ad ogni passo; mi mettevo prima alla lontana, poi sempre più da vicino a girare attorno ad ogni sassolino che incontravo, e mi meravigliavo assai che agli altri potessero passarmi avanti senza fare alcun caso a quel sassolino che per me intanto aveva assunto le proporzioni di una montagna insormontabile . . . vedevo certamente più di loro; ma andare, non sapevo dove andare.
(I was prone to fall, at any word said to me, at the sight of a housefly buzzing about, into depth of reflection and pondering that dug deeply inside me. I would stop at each step; I would start from fear, then always get closer and walk around each little pebble that I encountered, and I wondered how others could pass me without paying any attention to that little pebble that in the meantime had become to me an insurmountable mountain. . . . I certainly could see more than they, but as for going, I had no idea where to go.)
He is later outraged by his wife's remark that the right side of his nose hangs down lower than its left side. How could such asymmetry have escaped him for so many years? Consequently, the mirror begins to serve as the means of his self-analysis--a metaphor for consciousness--and through the mirror he arrives at the conclusion that he appears not to others the way he appears to himself. He moreover realizes that he cannot see himself living and thus remains a stranger to himself, "uno che gli altri potevano vedere e conoscere; ciascuno a suo modo; e io no" (one whom others could see and know; each in his own way; but not I).
At the end of the first book Moscarda unfolds his future plans, to be carried out in the ensuing seven books, such as trying to discover who he has been for the people around him and amusing himself by decomposing "quell'io che ero per loro" (the I that I was to them). Moscarda plans to decompose all the forms of himself in which the others have locked him. His fight at the end becomes a battle against all forms and "l'orrore di chiudermi nella prigione di una forma qualunque" (the horror of being locked in whatever form). The necessary end of the novel, therefore, is that having incrementally destroyed the forms of oneself, nothing remains except life in its pure, natural state: the state of continuous flux in which man and nature are indistinct and indistinguishable. Pirandello gives the final chapter of Uno, nessuno e centomila the title of "Non conclude" (No Conclusion), because life itself does not conclude. As Moscarda says, "Muojo ogni attimo, io, e rinasco nuovo e senza ricordi: vivo e intero, non più in me, ma in ogni cosa fuori" (I am dying every instant, and being born anew and without memories; alive and whole, no longer in myself, but in everything outside).
Pirandello felt that this inescapable opposition of life and form was embodied in Mussolini, who
così chiaramente mostra di sentire questa doppia e tragica necessità della forma e del movimento, e che con tanta potenza vuole che il movimento trovi una forma ordinata al suo freno, e che la forma non sia mai vuota, idolo vano, ma dentro accolga pulsante e fremente la vita, per modo che essa ne sia di momento in momento ricreata e pronta sempre all'atto che l'affermi a se stessa e la imponga agli altri.
(so clearly shows an awareness of this double and tragic necessity of form and movement, and with so much power he wants for movement to find an orderly form to its rein, and for form never to be empty, a vain idol, but that within itself, it receive pulsating and throbbing life, so that it can be forever recreated by it and be ready for the act that affirms it and that will impose it onto others.)
In Luigi Pirandello: Con 20 tavole fuori testo (1963) Gaspare Giudice strives to explain the writer's Fascism--an ideology in itself so far from the literary meaning of Pirandello's writing. His adherence to Fascism at the beginning was based on his superficial understanding of it, on his total disinterest in politics, and his mistrust of democracy. The family's patriotic nationalism, its pride in the Risorgimento and in the cult of ancient Roman civilization, and, above all, his profound contempt for the masses, all caused Pirandello to welcome and support Mussolini's regime; he believed Mussolini was someone who could bring order and discipline to the wild and ignorant "many." Pirandello openly chose to join the Fascist Party in the most delicate time of its history--immediately after the assassination of the socialist congressman, Giacomo Matteotti, by Mussolini's Fascist thugs. Mussolini's support was also crucial when, in 1925, Pirandello formed his own theatrical company in Rome. In the years to come, however, the writer grew completely disinterested in politics, and his disillusionment with Gabriele D'Annunzio, the bombastic, rhetorical poet of the regime who had usurped Pirandello's fame in Italy, was even greater.
In 1925 Pirandello also met Marta Abba, the actress who served as the muse for many of his plays and with whom he was in love until his death. He wrote hundreds of letters to her, and the seven plays that he wrote for her all feature women protagonists. They began their relationship as the political climate became increasingly unbearable. When his theater company, Il teatro d'arte, failed after four years because of financial setbacks, Pirandello decided to leave Italy and spent long periods of time in Berlin and Paris. His direct experience with both the staging of his plays, produced by avant-garde directors such as Georges Pitoeff and Max Reindhart, and with Marta's acting helped him to cultivate his ideas about the theater further and to accept its extraordinary power. For him the theater no longer consisted exclusively of only the playwright's text but also of how the directors, actors, and scenographers interpreted the play on stage. He began to see that theater defies the fossilization of literature, in that a play renews itself not only with each production but also with each performance.
In 1934 Pirandello won the Nobel Prize in literature. No official welcome awaited him, however, upon his return from Stockholm; only his friend, the writer Massimo Bontempelli, came to greet him at the train station. Though still fighting for a national theater in Rome, Pirandello nonetheless knew that eventually nothing would come of Mussolini's promises and that modern theater had no future in Fascist Italy. Broken-hearted about the state of the theater in his country, he convinced Marta to leave the Italian stage and renew her career in the United States--where, he believed, the theater was respected and loved much more than in Italy. He died in Rome on 10 December 1936, apart from Marta but with knowledge of her success on the New York stage.
Readers today can discern Luigi Pirandello's enduring influence in the works of not only Ionesco and Beckett but also Jean Anouilh, Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Eugene O'Neill, and Edward Albee. Although he is regarded primarily as a playwright, he drew the ideas for his plays from his stories. Pirandello's narratives were the places where themes such as the enigmatic nature of one's character and the opacity of truth and reality first appeared. His idea of the maschera nuda (naked mask) in his prose fiction alluded to the social roles that people must adopt but that do not actually define them; in his theatrical works maschera nuda signifies the dialectical process that occurs when an actor prepares for and portrays a character on stage. Pirandello revolutionized how an author might conceive of and view his characters--a dialectical relationship in itself--and, as a result, contemporary literature and literary criticism owe much to his distinctive contributions.
From: Bini, Daniela. "Luigi Pirandello." Italian Prose Writers, 1900-1945, edited by Luca Somigli and Rocco Capozzi, Gale, 2002. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 264.