“It’s not true at all,” we hear in Luigi Pirandello’s story “Romulus,” “that men come together to offer each other comfort and assistance. They come together to wage war.”
Born in Agrigento, Sicily, in 1867, Pirandello grew up in a family that had a certain intimacy with conflict. His maternal grandfather had been involved in the 1848 Sicilian uprising against the Bourbon king in Naples. His uncles and his father had fought with Garibaldi when he and an army of volunteers captured Sicily in the 1860 campaign that led to the unification of Italy.
There were also struggles closer to home. Pirandello’s father, the wealthy owner of a sulfur mine, roughed up a man who came to demand that he pay protection money, then survived when the man returned and shot him. Pirandello spoke of his father as a tyrant, fought him over his educational aspirations, and when, in his early teens, he caught him with a mistress who was also his niece, spat in her face. Almost all the thirty stories that Virginia Jewiss has selected and translated for Stories for the Years are tales of conflict, accounts of winning or, more often, losing. What changes is the nature of the struggle.
The stories are not arranged in chronological order, but Jewiss has provided publication dates, which range from 1901 to 1934, shortly before Pirandello’s death in 1936. However, twenty-seven of the stories were written after 1903, when Pirandello’s father lost his fortune after his mine flooded, obliging his son to write more urgently for money, and all but two of these before 1922, by which time the extraordinary success of the play Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) freed him from such immediate needs. Written for journal or newspaper publication, almost all present the same carefully crafted ten pages, moving rapidly through an opening in medias res, a predicament defined by some turbulent relationship, unexpected complications, ingenious machinations, extreme emotions, and a dramatic twist, often a death, to close.
Influenced by the verismo of Pirandello’s fellow Sicilian Giovanni Verga, whose longer novellas sought to get close to the voice and spirit of Sicilian peasant life, the early stories oscillate between pathos and what the Italians call the beffa, an ironic, unexpected, crushing reversal. In “The Raven of Mìzzaro” (1902), some peasants mistreat a raven and tie a small bell around its neck. The tinkling sound as the bird flies alters its behavior. It leaves its nest and roams far and wide, pestering other peasants. In particular it steals the lunch of poor Cichè as he labors in his almond orchard. Fatally, Cichè sees this as a personal quarrel and decides to get his revenge, threading twine through some beans to capture the raven, then torturing it. But when he ties the bird to his mule to take it home, its crowing prompts the animal to bolt, and Cichè ends up dead in a gully, the raven once again “ringing his bell in the air, blissful and free.”
Constant in all Pirandello’s conflicts is the total incomprehension that reigns between antagonists—the raven squawked “but in raven language, so naturally he wasn’t understood.” In “The Fly” (1904) the deadly enemy is an insect. Two brothers rush through the most arduous Sicilian landscape to beg the help of the village doctor. Their cousin is dying. Overwhelmed by the demands of his multitudinous and sickly family, the doctor is reluctant. But the young men are persuasive and optimistic, planning even bigger families with their pretty fidanzate; one man runs to the barber for a shave to please his girl as the doctor gets ready and a mule is found. On the journey, nature is implacably hostile:
The heat was tiring, the sun so hot it split the stones. Every now and then a sparrow’s shriek or a magpie’s laughter would come from beyond the dusty hedges of prickly pear, which made the doctor’s mule prick her ears.
“Evil mule, evil mule!” the doctor would moan.
But as melancholy and unsympathetic as the physician is, he recognizes that their cousin is dying of anthrax; an insect must have carried it from a dead animal. On the wall of the barn, a fly “could be seen to extract its tiny proboscis and pump it up and down, then quickly clean its slender front feet rubbing them together, as if in satisfaction.” And that fly inexorably finds the bleeding nick on a freshly shaved chin. If this seems willfully macabre, it’s worth remembering that in the year Pirandello was born, an outbreak of cholera killed 53,000 people in Sicily out of a population of around 2.4 million. By comparison, Covid-related fatalities in Sicily have been around 3,500 in a population of five million.
Three early stories—“The Little Fan,” “On the Mark,” and “The Brazier”—offer the familiar trope of the poor young woman abandoned by the man who made her pregnant. One story ends with a revenge shooting, one with a suicide, one with fingers unbuttoning a blouse in the piazza on a sultry evening as, “fanning her nearly bare breasts, laughing, and, with shining, inviting, provocative eyes, [Tuta] looked brazenly at the soldiers going by.” Some awareness of Pirandello’s own dealings with women will inevitably affect the way we read these cautionary tales, and indeed his entire oeuvre.
His first awareness of sex, he claimed, came when, as a young boy curious to see a corpse, he stole into the local morgue and surprised a couple making love. Later there was the showdown with his father over his mistress/niece; when the girl became pregnant, the father married her off to a compliant young man. In his last year of school in Palermo, Luigi started a relationship with a cousin, Lina, a popular girl five years older than him. The two became engaged. Hostile to the prospect of a marriage, the families insisted they wait. Luigi’s father brought him back to Agrigento to work on the commercial side of the mine. Luigi was inept. He believed he had a vocation for poetry. He wanted to study. His father agreed and financed a university education, first in Palermo, then in Rome. Luigi sent poems back to Lina. But in a pattern of behavior that would recur throughout his life, he made scathing remarks about the incompetence of the professor tutoring his thesis. An argument followed and he was encouraged to switch to the University of Bonn, ever further from Lina, who grew hysterical. Pirandello rushed back to Sicily to be with her, felt suffocated, and rushed back to Germany again.
In Bonn the young Sicilian was impressed but also shocked by the openness and freedom of the young women. When his friendship with his landlady’s daughter led to sex, he lost his respect for her. Returning to Italy after completing his studies, he chose to settle in Rome and asked his father to talk to Lina’s family and end the engagement. A year later, his father wrote to him proposing that he marry Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of his closest business associate. Her large dowry could then be invested in his sulfur mine.
Pirandello was twenty-six, Antonietta twenty-two. They had never met. She had spent her youth in a convent; her obsessively suspicious father had never allowed her to be alone with a man. Relatives were present whenever the fidanzati met in their short two-month courtship. Antonietta was beautiful. Pirandello bombarded her with letters. He had been lost, he said, before he met her, sad without knowing why. Life was “a maze” from which he could “find no way out.” “Art was the only rock in the general shipwreck.” Now she would save him: “You are my sunshine.” He was “cured.”
Antonietta has nothing to say as Pirandello piles up airy castles of epistolary romance. Art is a religion, but he needs her to cheer him up. “Your heart will expand at the vision of my high ideal.” Then he warns that actually there are two Pirandellos, “a big me and a small me” who “are always at war”: “One is taciturn and self-absorbed…one is chatty and jokey.” Pathos and beffa. Constantly solicited, the bride-to-be at last composes an awkward response and is immediately told she will one day “become the most perfect writer on earth”; her husband will be her guide. In short, the relationship betrays exactly the mutual incomprehension that reigns between Pirandello’s characters. Years hence the two will be referring to each other as “the enemy.”
Arguably, it was the exhausting battle this marriage became that provided Pirandello with the intuitions on which his most important writing was built. Raising three children, Luigi and Antonietta inhabited different worlds. In 1897 he took up a post at a women’s teacher-training college. He dressed as a dandy for lessons and his students loved him, despite his low opinion of them. Antonietta became insanely jealous. Pirandello, who could not have been more monogamous, acquiesced to her paranoia, completing a daily diary to justify every moment of his absence from home. When his father lost his money and her dowry in 1903, her condition worsened. There were fits of paralysis and hysteria. She would abandon the house or demand that he leave, then the two would be reunited in a blaze of romantic passion, which fed her concern that he was obsessed with sex. As their daughter, Lietta, grew into adolescence, Antonietta accused her husband of incest. Lietta tried to kill herself.
Year by year Pirandello’s stories became more explicit in their exploration of incomprehension. Each character projects his or her own reality, entirely unaware of the inner world of those closest to them. In “The Cat, a Goldfinch, and the Stars” (1917), an elderly couple, having lost the orphaned granddaughter they were bringing up, transfer all their affections to the girl’s pet bird. The old woman believes it is forever mourning for the dead girl. They trap the struggling creature in their hands and kiss it. But each interprets its behavior differently. They argue. The man keeps freeing the bird from the cage so it can fly around the house, as the granddaughter had encouraged it to do. The old woman complains but cleans up after the bird, as if it were a toddler needing to be toilet trained. The windows have to be kept closed in case the neighbors’ cat gets in—not a trifling matter in a hot Sicilian summer. The two are shut off from the wider community by their folly. The man fears being laughed at and is determined to strike whoever mocks them:
These violent thoughts would make his blood boil every time, and he would get up, goldfinch often on his shoulder, go to the window, and glare at the windows of the house across the way.
The old man had no reason to doubt that those things across the way were houses…or that those things above were roofs, with chimneys, tiles, and gutters, just as he knew who owned them and who lived in them and how. The problem was that it never once crossed his mind to ask what his house and those other houses across the way were to the goldfinch perched on his shoulder.
Eventually the cat gets the bird and the old man picks up his gun. Meanwhile, the stars hang brightly above but “do not—of this you can be absolutely sure—see at all the poor roofs of that little mountain village.” All the same, “so brightly did they shine, you could almost have sworn that they saw nothing else that night.”
These sudden acts of narrative distancing offer irony and control, making the author and the reader, if not winners in the conflict, then at least superior folks who have understood the dynamic driving it. This is a far cry from Verga’s verismo and prompts the reflection that when one is trapped in a drastically dysfunctional relationship, the solution might be distance. In 1903, in the midst of urgent domestic and financial crises, Pirandello explored that possibility in the novel The Late Mattia Pascal. A bizarre set of circumstances compel the ingenuous but always opportunistic Mattia into an unhappy marriage with the ex-mistress (and niece) of the man who has deprived his family of their fortune. Oppressed by a wife and mother-in-law who resent his poverty, he flees to Monte Carlo, where the roulette table transforms him from disconsolate loser to confident winner. But while returning home to impress his family with his money, he happens on a newspaper announcing that Mattia Pascal has killed himself. In fact, another man’s corpse has been mistaken for him.
Here is the opportunity to break free from domestic conflict. He changes his name and moves from town to town living on his winnings, only to discover that such a life condemns him to a state of isolation, since to form a relationship involves disclosing one’s past. In isolation, identity dissolves; life becomes meaningless. One is reduced to staring into mirrors, pitying one’s shadow. After various improbable attempts to construct a new life, Mattia returns to Sicily to avenge himself on the family whom he blames for reducing him to this state. But by now his wife has remarried. “Outside of the law,” a friend observes, “and those circumstances, happy or sad as they may be, which make us who we are, dear Signor Pascal, it is not possible to live.”
This is the dilemma at the core of Pirandello’s vision. We live in separate worlds; incomprehension breeds conflict; nevertheless, what identity we have is entirely relational. Hence to abandon conflict is to destroy oneself. In 1918 Pirandello and his elder son, Stefano, tricked Antonietta into visiting a mental institution and had her locked up. There was no other solution. Immediately Luigi longed to have her back. Three years later, in Six Characters in Search of an Author, the father says of his separation with his wife: “My house, Sir, without her…suddenly seemed empty. She was my nightmare; but she filled my home.”
If all this was deeply unhappy, writing about it brought success. Indeed, writing became part of the conflict. “Art takes revenge on life,” Pirandello observed. Antonietta became upset when she recognized that allusions were being made to their marriage. Her paranoia was inflamed. Many contemporaries were shocked by the openness of the references. Invariably Pirandello’s alter egos appear as losers enslaved by unhappy circumstances, but their brilliant depiction in witty prose made the author himself a winner.
Acts of vengeance are everywhere in these stories. In “The Revenge of the Dog” (1913) a poor shepherd is identified by a speculator as the owner of a barren stretch of land. Hitherto unaware of this, the shepherd is happy to sell the land, which he can see no use for. The speculator builds expensive homes on it. The shepherd realizes he could have gotten much more money. Furious, he chains a starved dog at the bottom of the gully below the houses. The dog keeps people awake with its howling. The house owners fight over how to respond. “Killing a Sicilian peasant’s dog means getting yourself killed,” the narrator observes. For the reader it is a question of how cleverly catastrophe will be served up.
Moving closer to the author’s life in Rome, “The Cathar Heresy” (1905) gives us a pathetic professor whose book on a gnostic heresy of the twelfth century has been ignored while an inferior (he believes) work by a German professor has been extravagantly praised. Reduced to misery when his brother’s death obliges him to support his sister-in-law and her seven children, the professor eats his heart out at the thought of the German’s success and, although only two students attend his classes, plans a devastating lecture to destroy his rival’s book.
Both the “Pirandellos” whom the author had identified in his earlier letter to his wife, the taciturn and the playful, come together here in a formula he theorized as “humorism.” Essentially, the comic depiction of grotesque figures—“Professor Lamis’s bald patch peeked out like a leathery half moon between his hat and the nape of his neck”—was to be qualified and complicated by an awareness of their unfortunate circumstances: the meringue, we hear, that the professor keeps in his pocket will be his only food for the day. Whatever the case, there is a cruel glee in the description of the revenge lecture. Neither of his pupils can attend, but other students have left their coats on chairs in the dimly lit classroom. Believing he has an audience, the professor destroys his rival with relish while passersby gather at the door to snicker in silence. As Gaspare Giudice observed in his fine biography of Pirandello, suffering oneself gives one “the right to make one’s characters suffer.”
In 1915, in the final phase of his marital impasse, Pirandello wrote “Mrs. Frola and Her Son-in-Law Mr. Ponza,” a story he transformed in 1917 into the breakthrough play Così è (se vi pare)—literally, “That’s how it is (if that’s how it seems to you).” A small community is shocked when a new arrival, Mr. Ponza, keeps his wife locked up on the top floor of his house while setting up his mother-in-law, Mrs. Frola, in another house some distance away and not allowing the two to meet. Aware that the locals are gossiping, Mrs. Frola assures them that Mr. Ponza is a wonderful man but morbidly possessive of his wife, who is happy with the situation.
Mr. Ponza then comes to tell the same people that actually Mrs. Frola is mad. Her daughter, his first wife, died four years ago. Unable to accept the death, the distraught mother came to believe that his second wife was her daughter, still alive. He is saving her from the truth by this pretense of an excessive love that prevents them from meeting. Mrs. Frola then returns to explain that her daughter did not die at all but had to be put in an institution to save her from Mr. Ponza’s obsessive love. When the wife returned, he was so convinced she was a different woman that a new wedding ceremony had to be arranged.
So it goes on. Each character “has for the other’s presumed madness the most exquisitely piteous consideration.” Only thus can conflict be avoided. But the result is that “the entire city”—desperate to know the truth—has been drawn into “this nightmare,” unable “to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” This is an “endlessly alarming agony.”
The genius of Six Characters in Search of an Author was to bring this unhappy vision into the very mechanisms of theater. Exasperated with the family of characters he has created, an author gives up on them. But since their conflict has been set in motion, they are determined that their story be staged, if only to get revenge on one another. At the heart of the drama are a troubled marriage and a moment when the father, “not so old as to be able to do without a woman,” visits a brothel and is offered his own daughter, who is prostituting herself to make ends meet for the destitute mother.
The characters burst in on a theater company during rehearsals and plead their case. Actors and characters can’t agree. The play is always on the edge of mayhem. What may or may not actually have happened, how these or those words were originally spoken, this item of clothing worn, this or that gesture made, can never be known. The world multiplies, brought into being by any number of subjective visions: “A person believes he is ‘one,’ but it’s not true: he is ‘many,’ sir, ‘very many.’” The English censors decided the play would disturb viewers’ minds and initially banned it.
From this understanding of life as conflict and chaos it is a short step to Pirandello’s politics. The theater director in Six Characters struggles to impose order. “We are in need of a great captain,” Pirandello announced in 1909, “for tomorrow’s war.” Democracy could only bring more confusion. He was opposed to emancipation for women, skeptical of female writers. Success in the theater came just as Mussolini stepped up to impose order on an anarchical Italy. When the writer and the politician met in 1923, it was as two winners. In 1924, after the assassination of the socialist parliamentarian Giacomo Matteotti, when support for Mussolini was wavering, Pirandello declared in the Duce’s favor and joined the Fascist Party. “I have been a fascist for thirty years,” he announced in 1926.
With Fascist funding Pirandello set up the Teatro dell’Arte, a theater company in Rome. He chose the plays, and invited his actors to enter entirely into their characters and their extreme emotional states: it was a hallmark of his dramas that at some fatal moment the protagonists would lose control, drawn into the collective folly of conflict. In 1934 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in 1935 he gave his gold Nobel medal to be melted down for Italy’s war effort in Ethiopia. “The Author [Mussolini] of this great work of ours [the war],” he argued, “is himself a Poet who knows very well what he is doing.” Art and conflict were one.
On the other hand, Pirandello often declared that his work was apolitical; to be above or outside conflict was another kind of victory. In 1924 he wrote the novel One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, his strongest statement on systematic mutual incomprehension and the desire to subtract oneself from other people’s controlling narratives. It ends with the protagonist isolated in extreme poverty but enjoying a quasi-Buddhist ecstasy of self-annulment. But there was no danger of Pirandello himself following this course: he went on writing and arguing, being praised and insulted, insulting and praising, fighting hard to sustain success and celebrity with scores of plays, stories, and novels.
Stories for the Years is a fine sampling of Pirandello’s world, convincingly translated by Jewiss, who negotiates the problems of bringing his vivid, colloquial prose and effortless storytelling into English with great skill. One of the best stories is “A ‘Goy.’” Its main character, Daniele Catellani, has one unpleasant habit: before agreeing with anything anyone says, however offensive, “he laughs deep in his throat.” A Jew determined to shed his Jewishness, Daniele has married into a traditional Catholic family in which his rigid father-in-law—“cold, cadaverous, and cosmeticized”—does everything to remind him (and his children) that as a Jew, Daniele is “an enemy of the Catholic faith,” a deicide. Daniele’s infuriating laugh betrays his enormous effort of repression.
The story was written and set in 1916. Pirandello had enthusiastically supported Italy’s entry into World War I, then been shocked by the scale of the carnage. In the story, Daniele is increasingly dismayed by his father-in-law’s insistence on the superiority of Christianity at a time when Christians are massacring one another. At last he fights back. The father-in-law has planned to surprise his grandchildren, on their return from midnight Christmas Mass, with a spectacular nativity scene:
Many little terracotta shepherds, who bring their humble offerings to the manger in Bethlehem…: straw baskets of pure white ricotta, and panniers of eggs and raviggiolo cheese; and flocks of fluffy lambs and little donkeys laden with even richer offerings, followed by farmers and peasants. And on camelback, the three Kings.
While the others are at Mass, Daniele, “trembling all over with crazed joy,” replaces the nativity scene figures with
armies of tin soldiers, of every nationality, French and German, Italian and Austrian, Russian and English, Serbian and Romanian, Bulgarian and Turkish, Belgian and American and Hungarian and Montenegrin, all with their rifles leveled at the grotto of Bethlehem….
Then he hid behind the platform.
Pirandello didn’t live to see World War II or Italy’s race laws of 1938. Nevertheless, some believe that the instructions he gave for his funeral suggest he was at last distancing himself from Fascism. The norm would have been for the state to appropriate the international celebrity in a display of public pomp; instead, the author ordered that there must be no procession and that no political figures were to attend: “Burn me. And no sooner burned, let my remains be scattered; I don’t want anything, not even ashes to remain of me.” Other critics point out that Pirandello had written those words many years before, in 1911. Whatever the case, in one final beffa, he removed himself from the fray, leaving his readers in search of their author.