FOR MOST PEOPLE, the lyrical, lilting surname Pirandello probably elicits only vague remembrances of absurdist things past. “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” his existential 1921 masterwork, survives mostly in the world of headline writers who play off of existing titles, probably not the fairest legacy for one of Italy’s foremost dramatists (more than 50 plays), poets, novelists, and short-story writers. Yet for his “bold and ingenious revival of dramatic and scenic art,” Luigi Pirandello, born in Sicily in 1867, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. Despite continental fame — in 1932 Metro Goldwyn Mayer adapted of one of his comedies for the screen — that lasted until his death in 1936, Pirandello, outside Italy, has lapsed into obscurity partly because of where he was from: During its calamitous stint as a colonial power, Italy never possessed the international prestige of, say, Britain or France, so Italian was never widely spoken outside Italy (and Switzerland’s southern cantons). Also, the playwright’s tempestuous flirtation with, and support from, Benito Mussolini surely did nothing to help his reputation after World War II. (Pirandello broke with the Fascists in the late 1920s.) To this day, much of his voluminous oeuvre remains untranslated into English or, if translated, out of print.
This is a shame. His prose (the subject of this essay) brims with sympathetic, contemporary-seeming characters, some struggling to live true and maintain their dignity in straitened circumstances such as those now befalling so many in the West today. Others strive to get by in a society — usually Sicilian — suffocated by religion and reactionary attitudes toward women. A few begin their lives comfortably but find their dreams dashed by events beyond their control, their situations rendered suddenly precarious. His dramatis personae are invariably common folk, men and women beset by problems that we would find familiar today. If all this doesn’t make Pirandello relevant to us now, then what would?
For me, Pirandello has been more than relevant — he has been soterial. He is the one writer I’ve read in recent years whose work has given me much needed guidance and pulled me back from the brink. He was not a psychologist, of course, but two of his many consummate narratives have changed my outlook on life in ways no brand of therapy ever could.
Though hailing from an upper-class family with a modest fortune in sulfur mines, Pirandello was no stranger to misfortune. On the contrary, he must have felt he had entered this world under the baleful glare of il malocchio (the evil eye). The year of his birth, a cholera epidemic struck Girgenti (now Agrigento), Pirandello’s parents’ native town on Sicily’s southern coast, so his mother, to protect her unborn son, absconded to a family villa in the countryside bearing the portentous name of Caos (chaos in English). There she gave birth to Pirandello, the second of six children. " Io dunque sono figlio del Caos; e non allegoricamente, ma in giusta realtà” (“I am, therefore, the son of Chaos, not allegorically but in reality”), he would write.
Chaos, or better said, strife would soon engulf Pirandello’s family. The imperious philandering father’s numerous affairs inflicted much suffering on the mother, with whom Pirandello, as a result, sympathized; he developed a lifelo...read more