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 lifelong intimacy with her that influenced him creatively. After a childhood spent enraptured by local fables recounted to him by an aging household servant, and with the encouragement of his mother, Pirandello, in grammar school, delved into the classics. At age 12 he penned a play (since lost). Five years later, in a Turin newspaper, he published his first short story, Capannetta, in which he adhered to the conventions of the then-ascendant school of verismo (Italian realism). His passion for literature earned him the disapproval of his father, who wanted to groom him for the sulfur business.
After finishing high school in 1886, Pirandello attended university in Palermo, where he compromised, pursuing courses in both law and letters, and spending his evenings at the theater. But, finally, he chose to devote himself to the humanities and transferred to the Università della Sapienza in Rome, where he published his first collection of verse. He didn’t last long there, however. Owing to an irreconcilable conflict with his Latin professor, he decided to move to Bonn to complete his doctorate in philology. This accomplished, and fed up with the gloomy Teutonic climate, in 1892 he returned to Rome. Living on a monthly stipend from his father, he began composing novels and short stories, publishing them without compensation in newspapers. He emulated the writer he most admired, the maestro of verismo Giovanni Verga — another Sicilian-born giant of il bel paese’s literature with, these days, only lilliputian stature abroad.
But the festa della giovinezza, to quote Verga, was about to end for Pirandello. His father, angling for investment in the family business, introduced him to Antonietta Portulano, an introverted but wealthy Siciliana with a religious upbringing. Despite the arranged nature of their meeting, the two got on well together and wed in 1894. She bore him three children, but their marriage was ultimately miserable. Alone in Rome with her new husband, deprived of the emotional support her family, Antonietta became morbidly (but groundlessly) obsessed with suspicions about her spouse’s fidelity, even suspecting him of an incestuous affair with their daughter — the first signs, as it turned out, of a mental illness that would worsen with time. Still loving her, Pirandello soldiered on with the marriage and accepted a post teaching Italian in Rome at the Istituto Superiore di Magistero. But in 1903 the family’s mines flooded, ruining him financially and delivering a blow to his wife’s psychological well-being (he had invested her dowry in the mines, so she was bankrupted too) from which she never recovered.
Suddenly impoverished, trapped in a relationship from which Catholicism and state law forbade an exit, and increasingly resenting the morals of the bourgeoisie among whom he lived, Pirandello pondered suicide. To help him out, a friend and publisher commissioned him to write a novel, advancing him funds before even seeing a plot outline. Availing himself of this generosity, Pirandello set to work. The next year, at age 37, he published his first masterpiece, the tragicomic, semiautobiographical Il Fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal). It was a smashing success, both in Italy and abroad. His fame and fortune grew further when he took to composing plays, and culminated with his receiving the Nobel.
I had never heard of Mattia Pascal or Pirandello when, in 1982, I left the United States for Italy to continue my studies of Italian language and literature at a university program in Florence. But at various points in the decades to come I chanced upon the names of both the author and his much celebrated novel. Then, in the fall of 2008, as I was approaching 50, during a sojourn in the seaside resort town of San Remo, after several years of yearning for escape from a wearying existential funk, I stopped in a bookstore on Via Roma and came upon a shelf full of Pirandelliana. One book stood out: Il Fu Mattia Pascal. From other fortuitous reading, I had already gleaned the plot’s basics: an unfortunate Sicilian finds himself suddenly gifted with the chance to begin life anew, and does just that. This was just what I wanted to do myself. I bought the book immediately.
A few weeks later, back home in Moscow, I pored over page after page of the hapless, middle-aged Mattia’s confession of how, after so much promise, his life — that of a happy, well-off husband, father, and beloved son — devolved, owing to deaths in his family and other misfortunes, into a hardscrabble, humiliating confinement of sorts, with nothing ahead, he believed, but more of the same, or worse. But then he absconds to Monte Carlo to gamble with an accidental windfall. He repeatedly hits the jackpot, winning a modest fortune at the roulette table. (We are implicitly asked to suspend disbelief at his luck, and somehow we do.) Loaded, on his way back to Sicily, he buys a newspaper and discovers, to his surprised and immeasurable delight, that he has been pronounced dead at home. (A decomposed corpse had turned up in the well of his family’s windmill and is mistaken for him.) He decides to reverse course and head north, leaving his much loathed wife and mother-in-law to believe he committed suicide out of despair, as the press had reported.
Mattia’s “death” and serendipitous wealth afford him the singular opportunity to start life over. He first travels aimlessly around Europe, savoring his freedom, but settles in Rome and adopts a fictitious name: Adriano Meis. Keeping his true identity secret becomes his foremost preoccupation: “la paura di ricader nei lacci della vita” (“The fear of falling into life’s trap”) prompts him to remain “piu lontano che mai dagli uomini, solo, solo, affatto solo, diffidente, ombroso” (“farther than ever from people, alone, alone, totally alone, mistrustful, shadowy”). Ultimately this reduces him to “l’ombra di un morto” — a state that becomes unbearable when the inevitable happens and he falls in love.
Being an undocumented person even then had its perils; a series of crises befall him, the resolution of which demands he produce documents to the police and reveal his true identity. This he cannot do, nor can he continue to deceive the woman who loves him as Meis. There is only one way out: he fakes his own death (suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Tevere), returns to Sicily, and declares himself alive to his wife (now happily remarried). But does he really want her back? No, he agrees to let her be, and resigns himself to living the role of a local celebrity — Mattia Pascal, back from the dead — with, at last, one hope for deliverance: his true, third, and final demise.
It takes little literary sleuthing to see how Pirandello transmuted his own marital and financial woes into the stuff of Mattia Pascal. But the plot, and especially the conclusion, evince a pessimism that would come to be emblematic of his work, a miserabilism derived from the spirit of doubt and irresolution brought on by the advance of science — the new Zeitgeist. Darwin’s theory of evolution and Freud’s purported discovery of the unconscious helped undermine the positivist Weltanschauung of optimism holding sway in Europe. No clear answers to our problems, or even to the question of who we really are (children of God capable of faith and worthy of salvation? Vile descendants of apes bent on sleeping with our parents?) could be said to exist; agnosticism about our identity was dawning, and the disruptive ontological uncertainties of the twentieth century were being born. We were no longer of divine stock, and our motives, even the most seemingly noble ones, could spring from hidden, shameful proclivities.
Pirandello, an atheist, makes clear science’s role in shaping his view of humankind’s newfound predicament. Mattia blames our misery on Copernicus (the astronomer who in the sixteenth century posited that the earth revolved around the sun), thereby abolishing the centrality of our planet (and of humanity itself) in God’s universe. Mattia muses that we dwell “su un’invisibile trottolina . . . su un granellino di sabbia impazzito, che gira e gira e gira, senza saper perché, senza pervenir mai a destino, come se provasse gusto, per farci sentire ora un po’ più di caldo, ora un po’ più di freddo, e per farci morire” (“on an invisible spinning top . . . on a crazy grain of sand that goes round and round without knowing why, without ever arriving at its destination, as if relishing making us feel now a bit hotter, now a bit colder, and then having us die”). Copernicus bequeathed to us the “nuova concezzione dell’infinita nostra piccolezza, a considerarci anzi men che niente nell’Universo, con tutte le nostre belle scoperte e invenzioni; e che valore dunque che volete che abbiano le notizie, non dico delle nostre miserie particolari, ma anche delle generali calamità? Storie di vermucci ormai, le nostre” (“a new awareness of our infinite smallness, which makes us consider ourselves, with all our beautiful discoveries and inventions, less than nothing in the universe; what value do you then want the news, not necessarily of our personal miseries, but even of general calamities, to have? Tales of little worms, ours”).
Not everyone accepted Copernicus’ theory, as Mattia tells us. “Per tanti, anche adesso, non gira. L’ho detto l’altro giorno a un vecchio contadino, e sapete come m’ha risposto? Ch’era una buona scusa per gli ubriachi.” (“For so many, even now [the world] does not go round. Just the other day I told a peasant that the earth turns, and you know how he responded? That this was a good excuse for drunks”).
For Pirandello, science and rationality had prevailed, leaving us with one ineluctable, if depressing, truth: there can be nothing grand or even significant about us vermucci crawling about on a rock spinning aimlessly in the vastness of space. Even with all our fancy inventions, we are cosmologically speaking men che niente and should recognize our “infinita piccolezza.” No god exists to guide us, objective “reality” is an illusion, and our problems may not admit of solutions, especially because our signature characteristic as humans — our consciousness — impedes happiness. In one of his last stories, “Fortuna di Esser Cavallo” (“The Good Luck in Being a Horse”) he states this directly: an abandoned horse is luckier than we are because he can’t foresee his fate. “Non ci pensa.” But we do. In adopting this anthropo-neutral worldview, Pirandello prefigured the innovative master European novelists of the twentieth century (his contemporaries, in fact) — Joyce, Kafka, and Proust.
The somber wisdom of Mattia Pascal dissolved my fantasies of flight. I saw, through the character’s his tribulations, just how escape and a “new beginning” could work out. There’s an element of sorrowful resignation in this realization, to be sure, but the fundamental message I gleaned from the text — that in middle age, we probably should accept who we are and work with what we’ve got, making prudent changes when we can, or risk wholesale disruption — was liberating. Understanding that I had no alternative, I was free to make the most of what I had.
The growing tumult of Pirandello’s times was to confirm his skepticism. World War I broke out. Both his sons, Stefano and Fausto, left to serve in the military, but in 1915 the former was taken prisoner and held for the duration of the conflict. Meanwhile, Pirandello’s beloved mother died, leaving him terribly aggrieved, wondering if he had the strength to go on. His father-in-law hounded him about the loss of Antonietta’s dowry, and Antonietta’s mental health worsened, which led to her interment in an asylum in 1919. His sister Lietta was the only female presence left in his house. He maintained his sanity by devoting himself to writing plays, and with much success.
Thanks largely to Mattia Pascal, I crossed the Rubicon of 50 and entered a period of renewed vigor. But the reprieve was not to last; a melancholy soon crept over me all the same. My father’s health deteriorated, and infirmities of one kind or another began dogging almost all members of my family who were older — and in one case, younger — than I. Memories of my mother, who had died suddenly in 2005, and of my grandparents, who had passed away two decades earlier, grew vivider for me and more poignant, even welcoming, as I sensed I was nearing the bourn of the Undiscovered Country myself. An atheist without eschatological delusions, I foresaw no celestial reunion with any of my much-missed relations, of course — only my own extinction.
For the first time, I found myself counting not how many years I’d lived, but estimating how many — and of what likely quality — I had left. Still healthy, I tried not to think about aging and what it meant: the loss of virility, a diminution of faculties, encompassing decrepitude, and, worse, the deaths of other family members and probably even of friends — what Samuel Johnson called “the calamities by which Providence gradually disengages us from the love of life.” I even felt my inspiration — for writing, for traveling, even for reading, my only salvation — fading, a sadness encroaching.
But then Pirandello intervened in my life again.
Two years after placing Mattia Pascal on my favorites shelf, while browsing one glum and rainy winter morning in a Mondadori’s bookstore in Rome, I came across a collection of 32 of Pirandello’s short stories, including some of his last, in a well annotated edition published by Einaudi and entitled Novelle, or Short Stories. (Pirandello’s occasional use of obscure words and dialect necessitates some glossing for contemporary readers of Italian.) The later stories in particular were clearly composed by a man dogged by despair despite fame, wealth, and official recognition. With Antonietta locked away, Pirandello took up with the young actress Marta Abba. She would become his muse, but their relationship was torturous: he was obsessed with her, she often away on tour and elusive. He found himself increasingly isolated, rejecting Fascism as it grew ever more popular, and suffering financial troubles that forced him to churn out more and more plays, not all of them remunerative.
Themes of loss, death, solitude, and the yearning for oblivion pervade Novelle, which quickly became my trusted vade mecum, the volume I turned to in sad moments for solace. In “La Levata del Sole” (“The Sunrise”), 45-year-old Gosto endures an abominable spouse, a sense of failure, and the tedium of “le solite noje, i soliti affari, le solite facce, le solite parole, e le mosche” (“the same old annoyances, the same old affairs, the same old faces, the same old words, and the flies”) until he finally decides to grab the revolver in his desk drawer and shoot himself, but only after seeing the sun rise — something he has never done before. He sneaks out of the house, but, exhausted by a night’s trek to the faraway scenic spot he has chosen for the event, he lies down and sleeps soundly through the dawn, failing even at suicide. In “La Trappola” (“The Trap”) the embittered narrator sits alone in the darkness with his aged, stroke-stricken, mute, teary-eyed father, eschewing daylight, which, he tells us, only allows us to escape the blackest of truths: that conception and birth transform us from (unthinking, unfeeling) atoms into sentient living beings fated to suffer and die all too consciously. He ponders suicide and even patricide — death being the only liberation he can imagine from life’s existential agony. And in “Da Sé” (“On His Own”), Matteo, ruined financially and compelled to take a humiliating, low-caste job, strolls jauntily to the cemetery, where he plans to blow his brains out in the doorway of his family’s ancestral crypt, thereby saving his relatives the costs of transporting his body. All had gone well enough for him until three years earlier, when suddenly “who knows how, who knows why, that certain estro [fancy or creative inspiration] that had helped him for so many years and spurred him onward . . . had died out.” Depression sets in and renders him housebound; only the prospect of joining his deceased relatives in the crypt cheers him up. But unlike Gosto in “La Levata del Sole,” Matteo succeeds in carrying out his plan.
No longer given to fantasies of flight, I worried nevertheless that my own estro had dwindled or died. Still, novella after novella captivated me, bringing me metaphorically closer and closer to death, but, on account of Pirandello’s virtuosity as a prose stylist, without frightening me, and always engaging me as a reader. But near the end of the collection, one story in particular overwhelmed me. It is entitled “Una Giornata” (“One Day”). Pirandello wrote it just a year before he died. By then, he was truly alone, his affair with Marta having essentially finished, which left him with “il vuoto più orrendo . . . dentro e intorno” (“the most horrible void . . . within and without”) and once again on the verge of suicide. “Una Giornata” rendered me dumbstruck, rousing me when I thought I was awake, opening my eyes when I assumed I could see, and forcing me to confront my own existence from a new, terrifyingly transformative — and unexpectedly positive — perspective.
In “Una Giornata” everything happens in an oneiric dimension in which dreaming and wakefulness have fused. The narrator speaks to us in the first person, present tense. He finds himself mysteriously ejected from a train at night onto a station platform, not knowing why, where he was coming from, or where he was headed. A stationmaster carrying a lantern offers no help and quickly withdraws from the scene. Is it, the narrator wonders, routine that passengers are expelled this way from trains here? Stunned, he realizes that he cannot be sure of anything. With a mounting sense of confusion, he examines his hands; he palpates his person; he looks out into the deserted, sparsely lit city before him. Inevitably he heads out into town. Yet soon people similar to himself are afoot, all walking with a purpose he cannot divine. The crowd hustles him along, and he marvels at their certitude.
The day dawns. People greet him, seem to recognize him; he examines his overcoat and wonders, is it really his? He finds a wallet in his pocket. From its leather folds he pulls a yellowed photograph showing a beautiful young woman in a bathing suit sitting on a beach, smiling, raising her hands as if waving cheerfully to someone — to him, he intuits. But who is she? He cannot remember. Nor does he recall the provenance of the large banknote he finds folded up with the picture. The one thing of which he is certain is his powerful sense of wonder at the newness, the strangeness of all he is seeing. He decides to keep on following the others, who, after all, know exactly what they are doing; their certitude is comforting.
Noon quickly come and goes. He feels hungry and decides to get a bite to eat. But the restaurateur, having welcomed him as a friend, refuses to accept the bill — it is outdated and no longer valid currency — and shows him to the nearest bank. The bank exchanges the bill, giving him so many new notes in return that he is astonished. Where did his wealth come from? Out on the street again, he discovers he has a car and even a driver. He gets in, figuring that he must also have a house. Sure enough, he does, and the driver takes him there. And what a house it is, spacious and well appointed! But how did he acquire it and all the fine furniture inside?
Time passes imperceptibly. It is winter and evening is drawing on. He proceeds to the bedroom and opens the door. To his surprise, the lights are on and the beauty from the picture is seated on the bed. She opens her arms to him.
Is this a dream?
No sooner does he ask himself this than she has vanished, leaving no more of a trace than night leaves after dawn. The bed grows cold as a tomb, and a musty, closed-up smell invades the house, which all at once becomes foreign to him. If this is a dream, he muses, it’s a nightmare. He wants to flee. But it must be a dream, an absurd dream. Searching for clues, he turns to the mirror and looks at himself.
He recoils. Staring back at him are the eyes of an old man, not of the youth he still thinks he is. He reels, feeling he’s drowning “in uno smarrimento senza fine” (“a sense of boundless bewilderment”). He asks, “Io, già vecchio? Cosí subito? Com’è possibile?” (“Can I really be old already? How is it possible?”)
Someone knocks at the bedroom door. His children have arrived, grown children. He has children? He must have had them yesterday, he thinks, when he was young. But they are dragging in children of their own. He suddenly feels breathless and weak. They all rush to support him, and help him to bed.
Before his eyes hairs sprout on his children’s heads — gray hairs. Shocked, he wants to leap to his feet, but he cannot: he lacks the strength. He gazes, “con tanta tanta compassione,” at his aging children — for as long as he can.
There the story ends.
“Una Giornata” is, of course, a stealthily crafted biographical abrégé, an allegory representing the journey through life’s stages, from birth to death. So brief is the text, quick the pace, and subtle the segues that I understood this only toward the end, when the protagonist catches sight of his wizened visage in the mirror. I then reread it more closely, and it prompted me to embark on a wrenching revision of my own days; it served as an aide-memoire for a new, traumatic passage down interior byways I had long abandoned, byways that, as I aged, threatened to dissolve as might footprints in the sand under a desert gale.
Pirandello, in short, had done it to me again.
“Una Giornata’s” scarcely six pages of text jolted me out of my melancholic, post-Mattia-Pascal quiescence and left me invigoratingly wide-eyed, face-to-face with my own life story and mortality. How? Each segment, if only implicitly, poses a question that sparks a recollection and rumination on that recollection. I don’t believe Pirandello intended this — “Una Giornata” seems more of a dreamy valedictory to life than a literary Rorschach test — but such is the result.
The “interrogation” begins immediately. After his brusque ejection from the train: “non so a chi rivolgermi per sapere che m’è accaduto, dove sono” (“I don’t know to whom to turn to find out what has happened to me, where I am”). How did we get here? Except by squirming and crying, an infant cannot verbalize the shock of birth as does the narrator. But the consternation and curiosity the narrator feels about the railway station match the wonder and distress in a neonate’s eyes; for both, the world is by turns threatening and comforting, chockfull of puzzling gadgets and frightful gewgaws, all new. But “è la cosa piu normale che a questa stazione si scenda cosí?” (“Is it the most normal thing that people disembark thus at this station?”) It is.
“Mi sento come trascinare” (“I feel as if I’m being dragged along”). The crowd on the street is moving apace, and he feels swept up by it. We have no choice but to join our fellows; “man is by nature” as Aristotle said, “a social animal.” We start off our days powerless, just following along, largely, if reluctantly, doing as we’re told. I remember my mother walking me to nursery school. I didn’t want to go and I sometimes resisted or feigned illness to stay home; I did not want to leave her. Nursery school for me now is a dark room and blackness — surely I’m misremembering the actual facilities. But I also remember my teacher, an older woman, with a golden, hairspray-scented bouffant and caring smile. Still, mostly I recall being afraid, reluctant to meet other children, and not wanting to leave home. I was to spend much of my adult life overcoming fear, choosing travels and devising expeditions that would let me prove myself to myself.
Once the protagonist has accepted the inevitability of joining the crowd, he thinks: “Non so da che parte rifarmi, che via prendere, che cosa mettermi a fare” (“I don’t know where to go, what route to take, what to set about doing”). He then elides most of his childhood and adolescence. Writing at age 78, possibly Pirandello could remember few details. This is a significant omission: most of us do soon begin asking what we’re meant to do with our lives. Be a baseball player, a doctor, a soldier, a nurse? I first wanted to be a forest ranger, enthralled as I was by the wilderness, by solitude, by fishing and (I’m now ashamed to say) hunting. By the time I arrived in Florence, I understood that I was going to be a writer. I never agonized over the matter.
“Mi avranno salutato per sbaglio?” (“Could they have greeted me by mistake?) he asks, noting the friendly solicitations of the people around him. Why do most people, when we’re young, welcome our company, judge us kindly, and accept us so warmheartedly? Probably because they see reflections of themselves in our eyes; they discern there the incunabula of their own dreams. This attention is not always appreciated. I remember disliking or finding dull a fair number of the adults in my parents’ social circle in Washington, D.C. I did not welcome their attention.
“Avrò forse lavorato in sogno, non so come.” (“I don’t know how, but I’ve probably worked in my sleep”). Another major elision, but one that hints at the smarrimento senza fine of the conclusion: what happened to all the years he had ahead, the years of striving, toil, and moil? Our most active decades slip by and we are left entering middle age pondering the clichéd eternal question, how could time have passed so quickly?
“Non sono sicuro dell’abito che ho addosso; mi sembra strano che sia mio” (“I’m not sure of the suit I have on; it seems strange that it could be mine”). How did we end up where we are today? How have I, born in Washington, D.C., ended up in Moscow looking through the hanging, liana-like branches of a potted monstera in my office onto snow-glazed poplars and a slushy street with Cyrillic signs? I could not have foreseen the sequence of events that landed me here: that an Italian course taken as an undergrad would have led me to a classroom in Florence and to the home of my Florentine host family on Via Domenica Moreni. That I would come to admire Lilia, the family’s mother, a strong-willed attorney by profession running a Florentine cultural institution (before women commonly did such things in Italy) who, from my first day under her roof, set aside hours from her schedule to talk to me about life in the States, about my hopes, my dreams. That Lilia’s encouragement of my autumn-break plans for a ramble across then socialist Yugoslavia and Bulgaria would awaken my dormant interest in Russia. We can’t know the ultimate consequences of our actions — but they will have consequences, ones that generally take us farther and farther away from who we were.
Who is la bellissima giovane reaching out to our protagonist in the snapshot? Do we not gaze with wistful bemusement at old pictures of the people in our own lives? I pore now over my own collection of photographs — mostly prints on glossy paper — and find one of my wife, Tatyana, taken on the sun-drenched spring weekday we met in Moscow, 17 years ago. She has hardly aged, I think, at least physically, if life has hardened her spirit. I consider myself lucky for eventually having the sense to marry her, when marriage (or settling down anywhere or at all) figured nowhere in my plans — plans to wander, adventure, and savor the moment, unfettered domestically. But a wave of pure wonder washes over me when I look at black-and-whites of my maternal grandparents in their 20s: handsome, beautiful, and stylishly attired, he in his aviator’s cap and knee-high black boots, she in a sundress, their eyes brimming with brio, their lives still ahead of them. And yet I never knew them as such.
With the snapshot the narrator discovers the crinkled banknote, and, hungry, ducks into a trattoria where he is surprisingly well received. But time has gone by and the bill is out of circulation. Do we not encounter evidence of the years’ passage more frequently in the things around us, rather than in our own wrinkles, which steal upon us so imperceptibly, but then seem so depressingly obvious, after others have pointed them out to us? As we age, we perceive that time passes more quickly but not that we necessarily change.
At least the good times pass quickly. Fear and duress turn the flickering succession of days into a grinding, slow-motion long métrage. I remember so vividly feverish, frightful nights I spent camped on the Congo’s banks in 1995, listening to the jungle’s shrieking ruckus for hints of approaching intruders: an hour then to me seemed twice as long. But much of the past decade has simply disappeared for me. Even the interminably odious Bush years have slipped away. Similarly, memories of weeks and weeks of violent wind and cold driving rains I suffered through while descending the Lena River in 2004 remain vivid in my mind’s eye, but where was I a year ago today? Offhand I can’t say. The answer lies in how we process novelty and fear, neurological science posits. We have evolved to survive, to attend to the new and notice the dangerous; paying attention heightens our awareness of time and seems to slow it down. But whether we feel it or not, we are marching lockstep toward oblivion.
So just what have I accomplished, I ask myself? I have not been idle. The books I’ve published testify to that. But each book, though at arm’s reach on my shelf, stands impossibly remote from who I am this minute. They are no longer of me. A hopelessness seizes me. I want to drop to the floor and cry out, to stop time, extract a reprieve. But there is no one to address and there can be no reprieve.
In the trattoria the narrator finds nothing appetizing, so he leaves. Outside he realizes, “io, se non proprio ricco, non sono certo piú povero:” (“If I’m not exactly rich, then I’m certainly not poor anymore.”) His driver takes him home. He marvels at the house and the furniture within — is it all really his? It is, but it is not of him. We pride ourselves on our acquisitions, but is what we buy really part of us? Most of the material things we prize will remain inexorably extraneous to us, and will be discarded, sold, or given away once we’re gone. Even the precious precipitate of our life — our letters, our pictures, our favorite books –—may end up junked. There’s always a good reason to review our belongings and cull the superfluous.
The narrator finds la bellissima giovane in bed, reaching out to him. He approaches her, but, “come in un sogno,” (“as if in a dream”) she has disappeared; and the bed is cold, “come una tomba.” He can only conclude that, “Questo è un incubo.” He is now eerily alone. Here a specter — that of death — steals into the reader’s consciousness. Death: the unknowable mysterium tremendum, the state of nonbeing whose proximity we forefeel in macabre, harried dreams, in lugubrious, dazed reveries following the passing away of our loved ones. It lurks everywhere but can be experienced nowhere.
I learned of my mother’s death from the dreaded late-night phone call. I stayed calm, asking my sister the particulars. How? Where? Why? Are you sure? I hung up and stolidly told Tatyana. Then I sat down by the phone, incredulous. She had not been seriously ill, there must be some mistake. But no. The only way to avoid the nullifying shock of our parents’ deaths is to pre-decease them. Their deaths mark “before” and “after” in our lives. The “after” lengthens and lengthens ad infinitum, there is no resolution.
The narrator is incredulous staring at his face in the mirror: the “occhi, . . . da bambino” (“child’s eyes”) now stare back at him from the haggard “viso di vecchio” (“old man’s face”). Time is almost up.
I stand before the mirror now in Moscow. My brown hair is now thoroughly leavened with gray; lines are creeping around my eyes, my cheeks have begun to sag. But here I diverge, I mentally step away from the narrator.
My time, as best I know, is not almost up. A disconnect forms between the story and me.
The narrator notices “non pocchi, non pocchi capelli bianchi” (“not a few, not a few white hairs”) in his children’s hairs.
“Già finita la mia vita?” (“Is my life already over?”) he asks, breathless and feeble amid his children and grandchildren. He looks lovingly at them for as long as he can. Death subtly inheres in his phrase “finché posso” (“as long as I can”). There is no more.
But I have no children and my life is not yet over. I close “Una Giornata” and set it aside. Without checking actuarial tables, I have good reason to believe that I have a few decades left. I’m not sure if I’m comforted by this thought; after all, according to Pirandello, life is a “very sad buffoneria” in which we must deceive ourselves to be happy. “Chi ha capito il giuoco non riesce più a ingannarsi; ma chi non riesce piú a ingannarsi non può piú prendere né gusto né piacere alla vita” (“He who has understood the game can no longer manage to deceive himself. But he who can no longer manage to deceive himself can no longer savor or take pleasure in life”).
But “Una Giornata” has helped me understand the game. It has reawakened me, snapped me back to consciousness, and showed me glimpses of what lies ahead. I draw one conclusion from it: I need to banish habits of melancholy and get back to work. And I need to put Novelle up on my favorites’ shelf and leave it there. At least for now.
Pirandello worked until the end. In early December 1937, while collaborating on a film reprisal of Mattia Pascal in Cinecittà, Rome’s Hollywood, he fell ill. He died some days later alone, of pneumonia, in his house on Via Antonio Bosio.
The Mussolini regime wanted to accord him a lavish state funeral — after all, he had been, loyal Fascist or no, Italy’s most revered modern writer — but he was interred according to the wishes expressed in his last will and testament: "Carro d'infima classe, quello dei poveri. Nudo. E nessuno m'accompagni, né parenti né amici. Il carro . . . il cocchiere e basta. Bruciatami." (“A simple poor man’s carriage. Naked. Let no one, neither relatives nor friends, accompany me. The carriage . . . the coachman, that’s sufficient. Burn me.”)
His ashes were returned to Caos, outside Agrigento, and remain there, buried under a pine. I will surely visit them. But not soon.