4 April 2008
To just before the end of Chapter 5
Mattia – who is a man, not a woman as I assumed for at least the duration of the ridiculous pseudo-prologues – is the blithely unreliable chronicler of his own sad fall from grace. Or from money, anyway. At the point I’ve reached he’s got two women pregnant, although the way he tells it he had no real choice; he’s squandered what was left of the family fortune, although (etc.) it was just as much owing (so to speak) to the manager’s thieving ways; and… and what? He’s in a complete mess. He’s ended up in what’s almost a precursor of Borges’ Library of Babylon: a dusty hoard of unread books that the previous librarian took upon himself to read, according to Mattia Pascal, because nobody else ever does.
It took me a while to gauge the tone. As with most books in translation we’re in a strange literary world – strange as in foreign (well, duh). For a start, well, it’s translated, therefore already at one step removed. We don’t recognise the style, can’t gauge the class, education, taste or whatever of the writer, we don’t recognise the literary context. Then, as ever, it’s full of easily confusable names, and characters who are hard to read because we don’t know anything about their class, status etc. We’re at sea, given an anthropological project we don’t have the tools to complete properly.
Well, that’s some of my little insecurities out of the way. What’s it like? Is it funny and clever, like Pirandello’s plays? (Ok, so like the only play of his that I’ve seen.) Is Mattia really just a clown, condemned to do such stupid things that even he realises what an idiot he is? And what’s this with his wayward Marty Feldman eyes? Hmm. Not sure about any of that yet.
The final three pages of Chapter 5
Gulp. The tone lurches in a whole new direction. If a tone can lurch. His wife gives birth to twin girls – and within a few paragraphs the girls, and his mother, are all dead. The way Pirandello has Mattia describe these deaths, and his grief, is economical and moving. If he is a clown, well, that’s not all he is. And he’s taken us back to an idea he mentioned in one of the prologues: he’s going to tell us about his first death.
We’ve had the first death and, despite his hopes, it hasn’t left him any more sorted out than before. After the deaths of his mother and surviving daughter he escaped, almost penniless – to where? Nowhere realistic, obviously. This is a picaresque novel so nothing is to be taken too literally. (Is that a feature of the picaresque?) He ends up in Monte Carlo and ends up with, well, if not shedloads of money, then a small coalbunker’s worth. And just as he contemplates what to do… Fortune (capitalised and personified by the feckless Mattia) smiles again and provides him with a chance to start again. As far as everyone in his old life is concerned, he’s dead.
So, what to do? Not a lot, it turns out: he can’t settle, fearing the dead hand of the authorities will feel his collar if he does. He indulges in some philosophical stuff about identity and consciousness: who the bleedin’ ell is he now anyway? (There’s an irony in the fact that he fancies becoming a philosopher long before this crisis assails him, because they’re hard for anyone to pin down. And as he hides his identity his old philosopher’s surname also disappears.) (Is it fair to call it ‘philosophical stuff’? Isn’t Pirandello being incredibly modern as Mattia and another drifting consciousness called – hang on – Tito Lenzi discuss one of the fundamental features of being human: the society of other people who know us? Even if it was one of the old Greeks who first asserted that, fictions of a century ago weren’t full of characters who, in a essential sense, didn’t exist.)
Ok. Pirandello’s playing games. We know Mattia is inside a fiction, one in which it’s possible to win enough to break the bank (before losing most of it), have a false death thrust upon you, be forced to face questions about existence that nobody does, not really. But Pirandello wants us to ask these questions – otherwise why raise them? Mattia must be a kind of Everyman, or Odysseus, or Candide, or Pilgrim…. Stuff happens, and we stand by and look on with interest. Although I’m still not sure about those eyes.
One last thing for now. We know he’s going to end up back in his original birthplace, working in that absurdist library, because he tells us in one of the prologues. So this novel is going to be circular: in the obvious sense of the hero arriving back where he started, but, I bet, returning to a point at which he can understand who the hell he is. Whoever he is, anyone who is the Mattia Pascal of the early chapters would want it to be somebody different – so this has got to be an Odyssey or a Pilgrim’s Progress. Here be monsters.
Mattia’s settled on Rome as a place to, er, settle. He’s boarding in a house of misfits, and suddenly he’s inside other people’s lives. But the philosophical stuff carries on, and now he’s Virgil: in the five chapters in which he’s been in the Roman house he’s assailed by cranks seeking a different meaning to life. Specifically there’s the father, who’s into Theosophy and is convinced of the immutability of the soul, and the daughter who’s quietly religious. It takes Mattia into spiritualism – but not before, as one chapter is called, his 40 days of (literal) darkness. This, ostensibly, is to allow him to recover from an operation to correct his wayward eye… but it takes him inside himself, and that turns out to be the strangest place yet.
And, after the dark nights of the soul and the half-lit nights of the séances, he’s still lost. He reaches for the daughter’s hand in the darkness of the latter, even steals a kiss – has he found something meaningful at last? – but suddenly a manifestation takes place that can’t be explained by the usual obvious trickery. And he’s floundering again, convinced that he’s somehow defrauded the man who really drowned, as though for his sake. Ah well, if you’re going to live in the city of popes and cardinals (not that he’s ever mentioned them), you might as well get to feel some genuine Catholic guilt.
Floundering. That’s what this novel’s about…. He’s on a journey, and he’s stopped for a while. But he still hasn’t a clue where he is or what he’s supposed to be doing there. The eye operation hasn’t helped, then?
Chapter 15 and the first half of Chapter 16
There have been torrents of existentialist angst since I last wrote. And the same thing’s happening in the book as well. [New readers might not recognise this as a joke, which the author insists on retaining.] In Chapter 15, My Shadow and I, Mattia is convinced that in a real sense he has ceased to exist. And then nearly a quarter of his money is stolen by the git of a brother-in-law, compounding the problem: he can’t report it, because – and we’re getting the hang of this now – in the eyes of the law he’s a non-person. It comes to him in a flash: he must get out of this real world in which he’s allowed himself a brief sojourn. But like an idiot – clowns aren’t good at doing anything sensible – instead of just leaving he decides he’s got to make the daughter, who loves him, feel disgust for him instead. The tortured logic that leads to this is, well, tortured, and so is the poor girl: she can’t understand what’s going on.
The tone doesn’t get any easier to gauge. Mattia is a buffoon, but he’s Everyman as well, and we’re with him on his awful meanderings: the first few pages of Chapter 15 are as dark as anything I’ve read for a long time. If there’s a message, is it that we’re all fools, but we have to do the best we can in the circumstances? After all, Mattia makes his awful decisions out of a sense of honour. It had all seemed so simple when the chance to start again had fallen into his lap. Maybe the message is about unforeseen consequences: go for the easy option (the one that is also easy to justify, as Mattia does) and live to regret it. He feels cabinn’d, cribb’d, confin’d, and he doesn’t know what to do. So he makes it worse. Obviously.
To the end
After some more angst – though never as deep as the stuff in Chapter 15 – the crisis he looks for falls into Mattia’s lap. After some of the absurd posturings he often forces his alter ego to go through, he’s challenged to a duel. But he hasn’t got what it takes to respond properly: his efforts to go through the right formalities end in farce and Mattia feels he’s been made a laughing stock. So… he decides it’s time to drown himself again. Or his non-self: he leaves some of his clothes, John Stonehouse-style, to make it look like suicide, and… he’s free. It’s a mirror image of his original decision, and it allows him to go back home.
And that’s it, really. Sure, there are plenty of other absurdities for him to get through, including the law that states he’s still married to the woman he left – and who is now married to an even bigger idiot than Mattia himself. But I found this fairly thin stuff after the, well, thicker stuff of the main part of the novel. I suppose it isn’t surprising that farce in fiction doesn’t age well (maybe Mattia’s pretence that he really will reclaim his wife would have worked as part of a stage drama) and I was bored before the end.
But… if the bumptious home-town sections at the beginning and end of the novel don’t work for me (and I’m remembering the problems I had getting the measure of the tone early on) that doesn’t detract from the long middle section while Mattia, er, isn’t feeling himself. Early 1900s: I’ve no idea how truly radical it is for the time, but it feels it. There were some fairly revolutionary things happening in art at the time, and Pirandello does something similar here: he takes the conventions of the comic novel and, whilst keeping some aspects intact, does some fairly weird things with them. I’m sure he didn’t invent existentialism, but what we get in this book is some kind of a progenitor. I don’t know how satisfied he would have been with the finished novel: had he planned the eruption of proto-Sartrean angst from the rather broad comedy of his small-town farce? And when, years later, he writes an afterword satirising a literary debate…. As they say these days, what’s all that about?