The Late Mattia Pascal

by JDP

The prose isn’t going to blow you away, but this fine work by a little-known Nobel laureate infuses the age-old presumed-dead-but-came-back-to-life trope with a hefty dose of philosophical musings on the nature of identity.

Luigi Pirandello / Italian / 1904 / 272 pages
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

We all know the story. Guy and girl fall in love; something happens, like the outbreak of war, and the two are separated; at some point the girl mistakenly presumes the guy is dead and, painful as it may be, moves on with her life; after many trials and tribulations, the guy eventually makes his way back to the girl; depending on how charitable the narrator is at this point, the guy is either welcomed back with open arms or begrudgingly shunned on account of her jealous interim beau. Thematically, the narrative is usually painted in broad, overly romanticized brushstrokes and readers are bludgeoned about the face with obtuse lessons on the nature of love and fidelity. Put differently, simplicity abounds. Every other year, a major Hollywood blockbuster along these lines is released to huge commercial success as the masses gorge themselves on this intellectually inbred material. When they leave the theater, the members of the audience might think for a few minutes about the contours of their own romantic attachment. They doubt their resolve. They are glad that they don’t have to fight in World War II.

Yawn.

Enter Luigi Pirandello with a fresh perspective (actually, given this novel’s 1904 publication date, I’m not sure there’s really anything “fresh” in the approach; the fact that Pirandello’s twist on the presumed-dead-but-come-back-to-life story line has been around for a hundred years makes novels like The Notebook seem particularly egregious; but I digress). The perspective is fresh because Pirandello creates a “dead” man who, surprisingly, doesn’t mind being dead. Mattia Pascal has recently lost his two infant daughters to illness and his marriage with his wife is completely spoiled. They reside with his horrible mother-in-law (who Pirandello suggests is a witch with 50-50 probability) and can barely make ends meet on the scant income he brings in from his job as a librarian at a library that no one ever visits. His own beloved mother and brother have moved away and are happily living their separate lives in isolation. He gets to the point where he can no longer tolerate the miserable status quo.

So Mattia shoots off to a gambling house in a far away Italian city without telling any of his relatives. He sets up camp for several weeks and, due to inexplicable luck, quickly wins enough money at the roulette table that he’ll never have to work another day in his life. His plan is to return home, slam the money down on the kitchen table, and make it explicitly clear to anyone who will listen that he’s the one who wears the pants in the house and hereafter will no longer be taking guff. While he’s on the train home, however, he picks up a newspaper with an obituary announcing his own suicide back in his hometown. Apparently the body of another man (who may or may not have resembled Mattia Pascal) was pulled out of a river and promptly identified as Mattia by his wife and mother-in-law. He sees an open door and runs through it: at the next train station, he disembarks, gets his beard and hair trimmed down to nothing, and catches a new train in the opposite direction. He invents a new name for himself, buys new clothes, and — for the next two years — spends his time flitting about continental Europe touring the major capital cities.

Eventually he tires of this wandering and settles down as a tenant in a rented bedroom of a family comprised of a retired teacher and his young, unmarried daughter. He falls in love with the woman, grows comfortable in the city, and turns his thinking toward settling down, buying a house of his own, and obtaining a marriage certificate. He’s stopped short in these musings by an obvious fact, however: as a man who has renounced a true identity and constructed a false one, he must live entirely off the grid or people will begin to ask questions. He cannot put a name down on a housing purchase, for example, and he can never pay taxes. Mattia must buy his meals and pay his rent in cash so as not to leave a trail of receipts by which he might be traced. Gradually, he begins to realize that, far from the freedom he thought he was going to win, he’s actually boxed himself into a circumscribed existence that he must work to defend with an increasingly elaborate network of lies and deceptions.

Eventually he returns to his hometown and receives a (predictably) unpleasant welcome.

But the gist of the story is Mattia’s conflicts over his own identity. He can’t live the life he wants, so he bails out and constructs a new life; but the very fact that he’s abandoned a past life virtually eliminates the freedoms he thought he was buying himself with his new identity. Pirandello suggests that people are fundamentally unable to change the basic aspects of their character. And even if they could construct a thoroughly sound set of lies upon which to base a new existence, Mattia experiences such a lack of emotional connection to his invented past that it almost hardly seems worth the trouble; in order to feel rooted to a history, it needs to be the real one. Fabricated stories about births in foreign countries, affable grandfathers who took us to art museums, and a childhood predicated on transience might trick our listeners, but will rob us of our own core.

The writing in The Late Mattia Pascal is not going to blow you away. Pirandello frequently takes us inside Mattia’s head and his thoughts are a cluttered and highly repetitive run of anxieties, confusions, and aspirations. This can get old after a while. Additionally, Pirandello is not so concerned with setting the scene and describing the environment. Rather, his characters just kind of run into one another in generic spaces that might be located in major European metropolises or somewhere in your own backyard. But some of this probably arises from the facts that the novel was not Pirandello’s chief medium (indeed, it was theater) and his focus was more on philosophical and emotional considerations. This is why the novel seems, well, novel despite its all-too-familiar narrative arch. This is also why The Late Mattia Pascal comes off like a masterwork when compared to another Italian novel about an unhappily married man by Pirandello’s contemporary Italo Svevo. That book is called Zeno’s Conscience and I would never recommend it to anyone. Whereas Zeno is a near-total narrative disaster populated by capricious and flat characters whose motivations never seem clear, Mattia Pascal is at least decently funny, decently thought-provoking, and decently written. That might not sound like the best sales pitch in the world, but I think it suffices: if you ever find yourself working through the Italian canon, be sure you place Pirandello on the list, but not before you’ve knocked out some other Italian heavyweights like Levi, Bassani, and Calvino.

Rating: 7 / 10

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