Sometimes I figure out, or guess at, or trick myself into thinking I know what a book is doing early on, and then I take lots of notes and write about it for four or five days. And then sometimes a book remains a puzzle from beginning to end and I come to write about it having only written down a single quotation.
The quotation that I finally caught in the last chapter of Luigi Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal (1904) is:
In my nervous state, I could hardly feel my legs; I walked along as if I weren’t touching the ground. I couldn’t now describe my mood at that moment. All I can remember is that, in my emotion, a kind of immense, Homeric laughter racked my entrails, unable to burst out freely. If I had allowed it to explode, it would have knocked out my teeth, shaken the houses, uprooted the cobblestones of the streets. (Ch. 18)
Now that is vivid enough, but I picked it for that laughter in the middle that I finally, by the end, could identify as a description of not just the narrator’s but the novel’s mood, maybe even its ethos.
Mattia Pascal is – well, first, unlike Luigi Pirandello, he is not Sicilian. I read forty pages before I figured out my error and jerked the characters and their hovels out of Sicily and dropped them up north, closer to Turin. His French name provides a clue.
Mattia Pascal is on the run from his miserable married life when he 1) lucks into some money and 2) read in the newspaper that he has killed himself. He takes his chance and creates a new identity and life. The legal, ethical, and existential complications of the new life eventually lead him to kill off the second identity and return to a version of the old, at which point he becomes the fellow named in the title. That is exactly the moment of the above quotation, a moment worthy of Homeric laughter.
The arbitrariness of Pirandello’s story is an ingenious conceptual move that made the novel difficult to pin down. Pascal’s life is the one that happened, one of many possible lives. Given the chance to make a new life, he makes another series of arbitrary choices (also some less arbitrary choices) and experiences another set of contingencies. He rents a room with a theosophist, for example, which drives a surprising amount of the later plot, especially in an amusing séance scene. It is just something that happens (the theosophist would disagree). The Late Mattia Pascal is a novel of accidents.
In a number of places, especially in the beginning when the narrator has trouble ordering his thoughts, Pirandello’s book reminded me strongly of the ironic digressive masterpieces of Machado de Assis, especially, obviously, blatantly, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) – comparing titles is sufficient for my point. Perhaps next time I will read them side by side. Next time I might know what I am looking for.
The translation I read is by William Weaver, published in 1964 before he launched into those great Italo Calvino translations. The edition, from The Eridanos Press, features thick, attractive paper with a kind of gridded watermark inside a cover marred by an irrelevant Giorgio Morandi painting that is ruined by the overall black-and-salmon theme.