On the Sicilian landscape, a man is moaning and cramping in his yard, and he can barely stay upright. His face is gray, there is a painful, anxious look in his eyes. When his new wife – married off by his mother and already not very enthusiastic about this taciturn farmer who is twenty years older – asks what is wrong with him, shoots his arm up, points to the sky and roars: ‘The moon ! ‘ The young woman just glimpses a giant full moon that has just risen over the hills, and then locks herself inside the house, mad with fear.
It’s an unforgettable scene, one of many unforgettable scenes, from the stories of Italian Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello – and from chaos (1984), the famous film adaptation of four of these stories by the Taviani brothers. ‘Mal di luna’, is the beautiful title in Italian. ‘Moon sickness’, reads the new translation by Yond Boeke and Patty Krone:’ … and now he whimpered, howled as if there was a dog inside him, and then he started scratching on the door again, hissing and howling like a wolf and knocks its head and knees against it. ‘
It is an exceptionally beautiful translation, which is part of a fine selection from Pirandello’s Short story for an anno† This work is a highlight of 20th century Italian literature and has also been successfully translated, among others by Anthonie Kee, but in separate, not always easily accessible sections. Of such a particle, The naked lifethe small publishing house Characters recently published a reissue.
The new anthology, which bears the title the lucky ones got everything to win the Dutch audience for Pirandello (again). The humor that is hard to translate and the flowing dialogues come into their own. And almost all the selected stories still have something significant to tell us about man and his worries, his despair and his desires about a century after their emergence.
The variety is huge in this book. The stories often take place in Sicily, where Pirandello comes from, but also in Rome and New York. They are about peasants, workers and actresses, about petty-bourgeois clerks and narrow-minded awnings. It ranges from psychological drama and philosophical reflections to slapstick and horror-like scenes (also made into a film by Tavianis: ‘The Other Son’, in which criminals toast with human heads).
Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) even called his stories ‘Novels’, although most are no longer than ten pages long. He started as a hobby writer when he did not yet get to work in the theater, where his true ambition lay. Success followed later, including with his groundbreaking play Six characters in search of a writer† He also broke through as a novelist, with novels such as Deceased Mattia Pascal (filmed with Marcello Mastroianni) and Someone, no one and a hundred thousand† Meanwhile, he continued to write stories. It should be 365, he had thought, one for each day of the year. When Pirandello died, more than 200 were ready.
With his idea of an annual calendar, Pirandello sought affiliation with Boccaccio’s decamerone and The tales of a thousand and one nights, where the days (or nights) provide structure to a great frame story. The difference is that Pirandello lacks any real connection between the stories. They are not classified by season, place or theme, although sometimes there is overlap. It is a frame story without frame or order, and in fact a collection of separate stories.
Sometimes there is an echo of Boccaccio, especially in the more farcical stories. In ‘The Paduan Cap’, a man hides in the church after a funeral to steal the expensive cap on the head of the deceased. He turns out not to be the only one with the bright idea; the sixteenth intended exactly the same. Like the naive Andreuccio in decamerone goes in search of the jewels of a dead archbishop and ends up miserably trapped in his grave.
The narrative process is often the same with Pirandello, even in the more contemplative stories. In a few paragraphs, he outlines a character or a remarkable situation. For the rest of the story, he elaborates on that fact, though we rarely get to know everything. ‘The Tragedy of a Character’, the ingenious opening story, begins: ‘It is an old custom of mine to give the audience to the characters in my future stories every Sunday morning. For five hours, from eight to one. And I’m usually in unpleasant company. This time, the narrator has taken extra mishaps when a character from another writer comes over to complain about his creator. He has made him laugh incredibly. Able to this has the author not come up with anything about it?
Pirandello, as it often does, immediately takes the narrative to a meta-level; the agreement with Six characters in search of a writer is obvious. The rest of the work also resonates in other stories: a man returns to his hometown and wonders if it is still the same place now that he no longer recognizes it. Another notices that he has grown from himself: his former self no longer exists, but who is he then? This is exactly the question that the novel character Mattia Pascal asks himself after he has been accidentally declared dead.
What binds many of these characters is their search for a crucial story about themselves and the world. But the reality always turns out to be more complex, chaotic, more frightening than expected. What better way to tell that story than in an incomplete, frameless frame story?
Luigi Pirandello: Lucky Birds. Translated from Italian by Yond Boeke and Patty Krone. Van Oorschot; 832 pages; € 45.