The Late Mattia Pascal

by Luigi Pirandello, translated from the Italian by Arthur Livingston. Now York: E. P. Dutton & Company. 1923. 12mo. xxiv+321 pp. $2.50.
AMERICA was once the happy possessor of a philosopher who wrote like a novelist; Italy, equally fortunate, has in her Pirandello a philosopher, novelist, and playwright combined. Perhaps ‘psychologist’ is a better word; for in the bewildering plays with which our dazed public begins to be familiar, a dexterous scalpel jabs into the inmost recesses of consciousness. Veils are torn off with relentless zest: ‘ the conflict between reality and illusion’ was never so brought home — not by Samuel Butler, not by Shaw.
Who are they, these poor people of Pirandello’s?
In ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ the poignant reality of phantasmal personages leaps at us hideously, more convincing than in (Edipus Rex, reducing to thin air the substantial actors on the scene. In ‘The Pleasure of Honesty’ values turn topsy-turvy. And if we cannot tell who the people are, neither can they. As the action unfolds, they discover their own motives, exchange rôles, as in ‘Each in His Own Way,’ realize that they are not at all the persons they supposed, and perhaps, like poor Ersilia in “Naked,’ kill themselves in desperate resolve to achieve a bit of reality somehow.
Similar analysis, revealing while it dissects, obtains in this novel. The book has had a curious history. Written twenty years ago, it sold two thousand copies in eighteen years. In the last two years it has sold beyond one hundred thousand copies. This sudden popularity is due of course to Pirandello’s success as a dramatist; but the novel bears the stamp of early work, and is much less deft in workmanship and more conventional than the plays. Reputed suicide and disguised personality are a trite device. The fooling is clumsy, the spiritualistic intrigue irrelevant and rather flat.
The most entertaining, most Pirandello-like pages, are those in which Pirandello invents his grandfather; the interest of the book is that it feels its way, though feebly, toward subtle character-portrayal. Mattia Pascal may disguise himself mechanically at his entrance into his second life; but we watch him actually becoming Adriano Meis, and perceive that in this disguise the essential man finds himself for the first time. Mattia may in due course resume his old name and his former circumstance; but we leave him placing flowers on his own grave — not the unpleasant scamp of the first chapters, but the weak, kindly creature, lacking in creative initiative. who loved little Adriana tenderly though he could find it in his heart to run away from her.
The obvious moral is, of course, that you cannot escape your shadow or leave the mould in which you were cast; but the best part of the book deals with the reaction of just this futile effort.
It may be hoped that there are still AngloSaxon readers left —despite writers in vogue, who shall be nameless — to whom the taste of much in Pirandello will be offensive. Yet, after all, the matter is not important. Pirandello treats unpleasant situations simply because the ‘complexes’ related to sex are those which can be chased and analyzed along the line of least resistance.
The discerning reader will not particularly mind about the motifs; he will be fascinated by the method: not that of a cynic, not that of a lover, but that of a writer intent on pursuing the evasive secrets of personality to their hidden lair. Pirandello’s work is an earnest of what the new psychology may yet give us, when its conquered territory shall have been entered by the imagination.
These reviews will be reprinted separately in pamphlet form. Copies may be had by any librarian, without charge, on application to the Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington St., Boston. For ten or more copies there is a charge of one cent per copy.