Pirandello, Luigi 1867-1936
Italian playwright, short story writer, novelist, essayist, and poet.
One of the most important dramatists of the twentieth century, Pirandello was also a prolific writer of short stories. He planned to write a story for each day of the year and to collect them in a series entitled Novelle per un anno, intended to contain twenty-four volumes, each of which would comprise fifteen tales. In all, Pirandello succeeded in completing two hundred and thirty-three stories before his death. Through this vast body of work, he worked out in many variations the quotidian struggles of characters trying to grasp the significance of life. Early in his career Pirandello was associated with a school of regional realist writers, and many stories are set in the author's native Sicily, with vividly rendered landscapes of sun-baked fields and oppressive sulphur mines. Yet Pirandello's short stories often have a tinge of irony and absurdity as well as an intellectual complexity that sets them apart from the work of typical realist writers. The preoccupations of Pirandello's characters are generally cerebral, and the action of the stories often hinges less on action or a climactic event than on the significance of a word or gesture. Pirandello was awarded international acclaim for the philosophic probing of his plays, and the same themes are found in his short stories, many of which he subsequently adapted for the stage.
Pirandello was born in Sicily to a prosperous sulphur merchant. Although his father initially sent him to study commerce at the local technical institute, Pirandello lacked interest in the subject and transferred to an academic secondary school, where he excelled in oratory and literature. He began writing at a young age, and by the time he was twelve had produced his first play, Barbaro, with siblings and friends. He also wrote poetry and fiction, publishing his first poem in 1883 and his first story a year later. After graduation, Pirandello attended universities in Palermo, Rome, and finally Bonn, where he earned a doctorate in Romance philology. He then returned to Rome, living on a remittance from his father while trying to establish himself as a writer. Here he became a member of the literary circle of Luigi Capuana. Capuana, along with another well-known Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, followed the precepts of Émile Zola's Naturalism (verismo in Italian) and attempted through fiction to recreate the people, customs, and landscapes of their native Sicily. Though Pirandello's later theoretical writings show that his thought evolved beyond verismo, landscape remained a striking feature of his narrative works. In 1894 Pirandello's father arranged his marriage to Antonietta Portulano, the daughter of a business partner, and the couple settled together in Rome and had three children. Pirandello published his first book of short stories, Amori senza amore (Loves without Love), in 1894. Two novels followed, L'Esclusa (The Outcast), published serially in 1901, and Il Turno in 1902. Then in 1903 Pirandello suffered a dramatic financial reversal when his father's sulphur mine was destroyed in a landslide and flood. His family wealth was wiped out, and the catastophe pushed his wife into mental collapse. Antonietta never recovered, but became paranoid and delusional. Pirandello initially refused to have her hospitalized, and he took refuge from her irrational abuse by escaping to his study to write.
In 1904 Pirandello published his novel Il fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal) to great acclaim, as well as a volume of short stories. More short story collections followed in 1906, 1910, 1912, 1914, and two in 1915. He also published an important critical work L'umorismo (On Humor) in 1908, and three more novels by 1916. Pirandello began to have success with his dramas also. His first full-length play was performed in 1915, and two Sicilian dialect plays, Pensaci, Giacomino! (Think It Over, Giacomino!) and Liolà, were successfully produced the next year. More plays were staged in the following years, including two which were adapted from his short fiction, Cosí è (se vi pare) (Right You Are (If You Think So)) and La patente (The License). Pirandello's reputation swelled enormously in 1921 with the Rome performance of his play Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author). With this play and Enrico IV (Henry IV) Pirandello came to international fame. Pirandello joined the Fascist Party in 1925 and received government sponsorship to form the Art Theatre of Rome. This company toured throughout Europe and America with productions of his plays. The Art Theatre dissolved in 1928, and Pirandello's plays suffered decreasing popularity. In 1934 Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, while that same year a Fascist claque booed his La favola del figlio cambiato (The Fable of the Changeling) off the stage in Rome. He continued to write short stories up until his death in 1936.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In all his work Pirandello probes the conflicts between reality and appearance, the individual and society, art and life. Influenced by verismo, Pirandello's early fiction unceremoniously exposes the lives of villagers—miners, clerics, olive farmers, an old man captured by bandits, distressed brides and widows—and highlights salient features of Sicilian society: strict Catholicism, an uncompromising code of honor, well-defined social roles, and an underlying violent temperament. He skillfully described the landscape and inhabitants of Sicily in a naturalistic style while simultaneously commenting on the paradoxical and contradictory aspects of life and the restrictions of social identity. Later stories are more overtly philosophical. "Canta l'epistola" ("He Who Chants the Epistle") describes a youth who, after losing his faith in God, develops pantheistic love for a blade of grass. The enormity of the universe and the folly of ordinary people are described through the eyes of the boy, whose behavior—incomprehensible to others—leads to his death. Other stories, such as "War" from The Medals, and Other Stories, are masterpieces of dialogue, with little physical description or narration. The verbal interplay of the characters is so highly developed that Pirandello was able to fashion plays out of some short stories with only minor alterations. The fiction from Pirandello's last years differ from his earlier work. Pirandello toured the world with his theater company, and some later stories are set outside his native Italy, most notably in New York. His very last stories are also surreal and metaphysical. In the story "All'uscita" ("At the Gate"), the dead souls of a philosopher and an obese man converse. The philosopher, as in life, philosophizes, and the stout man too is still interested in the preoccupations of his former life. In Pirandello's last story, "Una giornata" ("A Day"), the narrator lives an entire life in a single, bewildering day, from a strange birth in a train station to old age and death in a dusty armchair. In these final stories Pirandello abandoned his preoccupation with factual reality to explore psychological and metaphysical issues.
Pirandello achieved fame because of his plays, and his reputation still rests principally on his dramatic works. The majority of critical studies since his death have concentrated on his plays, yet he was a popular short story writer in Italy in his day. Many of his stories were first published in daily newspapers, where his novels were also serialized. His short fiction began to appear in English in the 1930s, when his international reputation as a play-wright increased interest in his career. However, no new English translation has appeared since 1965. Pirandello wrote enough for two careers, one as a playwright, one as an author of fiction, and the immense success of his dramas is at least partially responsible for the relative neglect shown his short stories by general readers.