A classic for the Italian twentieth century

Written by Valentina Vignotto

Pirandello was born in 1867 in the countryside of Girgenti (Agrigento), where the family had
previously moved to escape a cholera epidemic. His father was a former Garibaldian who at the time
was dedicated to the administration of some zolfare. The economic wealth of the family derived
precisely from this. The young Luigi, therefore, had ensured a solid and secure future: he studied in
Palermo, Rome and Bonn, where he graduated in 1891. It was at this time that he began to publish
his first volumes in verse: Mal giocondo was published when he was just twenty-two years old and
immediately after Pasqua di Gea.

But he made his debut as a novelist a few years after, in 1901, when he published on the “Tribuna”
the novel L’esclusa. The novel is about a woman, Marta Ajala, of an honest nature, but whose
husband, Rocco, decides to hunt for a suspicion – completely unfounded – of adultery. Only when he
welcomes her back, she has really sinned. Since this first novel, it is possible to grasp some dynamics
better deepened in the later, more successful writings. First, the sarcastic component: he calls this
novel “essentially humorous” and, second, his writing reflects the absurdity and illogicality of human
behavior. It is a novel far from the Sicilian masters of naturalistic realism: Verga and Capuana. At
the same time, Pirandello distanced himself from another great intellectual who dominated the Italian
cultural scene: Gabriele D’Annunzio and his “symbolic” novel.
Meanwhile, Pirandello moved to Rome. In this city, he met Luigi Capuana, who encouraged his
literary ambitions. He began teaching Italian language and literature at the Higher Institute of
Magistero and in the meantime he married Maria Antoinetta Portulano, with whom he would have
three children. After having frequented artistic circles and magazines for a long time, in 1898
Pirandello founded the magazine “Ariel” with some friends and here he presented his first drama:

Everything seemed to be going well, until in 1903 a sulfur flooded and this led in a short time to the
economic ruin of the family. The wife is struck by a nervous breakdown that degenerates into
paranoia. Pirandello was thus forced to a feverish job to provide for the sustenance of the family:
within a few years he published several novels, essays, and collections of short stories: the most
important titles were certainly in 1904 Il fu Mattia Pascal and in 1926 Uno, nessuno e centomila. But
international fame came with the theater, which led him to win the Nobel Prize in 1934.

But why is Pirandello considered a classic of literature? He was a very lucid interpreter of the
epochal crisis that was affecting contemporary man at that time. In his works coexist the coldness of
the philosopher who ruthlessly investigates the bourgeois customs and the passion of the poet that
leads him to arouse atmospheres suspended between comedy and tragedy. In this way, Pirandello
gave life to a philosophical thought of pure relativism: reality is essentially chaos. Life is
transformation, vital flow, perennial movement. There is no point in fixing it: any attempt to contain
it is pure illusion. There is therefore no objective knowledge of man about himself and the world.
Everything is subjective, changeable opinion. It follows that the very concept of personal identity is
purely arbitrary. We do not know who we really are since our being is elusive, in metamorphosis.
It seems that Pirandello aimed to deconstruct all the deceptions of Positivism and that he had achieved
this goal by subjecting him to a close criticism: all his methods of investigation, all the social
institutions, values, ideologies that made the life of men apparently safe, controlled, and predictable
were put in crisis. This dynamic can be traced since the first novels: in the L’esclusa (1893), Marta
Ajala is at the center of an unjust and paradoxical situation that intends to demonstrate two
fundamental Pirandellian theories: that social conventions condition individuals to such an extent as
to distort the truth and that life constantly makes fun of us.

It is a pattern that is repeated in every writing: the protagonist has the mission of demolishing
social conventions, ridiculous and illusory. Once the deception is discovered, the protagonist is called
out of the game, he comes out of the circus, from the collective play and begins to look at that world
of which he was previously part with detachment and sarcasm.

The Pirandellian protagonist decides to rebel: he takes off the mask that is imposed on him by
the system and thus conquers his freedom. Highly exemplary in this sense is Il fu Mattia Pascal
(1904): librarian in a village in Liguria, Mattia leads a gray and monotonous existence and decides to
emigrate to America in secret. But, having arrived in Monte Carlo, he tries his luck and wins a large
amount of money at the casino. On the way back, he accidentally reads the news of his death due to
an exchange of corpses. Determined to seize the opportunity, he took the name of Adriano Meis and
traveled in Italy and abroad. In Rome he falls in love with Anselmo’s daughter, but at a certain point
it becomes clear that even that life is a ghost life, inconsistent, and decides to stage a suicide and
return to Miragno. There, by now, all he has to do is write his memoirs and visit his grave. Therefore,
the protagonist deluded himself that he could start living again: in reality, his new existence was based
on a lie that forced him to play a part, as in the theater. He had never really managed to be himself
but had lived as “in the shadow of a dead man.”

To support his philosophical arguments, for Pirandello it is necessary to stage situations that
are not particular or private, but highly exemplary and generalizing situations. It is always the story
of paradoxical events, far-fetched, but they are always to be traced back to existential dynamics
accessible to anyone. Moreover, there is no providence, there is no destiny: the causes and effects
are linked only by chance, which intertwines the lives of the subjects in unpredictable ways. Mattia
Pascal’s casino for him was just that: a random stroke of luck and metaphor of life itself.

The other face of the Italian twentieth century: Svevo and ineptitude

Aronne Ettore Schmitz was born in 1861 in Trieste, a port of the Habsburg Empire and a
thriving commercial center. Precisely this cosmopolitan, rich and lively city will be the reason why
he will choose the name Italo Svevo as the pseudonym to sign his novels: this name recalls his dual
cultural matrix, Italian and German, although it leaves the Jewish one in the shadows. He, indeed,
was not a practicing Jew.

After studying for four years at a boarding school in Germany, he was initiated into commerce
by his father. However, he was involved in 1880 in the failure of his father’s enterprise and was thus
forced to earn a living by abandoning the literary ambitions matured during his studies.
For twenty years, until 1899, he worked in the bank, devoting himself simultaneously to editorial
collaboration and teaching. Following his marriage in 1896 to Livia Veneziani, he soon joined his
father-in-law’s company. These were years of intense work and travel abroad for Svevo, especially in
England. Precisely in order to study English, he met James Joyce, who was then living in Trieste. The
two became so close friends that James Joyce was the one to whom Svevo read the drafts of his

As emerges in the diary of Svevo’s own wife, he was a voracious reader. Literature was his
ardent secret passion, to which he devoted himself in the evenings after dinner. After publishing his
first novels in the magazine “Indipendente”, he published at his own expense two Romans: Una vita
(1892) and Senilità (1898). However, these publications fell on deaf ears: there was the most total
indifference of the public and critics. Humiliated by the failure, he swore to himself to stop writing.
But this was not his ultimate destiny: he would soon become a classic, just like Pirandello. Italo
Svevo, indeed, will publish La coscienza di Zeno in 1923, immediately after the Great War. A rapid
international success followed thanks to James Joyce and in Italy thanks to Eugenio Montale. One of
the masterpieces of Italian literature of that century was born.

Italo Svevo certainly deserves to be remembered as a writer capable of giving a decisive turn
to Italian literature, freeing it from the nineteenth-century tradition to outline a new figure, a new
character, all his own: the inept, emblem of the man of the twentieth century. Indeed, in the Trieste
environment dominated by economic success, by the logic of business, he found himself immersed
in a concrete and material vision of human existence. In his novels, these existential coordinates
presented themselves: the conflict between economic activity and literary vocation is present in them.
These are always presented as opposite models of life. His character, therefore, lives the conflict
between the struggle for success and the search for inner serenity. The social environment is hostile
to him, indifferent to him and he is unable to adapt to it. There is no longer the romantic hero, that
figure capable of facing defeat in a courageous way. Svevo’s inept is denied for the struggle. He is
clumsy, ridiculous, incapable, frustrated and discontented. He is a trivial individual, nothing elevates
him from others. He is on the margins, misfit and distracted.

Secondly, Svevo must be recognized for the fact that he was a great master of introspection,
giving life to the “novel of existence”: what counts are no longer the facts as they happened, but how
they were lived and the resonances that these external facts have produced in the subject who tried
them. He, therefore, is interested in investigating in depth the mechanisms of defense, of lies, of selfdeception operated by the psyche of his subjects. Svevo’s character does not act: he reflects. It
follows that the story unfolds without major twists and turns, since conscience is the real protagonist.
Specifically, it lays bare the strategy of self-deception that consciousness can put in place.
Finally, he was able to intuit the existence of the unconscious and all its ambiguous and
pathological implications. In other words, he knew how to anticipate Freud.

All these coordinates are applied punctually to each individual character: Emilio Brentani
leads an anonymous and withdrawn life with his unmarried sister Amalia, until the greyness of this
life is upset by a love. Alfonso Nitti, on the other hand, struggles to adapt to the alienating work in
the bank and to interact with the colleges. His only consolation is the study to which he dedicates
himself in the evening. And finally the most iconic character: Zeno. Moved by the desire to refute
Freudian discoveries and psychoanalytic therapy, Zeno with irreverent irony misleads the reader page
after page. But it will be he, unlike the other protagonists, the only one who will ultimately triumph
and impose himself on the other male figures, apparently stronger than him.

A comparison: similarity and difference

As already mentioned, Pirandello’s thought is linked to the concept of relativism and the
fragmentation of the Ego that follows: the individual is not a single one but is multiple figures. There
are no absolute truths, but as many realities as there are minds capable of thinking. However, in order
to live in society, this individual is forced to use a mask that does not make him free.
Unlike Pirandello, for Svevo the modern individual is essentially the inept: a being also incapable of
living in society, but not because of Pirandello’s relativism.

They have in common the difficulty of the individual in his relationship with society, but they differ
precisely in the way of dealing with the relationship: if the Pirandellian character tries to rebel, to
overturn reality, to denounce deception and to pull himself out of this mechanism, Svevo’s character
is completely unsuitable for life and therefore does not know how to react. He is defeated by himself.
However, it must be clarified: the levels of reading of Svevo’s work are many and it is not as easy as
it may seem. Indeed, studying better, one realizes that the inept puts in place to some extent in turn a
form of resistance. It is not active, rebellious resistance: the sick person, unlike the normal man, has
not resigned. The normal man is the one who has renounced his drive towards happiness and has been
content to enter the social mechanism and be accepted. So: ineptitude is preferable to normality.