Thursday, April 9, 2015

Case Study No. 1884: The Late Mattia Pascal

BOOKTRAILER Il fu Mattia Pascal
booktrailer "Il fu Mattia Pascal"
enjoy ;)
Added: 1 year ago
From: Giulia Dalla Cia
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[scene opens with a male librarian (hat, plaid shirt, black pants, white mask covering his face) sitting at a table looking over books, as "Una vita monotona" appears on screen ("A monotonous life")]
[the scene fades to white, then cut to a closeup of a copy of Luigi Pirandello's "Il Fu Mattia Pascal" sitting on the floor next to a pile of scattered books]
[cut back to the librarian, as he stops and stares at one book before tossing it over his shoulder]
[the scene fades to black, as "Una famiglia che non ama" appears on screen ("A family he doesn't like")]
[cut to the librarian in his kitchen handling some oranges, when his wife (dressed in stereotypical Italian peasant garb) carries the laundry into the house, pushing him aside as she makes her way through the room]
[cut to the librarian holding a bowl of flour, when his wife suddenly chases him outside with a rolling pin (as he tries to throw handfuls of flour in her face)]
[the scene fades to black, as "L'occasione perfetta" appears on screen ("The perfect opportunity")]
[cut to the librarian sitting outside reading a newspaper, when he turns the page and the camera zooms in on a headline (pasted into the actual paper) that reads "Mattia Pascal trovato morto nella Stia" ("Mattia Pascal found dead in Stia")]
[the scene fades to black, as "per cambiare vita" appears on screen ("to change his life")]
[cut to the librarian and another woman trying to hold hands, when he suddenly backs away and covers his eyes]
[cut to the librarian running down a dark alley, when he's sudddenly surrounded by female doctors who talk to him all at once (one of them looks him over with a pair of binoculars)]
[the scene fades to black, as "E tu riesci a toglierti la maschera?" appears on screen ("And can you take off the mask?")]

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The Late Mattia Pascal (Italian: Il Fu Mattia Pascal) is a 1904 novel by Luigi Pirandello. It is one of his most successful works.

Plot summary
The protagonist, Mattia Pascal, finds that his promising youth has, through misfortune or misdeed, dissolved into a dreary dead-end job and a miserable marriage. His inheritance and the woman he loved are stolen from him by the same man, his eventual wife and mother-in-law badger him constantly, and his twin daughters, neglected by their mother, can provide him with joy only until an untimely death takes them. Death robs him even of his beloved mother.

To escape, he decides one day to sneak off to Monte Carlo, where he encounters an amazing string of luck, acquiring a small fortune. While reading a newspaper on his return home, he discovers, to his immense shock and delight, that his wife and mother-in-law declared an unknown corpse to be his own. Faced with this sudden opportunity to start afresh, he first wanders about Europe, and finally settles down in Rome with an assumed identity. His character develops in unexpected, even admirable, ways. Yet one admirable act brings the protagonist a crisis, followed by additional crises that lead him to conclude that continuing with his plans will entail only misery for those he loves, precisely because his entire life, including the precious liberty he thought he had gained from his past, is now a lie. He ultimately decides to fake his own death and return to his original life. But even that proves difficult; his family and town have long since adjusted to his "death," and his own adjustment of character prompts him to have mercy on his now remarried wife. So the twice-dead Late Mattia Pascal reduces himself to a figure outside the mainstream of society, a walk-on part in his own life.

Despite the bizarre and macabre plot, the book is written in a warmly humorous style. Mattia is, essentially, a comic character, and the novel at times becomes almost satirical. Pirandello's concern with the nature of identity, which figures strongly in such plays as Six Characters in Search of an Author and Enrico IV, is also at the philosophical core of this novel.



Right in the first few pages the author tells us this is the story of a man who "died" twice. Our hero, or anti-hero, is going nowhere in late 1800's Italy. He earns a pittance as the librarian in backwater Italian town. He lives with screaming kids, a wife who has lost interest in him and a viscous mother-in-law who hates him. One day while out of town, he learns from newspapers that the decomposed body of a suicide victim down by the watermill in his home town was mistaken for him. He is free! He goes on a gambling spree and actually makes money and creates a new life for himself in a distant town. But living a second life is far from easy and the plot turns into a farcical soap opera (or a real opera, since the work is translated from the Italian).

The book was published in 1904, and like other novels of that era, such as Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or Unamuno's Abel Sanchez, there is a lot of exploring of the psychology of the main character dues to the newly developing field of psychology. The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. It kept my attention and I found the plot fast-paced and with a bit of a mystery to it.



The prose isn't going to blow you away, but this fine work by a little-known Nobel laureate infuses the age-old presumed-dead-but-came-back-to-life trope with a hefty dose of philosophical musings on the nature of identity.

Luigi Pirandello / Italian / 1904 / 272 pages
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

We all know the story. Guy and girl fall in love; something happens, like the outbreak of war, and the two are separated; at some point the girl mistakenly presumes the guy is dead and, painful as it may be, moves on with her life; after many trials and tribulations, the guy eventually makes his way back to the girl; depending on how charitable the narrator is at this point, the guy is either welcomed back with open arms or begrudgingly shunned on account of her jealous interim beau. Thematically, the narrative is usually painted in broad, overly romanticized brushstrokes and readers are bludgeoned about the face with obtuse lessons on the nature of love and fidelity. Put differently, simplicity abounds. Every other year, a major Hollywood blockbuster along these lines is released to huge commercial success as the masses gorge themselves on this intellectually inbred material. When they leave the theater, the members of the audience might think for a few minutes about the contours of their own romantic attachment. They doubt their resolve. They are glad that they don't have to fight in World War II.


Enter Luigi Pirandello with a fresh perspective (actually, given this novel's 1904 publication date, I'm not sure there's really anything "fresh" in the approach; the fact that Pirandello's twist on the presumed-dead-but-come-back-to-life story line has been around for a hundred years makes novels like The Notebook seem particularly egregious; but I digress). The perspective is fresh because Pirandello creates a "dead" man who, surprisingly, doesn't mind being dead. Mattia Pascal has recently lost his two infant daughters to illness and his marriage with his wife is completely spoiled. They reside with his horrible mother-in-law (who Pirandello suggests is a witch with 50-50 probability) and can barely make ends meet on the scant income he brings in from his job as a librarian at a library that no one ever visits. His own beloved mother and brother have moved away and are happily living their separate lives in isolation. He gets to the point where he can no longer tolerate the miserable status quo.

So Mattia shoots off to a gambling house in a far away Italian city without telling any of his relatives. He sets up camp for several weeks and, due to inexplicable luck, quickly wins enough money at the roulette table that he'll never have to work another day in his life. His plan is to return home, slam the money down on the kitchen table, and make it explicitly clear to anyone who will listen that he's the one who wears the pants in the house and hereafter will no longer be taking guff. While he's on the train home, however, he picks up a newspaper with an obituary announcing his own suicide back in his hometown. Apparently the body of another man (who may or may not have resembled Mattia Pascal) was pulled out of a river and promptly identified as Mattia by his wife and mother-in-law. He sees an open door and runs through it: at the next train station, he disembarks, gets his beard and hair trimmed down to nothing, and catches a new train in the opposite direction. He invents a new name for himself, buys new clothes, and - for the next two years - spends his time flitting about continental Europe touring the major capital cities.

Eventually he tires of this wandering and settles down as a tenant in a rented bedroom of a family comprised of a retired teacher and his young, unmarried daughter. He falls in love with the woman, grows comfortable in the city, and turns his thinking toward settling down, buying a house of his own, and obtaining a marriage certificate. He's stopped short in these musings by an obvious fact, however: as a man who has renounced a true identity and constructed a false one, he must live entirely off the grid or people will begin to ask questions. He cannot put a name down on a housing purchase, for example, and he can never pay taxes. Mattia must buy his meals and pay his rent in cash so as not to leave a trail of receipts by which he might be traced. Gradually, he begins to realize that, far from the freedom he thought he was going to win, he's actually boxed himself into a circumscribed existence that he must work to defend with an increasingly elaborate network of lies and deceptions.

Eventually he returns to his hometown and receives a (predictably) unpleasant welcome.

But the gist of the story is Mattia's conflicts over his own identity. He can't live the life he wants, so he bails out and constructs a new life; but the very fact that he's abandoned a past life virtually eliminates the freedoms he thought he was buying himself with his new identity. Pirandello suggests that people are fundamentally unable to change the basic aspects of their character. And even if they could construct a thoroughly sound set of lies upon which to base a new existence, Mattia experiences such a lack of emotional connection to his invented past that it almost hardly seems worth the trouble; in order to feel rooted to a history, it needs to be the real one. Fabricated stories about births in foreign countries, affable grandfathers who took us to art museums, and a childhood predicated on transience might trick our listeners, but will rob us of our own core.

The writing in The Late Mattia Pascal is not going to blow you away. Pirandello frequently takes us inside Mattia's head and his thoughts are a cluttered and highly repetitive run of anxieties, confusions, and aspirations. This can get old after a while. Additionally, Pirandello is not so concerned with setting the scene and describing the environment. Rather, his characters just kind of run into one another in generic spaces that might be located in major European metropolises or somewhere in your own backyard. But some of this probably arises from the facts that the novel was not Pirandello's chief medium (indeed, it was theater) and his focus was more on philosophical and emotional considerations. This is why the novel seems, well, novel despite its all-too-familiar narrative arch. This is also why The Late Mattia Pascal comes off like a masterwork when compared to another Italian novel about an unhappily married man by Pirandello's contemporary Italo Svevo. That book is called Zeno's Conscience and I would never recommend it to anyone. Whereas Zeno is a near-total narrative disaster populated by capricious and flat characters whose motivations never seem clear, Mattia Pascal is at least decently funny, decently thought-provoking, and decently written. That might not sound like the best sales pitch in the world, but I think it suffices: if you ever find yourself working through the Italian canon, be sure you place Pirandello on the list, but not before you've knocked out some other Italian heavyweights like Levi, Bassani, and Calvino.

Rating: 7 / 10



The Late Mattia Pascal is a provocative, often funny, and also often deeply unhappy adventure in personal identity. Mattia Pascal is appointed librarian of the rarely patronized town library in Miragno, Italy. He replaces a deaf, nearly blind old man who apparently does not realize he has been turned out of his position (he dies four months later). The library is almost wholly empty; from time to time a rat pushes a book or two from the shelves. The rats are so numerous that Pascal describes his two-year tenure as librarian as "rat hunter." After the old librarian's death, Pascal finds to his disconcert that he is aping the old man in that he reads the library's books on the job in lieu of serving patrons. In fact, there are many more rats than patrons.

One day Pascal is summoned from the library; his wife is giving birth to twins. One dies promptly, the other a year later at the same time as Pascal's mother. Grief overwhelms him. Aimless, he bolts the library and travels without notifying friends or family to Monte Carlo, where he gambles recklessly and wins again and again. After his winning streak, with 80,000 lira in his pocket, he picks up a newspaper and finds that he has been mistakenly identified as a suicide victim in his hometown. His initial anger at the careless error gives way to jubilation. He could now keep all his gambling winnings: "I had no debts now, no wife, no mother-in-law. Nobody! Free! Free! Free! What more could I ask for?"

Pascal gets a new haircut and manufactures a new name - "Adriano Meis" - from names he overhears in a chance conversation and constructs for himself an alternate life history, should anyone ask. Pascal's new life proves unsatisfactory. He has created a new identity, but it is without any footing in reality, and the only way to maintain it is to deny himself normal social contacts. Through a nicely ironic route he returns ("reincarnates") as his old self.

"Madman that I was!" he scores himself. "How could I have believed that a trunk can live when cut off from its roots?" His return home is not altogether triumphant, but he stays on, adn from time to time he goes out to the local graveyard to visit the spot where the body once presumed to be his lies. At the grave is a stone reading "Mattia Pascal Librarian Generous Heart Noble Soul" and so on.

The novel is a brilliant examination of the meaning not only of personal identity but of freedom and choice, and its tone of sustained irony and Pascal's own readiness to laugh at the absurdity of his sutuation never allows it to descend to the pop culture level of such thematically-related works as the film It's a Wonderful Life. There's nothing pat or sentimental about Mattia Pascal's story.

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