Eleven Short Stories (Undici Novelle)

I persist in my old habit of giving audience every Sunday morning to the characters of my future short stories.

Three hours, from seven to ten.

I almost always find myself in bad company.

I knew very little about Luigi Pirandello prior to reading Undici Novelle, other than my girlfriend’s assertion that if I wanted to read a great Italian writer I should start with either him or Italo Svevo. When I went looking for something I ended up bingeing: first on Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, then being compelled to buy Pirandello’s One, No One & One Hundred Thousand just because I loved the title; but the short story collection Undici Novelle, a dual-language version translated and edited by Stanley Appelbaum, seemed like a good place to start. Having now finished it, I think it was.

Luigi Pirandello’s career as a short story writer evidently underpinned much of his as a novelist and playwright. He wrote more than 230, many of which inspired or found their way into his longer works in one form or another. He would also continually modify them, so whenever one was to be included in a new collection it could show anything from a few typographical corrections to wholesale revisions.

Those collected here, given in chronological order of publication, are all taken from their original versions in order to give a feel for Pirandello’s development as a writer. The first, Little Hut, which was written when he was only seventeen, is unsurprisingly the weakest; but it signals what is to come very clearly, that Pirandello’s focus is far more on the description and nuances of character than plotting – and he is a master of it.

His creations are highly authentic, idiosyncratic people and there is a definite tendency towards the tragic in their brief time centre stage. An innocent coming to recognise the failure of his love and a needless martyr forever denying it to herself stand side by side with more obviously, more unpleasantly selfish figures who, even if motivated towards the benefit of others, are quick to turn on those who displease them. It must be said that Pirandello makes little effort to mask where his stories are heading; in the majority of cases the rough direction is clear from the opening paragraphs, leaving you knowing far more then the character about their imminent fate. This often sacrifices something of impact, and a few stories became a little repetitive with it, but the general effect is to generate a kind of fatalistic anticipation and these stories are all about emotional response, both of reader and subject.

Well, not all. As the opening quote reveals, there is more than a little humour to be had from him as well and many of the stories raise more than just a smile. There are also moments of more analytical study of the human condition, such as in It’s Not To Be Taken Seriously, the hero of which compulsively sees the ridiculous not just in those he sees putting on airs, but also in everyone he feels love for; he comes to see the beasts that still inhabit all men, the thieves, imposters, murderers lurking in potentia behind every civil veneer; but humour remains, as “after so many centuries of civilisation, many people now sheltered in their cave an animal that was excessively subdued: a pig that said the rosary, a fox that had lost it’s tail.”

There were four stories here that stood out, starting with A Character’s Tragedy, forerunner to his most famous play Six Characters in Search of an Author, which gives an insightful glimpse of his creative process and the tangible reality he imbues his characters with – and even other writers’ characters too. Although I found all the stories interesting, it was only with The Fly that I began to feel Pirandello’s writing really bite – and with cruel power. Pirandello was apparently fond of stories sympathetic to those animals domesticated by man and one from the collection, A Prancing Horse, showed for me his greatest skill in rendering emotion. As noted above, this too was an easy tale to predict in its general tone, direction and climax – but here there was also a twist, of the knife almost, a face-slapping insight into how one could take pleasure from the pain of others.

The Oil Jar, which is unsurprisingly his best loved short, is more narratively complete than the majority and unusually upbeat. A land owner who can only be described as a litigious git is ripe for reprimand by the one person in a position to help him in his selfish hour of need, but against anyone else’s literary conventions this person turns out to be every bit his childishly belligerent equal and the two quickly fall into a mutual downfall from which only one can rise the victor.

Atypically, the stakes here are more emotionally trivial and instead of a tragedy in the making The Oil Jar resolves into a warm, Much Ado About Nothing kind of rap on the knuckles for a man who probably deserves it – which one, I’ll leave unsaid, but I will quote the opening passage of the story as it perfectly sums up the writer and his work: a fertile mind, strongly nourishing, a mix of the sweet with the sombre.

A bumper crop of olives, too, that year. Productive trees, laden down the year before, had all borne firm fruit, in spite of the fog that had stifled them when in blossom.

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