Who are we? Are we really who we believe we are? Or are we someone completely different than we think? Do others see us the way we see ourselves? These are questions that occupied and still occupy the minds of many ordinary people and of scores of philosophers worldwide. While philosophers necessarily take a scientific point of view on matters of identity, writers can deal with it more freely, and in fact, they do so rather often – to their own as well as to their readers’ delight. Often the philosophical aspects of a novel almost disappear under the surface of an intricate plot, but One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello offers a direct approach. The work of the Nobel laureate 1934 centres on the narrating protagonist’s search for his only true identity which disturbs him to the point of madness and confuses his surroundings.
Luigi Pirandello was born in a country house on the outskirts of Agrigento, Sicily, Italy, in June 1867 and grew up in a well-to-do family. After having finished high school in Palermo, he began to study law and letters at the local university, but only continued his philological studies in Rome and finished them in Bonn, Germany, in 1891. Although he had been making poems already as a teenager, he dedicated himself to writing more seriously only after his return to Italy, above all after the family business was ruined by natural disaster in 1903. During his life the prolific author produced some volumes of poetry, several novels, hundreds of short stories, and about forty plays. It was above all his innovative dramatic work which earned him international fame and the Nobel Prize in Literature 1934, but also his novels and short stories were celebrated. The most notable among them are The Late Mattia Pascal (Il fu Mattia Pascal: 1904), Her Husband (Suo marito: 1911), The Old and the Young (I vecchi e i giovani: 1913), and One, No One and One Hundred Thousand (Uno, nessuno e centomila: 1926) along with his short stories and novellas republished in a 15-volume edition titled Short Stories for a Year (Novelle per un anno: 1922-37). Luigi Pirandello died in Rome, Italy, in December 1936.
The narrator and central figure of One, No One and One Hundred Thousand is twenty-eight-year-old Vitangelo Moscarda, called Gengè by his wife Dida. Thanks to his share in the bank that his father left him at his death and that is now run by his father’s partners and friends (fatherly director Sebastiano Quantorzo and brotherly legal consultant Stefano Firbo), he enjoys a good life without work in the invented Italian town Richieri. He is sure of himself until his wife jokingly tells him that his nose leans slightly to the right, when she finds him contemplating in front of the mirror one morning. He never noticed the tiny defect and the unexpected revelation pushes him into a state of self-doubt. For the first time he realises that his picture of himself differs considerably from the picture that others have of him and he becomes obsessed with the idea of laying bare his true, universal self. His task proves much more difficult than he thought. He becomes aware of the great number of people he is due to the mere fact that every person has a different opinion of him and that not one coincides with another or at least his own. He tries to shake off his idea of himself to be able to see himself in the mirror as a stranger would, but if he succeeds it’s only for split seconds. Then he includes the aspect of situation and communication into his considerations which confuses him even more because it proves that the one and only identity that he seeks doesn’t exist, can’t exist because everybody lives in a world of his/her own separated from all others. At this point he begins to put his findings to test, ie to shock his surroundings behaving in a different way than he normally would. People begin to think him crazy, but he isn’t willing to back down and resume old habits as well as roles… not even for his beloved wife.
The quality of One, No One and One Hundred Thousand as a philosophical novel through and through is striking from the first page to the last. Although it’s not a scientific treatise it requires an open as well as a very focused mind to be able to fully enjoy it. The sharp logic of the protagonist’s reasoning can make spin the head and it certainly lingers on in the mind long after having finished the book. It makes think about how we usually perceive our environment, including people, as stable and consistent with our own idea of the world although we know well enough that there use to be more sides to everything. The fact that the narrator directly addresses the reader ever again may add to the novel’s great power. Since the concept of identity proper is so complex, the plot is reduced to the necessary minimum. There isn’t much happening although the author has included several unexpected turns to show the protagonist’s growing confusion or madness. As requires the task, the main focus is on the protagonist himself and his considerations, while all other characters of the story, including his wife Dida whom he loves, remain rather flat and colourless: their true selves are out of his reach. Since I read the Italian original, I can say little about the language except that it didn’t give me too much trouble to understand what the author wished to say although 88 years after the first release of the novel some of the vocabulary or at least the spelling seem to be a bit outdated.
Reading One, No One and One Hundred Thousand was quite a special experience for me, namely slightly disturbing and enjoyable at the same time. However, as regular readers of my blog know, I have a bit of a bent for the philosophical and therefore delighted in the read. Someone who is convinced that everybody sees the world through the same – objective – eyes (and I know people who do!), might not enjoy at all reading this great novel… and the more warmly I recommend it to every such person. It’s not an easy read, but marvellously thought-provoking.
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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!