February 22, 2019KR Reviews

Dismantling Myself Spitefully: On Luigi Pirandello’s One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand

Translated by William Weaver. Sacramento, CA: Spurl, 2018. 218 pages. $18.00.

“Forgive me if I speak a moment in the style of philosophers,” narrates Vitangelo Moscarda in the second part of One, No One and One Hundred Thousand, the final novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Italian author Luigi Pirandello. The remark by the book’s protagonist is written as if it introduces a brief philosophical digression, but it could just as well serve as an epigraph for the entire novel. Because compared even to Pirandello’s allegorical earlier fictions, One, No One and One Hundred Thousand reads more like an essay in metaphysics than a plot-driven narrative.

It starts off promisingly enough, with actual dialogue and the setting of a reassuringly familiar domestic scene. Inspecting himself in front of a mirror, Moscarda tells his wife that he’s looking at his nose, since it gives him “a little pain” when he presses it. His wife replies, “I thought you were looking to see which way it tilts,” at which point begins his plunge down the proverbial rabbit hole. Realizing for the first time that his nose does indeed tilt, Moscarda has the alarming thought that “I didn’t know well even my own body, my most personal possessions: nose, ears, hands, legs.”

In other words, he realizes that he doesn’t—or couldn’t—have an objective idea of his own self and identity, and that “for others I was not what till now, privately, I had imagined myself to be.” However, rather than stopping at this relatable epiphany and depicting how discrepancies of perception directly manifest themselves in Moscarda’s life, Pirandello has him wade through pages and pages of inner monologues, in which the only other person addressed by the protagonist is the reader. “It did occur to me. But, excuse me, is it really true that it occurred also to you?” is only one of the many audience-directed questions he poses, and they appear with such regular frequency that you can’t help but suspect they function solely as excuses for Pirandello to extend Moscarda’s train of thought.

Given that the book is more of an essay than a narrative, readers will enjoy it precisely to the extent that they find themselves agreeing with what Moscarda/Pirandello expounds. Admittedly, some of his ideas are interesting, such as the notion that, in a godless universe, there’s no reliable way of deciding whose perception of a particular person is more authoritative or accurate. “You want to know, finally, what everything is based on? I’ll tell you. On the presumption that God will always keep you. The presumption that reality, as it is for you, must be and is the same for everyone else.”

But the problem is, despite beginning from premises which aren’t particularly controversial, One, No One, And One Hundred Thousand proceeds to draw out some very questionable conclusions. Beginning from the premise that we’re viewed differently by each of those around us, it jumps to the argument that one person is actually hundreds, if not thousands of different people. This may initially seem like a harmless metaphor, but Pirandello in fact goes so far as reifying this metaphor, treating distinct conceptions as if they were sufficient to give birth to distinct living and breathing bodies:

Wasn’t my wife kissing, on my lips, and man who was not I? On my lips? No! Mine, indeed! To what extent were they mine, truly mine the lips she was kissing? Did she perhaps hold my body in her arms? But to what extent could it really be mine, that body?

Irrespective of whether we have sympathy for such ontological convictions or not, what weakens Pirandello’s arguments is also what weakens One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand as a novel. Namely, Moscarda explains his philosophical discovery with the kind of urgency that suggests it’s a big deal, with enormous ramifications for how we lead our lives and how society functions. Unfortunately, he doesn’t show this via a narrative or plot so much as tell us via the mental soliloquies introduced above, something which implies that, on the contrary, deviations in perception don’t actually make society unworkable. And in the rare instance where Pirandello does attempt to illustrate the threats posed by divergent perceptions, he leaves omissions or speaks in the abstract, scared that giving concrete examples would undermine his point:

One will say: “Moscarda did this.”

The other will say: “This, indeed! He did something quite different!”

And the third: “If you ask me, he did the right thing. He had to do this!”

The fourth: “Right, my foot! He did quite the wrong thing. He should have done instead . . .”

And the fifth: “What should he have done? Why, he hasn’t done anything!”

Such evasion leaves the reader somewhat dissatisfied, although to be fair, the novel does become more narrative-driven and less ruminative after the one hundredth page or so. It’s around this juncture that Moscarda begins putting a (somewhat deranged) plan into action: “I decided to discover who I was at least for those closest to me, my so-called acquaintances, and to amuse myself by dismantling spitefully the me that I was for them.” Accordingly, he takes to acting strangely around his friends and peers, all in an ostensible attempt to upend their perceptions of him and to “prove” his newfound philosophy.

It would risk spoiling the novel’s ending to detail just what Moscarda does in its less ponderous second half, but suffice it to say that his exploits involve a bank, a house, and his wife, all three of which his late father bequeathed to him as an inheritance. However, rather than supporting his theory that you’re an irreconcilably different person for each of your friends, it needs to be said that what happens to him is the result of his concerted efforts, and not the result of reality simply playing out as he describes it. And more importantly, there are more prosaic (yet more compelling) explanations for the novel’s denouement than the suggestion that other people were repelled by the fact that he no longer satisfied their conceptions of him. For example, the trustees of his inherited stake in the bank begin turning against him, not because he “dismantles” the “me” that he was for them but simply because they fear losing money.

And a similar counter-narrative could be proffered for the novel’s main driving force, i.e. the realization (or belief) that the individual has no definite identity or being. As Moscarda admits in the very first chapter of the book, he arrives at this idea less because it’s undeniably true and irresistibly persuasive, and more because he had never done anything with his life and so was already aware of his status as an aimless nonentity. “It was my nature. But for that matter, true, it was also my idleness,” he acknowledges, which ultimately is a shame, because even with its overdone philosophizing and arguable conclusions, One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand broaches a theme that is at once timeless and timely. And while it does frustrate as a novel and as an epitaph for its author, it does at least raise provocative questions about identity, ones that we would all do well to contemplate in this self-obsessed age.

Simon Chandler is a writer and journalist based in Hove, UK. He writes about politics, technology and culture, and has been published by such outlets as Wired, the New Internationalist, TechCrunch, the Daily Dot, the Verge, and Cointelegraph, among others. He also writes about music for Bandcamp and Tiny Mix Tapes, and about literature for the Kenyon Review and Electric Literature.