October 2010

Ben Greenman

features

The Nobel Reprise, Letter 4: Luigi Pirandello

Dear Pauls,

You keep coming into the present and I keep dragging us back into the past. Is that how it's going to be? Your Kertesz, my Beckett, your Le Clézio, my... well, I'll table that for a moment. I don't want to say who I'm writing about just yet.

You ask "What's the most beautiful place you've ever been?" I will table that too, for a moment, to confess a shortcoming. I am bad at places. I have been to Montserrat in the mountains outside Barcelona. That nearly did me in. I've seen sky-and-water events off to the west of the Florida Keys that made me want to close my eyes and be done with the whole nasty mess. But I am terrible at writing about places, and that's because I'm terrible at being in them. I think I have a problem with the proposition or maybe the preposition. I don't feel like I'm in places. I think I'm at them. I have tried, maybe too self-consciously, to achieve the kind of interpenetration between subject and setting that you find in Chatwin, say, or Bowles. The man is forever changed by what is around him. Here, the preposition turns: they're not in places, but places are in them. For me, neither of those things happens. There is no healthy interchange between inside and outside. I have another strategy (or defense mechanism [or disability]). I go mental. I don't mean that I go insane. You'd need a doctor to determine that, and I hacked him to pieces and buried him in a cedar chest. I go recursive.

And that's why I have selected Luigi Pirandello, who was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize. The work everyone knows is Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which six archetypal characters barge into a theatre and announce that they have been stranded, mid-story, and require an author to complete their being(s). Undergraduate drama classes have been staging it as long as there have been both undergraduate drama and Six Characters in Search of an Author. I have watched more than one production, and I applaud them all. It is absolutely undergraduate, in this sense: the grappling with reality and identity, with ownership and control, with authorship, get a brilliant brief. It doesn't go too deep, but why should it? All the things I pointed out in Beckett are here, too, but without the jet-black bleakness that I would only later come to see as comedy.

But that's Pirandello 101, and I wanted to read something I had never read. I went for One, No One and One Hundred Thousand, his final novel. It's short, like the Beckett. Someone asked me if we are only going to read short works. I said, "No, of course not -- I am only going to read short works. Pauls will read long ones, I'm sure." But I'm trying to get rid of the avocado to get to the pit.

The story concerns a young gentleman, Vitangelo Moscarda. He's looking in the mirror one morning and he notices something strange about his nose: when he presses the nostril, he feels pain. His wife happens upon him doing this, inquires, and says, offhandedly, “I thought you were looking to see which way it tilts.” Moscarda has not known that his nose tilts -- or, more precisely, that his wife thinks that it does -- and right then and there, he comes apart. The act he is performing, the act of looking at himself in the mirror, shatters, and with it his sense of himself. There's something chilling about the way that Pirandello isolates this one moment. We do it every day, right? I do. But it's such a strange act, when you deconstruct it. There's a magical plane that turns away light and gives us sight of the only thing we truly know, which is also a thing we fear we can never truly know: our self. So at that moment, shaken by his wife’s revelation, Moscarda decides that the self he sees is not essentially real, but rather a persona. It is built from the assumptions of others. But maybe “built” is the wrong word. It is an accumulation, an accretion. It comes together somewhat accidentally, with slant angles and blind spots. No one sees it precisely the same way. This dismays him greatly, and so he endeavors to do away with this thing, this conceit, this false self. I don’t want to say too much about how this happens, about the costs to Moscarda or the reactions of those around him. The work is only eighty pages long. But it is a dense and rewarding eighty pages.

I will say this, because it’s manifestly true: the novella is a somewhat comic portrait of the sadness of modern identity. In Pirandello’s time, the undermining and fragmentation of identity also had political dimensions; he was disappointed and confused at the failure of the Risorgimento to create a unified Italy, a national self. But in America, now more than ever, because of technology, because of media, because of tools which give more people than ever the ability to speak out but fewer people than ever a clear sense of the ownership of the mouth that speaks, identity has become fragmented all over again. To be a person now is to be a physical being, but also an email addres (or two or three), various online profiles, opinions of others that are etched forever in digital stone. My newest book, which Harper Perennial is publishing as we speak, is called Celebrity Chekhov, and for me it is an act of the blackest and most hopeful comedy, because it looks at how this disease of modern identity ravages the most afflicted among us: celebrities. I took out the characters from Chekhov and put in contemporary figures like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Conan O’Brien. I wasn’t thinking of Pirandello when I wrote it, but I am thinking of my project now, when I write about him. I am daring everyone, including myself, to read Chekhov’s stories for their humanity when the very narrative is overpowered by neon signs of constructed identity. I think that I am drawn to Pirandello because he asks these questions too baldly. What is the self, your self or his self or her self? How dare you grant it the status of truth? And, at the same time, how dare you deny it that status?

This takes me to one of your other points: how do authors grapple with questions of reward? Are we angry when we feel like someone else's book has been overpraised, or our book underpraised, or the phone stops ringing to tell us how great the last book was? I read Pirandello’s address upon receiving the Nobel, and he was very gracious: to the point, modest, desirous of believing that the essential humanity of his work was the secret of its elevation. He saw a way to stand at the mirror of approval and view the reflection happily. I am envious of this. I have had a vexed relationship with reviews. For the most part, they've been good. But I stopped reading them with a clear eye years ago, and so I tried to stop reading them entirely. Why should I care what someone else cares about a book? Let's say that the other person is Undergraduate Woman Who Loves The Stories. Fantastic. And let's say that down the street from her, there's Professional Fiction Editor Who Thinks I Am A Hack. Isn't that just as arbitrary? People’s opinions are just places to me, and when you're standing at them, you're not really standing in them. What matters is what you think of your own work, only and finally.

This can be intensely narcissistic, of course. How dare I or anyone say that what is not-me is somehow also, plainly, not? And yet I think that these things can be and should be dismantled so that we are not "Blow Up the Outside" that I don't remember except for its title phrase, which I sing to myself all the time. Somehow this got a little darker than I intended. I don't think it's a cry for help. But sometimes I am out with friends and they are happily, energetically, giving opinions about movies or TV shows or books, or they are talking about trips, and I just feel the bottom drop out: way out. What are they talking about? Nothing they mention seems real. In many of my stories and books, I have invented characters who invent movies, or songs, or who write research papers, because it seems truer to falsify. Who says that the song "We All Need a Place In the Sun," written by the protagonist of my novel Please Step Back, is any less real than, say, Robbie Nevil's "C'est La Vie"? It need not be central to my story, a plot point, a cynosure. It could just be a fact in an invented world that I believe has the same status as a fact in the world into which we were invented. I would petition the court to at least consider the possibility that this is a philosophical stance rather than depression or insanity or (this again) flagrant narcissism.

So I think I am back to your first question, and I'm ready to answer it. First, I want to issue a disclaimer. I am, as I said before, somewhat envious of your story about traveling the west with Le Clézio and seeing the places around you change throughout the prism of his prose. I am not sure I can do this. But I'm going to grasp at a straw. I think I can do this if I see the outside as the inside and the inside as the outside. You say that Boise changed for you because of the book. I would say, maybe pedantically, that your idea of Boise changed as your ideas about other things changed. Boise, as I think we can probably agree, didn't change at all. It didn't even know you were there. And since I have already confessed my inability to let places in, or to let myself be in them, I will stay inside a zone of ideas. It's not a safe zone, not demilitarized. It's dangerous and exciting and hopeful. It's not even separated from reality because I am fairly certain that it is all there is to reality. So here is my answer. I want this read with an accent, so it is ironized, as a means of concealing or at least muffling the truth of it -- or rather, the truths of it, the happy and sad both. You can pick the accent: Indian or British or if you want to respect Pirandello, Italian. The most beautiful place I've ever been is the mind. 

Ben

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