Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Late Mattia Pascal + Boredom

A couple of book reviews, and related links ...

1. "The Late Mattia Pascal" ("Il fu Mattia Pascal") by Luigi Pirandello

Mattia Pascal is not a lucky man.  His father died when he was four,
leaving behind a large estate consisting of sevarl properties.  His
mother entrusted the management of the estate to a business partner of
her late husband, Battista Malagna.  But the "Mole", as Malagna became
known, gradually defrauds the family of its inheritance.

Mattia falls in love with Oliva.  He thinks another girl, Romilda, would
be a good match for his friend, Pomino.  The two boys often go to
Romilda's house.  The Mole is also looking for a new wife, and starts
courting Oliva.  Romilda is not interested in Pomino, preferring Mattia.
When she gets pregnant, poor Mattia's die is cast: he is forced to marry
Romilda, while Oliva ends up marrying the Mole.

Mattia moves in with Romilda and her mother.  He gets nagged constantly
by both women.  Romilda gives birth to twin girls, but one of them is
still-born.  The other daughter dies a few months later.  To make things
worse for poor Mattia, his own mother dies.  Up until now you'd get the
impression that his life is a veritable series of unfortunate events.

One day Mattia decides to get away from his troubles: he takes the train
to the French Riviera without telling anyone.  He's not a gambler but is
drawn to Monte Carlo, in particular the roulette tables.  He has an
incredible winning streak, and makes a small fortune.  He toys with the
idea of running away to America, but decides to go back home.  While at
the train station and flicking through a newspaper, he reads an item
about a suicide - his own apparently!  A man was found dead in his home
town.  His wife had earlier reported him missing, and when the badly
decomposed body of a drowned man was found, she mistakenly identified it
as that of Mattia.

Mattia sees this a an opportunity to break free from his misery, and he
can starts his life over.  He adopts a new name, Adriano Meis, and makes
up a new life story.  He uses his winnings to live it up around Italy.
But eventually he sees that this lifestyle cannot last, so he settles in
Naples where he rents a room from a family.

Mattia's second life as Adriano starts to lose its appeal.  He realises
he cannot explain his wealth, and he cannot legally marry a woman he's
fallen in love with (and who has fallen in love with him).  The woman's
father dabbles in metaphysics, which appeals to Mattia/Adriano since he
feels he is himself living "beyond the grave".  The woman's brother-in-
law is suspicious and starts causing trouble for "Adriano".

When "Adriano" is wrongly accused of making advances to the girlfriend
of a volatile artist, he is challenged to a duel.  He sees this crisis
as a way to stop living a lie as "Adriano".  To avoid the duel, he
"kills off" his second persona by faking suicide.  Then, reborn as
Mattia Pascal, he can return home to reclaim his identity and confront
his wife.  But he is in for more surprises when he gets there.

The issue of identity provides the philosophical theme for the story.
While Mattia's life appears very tragic, the style of the book is
actually rather comical.  I really enjoyed the first half of the story
up until Mattia rents the room in Naples.  The account of his life with
the slightly dysfunctional family was good but didn't work as well for
me.  Mattia's return home rounds out an interesting and amusing book.

The book was written over a hundred years ago.  The author, Luigi
Pirandello, is better know for his plays, and won a Nobel-prize for
Literature.  An English translation is available online at:

2. "Boredom" ("La noia") by Alberto Moravia

As the title suggests, this is a story about boredom.  In particular, it
is about the boredom of an individual named Dino, and the role it plays
in his life.

In the prologue, the narrator (Dino) describes his concept of boredom:
"Boredom to me consists in a kind of insufficiency, or inadequacy, or
lack of reality... the feeling of boredom originates in a sense of the
absurdity of a reality which is insufficient, or anyhow unable, to
convince of its own effective existence."

Dino didn't get good grades when he was at school.  He blames this on
boredom.  Once he started a school project, a universal history
"according to boredom".  The central argument was that history was the
consequence of boredom: "In the beginning was boredom, commonly called
chaos.  God, bored with boredom, created the earth, the sky, ..., Adam
and Eve; and the latter, bored in their turn in paradise, ate the
forbidden fruit.  God became bored with them and drove them out of Eden;
Cain, bored with Abel, killed him; ... God, once again bored with
mankind, destroyed the world by means of the Flood; ... The great
empires - Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman - rose out of
boredom and fell again in boredom..." etc.  Of course, Dino grew bored
with the whole project and abandoned it before completing it.

His widowed mother says they are not just rich, but in fact they are
very rich.  Dino doesn't want to be rich.  Dino is a painter.  He finds
he can no longer paint: boredom has made it impossible for him to accept
the reality of anything, even a simple drinking glass.  He visits his
mother's villa on his 35th birthday.  She wants him to move back home,
and gives him an expensive sports car as a present.  Initially he says
he will move back, but then changes his mind and flees.

A beautiful teenage girl (Cecilia), who has been modelling for another
artist, offers to be a model for Dino.  Maybe Dino thought she could be
his muse, so he accepts.  But she turns out to be more of a nymphet.
Dino falls for Cecilia, but not long after seeing him, he discovers that
she has started going out with an actor.  Despite this, Dino finds her
intriguing, and continues to see her.  Later he wants to break it off
with Cecilia, but he can only do this after he has truly "possessed"
her.  By "possessing" her, he can then become bored with her.  Once he
has become bored with her, he will be content to ditch her.

He tries a few things to "possess" Cecilia, including paying for her
visits in the hope of rendering her vain and mercenary.  But this
backfires when she says she treats the payments as gifts and has no
expectation of receiving anything.  Eventually he devises a cunning
plan: "... possibly the only way I could set myself free from Cecilia
- that is, possess her truly and consequently become bored with her -
was to marry her.  I had not succeeded in becoming bored with Cecilia by
having her as a mistress; but I was almost sure that I would be bored
with her once she had become my wife... full of domestic and social
occupations, satisfied, without mystery; that in fact she would become,
as they say, 'settled.'"

The middle part of the book got a bit repetitive, but overall it was
another fascinating and in-depth psychological portrait of a tortured
soul by Alberto Moravia, author of "Contempt" and "The Conformist".

3. Related links:

* "Polish man struggles to return from the dead"
"Piotr Kucy, from the city of Polkowice in south-west Poland, was
 wrongly identified by authorities last August as a drowned man, only
 to show up a few days after his own funeral."

* "A brief history of boredom"
An interesting essay, and includes a reference to Moravia's novel.