Monday, April 19, 2010

One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand + The Double

Reviews of a couple of books, wherein each story's central character
appears to be having a crisis of identity...

1. "One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand" by Luigi Pirandello

Things start going wrong for the main character, Vitangelo Moscarda,
after his wife jokingly tells him one morning that his nose is a bit
crooked.  He looks in the mirror and, to his surprise, he realises that
his wife is indeed correct.

This seemingly harmless discovery triggers a complete self-examination
by Moscarda.  If perceptions of physical features can vary, what about
perceptions of identity?  No longer can he take it for granted that
everyone else perceives him the same way he himself does (i.e. the 'One'
in the title).  If his own wife can't perceive the "real" Moscarda, then
each person has a different perception of him.  Therefore there must be
multiple perceptions of his persona (i.e. 'One Hundred Thousand').  By
extension, there are multiple perceptions of each of these people's
identities, so a massive feedback loop is created.  In the end, Moscarda
thinks, it's like he has no true identity at all (i.e. 'No One').

The plot is essentially a mechanism for examining the philosophy and
psychology of someone's identity.  Throughout Moscarda's "illness", his
behaviour is bizarre and often humorous.  For example, to show he's not
simply a passive heir to his father's banking business, he evicts a
destitute tenant.  This incurs the wrath of the other townspeople, so he
tries to overcome perceptions that he is greedy by gifting another house
he owns to the destitute family.

This was Pirandello's last novel, and in many ways it's the culmination
of a career-long fascination with themes of personality and identity.

2. "The Double" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Our "hero", Golyadkin, is a civil servant who is going through a bit of
a rough patch.  To complicate matters he's "discovered" that he has a
double.  This newcomer looks exactly like him, works in the same office,
and even has the same name!

After initially taking him in and gaining his confidence, Golyadkin
begins to have doubts about his double.  He refers to the other as
"Golyadkin Junior", and fears that "Junior" is trying to usurp him at
work and his private life: this "evil twin" must be behind his recent
and continuing fall from grace.

Throughout the story it is never made clear whether the central
character is having a major identity crisis, or merely living a double
life.  The reader is taken for a wild ride through both St Petersburg
and Golyadkin's delusions.

This was Dostoyevsky's second novel, and is not as highly-rated as his
later work.  However it's also not nearly as long.

While both books cover some heavy themes, they do have some comical
moments to lighten things up.