Pirandello received his elementary education at home, but he was much more fascinated by the fables and legends, somewhere between popular and magic, that his elderly servant Maria Stella used to recount to him than by anything scholastic or academic. By the age of twelve he had already written his first tragedy. At the insistence of his father, he was registered at a technical school, but eventually switched to the study of the humanities at the ginnasio, something which had always attracted him.
In 1880, the Pirandello family moved to Palermo. It was here, in the capital of Sicily, that Luigi completed his high school education, began reading omnivorously (focusing, above all, on 19th century Italian poets such as Giosuè Carducci and Graf), started writing his first poems, and fell in love with his cousin Lina. During this period, the first signs of serious contrast between Luigi and his father also began to develop; Luigi had discovered some notes revealing the existence of extramarital relations on the part of Stefano. As a reaction to the ever increasing distrust and disharmony that Luigi was developing toward his father, a man of a robust physique and crude manners, his attachment to his mother would continue growing to the point of a profound veneration, which later expressed itself, after her death, in the moving pages of the novella Colloqui con i personaggi in 1915. His love for his cousin, initially looked on with disfavour, was suddenly taken very seriously by the family of Lina, which demanded that Luigi abandon his studies and dedicate himself to the sulphur business so that he could immediately marry her. In 1886, during a vacation from school, Luigi went to visit the sulphur mines of Porto Empedocle and started working with his father. This experience was absolutely essential to him and would provide the basis for such stories as Il Fumo, Ciàula scopre la Luna as well as some of the descriptions and background in the novel The Old and the Young. The marriage, which seemed imminent, was postponed and Pirandello registered at the University of Palermo in the departments of both Law and of Letters. The campus at Palermo, and above all the department of law, was the centre in those years of the vast movement which would eventually evolve into the Fasci Siciliani. Although Pirandello was not an active member of this movement, he had close ties of friendship with the leading ideologists of it: Rosario Garibaldi Bosco, Enrico La Loggia, Giuseppe De Felice Giuffrida and Francesco De Luca.
Because of a conflict with a Latin professor, he was forced to leave the University of Rome and went to Bonn with a letter of presentation from one of his professors. The stay in Bonn, which lasted two years, was fervid with cultural life. He read the German romantics, Jean Paul, Tieck, Chamisso, Heinrich Heine, and Goethe. He began translating the Roman Elegies of Goethe, composed the Elegie Boreali in imitation of the style of the Roman Elegies, and began to meditate on the topic of humorism by way of the works of Cecco Angiolieri.
In March 1891, he received his doctorate, under the guidance of Professor Foerster, in glottology with a dissertation on the dialect of Agrigento Sounds and Developments of Sounds in the Speech of Girgenti. The stay in Bonn was of great importance for the young writer; it was there that he forged the bonds with German culture that would remain constant and profound for the rest of his life.
The first years of matrimony brought on in him a new fervour for his studies and writings: his encounters with his friends and the discussions on art continued, more vivacious and stimulating than ever, while his family life, despite the complete incomprehension of his wife with respect to the artistic vocation of her husband, proceeded relatively tranquilly with the birth of two sons (Stefano and Fausto) and a daughter (Lietta). In the meantime, Pirandello intensified his collaborations with newspaper editors and other journalists in magazines such as La Critica and La Tavola Rotonda in which he would publish, in 1895, the first part of the Dialogi tra Il Gran Me e Il Piccolo Me.
In 1897, he accepted an offer to teach the Italian language at the Istituto Superiore di Magistero di Roma, and in the magazine Marzocco, he published several more pages of the Dialoghi. In 1898, with Italo Falbo and Ugo Fleres, he founded the weekly Ariel in which he published the one-act play L'Epilogo (later changed to La Morsa) and some novellas (La Scelta, Se...). The end of the 19th century and the beginnings of the 20th were a period of extreme productivity for Pirandello. In 1900, he published in Marzocco some of the most celebrated of his novellas (Lumie di Sicilia, La Paura del Sonno...) and, in 1901, the collection of poems Zampogna. In 1902, the first series of Beffe della Morte e della Vita came out. The same year saw the publication of his second novel, Il Turno.
In 1909 the first part of I Vecchi e I Giovani was published in episodes. This novel retraces the history of the failure and repression of the Fasci Siciliani in the period from 1893-94. When the novel came out in volume in 1913, Pirandello sent a copy of it to his parents for the fiftieth anniversary of their marriage along with a dedication which said that "their names, Stefano and Caterina, live heroically." However, while the mother is transfigured in the novel into the otherworldly figure of Caterina Laurentano, the father, represented by the husband of Caterina, Stefano Auriti, appears only in memories and flashbacks, since, as was acutely observed by Leonardo Sciascia, "he died censured in a Freudian sense by his son who, in the bottom of his soul, is his enemy." Also in 1909, Pirandello began his collaboration with the prestigious journal Corriere della Sera in which he published the novellas Mondo di Carta (World of Paper), La Giara, and, in 1910, Non è una cosa seria and Pensaci, Giacomino! (Think it over, Giacomino!) At this point, Pirandello's fame as a writer was continually increasing, but his private life was poisoned by the suspicion and obsessive jealousy of Antonietta, who began to turn physically violent.
In 1911, while the publication of novellas and short stories continued, Pirandello finished his fourth novel, Suo Marito, republished posthumously (1941), and completely revised in the first four chapters, with the title Giustino Roncella nato Boggiòlo. During his life, the author never republished this novel for reasons of discretion: in the novel, there are implicit references to the writer Grazia Deledda. But the work which absorbed most of his energies at this time was the stories: La Vendetta del Cane, Quando s'è capito il giuoco, Il treno ha fischiato, Filo d'aria, and Berecche e la guerra were all published from 1913-1914 and are all, now, considered classics of Italian literature.
In 1917, the collection of novellas E domani Lunedì (And Tomorrow, Monday...) was published, but the year was mostly marked by important theatrical representations: Così è (se vi pare) (Right you are (if you think so)), A birrita cu' i ciancianeddi and Il Piacere dell'onestà (The Pleasure Of Honesty). A year later, Non è una cosa seria (But It's Nothing Serious) and Il Gioco delle parti (The Game of Roles) were all represented on stage. Meanwhile, with the end of the war, Pirandello's son Stefano returns home.
In 1919, Pirandello was left with no alternative but to have his wife placed in an asylum. The separation from his wife, toward whom, despite the morbid jealousies and hallucinations, he continued to feel a very strong attraction, caused great suffering for Pirandello who, still in 1924, deceived himself into believing that he could take care of her at home. Antonietta, however, would never leave the asylum which was both her prison and her protection against the resurgence of the phantasms of her overwhelmed mind which made her out to be the passionate enemy of a husband whose world was profoundly foreign to, and irremediably distant from, her.
1920 was the year of comedies such as Tutto per bene, Come prima meglio di prima, and La Signora Morli. In 1921, the Compagnia di Dario Niccomedi staged, at the Valle di Roma, the play, Sei Personaggi in Cerca d'Autore, Six Characters in Search of an Author. It was a clamorous failure. The public split up into supporters and adversaries, the latter of whom shouted: "Asylum, asylum!" The author, who was present at the representation with his daughter Lietta, was forced to almost literally run out of the theatre through a side exit in order to avoid the crowd of enemies. The same drama, however, was a great success when presented at Milan. In 1922 and again at Milan, Enrico IV was represented for the first time and was acclaimed universally as a success. Pirandello's fame, at this point, had passed the confines of Italy: the Sei Personaggi was represented in English in London and in New York.
But it is right to remember also his public words about his apolitical belief ("I'm apolitical, I'm only a man on the world..."), or his continuous conflicts against famous fascist leaders. It's very interesting when in 1927 he tore his fascist membership card up to pieces, in front of the dazed secretary-general of the Fascist Party; in the remainder of his life, Pirandello was always under close surveillance of the secret fascist police OVRA.
Pirandello's conception of the theatre underwent a significant change at this point. The conception of the actor as an inevitable betrayer of the text, as in the Sei Personaggi, gave way to the identification of the actor with the character that she plays. The company took their act throughout the major cities of Europe and the Pirandellian repertoire became increasingly known. Between 1925 and 1926, Pirandello's last, and perhaps greatest, novel Uno, Nessuno e Centomila (One, No one and One Hundred Thousand) was published in episodes in the magazine Fiera Letteraria.
Pirandello was nominated Academic of Italy in 1929 and in 1934 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He died alone in his home at via Bosio, Rome on the 10th of December, 1936.
Animated by a furious need to clear away all false certitudes, Pirandello pitilessly dismantles every fictitious point of reference. This initial, resolute epochè opens up horizons of disconcerting restlessness: reality is seen as having no order and as being contradictory and unattainable. It evades any attempt at classification and systematically violates the obligatory nexus of cause and effect which, even while seeming to suffocate in an unbreakable concatenation the tiniest spark of freedom, permits us to know, to predict and therefore to dominate.
Already in Pirandello's first novel, L'Esclusa, it seems clear that nothing is predictable; on the contrary, anything and everything can happen. There are no secure anchors or objective facts which can be correlated with judgements and behaviour. What is a fact for Pirandello? Just an empty shell that can be refilled with a mutable meaning according to the moment and the prevailing sentiment. An irrelevant grain of sand can assume the crushing consistency of an avalanche that overwhelms, as happens to Marta Ajala, the protagonist of l'Esclusa, who, surprised by her husband in the awful act of reading a letter from a man, is thrown out of the house even though she has done nothing wrong. But she will be accepted and taken in again, and here lies the humoristic genius, only after she has actually committed the act which she was unjustly charged with committing in the first place.
The obscure will which dominates heavily in the first novel comes out into the open in Il Turno (1902), Pirandello's second novel. Here it manifests itself as the irrational accident, careless and spiteful, which diverts itself by subverting all human plans or programs for the future. The expectations of Marcantonio Ravì are certainly not chimerical illusions; they represent the normal projection into the future of what has happened many times before and which is presumably supposed to happen again. His attractive daughter Stellina, thinks the wise Marcantonio, will sacrifice herself for a short time by marrying the old but wealthy Don Diego who, according to all common sense predictions, will die very soon. Stellina will then be filthy rich and can marry her true love, Pepè Alletto. Isn't Marcantonio's plan perfect? But, as everyone knows, sometimes things don't quite go according to plan and, in this case, Don Diego, notwithstanding a bout of pneumonia, finds the strength to survive. However, the lawyer Ciro Coppa who, after the annulment of the first hateful marriage, became Stellina's second husband dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Perhaps now it will finally be Pepé's turn. But who can be sure? Reality is, at the profoundest level, unknowable: a secret law manages the great spectacle and often designs capricious circumvolutions of disconcerting coincidences which are certainly not explainable in the light of a deterministic vision of the universe. In this obscure labyrinth, man questions himself about himself but discovers, and the discovery is terrifying, the uncertainty of his identity. The obscurity of external reality finds in this way, in a sort of ironic and upside down mysticism, a correlation in the dark interior which throws into crisis the very stability of the self.
Turning one's eye inward toward one's own consciousness means seeing with horror the threat of disintegration, of dis-aggregation of the self. In 1900, Pirandello had already read the short essay by Alfred Binet, Le altérations de la personnalité (1892) on the alterations of the personality. He cited several excerpts in his article Scienza e Critica Estetica. The experimental observations of Binet had apparently scientifically demonstrated the extreme lability of the personality: a set of psychic elements in temporary coordination which can easily collapse, giving way to many different personalities equally furnished with will and intelligence cohabiting within the same individual. In Binet's "proofs", Pirandello found scientific support for the surprising intuitions of much German romanticism on which he had probably meditated during his years spent in Germany. Steffens, Shubert and others who had concerned themselves with dreams were the first to discovery the existence of the sub-conscious. Steffens already spoke of a "consciousness which sinks into the night" and, in Jean Paul, there are already present the ideas of terror of disintegration and the chilling sensation of seeing oneself live. Pirandello shares the view that the self is not unitary. That which seemed like an irreducible and monolithic nucleus multiplies as in a prism; the exterior self does not have the same face as the secret self: it is only a mask that man unconsciously assumes in order to adapt himself to the social context in which he finds himself, each one in a different manner, in a game of mobile perspectives.
Compelled only by an interior sense of necessity, furnished with different instruments and aiming at other prospects, Pirandello ventures on his own initiative into territory which will later on end up in Freudian psychoanalysis and the analytic psychology of Carl Jung. Jung published his work The Self and the Unconscious in 1928. In that work, he attempts to scientifically investigate the relationship between the individual and the collective psyche, between the being that appears and the profound being. Jung called the self that appears a persona saying that "...the term is truly appropriate because originally persona was the mask that actors wore and also indicated the part that he played." The persona is "that which one appears" behind which is hidden the true individual being. It's difficult not to be stunned and impressed by the wisdom of Pirandello who had been employing these concepts in his art from his very first novel. But within the genre of novels, it was with Mattia Pascal that Pirandello inaugurated the series of personages to whom he would assign the arduous task of searching for their own authenticity in this Heideggerian sense. But upon the emptiness left by his presumed death, in fact, Mattia quickly reconstructs another persona which, only apparently different from the first, in reality represents its grotesque double. Mattia's voyages, without any precise destination or practical utility, can seem like the modern transcription of the great romantic theme of vagabondage. But Mattia has nothing in common with the joyous ne'er-do-well of Joseph von Eichendorff, who with the sole companionship of his violin abandons the paternal home and opens his ingenuous eyes on the transient spectacle of the world. And he has also has nothing of Knulp, the more modern vagabond of Hermann Hesse and other characters of this genre. He is not an innocent and ingenuous man freed from all the constrictions of society. His voyages are not joyous but filled with the acrid odours of train tracks and stations and they are an obsessive and inconclusive set of movements which in the end will bring him back fatally to the point of departure. The dissociation of Mattia from the bourgeousie universe based on money and profit is manifested only in the vindictive exercise of his virility with the beautiful Oliva, the wife of the avid administrator Batta Malagna who had previously subtracted from him all of Mattia's ownings. Oliva becomes pregnant and through a subtle game of subtractions and grotesque additions everyone is finally paid off. This is not the eros of Klein, the protagonist of the short novel of Hesse, Klein and Wagner, published in 1920, which offers surprising analogies with Mattia Pascal. Klein, small and squallid bureaucrat, exactly like Mattia, runs away horrified from his own extrerior persona in search of his more profound being. On the way, he encounters the ballerina Teresina and experiences the frankly sexual fascination of the blond hair, of the confident and sharp gestuality, of the tight stockings on her smooth, long legs. A shy reserve, on the other hand, keeps Mattia (and his author) far away from the powerful, disruptive force of Eros which is transformed into a sickly sweet attraction, smelling of talcum powder, for the bloodless Adriana, surprised in her nightgown in the home of Paleari.
Pirandello is an author who does not let himself be taken by surprise in the territories of the unconscious; his art is not an escape into the shadows nor does it represent a plane of direct conflict with man's interior phantasms. His writing, although perfectly in line with so much of art at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, never drowns in dis-aggregation but lucidly transcribes it. The oniric and hallucinatory atmophere of the paintings of O. Redon or of the designs of A. Kubin are completely foreign to Pirandello's sensibility. In him, the unconscious does not have two aspects, a positive and a negative, one which can destroy and one which can save: the elixir of the devil can never become the nectar of the gods. This is why the carefully scrutinized interior monologues of so many characters (Mattia Pascal, Vitangelo Moscarda, Enrico IV, etc.) never becomes pure stream of consciousness as in Joyce's Ulysses, but moves within the confines of a consciousness, humoristically recomposed only to register, disconcertedly but extremely lucidly, through the narrative, its own defeat. The pointed and painful writing assumes in this way the responsibility to represent the unique common thread of a precarious and compromised self.
Pirandello's commitment as a narrator and dramatist revolves around the impossibility of liberation. And, at times, the narrative and dramatic structure itself emphasizes the burning defeat, reconnecting the starting points with the ending points in a sort of tragic merry-go-round. The character almost always exemplifies or lucidly denounces his defeat. In a Sicily which was permeated by cruel prejudices smelling of holy water transformed into an ashtray, anti-heroic characters, "poveri christi", trace the graphic of solitude and of alienation. The author follows them into the entangled chaos with that "ruthless pity" which represents the ungrateful wealth of his humoristic vision in which pain and laughter, participation and detachment are mixed.
The novel Suo Marito (1911) signals a particularly important moment in the narrative production of Pirandello. The protagonist, Silvia Roncella, is a writer. With her, Pirandello intended to investigate the processes of artistic creation and the relations between art and life. The artist for Pirandello, who is very close to Schopenhauer in this, alienates himself completely from the normal relations between things and from the impulses of his individual personality (principium individuationis) in order to grasp the essence beyond existence. Silvia is a true artist. In her, the creative activity is dictated exclusively by a natural "necessity." Counterpoised to her stands her husband Giustino, who tries thousands of different avenues in order to ensure that his wife's art receives concrete recognition (economic, of course, economic!). It is he who spends his time chatting with the actors while they stage his wife's dramas, it is he that suggests, that stimulates, that establishes relations with critics and journalists. Without him perhaps no one would know of his wife and her artistic qualities. This small man is described by Pirandello with great vivacity in a mist of pity and disdain. Giustino is just made that way. He needs to bend everything, even the highest things, to the dimension of utility. Silvia is the absolute contrary; she is the voice of supremely disinterested artistic creation and experiences moments of pure contemplation, when she becomes, forgetting herself, "the limpid eye of the world."
The commingling, deliberately not amalgamated, of ancient and new, of lucid torments of reason and of desperate desires for immemorial resting places represents the characteristic cipher of this surprising author who certainly does not attenuate the contrasts and contradictions. The novel Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore (1925) brings us into the world of the cinema, a world with which Pirandello had a contradictory and problematic relationship. Although he was fascinated by it, he condemned it as a mechanical degeneration of the creative activity of the artist. With the character Serafino Gubbio, film operator, Pirandello reflects on the ever more invasive role of science and technology. The insecurity of modern man, the multiplication of perspectives, the lack of a unique point of reference are due, in his view, to the failure of positivistic culture to respond to the ultimate needs and questions of man. Science has corrupted the ingenuous margins of religion and fractured the anthropocentric perspective, the source of security for man in the past. Man the measure of the universe, the free forger of his own destiny, who could make Pico della Mirandola exclaim proudly:
In this strange geography of shipwrecks, only one character, the extremely lucid Vitangelo Moscarda, protagonist of Pirandello's last novel Uno, Nessuno e Centomila, comes close to a suffered authenticity. After the initial humoristic dislocation of the persona (everyone around him has formed a "Vitangelo" persona of his own but he will spitefully fracture these inconsistent masks), with the complicity of a mirror, he seeks to surprise the face of his true interior self. But the mirror offers no guarantee of knowledge: the result is only a tragicomic doubling. In pages dominated by sharp tension, Pirandello designs the comic drama of the improbable knowledge of a self which, like Prometheus, continually changes and eludes all attempts to be grasped. The alienation from oneself experienced by Italo Svevo through the various "accidents" of existence in the ironic Coscienza di Zeno becomes here a vertiginous immersion in the search for the profound self. Beyond the deforming exterior stratifications that, like the expressionist masks of Grosz or Dix, rigidify but do not express, the self, deprived of a nucleus, is entirely lost here and does not exist if not as transformation and mutability. Pirandello, in this novel, echoes David Hume's view of the self as a bundle of transient sensations. The interior monologue of Vitangelo accompanies the phases of his search and his discovery with an interior commentary, extremely modern in style, surprisingly ductile in tone and in expresive register. Vitangelo, after having brought the crisis of the self, without hesitation, to its extreme consequences, in the final pages approaches liberation. He abandons every tie with reality. The path to authenticity must go through the itinerary of renunciation and of solitude. Finally liberated, Vitangelo feels in every way outside of himself. It is an experience which mystics know well. As Meister Eckhart expressed it: "As long as I am this or that, I am not all and I do not have all. Disconnect yourself, so that you no longer are, nor have, this or that and you will be everywhere... when you are neither this nor that, you are everything." Vitangelo, not "accidentally", but with a resurgent act of will, reduces the self to the sensation of feeling his own existence in the things around him. The self that remains is the profound self in perpetual transformation where there are no more barriers between interior and exterior: "This tree, I breathe shaking off the new leaves. I am this tree. Tree, cloud; tomorrow book or wind; the book that I read, the wind that I drink. All outside, wayward."