Excerpt: 'One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand' by Luigi Pirandello
From Book Four, Chapter Three – The notary’s document
I went first to the office of the notary Stampa, at Via del Crocefisso, number 24. Because (ah, these are absolutely certain facts) on the . . . the day of the year . . . , under the reign of Victor Emmanuel III by the grace of God and the nation’s will king of Italy, in the noble city of Richieri, in Via del Crocefisso, number 24, there was the office of the royal notary signor Stampa, Cavaliere. Elpidio Stampa, aged 52 or 53.
“Is he still there? At number 24? Do you all know the notary Stampa?”
Ah, then we can be sure we’ll make no mistakes. That notary Stampa, the one we all know. Got that? But, on entering the office, I was in a condition you cannot imagine. How can you imagine it, excuse me, if it still seems to you the most natural thing in the world to enter a notary’s office to draft some document or other, and if you all say you know this notary Stampa?
I tell you I was going there, on that day, for my first experiment. And now, really, do you want to make this experiment with me, yes or no, once and for all? I mean, to penetrate the frightful joke lying beneath peaceful naturalness of everyday relations, the things that seem the most usual and normal, and also beneath the calm appearance of so-called reality? The joke, good God, thanks to which you may become angry every five minutes and shout at the friend with you: “Really! Can’t you see this? Are you blind?”
And the other man doesn’t see it, no, because he sees something else, when you believe he should see everything as it appears to you. He sees it, on the contrary, as it appears to him, and for him, therefore, you’re the one who’s blind. This is the joke, I mean: and I had already penetrated it.
Now I was entering that office, burdened with all the reflections and considerations I had been brooding over so long; and I felt them seething inside me, in great turmoil; and I wanted, meanwhile, to remain like this, in a lucid fixity, an almost immobile frigidity, while – as you can imagine – suppressing the loud laughter I felt like releasing as I saw before me, very grave, that poor notary, poor signor Stampa, who hadn’t the slightest suspicion that, for myself, I might not be as he saw me; he was surely convinced that he was for me the same person that he saw for himself every day, as he tied his little black cravat before the mirror, with all his things around him.
Do you understand, now? I felt like winking, winking at him too, slyly hinting to him, “Watch out! Watch out!” But I also felt, my God, like suddenly sticking out my tongue, or like wiggling my nose with a sudden twitch, to alter all at once, in fun and without malice, that image of me he believed true. But I had to be serious. Eh? Yes, yes, serious. I had to carry out the experiment.
“Now then, notary, here I am. But, excuse me: Are you always immersed in this silence?”
He turned abruptly to look me up and down. He said: “Silence? What silence?”
Along Via del Crocefisso, in fact, at that moment there was a steady traffic of people and vehicles.
“No, not in the street, of course. But there are all these papers here, sir, behind the dusty glass of these bookshelves. Can’t you hear?”
Half distressed, half dazed, he studied me once more; then he pricked up his ears: “What should I hear?”
“Why, this scratching! Ah, the little feet, forgive me, the little feet of your canary. Do forgive me. Those little feet have claws, and they’re scratching on the zinc of the cage . . . ”
“Yes, true. But what do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing. Doesn’t it get on your nerves, that zinc, signor Stampa?”
“Zinc? Why, who notices it? I don’t . . . ”
“All the same, that zinc – imagine! – in a cage, under the delicate claws of a canary, in the office of a notary . . . I’ll bet he doesn’t sing, this canary.”
“No, he certainly does not.”
The notary was beginning to look at me in a certain way; and I considered it wise to skip the canary rather than endanger the experiment, which, at least in the beginning, and particularly here, in the presence of the notary, required that there should be no cause for doubt concerning my mental faculties. And I asked the notary if he knew of a certain house, located in such and such a street, belonging to one signor Vitangelo Moscarda, son of the late Francesco Antonio Moscarda . . .
“Isn’t that you?”
“Yes, it’s me. It should be me . . . ”
It was so beautiful and – what a pity! – in that notary’s office, among all those yellowing files on those dusty old shelves, to talk like this, as if at a distance of centuries, about a certain house belonging to one Vitangelo Moscarda . . . All the more as I was, indeed, there: present and party to the document, in that notary’s office, but who knows how and where the notary saw it, that office of his; what odor he smelled, different from the one I was smelling; and who knows how and where, in the notary’s world, stood that certain house of which I spoke to him in a distant voice; and I, my place in the world of the notary, who knows how curious it was . . .
Ah! the pleasure of history, gentlemen! Nothing is more restful than history. In life everything changes continually before your eyes; nothing is certain; and there’s this unremitting anxiousness to know how situations will come out, to see the conclusion of events that keep you in such torment and such agitation! Everything is determined, established, precisely, in history: however painful the events, however sad the situations, there they are, in order, at least, fixed in thirty, forty little pages of a book. Those, there. And they will never change again at least until some wicked critical spirit comes to take spiteful pleasure in upsetting that ideal construction, where all the elements were fitted together so well, and you could repose there and admire the way each effect obediently followed its cause with perfect logic and each event unfolded precise and coherent in its every detail, with monsieur le duc de Nevers, who on this day, in this year, etc. etc.
But to avoid spoiling everything, I had to force myself to return to the suspended, temporary, and consternated reality of the notary Stampa.
“Ah, yes,” I hastened to say to him, “that’s me, sir. And the house, you have no difficulty, do you, in agreeing that it’s mine, as is the whole inheritance of the late Francesco Antonio Moscarda, my father? Of course! Actually, that house, signor Stampa, is not rented at present. Oh, it’s small, you realize . . . perhaps five or six rooms, with two basements – is that the right term? – Yes, basements . . . Unrented then, notary; and I can dispose of it as I choose. Now then, you . . . ”
And here I bent over and, in a low voice, with great seriousness, confided in the notary the act I wanted him to draw up: here, for the moment, I can’t describe it, because –
I said to him: “It must remain between me and you, notary, under the seal of professional secrecy, as long as I deem right. Are we agreed?”
Agreed. But the notary warned me that to draw up that act he needed some data and other documents, which made it necessary for me to go to the bank, to Quantorzo. I was vexed; but I stood up. As I moved, I felt an accursed desire to ask the notary: “How do I walk? Excuse me: can you tell me at least how you see me walk?”
I barely restrained myself. But I couldn’t keep from turning, as I opened the glass door, to say to him, with a smile of compassion: “Yes, at my own pace, thank you!”
“What did you say?” the notary asked, dazed.
“Ah, nothing, I just said I was going off at my own pace, notary. But do you know? I once saw a horse laugh. Yes, sir, as the horse was walking along. You go now and look at a horse’s face to see it laugh, and then come and tell me you didn’t see it laugh. Ah, but did I say the face? Horses don’t laugh with their face, after all! You know what horses laugh with, sir? With their rump. I assure you that a horse, as he walks along, laughs with his rump, yes, sometimes, at certain things he sees or that come into his head. If you want to see a horse laugh, look at his rump and you’ll enjoy yourself!”
I understand it was a mistake to tell him this. I understand everything. But if I return to the condition of spirit I was in then, when seeing people’s eyes on me, I felt as if I were being subjected to a horrible oppression, thinking that all those eyes gave me an image that surely wasn’t the one I knew myself but another that I could neither know nor prevent; merely saying mad things was nothing: I felt like doing them, doing mad things: rolling over in the streets or flying along in dance-steps, winking here, sticking out my tongue and making faces there . . . And instead I walked down the street, serious, so serious. And now you, too, how marvelous! Walking along so serious . . .
Excerpted from One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, by Luigi Pirandello, translated by William Weaver. Published by Spurl Editions on October 22, 2018.
About the Authors:
Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) was an Italian novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. His best-known works include the novel The Late Mattia Pascal, in which the narrator one day discovers that he has been declared dead, as well as the groundbreaking plays Six Characters in Search of an Author and Henry IV, which prefigured the Theater of the Absurd. In 1926, Pirandello published One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, which he had been writing for the previous seventeen years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934.
William Weaver (1923–2013) was a renowned translator who brought some of the most interesting Italian works into English. He translated Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italo Svevo, Umberto Eco, Alberto Moravia, and Elsa Morante, to name just a few, as well as Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal. An expert on opera, Weaver lived for many years in a farmhouse in Tuscany and later became a professor of literature at Bard College.