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Luigi Pirandello: Shoot! (22)

Luigi Pirandello: Shoot! (22)

Shoot! (Si Gira, 1926). The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator by Luigi Pirandello. Translated from the Italian by C. K. Scott Moncrieff



I think that it would be a good thing for me if I had a different mind and a different heart.

Who will exchange with me?

Given my intention, which grows steadily more determined, to remain an impassive spectator, this mind, this heart are of little use to me. I have reason to believe (and more than once, before now, I have been glad of it) that the reality in which I invest other people corresponds exactly to the reality in which those people invest themselves, because I endeavour to feel them in myself as they feel themselves, to wish for them as they wish for themselves: a reality, therefore, that is entirely disinterested. But I see at the same time that, without meaning it, I am letting myself be caught by that reality which, being what it is, ought to remain outside me: matter, to which I give a form, not for my sake, but for its own; something to contemplate.

No doubt, there is an underlying deception, a mocking deception in all this. I see myself caught. So much so, that I am no longer able even to smile, if, beside or beneath a complication of circumstances or passions which grows steadily stronger and more unpleasant, I see escape some other circumstance or some other passion that might be expected to raise my spirits. The case of Signorina Luisetta Cavalena, for instance.

The other day Polacco had the inspiration to make that young lady come to the Bosco Sacro and there take a small part in a film. I know that, to engage her to take part in the remaining scenes of the film, he has sent her father a five hundred lire note and, as he promised, a pretty sunshade for herself and a collar with lots of little silver bells for the old dog, Piccini. He ought never to have done such a thing I It appears that Cavalena had given his wife to understand that, when he went with his scenarios to the Kosmograph, each with its inevitable gallant suicide, and all of them, therefore, invariably rejected, he never saw anyone there, except Cocò Polacco: Cocò Polacco and then home again. And who knows how he had described to her the interior of the Kosmograph: perhaps as an austere hermitage, from which all women were resolutely banished, like demons. Only, alas, the other day, the fierce wife, becoming suspicious, decided to accompany her husband. I do not know what she saw, but I can easily imagine it. The fact remains that this morning, just as I was going into the Kosmograph, I saw all four Cavalena arrive in a carriage: husband, wife, daughter and little dog: Signorina Luisetta, pale and trembling; Piccini, more surly than ever; Cavalena, looking as usual like a mouldy lemon, among the curls of his wig that protruded from under his broad-brimmed hat; his wife, like a cyclone barely held in check, her hat knocked askew as she dismounted from the carriage.

Under his arm Cavalena had the long parcel containing the sunshade presented by Polacco to his daughter and in his hand the box containing Piccini’s collar. He had come to return them.

Signorina Luisetta recognised me at once. I hastened up to her to greet her; she wished to introduce me to her mother and father, but could not remember my name. I helped her out of her difficulty, by introducing myself.

“The operator, the man who turns the handle, you understand, Nene?” Cavalena at once explained, with timid haste, to his wife, smiling, as though to implore a little condescension.

Heavens, what a face Signora Nene has! The face of an old, colourless doll. A compact helmet of almost quite grey hair presses upon her low, hard forehead, on which her eyebrows, joined together, short, bushy, and straight, are like a line boldly ruled to give a character of stupid tenacity to the pale eyes that gleam with a glassy stiffness. She seems apathetic; but, if you study her closely, you observe on the surface of her skin certain strange nervous prickings, certain sudden changes of colour, in patches, which at once disappear. She also, every now and then, makes rapid unexpected gestures, of the most curious nature. I caught her, for instance, at one moment, in reply to a beseeching glance from her daughter, shaping her mouth in a round O across which she laid her finger. Evidently, this gesture was intended to mean:

“Silly girl! Why do you look at me like that?”

But they are always looking at her, surreptitiously at least, her husband and daughter, perplexed and anxious in their fear lest at any moment she may indulge in some flaming outburst of rage. And certainly, by looking at her like that, they irritate her all the more. But imagine the life they lead, poor creatures!

Polacco has already given me some account of it. Perhaps she never thought of becoming a mother, this woman! She found this poor man, who, in her clutches, after all these years, has been reduced to the most pitiable condition imaginable; no matter: she will fight for him; she continues to fight for him savagely. Polacco tells me that, when assailed by the furies of jealousy, she loses all self-restraint; and in front of everyone, without a thought even of her daughter who stands listening, looking on, she strips bare (bare, as they flash before her eyes in those moments of fury) and lashes her husband’s alleged misdeeds: misdeeds that are highly improbable. Certainly, in that hideous humiliation, Signorina Luisetta cannot fail to see her father in a ridiculous light, albeit, as can be seen from the way in which she looks at him, he must arouse so much pity in her! Ridiculous, from the way in which, stripped bare, lashed, the poor man still seeks to gather up from all sides, to cover himself in them hastily and as best he may, the shreds and tatters of his dignity. Cocò Polacco has repeated to me some of the phrases in which, stunned by her savage, unexpected onslaughts, he replies to his wife at such moments: sillier, more ingenuous, more puerile things one could not imagine! And for that reason alone I am convinced that Cocò Polacco did not invent them himself.

“Nene, for pity’s sake, I am a man of five and forty…

“Nene, I have held His Majesty’s commission …

“Nene, good God, when a man has held a commission and gives you his word of honour…”

And yet, every now and then–oh, in the long run even a worm will turn–wounded with a refinement of cruelty in his most sacred feelings, barbarously chastised where the lash hurts most–every now and then, he says, it appears that Cavalena escapes from the house, bolts from his prison. Like a madman, at any moment he may be found wandering in the street, without a penny in his pocket, determined to “take up the threads of his life again” somewhere or other. He goes here and there in search of friends; and his friends, at first, welcome him joyously in the ‘caffè’, in the newspaper offices, because they like to see him enjoying himself; but the warmth of their welcome begins at once to cool as soon as he expresses his urgent need of finding employment once more among them, without a moment’s delay, in order that he may be able to provide for himself as quickly as possible. Yes indeed! Because he has not even the price of a cup of coffee, a mouthful of supper, a bed in an inn for the night. Who will oblige him, for the time being, with twenty lire or so? He makes an appeal, among the journalists, to the spirit of old comradeship. He will come round next day with an article to his old paper. What? Yes, something literary or light and scientific. He has ever so much material stored up in his head… new stuff, you know…. Such as? Oh, Lord, such as, well, this…”

He has not finished speaking, before all these good friends burst out laughing in his face. New stuff? Why, Noah used to tell that to his sons, in the ark, to beguile the tedium of their voyage over the waters of the Deluge….

Ah, I too know them well, those old friends of the ‘caffè’! They all talk like that, in a forced burlesque manner, and each of them becomes excited by the verbal exaggerations of the rest and takes courage to utter an even grosser exaggeration, which does not however exceed the limit, does not depart from the tone, so as not to be received with a general outcry; they laugh at one another in turn, making a sacrifice of all their most cherished vanities, fling them in one another’s face with gay savagery, and apparently no one takes offence; but the resentment within grows, the bile ferments; the effort to keep the conversation in that burlesque tone which provokes laughter, because amid general laughter insults are tempered and lose their gall, becomes gradually more laboured and difficult; then, the prolonged, sustained effort leaves in each of them a weariness of anger and disgust; each of them is conscious with bitter regret of having done violence to his own thoughts, to his own feelings; more than remorse, an outraged sincerity; an inward uneasiness, as though the swelling, infuriated spirit no longer adhered to its own intimate substance; and they all heave deep sighs to rid themselves of the hot air of their own disgust; but, the very next day, they all fall back into that furnace, and scorch themselves, afresh, miserable grasshoppers, doomed to saw frantically away at their own shell of boredom.

Woe to him who arrives a newcomer, or returns after a certain interval to their midst! But Cavalena perhaps does not take offence, does not complain of the sacrifice that his good friends make of him, tortured as he is in his heart by the discovery that he has failed, in his seclusion, to “keep in touch with life.” Since his last escape from the prison-house there have passed, shall we say, eighteen months? Well; it is as though there had passed eighteen centuries! All of them, as they hear issuing from his lips certain slang expressions, then the very latest thing, which he has preserved like precious jewels in the strong-box of his memory, screw up their faces and gaze at him, as one gazes in a chop-house at a warmed-up dish, which smells of rancid fat a mile off! Oh, poor Cavalena, just listen to him! Listen to him! He still admires the man who, eighteen months ago, was the greatest man of the twentieth century. But who was that? Ah, listen…. So and so of Such and such…. That idiot! That bore! That dummy! What, is he still alive? No, not really alive? Yes, Cavalena swears he saw him, actually alive, only a week ago; in fact, believing that… (no, as far as being alive goes, he is alive) still, if he is no longer a great man… why, he proposed to write an article about him … he won’t write it now!

Utterly abased, his face livid with bile, but with patches of red here and there, as though his friends in their mortification of him had amused themselves by pinching him on the brow, the cheeks, the nose, Cavalena meanwhile is inwardly devouring his wife, like a cannibal after a three-days’ fast: his wife, who has made him a public laughing-stock. He swears to himself that he will never again let himself fall into her clutches; but gradually, alas, his anxiety to resume “life” begins to transform itself into a mania which at first he is unable to define, but which becomes steadily more and more exasperating within him. For years past he has exercised all his mental faculties in defending his own dignity against the unjust suspicions of his wife. And now his faculties, suddenly diverted from this assiduous, desperate defence, are no longer adaptable, must make an effort to convert themselves and to devote themselves to other uses. But his dignity, so long and so strenuously defended, has now settled upon him, like the mould of a statue, immovable. Cavalena feels himself empty inside, but outwardly incrusted all over. He has become the walking mould of this statue. He cannot any longer scrape it off himself. Forever, henceforward, inexorably, he is the most dignified man in the world. And this dignity of his has so exquisite a sensibility that it takes umbrage, grows disturbed at the slightest indication that is vouchsafed to it of the most trifling transgression of his duties as a citizen, a husband, the father of a family. He has so often sworn to his wife that he has never proved false, even in thought, to these duties, that really now he cannot even think of transgressing them, and suffers, and turns all the colours of the rainbow when he sees other people so light-heartedly transgressing them. His friends laugh at him and call him a hypocrite. There, in their midst, incrusted all over, amid the noise and impetuous volubility of a life that knows no restraint either of faith or of affection, Cavalena feels himself outraged, begins to imagine that he is in serious peril; he has the impression that he is standing on feet of glass in the midst of a tumult of madmen who trample on him with iron shoes. The life imagined in his seclusion as full of attractions and indispensable to him reveals itself as being vacuous, stupid, insipid. How can he have suffered so keenly from being deprived of the company of these friends; of the spectacle of all their fatuity, all the wretched disorder of their life?

Poor Cavalena! The truth perhaps lies elsewhere! The truth is that in his harsh seclusion, without meaning it, he has become too much accustomed to converse with himself, that is to say with the worst enemy that any of us can have; and thus has acquired a clear perception of the futility of everything, and has seen himself thus lost, alone, surrounded by shadows and crushed by the mystery of himself and of everything. … Illusions? Hopes? Of what use are they? Vanity…. And his own personality, prostrated, annulled in itself, has gradually re-arisen as a pitiful consciousness of other people, who are ignorant and deceive themselves, who are ignorant and labour and love and suffer. What fault is it of his wife, his poor Nene, if she is so jealous? He is a doctor and knows that this fierce jealousy is really and truly a mental disease, a form of reasoning madness. Typical, a typical form of paranoia, with persecution mania too. He goes about telling everybody. Typical! Typical! She has finally come to suspect, his poor Nene, that he is seeking to kill her, in order to take possession, with the daughter, of her money! Ah, what an ideal life they would lead then, without her…. Liberty, liberty: one foot here, the other there! She says this, poor Nene, because she herself perceives that life, as she makes it for herself and for the others, is not possible, it is the destruction of life; she destroys herself, poor Nene, with her ravings, and naturally supposes that the others wish to destroy her: with a knife, no, because it would be discovered! By concentrated spite! And she does not observe that the spite originates with herself; originates in all the phantoms of her madness to which she gives substance. But is not he a doctor? And if he, as a doctor, understands all this, does it not follow that he ought to treat his poor Nene as a sick patient, not responsible for the harm she has done him and continues to do him? Why rebel? Against whom? He ought to feel for her and to shew pity, to stand by her lovingly, to endure with patience and resignation her inevitable cruelty. And then there is poor Luisetta, left alone in that hell, at the mercy of that mother who does not stop to think…. Ah, off with him, he must return home at once! At once. Perhaps, underlying his decision, masked by this pity for his wife and daughter, there is the need to escape from that precarious and uncertain life, which is no longer the life for him. Is he not, moreover, entitled to feel some pity for himself also? Who has brought him down to this state? Can he at his age take up life again, after having severed all the ties, after having closed all the doors, to please his wife? And, in the end, he goes back to shut himself up in his prison!

The poor man bears so clearly displayed in his whole appearance the great disaster that weighs upon him, he makes it so plainly visible in the embarrassment of his every step, his every glance, when he has his wife with him, by his constant terror lest she, in that step, in that glance, may find a pretext for a scene, that one cannot help laughing at him, sympathise with him as one may.

And perhaps I should have laughed at him too, this morning, had not Signorina Luisetta been there. Who knows what she is made to suffer by the inevitable absurdity of her father, poor girl.

A man of five and forty, reduced to that condition, whose wife is still so fiercely jealous of him, cannot fail to be grotesquely absurd! All the more so since, owing to another hidden tragedy, an indecent precocious baldness, the effect of typhoid fever, which he managed by a miracle to survive, the poor man is obliged to wear that artistic wig under a hat large enough to cover it. The effrontery of this hat and of all those curled locks that protrude from it is in such marked contrast to the frightened, shocked, cautious expression of his face, that it is nothing short of ruination to his seriousness, and must also, certainly, be a constant grief to his daughter.

“No, one moment, my dear Sir… excuse me, what did you say your name was!”


“Gubbio, thanks. Mine is Cavalena, at your service.”

“Cavalena, thanks, I know.”

“Fabrizio Cavalena: in Rome I am better known as…”

“I should say so, a buffoon!”

Cavalena turned round, pale as death, his mouth agape, to gaze at his wife.

“Buffoon, buffoon, buffoon,” she reiterated, three times in succession.

“Nene, for heaven’s sake, shew some respect. …” Cavalena began threateningly; but all of a sudden he broke off: shut his eyes, screwed up his face, clenched his fists, as though seized by a sudden, sharp internal spasm…. Not at all! It was the tremendous effort which he has to make every time to contain himself, to wring from his infuriated animal nature the consciousness that he is a doctor and ought therefore to treat and to pity his wife as a poor sick person.

“May I?”

And he took my arm in his, to draw me a little way apart.

“Typical, you know? Poor thing…. Ah, it requires true heroism, believe me, the greatest heroism on my part to put up with her. I should not be able, perhaps, if it were not for my poor child here. But there! I was saying just now … this Polacco, God in heaven… this Polacco! But I ask you, is it a trick to play upon a friend, knowing my misfortune? He carries my daughter off to , pose’… with a light woman… with an actor who, notoriously… Can you imagine the scene that occurred at home! And then he sends me these presents… a collar too for the animal… and five hundred lire!”

I tried to make it clear to him that, so far at any rate as the presents and the five hundred lire went, it did not appear to me that there was any such harm in them as he chose to make out. He? But he saw no harm in them whatsoever! What harm should there bel He was delighted, overjoyed at what had happened! Most grateful in his heart of hearts to Polacco for having given that little part to his daughter! He had to pretend to be so indignant to appease his wife. I noticed this at once, as soon as I had begun to speak. He was enraptured with the argument that I set before him, proving that after all no harm had been done. He gripped me by the arm, led me impetuously back to his wife.

“Do you hear? Do you hear?… I know nothing about it…. This gentleman says… Tell her, will you please, tell her what you said to me. I don’t wish to open my mouth…. I came here with the presents and the five hundred lire, you understand? To hand everything back. But if that would be, as this gentleman says… I know nothing about it… a gratuitous insult … replying with rudeness to a person who never had the slightest intention to offend us, to do us any harm, because he thinks that… I know nothing, I know nothing… that there is no occasion… I beg of you, in heaven’s name, my dear Sir, do you speak… repeat to my wife what you have been so kind as to say to me!”

But his wife did not give me time to speak: she sprang upon me with the glassy, phosphorescent eyes of a maddened cat.

“Don’t listen to this buffoon, hypocrite, clown! It is not his daughter he’s thinking about, it is not the figure he would cut! He wants to hang about here all day, because here it would be like being in his own garden, with all the pretty ladies he’s so fond of, artists like himself, mincing round him! And he’s not ashamed, the scoundrel, to put his daughter forward as an excuse, to shelter behind his daughter, at the cost of compromising her and ruining her, the wretch!

He would have the excuse of bringing his daughter here, you understand? He would come here for his daughter!”

“But you would come too,” Fabrizio Cavalena shouted, losing all patience. “Aren’t you here too? With me?”

“I?” roared his wife. “I, here?”

“Why not?” Cavalena went on unperturbed; and, turning again to myself: “Tell her, you tell her, does not Zeme come here as well?”

“Zeme?” inquired the wife in perplexity, knitting her brows. “Who is Zeme?”

“Zeme, the Senator!” exclaimed Cavalena. “A Senator of the Realm, a scientist of world-wide fame!”

“He must be as big a clown as yourself!”

“Zeme, who goes to the Quirinal? Invited to all the State Banquets? The venerable Senator Zeme, the pride of Italy! The Keeper of the Astronomical Observatory! Good Lord, you ought to be ashamed of yourself! Shew some respect, if not for me, for one of the glories of the country! He has been here, hasn’t he? But speak, my dear Sir, tell her, for pity’s sake, I beg of you! Zeme has been here, he has helped to arrange a film, hasn’t he? He, Senator Zeme! And if Zeme comes here, if Zeme offers his services, a world-famous scientist, then, I mean to say… surely I can come here too, can offer my services too…. But it doesn’t matter to me in the least! I shall not come again! I am speaking now to make it clear to this woman that this is not a place of ill-fame, to which I, for immoral purposes, am seeking to lead my daughter to her ruin! You will understand, my dear Sir, and forgive me: this is why I am speaking. It burns my ears to hear it said in front of my daughter that I wish to compromise her, to ruin her, by taking her to a place of ill-fame. … Come, come, do me a favour: take me in at once to Polacco, so that I may give him back these presents and the money, and thank him for them. When a man has the misfortune to possess a wife like mine, he ought to dig a grave for himself, and finish things off once and for all! Take me in to Polacco!”

What happened was not my fault on this occasion either, but, flinging open carelessly, without knocking, the door of the Art Director’s office, in which Polacco was to be found, I saw inside a spectacle which at once altered my state of mind completely, so that I was no longer able to give a thought to Cavalena, nor indeed to see anything clearly.

Huddled in the chair by Polacco’s desk a man was sobbing, his face buried in his hands, desperately.

Immediately Polacco, seeing the door open, raised his head abruptly and made an angry sign to me to shut it.

I obeyed. The man who was sobbing inside the room was unquestionably Aldo Nuti. Cavalena, his wife, his daughter, looked at me in bewilderment.

“What is it?” Cavalena asked.

I could barely find the breath to answer:

“There’s… there’s some one there….”

Shortly afterwards, there issued from the Art Director’s office Cocò Polacco, in evident confusion. He saw Cavalena and made a sign to him to wait:

“You here? Excellent. I want to speak to you.”

And without so much as a thought of greeting the ladies, he took me by the arm and drew me aside.

“He has come! He simply must not be left alone for a minute! I have mentioned you to him. He remembers you perfectly. Where are your lodgings? Wait a minute! Do you mind….”

He turned and called to Cavalena.

“You let a couple of rooms, don’t you? Are they vacant just now?”

“I should think so!” sighed Cavalena. “For the last three months and more….”

“Gubbio,” Polacco said to me, “I want you to give up your lodgings at once; pay whatever you have to pay, a month’s rent, two months’, three months’; take one of these two rooms at Cavalena’s. The other will be for him.”

“Delighted!” Cavalena exclaimed radiant, holding out both his hands to me.

“Hurry up,” Polacco went on. “Off with you! You, go and get the rooms ready; you, pack up your traps and transport everything at once to Cavalena’s. Then come back here! Is that all quite clear?”

I threw open my arms, resigned.

Polacco retired to his room. And I drove off with the Cavalena family, bewildered, and most anxious to have from me an explanation of all this mystery.

Luigi Pirandello: Shoot! (22) poetry magazine

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