From The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories
In her introduction to The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, novelist, essayist, and translator Jhumpa Lahiri identifies a key property not just of a national literature originating, but short fiction more generally: “Fleeting by nature, short stories, in spite of their concision and concentration, are infinitely elastic, expansive, probing, elusive – suggesting that the genre itself is essentially unstable, hybrid, even subversive in nature.” Where Italian literature specifically is concerned, Lahiri references anthologist Enzo Siciliano, who suggests that the racconto, or tale, born of intuition rather than reason or logic, is part of an essential literary tradition in the country. “In some sense,” Lahiri writes, “it is the novel, in Italy, which is the interloper, the imported genre.”
The Nobel Prize winner Luigi Pirandello is best known for his plays, most famously his absurdist tragicomedy Six Characters in Search of an Author. But he was well known in his lifetime for his prose fiction and an argument could be made that the short story was the form in which, outside of drama, he did his most enduring work. Certainly he was prodigious in his output: he had a grand scheme to publish a Borgesian collection entitled Nouvelle per un anno (Short Stories for a Year) that would consist of 365 stories, one for each day of the year. (Which makes this site’s month-long annual project seem like small beer by comparison.) In the event, he died before he could complete the project; a fifteen-volume edition of 265 tales was published.
“The Trap” features one of Pirandello’s most persistent artistic concerns: the instability of identity and reality in individual human beings. A piercingly psychological writer, Pirandello is quoted in the Encyclopedia Britannica as saying, “I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know why, wherefore, or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all), which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory.” A prototypical postmodernist, Pirandello married a search for coherent identity with an absurdist approach that anticipated Beckett and Camus, while maintaining a ferocity all his own.
As is typical for Pirandello, “The Trap” does not represent a conventional short story any more than Six Characters is a straightforward three-act drama. The story is not so much a consequential sequence with a beginning, middle, and end; it is, rather, an existential rant from the perspective of a hateful first-person narrator who is antagonistic toward the meaning, if not the very concept, of life itself.
The trap in the title is human existence; to this extent, Pirandello is also a thoroughgoing existentialist, recalling Kierkegaard and anticipating Sartre. The story’s narrator is belligerent and excoriating, directly addressing an implied reader whom he takes to task for what he feels is a capitulation to the illusion of meaning and reality. For the narrator, daylight represents nothing more than a comforting facade, whereas darkness paradoxically dispels all illusion and reflects life as it truly is.
Physical reality is a bugbear for the narrator, who presumes that the essence of life involves a slow march to the grave. Stable identity is not something to be pursued, because fixity is correlated with decay and death. “Life is wind. Life is sea,” the narrator expounds. “Not earth, which becomes encrusted and takes on form. All form is death. All that is removed from the state of fusion and congeals amid this continuous flux, which is incandescent and indistinct, is death.”
In place of “the constancy of feelings and the coherence of personality,” which the narrator assesses as traits belonging to a coward, the only recourse to life is ongoing mutability of thought and circumstance. For it is only in a state of constant alteration that one avoids the spectre of death-in-life. Of course, the very fact of being born into a physical body is a problem for this worldview; it is this fact, as much as any other, that accounts for one particular aspect of the narrator’s makeup: his virulent misogyny.
“What stupid, miserable and thoughtless creatures all women are!” the narrator seethes venomously. He declaims a desire to dig his fingernails “into the face of every beautiful woman who passes down the street, teasing men provocatively.” The narrator is no garden-variety woman hater, however. His misogyny springs from the very core of his belief system regarding the nature of human existence. If life is nothing more than a march to the grave – a trap with only one inevitable conclusion – then it is women who are responsible for placing humans in this trap, by virtue of bringing them into the world in the first place.
And the narrator’s sexual attraction to women is cause for self-recrimination, since the sex act that propagates the species is responsible for the perpetuation of this miserable, meaningless existence. “For us men the trap is in them, in women. For a moment they put us once again in a state of incandescence to wrest from us another being who is sentenced to death. They say and do so much until they finally make us fall, blind, passionate and violent, into their trap.” In the narrator’s twisted psychology, his own sexual compulsions are the fault of women who simply want to lure him into their beds to impregnate them.
This, for the narrator, is not an abstract concern: we learn that he has had a liaison with the governess in charge of caring for his dying father; she became pregnant and ran off to her husband to have the narrator’s child. The narrator, who never knew his mother and is disgusted at his dying father’s incapacity, is a malignant product of a nihilistic worldview informed by a culture of machismo and misogyny.
Pirandello’s story asks us to spend an uncomfortable amount of time inside the psyche of an abhorrent – but also deluded and frightened – man. As such, it is not a story that will appeal to every reader, or even most readers. For those who are able to stomach the experience, it is not necessary to sympathize with the character in order to appreciate the author’s accomplishment in delving into a fractured, distorted, and vicious – but all too recognizable – male psyche.