Luigi Pirandello and his "Berecche and the War"

Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936)

Luigi Pirandello is maybe one of the most renowned and studied Italian writers of the XX Century and we guess everybody can cite at least one of his pieces. Yet we may also suppose that not so many had the chance to read his war novella entitled Berecche and the War (Berecche e la Guerra). To this last we’d like to refer today, providing maybe to our readers a suggestion for an upcoming reading. Pirandello wrote this short novel at different stages, probably between 1914 and 1917, publishing part of it as separate stories and part in another war novels (for example in Frammenti di cronaca di Marco Leccio). He then collected all the materials of Berecche and the War in 1934 for the definitive edition in his Stories for a Year (Novelle per un anno) and organized them into eight chapters. Like Pirandello, Berecche, the main character of the short story, is a non-combatant – born after the wars for the unification of Italy (which ended in 1861) and too old to fight in the WWI – who lives in himself the tensions and violence of the time. He witnesses both the failure of his ideals and myths on the broader political and social context of the European growing tensions and experiences the effects of the conflict in his private life, in his family.

Instead of offer here a summary of the content – spoiling so the surprise of the reading – let’s rather direct our attention to Pirandello’s introductory note, since it presents the – not purely fictional – context of the whole story and gives therefore a key of interpretation. The novella, states its author in the opening pages, was composed “in the months preceding our (i.e. Italy’s) entry into the World War” and describes not only the furious political debate between interventionists and their adversaries, but also and above all the cultural, emotional and psychological collapse of its protagonist, “a studious man educated like so many others at that time in the German fashion, and especially in the disciplines of history and philology”.
Already in the opening scene, when Berecche in a beer-house in Rome listens to and discusses with his fellows, who support Italy’s entry against its former allied the Austrian Hungarian Empire, we are aware that the protagonist symbolizes an identity based on nineteenth-century notions of method, order and discipline, an education model deeply rooted in the German culture which was largely prevailing in the cultural milieu of the Italian bourgeoisie. To quote once again Pirandello’s opening note, for people like Berecche, Germany had “become not just spiritually but also in their thoughts and feelings, as an intimate part of their lives, their ideal native land”. Yet, their spiritual and cultural Heimat was suddenly opposed to the duties toward the natural and political homeland and depicted by 1914 as a leading military and industrial power which endangered the world equilibrium. 

We can suppose that Berecche would have faced this political, social and cultural crisis thanks to his skilled mind and refined culture, maybe he would have even found a personal interior solution to the conflict between his admiration for the German culture and the national loyalty which his friends and then the whole Italian society was claiming. He would probably have found a solution if only this crisis hadn’t upset also his familial and emotional life. His future son-in-law (a native of the Trento region who refused to fight for his nation, the Austrian Empire) and even his only son Faustino (a young student excited also by the interventionist propaganda) suddenly enlisted in the Legione garibaldina (the “Garibaldi legion”), a group of Italian volunteers – mainly from the left interventionist wing – leaded by some Garibaldi’s grandchildren and that supported the French Army on the western front already in 1914, i.e. before a political decision for the military intervention of Italy was made. 

Berecche and the War provides in this connection not only an analysis of a conflict between the generations (father-son) intensified by the general crisis of that crucial year for Italy’s history, but also the emotional collapse of the protagonist. Overwhelmed by the despair of the women (his wife and his older daughter) and racked by both the remorse – for having been so hard with Faustino and his interventionist ideas – and the dread of losing him under the German fire, Berecche’s previous identity collapses: his principles are suddenly overturned and he proposes in the final chapter to enlist, he too, and fight at his son’s side. And Pirandello does not spare his characteristic humor in depicting the emotional breakdown in the scene of Berecche’s riding school – to get ready for the cavalry action – and his final ruinous fall – a humor which exacerbates the tension and disillusion of the protagonist’s personal crisis.
But we are revealing far too much about this novella, so just read it. Berecche and the war enable you to enjoy fully Pirandello’s narrative genius and at the same time to approach the Great War from another perspective, that from below, from the subjective point of view and the private feelings of an old retired, a non combatant history professor, who far from being an isolate and exotic case represents at least a shade among the countless interior – both emotional and cultural – fronts of conflict that WWI opened in the daily life of the normal people.