The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount

nonexistent knight cloven viscountThis afternoon I finished the book The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino.  I suppose I should mention, those are two novellas that are contained in the book – not one long title for a single novel.  Anyway, I read this directly after having read Calvino’s very famous If on a winter’s night a traveler. . .  I gave that work a five star rating.  I am going to grade these two novellas as a whole unit – because they are actually  relatively similar and I think I would, separately, give them both three stars anyway.

The Cloven Viscount is a rather early work by Calvino.  I believe it was first published in 1952.  It does have an early-writer feel to it – but probably made more obvious since I just finished reading If on  a winter’s night a traveler. . .  I was entertained by the story and I do feel that Calvino was attempting to make some vague demonstrations of morality, religion, and even war, but it isn’t a great masterpiece.  I enjoyed the work because it was unique and entertaining and Calvino has skill using words.  However, if I step back and consider the novella in terms of all the things I have read, it really only falls in the average category.

The Cloven Viscount is about a Viscount, dopey and naive, who heads to do his duty at war with the Moslems (purposive spelling there).  In his zeal for fighting he gets blasted into two by a cannonball.  Two – vertically; not like an upper and lower half situation.  But a left and right split. Anyway, he returns home (salvaged from the battlefield) and irrationally terrorizes his castle, lands, and people.  Foibles and situations arise as the story is told by the Viscount’s nephew.  Calvino touches on religious groups (and the persecution/sequestering they undergo) as well as some vague ideas regarding a class society.  But it is all very “light” and not fleshed-out and certainly not overbearing.  In the end, the novella has a morality tale feel to it – without a whole lot of the sermonizing found in morality tales.  Overall, it was okay. Somewhat interesting, somewhat flat.

I much more enjoyed The Nonexistent Knight – and it conjured up fantastic combinations in my brain of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, St. Terese d’Avila, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.   It was first published in 1959 and I found a lot to like in the novella. To be honest, I will probably “forget” The Cloven Viscount soon enough – but The Nonexistent Knight will keep in my head for awhile. Interesting ideas to play with and, like the other novella, quite unique.

The novella is twelve chapters in all, but I feel like at chapter nine, Calvino got restless with his story and just wanted to wrap it up. There is a change that takes place in the writing and storyline – as if it was to be a novel and then just became a novella because Calvino was “done with it.”  And this is why it gets three stars from me and not more.

The first four chapters really satirize and mock the human fascination with war and chivalry and nobility.  Calvino presents an image of medieval war that ignores all of the high-moral standards that are presented in dreamy romances about the Middle Ages.  But it is not an in-depth criticism that Calvino presents.  Rather, it seems like he pretends to explain the perspective that the actual participants have towards battle.  For example on page 62:

War anyway is made up of a bit of slaughter and a bit of routine and doesn’t bear being looked into too closely.

The female character, Bradamante, is fascinating and I would have liked to have seen this character developed in a full-length novel.  She is so incongruous and yet significant to the story!  But, of course, the story is nothing without Agilulf Bertrandin of the Guildivern.  Here is the concept of the ideal made real.  And yet, as nonexistent as the real gets. (Which is so much fun to type.)  And I just love this character.  He’s so ridiculous and awesome and fun to explore.  His interactions with the others are so cool and confident and yet, he carries this massive sorrow of the distance of non-existence around.  I loved him as a character – and I think Bradamante was a great balance to his character.

Another character (Raimbaut) speaks of him:

I see the virtue and value, but it’s all so cold . . . but a knight who doesn’t exist, that does rather frighten me, I must confess. . . Yet I admire him, he’s so perfect in all he does, he makes one more confident than if he did exist. . .

So this is a wonderful concept to continue thinking on:  why does the ideal existing cause fear? (It’s obvious it causes admiration.) And in this novella, does the ideal actually exist or not? Fascinating.

3 stars

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