Zenosbooks

(05/08/2008) The Nonexistent Knight & The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino. New York. 1962. Random House. Translated From The Italian By Archibald Colquhoun. keywords: Literature Translated Italy. 246 pages. Jacket design by Lawrence Ratzkin.

FROM THE PUBLISHER -

   These two novellas together with Calvino's previously published novel, THE BARON IN THE TREES, make a witty trilogy of allegorical fantasy. Recently republished in Italy under the title OUR ANCESTORS, they reflect the unique mind of one of Italy's leading young writers, whose satire of medieval times is highly relevant to the contemporary scene. THE NONEXISTENT KNIGHT is an earthy parody of chivalry and knighthood. Agilulf, the improbable hero of this tale, is an empty suit of armor, yet he is the essence of military perfection, resented by his fellow paladins, loved by Bradamante, a dashing female knight, and admired by Raimbaut, an idealistic volunteer who is eager for the glamour of war. In order to retain his knightly rank, Agilulf is forced to scour Europe to verify the chastity of a virgin he rescued fifteen years before. His quest, a burlesque of the time-honored rituals of medieval romance, finds him evading the seductive charms of the widow Priscilla, and rescuing the reluctant virgin from a Sultan's harem. The author's ironic scrutiny surveys war, love, male vanity and female duplicity. An irreverent view of the human condition is Calvino's aim, and he succeeds brilliantly. THE CLOVEN VISCOUNT, set in the late Middle Ages, is the grisly tale of Viscount Medardo di Terralba, who in his first battle against the Turks is neatly cut in half by a cannon shot. He returns to his lands in Austria -- literally half a man -- and becomes the personification of evil, provides children with poison mushrooms, banishes his faithful nurse to a leper colony, and carries on a ghoulish courtship with a beautiful shepherdess. When the other half of the Viscount miraculously appears on the scene and tries to undo the damage, a weird conflict develops, and the happy ending is no less startling than the story itself. As an allegory of modern man -- alienated and mutilated --this novel has profound overtones. As a parody of the Christian parables of good and evil, it is both witty and refreshing. Italo Calvino was an Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels. His best known works include the Our Ancestors trilogy, the Cosmicomics collection of short stories, and the novels Invisible Cities and If on a winter's night a traveler.

Italo Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, to botanists Mario Calvino and Evelina Mameli. The family soon moved to its homeland Italy, where Italo lived most of his life. They moved to Sanremo, on the Italian Riviera, where his father had come from The young Italo became a member of the Avanguardisti with whom he took part in the occupation of the French Riviera. He suffered some religious troubles, as his relatives were openly atheist in a largely Catholic country. He was sent to attend a Waldensian private school. Calvino met Eugenio Scalfari, with whom he would remain a close friend. In 1941 Calvino moved to Turin, after a long hesitation over living there or in Milan. He often humorously described this choice, and used to describe Turin as 'a city that is serious but sad.' In 1943 he joined the Partisans in the Italian Resistance, in the Garibaldi brigade, with the battlename of Santiago. With Scalfari he created the MUL Calvino then entered the Italian Communist Party. Calvino graduated from the University of Turin in 1947 with a thesis on Joseph Conrad and started working with the official Communist paper L'Unite. He also had a short relationship with the Einaudi publishing house, which put him in contact with Norberto Bobbio, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini. With Vittorini he wrote for the weekly Il Politecnico Calvino then left Einaudi to work mainly with L'Unite and the newborn communist weekly political magazine Rinascita. He worked again for the Einaudi house from 1950, responsible for the literary volumes. The following year, presumably to advance in the communist party, he visited the Soviet Union. The reports and correspondence he produced from this visit were later collected and earned him literary prizes. In 1952 Calvino wrote with Giorgio Bassani for Botteghe Oscure, a magazine named after the popular name of the party's head-offices. He also worked for Il Contemporaneo, a Marxist weekly. From 1955 to 1958 Calvino had an affair with the actress Elsa de' Giorgi, an older and married woman. Calvino wrote hundreds of love letters to her. Excerpts were published by Corriere della Sera in 2004, causing some controversy. In 1957, disillusioned by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Calvino left the Italian Communist party. His letter of resignation was published in L'Unite and soon became famous. He found new outlets for his periodic writings in the magazines Passato e Presente and Italia Domani. Together with Vittorini he became a co-editor of Il Menab? di letteratura, a position which Calvino held for many years. Despite severe restrictions in the US against foreigners holding communist views, Calvino was allowed to visit the United States, where he stayed six months from 1959 to 1960, after an invitation by the Ford Foundation. Calvino was particularly impressed by the 'New World': 'Naturally I visited the South and also California, but I always felt a New Yorker. My city is New York. ' The letters he wrote to Einaudi describing this visit to the United States, were first published as 'American Diary 1959-1960' in the book Hermit in Paris in 2003. In 1962 Calvino met the Argentinian translator Esther Judith Singer and married her in 1964 in Havana, during a trip in which he visited his birthplace and met Ernesto Che Guevara. This encounter later led him to contribute an article on the 15th of October 1967, a few days after the death of Guevara, describing the lasting impression Guevara made on him. Back in Italy, and once again working for Einaudi, Calvino started publishing some of his cosmicomics in Il Caffe, a literary magazine. Vittorini's death in 1966 influenced Calvino greatly. He went through what he called an 'intellectual depression', which the writer himself described as an important passage in his life: '. I ceased to be young. Perhaps it's a metabolic process, something that comes with age, I'd been young for a long time, perhaps too long, suddenly I felt that I had to begin my old age, yes, old age, perhaps with the hope of prolonging it by beginning it early'. He then started to frequent Paris, where he was nicknamed L'ironique amus?. Here he soon joined some important circles like the Oulipo and met Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss, in the fermenting atmosphere that was going to evolve into 1968's cultural revolution During his French experience, he also became fond of Raymond Queneau's works, which would influence his later production. Calvino had more intense contacts with the academic world, with notable experiences at the Sorbonne and at Urbino's university. His interests included classical studies: Honore de Balzac, Ludovico Ariosto, Dante, Ignacio de Loyola, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Giacomo Leopardi. At the same time, not without surprising Italian intellectual circles, Calvino wrote novels for Playboy's Italian edition He became a regular contributor to the important Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. In 1975 Calvino was made Honorary Member of the American Academy, and the following year he was awarded the Austrian State Literary Prize for European literature. He visited Japan and Mexico and gave lectures in several American towns. In 1981 he was awarded the prestigious French Legion d'Honneur. During the summer of 1985, Calvino prepared some notes for a series of lectures to be delivered at Harvard University in the fall. However, on 6 September, he was admitted to the ancient hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, where he died during the night between the 18 and 19 September of a cerebral hemorrhage. His lecture notes were published posthumously as Six Memos for the Next Millennium in 1988. His style is not easily classified; much of his writing has an air of the fantastic reminiscent of fairy tales, although sometimes his writing is more 'realistic' and in the scenic mode of observation Some of his writing has been called 'postmodern', reflecting on literature and the act of reading, while some has been labeled 'magical realist', others fables, others simply 'modern'. Twelve years before his death, he was invited to and joined the Oulipo group of experimental writers. He wrote: 'My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.'

 

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