A Reader Reviews: Italo Calvino’s ‘The Nonexistent Knight’ and ‘The Cloven Viscount’

'The Nonexistent Knight' and 'The Cloven Viscount'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

For my thirtieth birthday in February this year, a friend of mine originally from Rome bought me a book containing English translations of two novellas by Italian writer Italo Calvino: The Nonexistent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente) and The Cloven Viscount (Il visconte dimezzato). As she recently read John Williams’s Stoner on the basis of my review of it in July (click here to read it), I felt it only right to finally repay her and read a recommendation of her own.

Told by Sister Theodora, a nun of the order of St Colomba, The Nonexistent Knight recounts the story of Agilulf Emo Bertrandin of the Guildivern, a knight in the service of Charlemagne who is the perfect embodiment of chivalry, despite having no body of his own inside his armour. At a banquet, Charlemagne’s assembled knights begin to boast of their heroic deeds, but each in turn is undermined by Agilulf, who happily points out the wild exaggeration and deceit in every claim. Agilulf himself, however, who was knighted for saving the King of Scotland’s virgin daughter Sophronia from rape, is certain of his worthiness, or at least until a young warrior named Torrismund calls into question Sophronia’s virgin status by revealing himself to be her son. To cast doubt on Sophronia’s virginity is to cast doubt on Agilulf’s knighthood, a state of affairs that Agilulf simply cannot allow to stand. To prove the truth of Sophronia’s virginity and the validity of his knighthood, Agilulf sets off with his companion Gurduloo to find Sophronia and affirm his chivalric station.

The Cloven Viscount is a gruesome tale and one that made good reading for a grisly Hallowe’en. Shortly after arriving on the plain of Bohemia to fight the Turks, Viscount Medardo of Terralba is hit by a cannonball at short range and severed in two from head to toe. Half of his body is carried away from the battlefield and its life preserved by doctors. This half of Medardo returns to Terralba, and with the Viscount’s newfound penchant for cutting plants and animals in half and his eagerness to hang the people he rules, it soon becomes apparent that it is the wicked half of Medardo that now holds sway in the region. Following a period in which the bad Medardo terrorises the inhabitants of Terralba, rumours begin to circulate that he has changed his ways and is performing charitable deeds. It turns out that the other half of Medardo — the good half — has also returned to Terralba and its citizens must somehow navigate the crimes of bad Medardo and the overzealous altruism of the good.

As much as The Nonexistent Knight is playful, its focus on the unstable nature of identity is entirely serious. The ease with which Agilulf’s confidence in his own identity as perfect knight is shaken clearly demonstrates how fragile an identity can be, a point accentuated by the many other characters in the story for whom identity is permeable, from the fearsome female knight Bradamante, at first mistaken for a man by the young warrior Raimbaut, to the foolish Gurduloo, who has a different name in every town. Keeping track of all these characters and their shifting personalities is initially rather challenging, but it does not take long to figure out that this is all part of Calvino’s greater purpose. The plot is similarly difficult to follow and plainly serves to complement the confusion of identities and events so central to the novella. Sister Theodora herself seems to be confused by her own narrative, calling into question her reliability as narrator and the truth of the tale she tells. The ultimate effect of this uncertainty is to jolt the reader from any security that might otherwise pertain to the interpretation of the story and to show that pure and unassailable identity does not exist.

The Cloven Viscount is much less confusing than The Nonexistent Knight and its narrative more coherent, but Calvino’s interest in the blurring of identities is still in evidence. This time, confusion comes in the form of good and bad halves of the same person operating in the same place, exposing the constant strife that humans face in trying to balance the two competing halves of their own nature. By literally separating Medardo’s halves, Calvino brings into sharp relief the kind of moral conflict that is normally internal and suggests that being wholly good can be as dreadful as being wholly bad — a fusion of the two is what makes us whole and human.

Clearly indebted to medieval European romance, which frequently destabilises notions of identity, The Nonexistent Knight is a whimsical and strange delight that puzzles and unsettles, while The Cloven Viscount is a macabre fable that is sure to both repulse and leave you questioning the truth of human nature. As my first experience of Calvino, these two novellas have been a jarring introduction to the abnormal and bizarre, and both have left me wanting to read more of his work. My only regret is that I cannot read his work in the original Italian.