What is "Metaliterature"? It is literature about literature, in this case, views, reviews, and thoughts provoked by stuff I've read. I'm hoping this might be a chronicle of the brain of a life-long reader as guided by intertextual coincidence. If you like what you read, read what I like.
Currently domiciled in the Vale of Glamorgan.
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Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino
The dog signifies nothing...
Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I
regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name
of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does
this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would
pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the
discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of
thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to
make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known
works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his
death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well,
I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if
it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own introduction
that modesty drives him to frame the three stories as mere entertainments, and
that if the reader draws anything further from them then that’s the reader’s
fault and no blame should be laid at his door. I hope you’ll afford me the same
spirit of generosity and forgiveness.
So, Our Ancestors
is a trilogy of (very) loosely themed stories, narrated by a third-party
witness to events, and if enjoyment is the sole purpose, then in my opinion and
for my taste, there is a definite hierarchy – at the top is The Non-existent Knight, then follows The Cloven Viscount, and propping up the
others is the much longer The Baron In
The Trees. In the first, a suit of armour is inhabited by the sheer will power
of someone who doesn’t exist, whose only purpose is truth, and was, as Jules
Verne said of Phineas Fogg, exactitude personified. His path across the
battlefields of France is intersected by an amorous young knight, a mournful and
bitter orphan-knight, and a love-hungry warrior maiden who wants only the man
she can’t have (and who we later learn, [spoiler coming up – look away now] is
the narrator of the story from her cell in a local convent and whose self-referential
passages are pretty dull in comparison). A coincidental, comical convergence
causes crisis for the non-existent knight and he sets out, with idiot squire in
tow, on a quest to prove his title and therefore his non-existent existence is
true, and, time and space be damned, crosses France, England, the Atlantic
Ocean, North Africa and France again to return to the court of the aging and
tired Charlemagne with his evidence, all of which is rebuffed, falsely it
seems, and he ceases his non-existence, or rather, more so than before, in fact
completely. There are some beautifully crafted characters herein, and the
landscape is replete with those peasants and armour-fillers whose casual
acceptance of the situation adds a surreal gloss to events. The Knights of the
Holy Grail are thoroughly lampooned, and Charlemagne himself, at the end of his
long campaign, the origins of which no-one seems able to recall, is toying with
senility. All in all, a very lovely literary farce, a satire full of people
chasing people, seducers being outwitted, young lust frustrated and a village
idiot knocking over furniture and washing up in fishermen’s nets.
The Cloven Viscount
is equally far-fetched, given it follows the life of a young nobleman blown
into two halves by a Turkish cannon whilst on his first crusade, the two halves
representing the twin sides of a single personality and who both manage to go
on living despite the obvious challenges. Somewhat repetitive in parts, but
with equally biting satire, the evil viscount wreaks misery on his populace,
annoying the exiled Huguenots who are too afraid of persecution to be properly
pious except in only the most vague terms, chopping plants and animals in half –
to make them better appreciate the duality of existence perhaps – and trying to
bed a young farm hand who gently ducks his attentions, causing her parents to
suffer his perverse attempts at blackmail. That is, until the ‘good’ half of
the viscount arrives, at first being a beacon of hope to the inhabitants with
acts of charity and healing, but then by his very goodness attracting the attention
of his evil half to those that he helps, thus becoming a curse in his own
right, and who also falls for the plump young maid, causing [spoiler coming up –
time to avert your gaze momentarily] the two halves to unite after their
comically ineffectual duelling results in the removal of their sutures at
rapier point allowing the two halves to be reunited at the divide. The one
irritant is the narrator, ostensibly a young relative free from parental
supervision and able to be at the side of every interested participant in the
tale – a necessary device given the format, but irksome and calling into doubt
an already improbable story by his intrusions. In a context where this tale
appeared, for example a tale in Chaucer’s pilgrims’ progress, as part of a collection
of storytelling it would probably sit less uncomfortably – although maybe that’s
what this collection tries to be. Meh.
They could have chosen different poses...
Lastly, comes The
Baron In The Trees, where a family slight sends the heir to the duchy into
an oak tree from which he is never to climb down and from which he conducts the
business of being a noble man, an intellectual, a philosopher, a villain, a
military strategist, a lover, and a great storyteller. A simple and interesting
premise you might think, but as the tale spans his entire, lengthy, life,
related to the reader by his younger sibling, is in parts repetitive and dull.
Many stories could have been trimmed, albeit at the cost of the great scope of
the satire, to make it more enjoyable, and perhaps this is where the author’s
own defence of the triptych falls a little flat, as enjoyability comes second
to whatever it is Calvino is trying to say. I freely admit I skimmed some
passages in order to advance before my 40th birthday*.
Phew. So at the end of this lengthy review which touches on
plot but very little on what one might draw from levels below the facile, what
have we learned? This is enjoyable for the most part, and even the bits that
drag have merit, and like in his re-telling of 200 Italian Folktales, his voice
and style is warm and distinct, rendering the surreal endearing and human.
Plus, he doesn’t have a beard – that’s right, yes?
*Thankfully** more than a couple of years hence…
**I hasten to add that I have nothing against anyone over the age of 40
Many (many) years ago, when I first read War With The Newts, after scouring the Waterstones' internal database (whimsically named Ibid, and from which one could print the details of books onto the till roll in light- and so it seems, time-sensitive purple ink which, on the inches thick ream of leaves I printed for future perusal, faded within a few months rendering my catalogued wish list so much locker mulch) for authors with a suitably Czech-sounding name, having put away an entrée of my first slim Hrabal, a palate-cleansing Kundera and in need of a meaty Moravian main course, I think I might have completely and totally missed just how funny it was, bloated as I was by the doughy and Victorian-sounding translation and the rather unlikely ideation of the future political terroir of mankind and their unusual amphibian slaves and, latterly, sappers, the newts.
How's that for a sentence David Foster Wallace? INTERROBANG.
Well, there's no chance that Čapek's typically Czech…
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