The Cloven Viscount

by Italo Calvino

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Critical Context

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The Cloven Viscount is similar to other works by Calvino, such as Il barone rampante (1957; The Baron in the Trees, 1959) and Il cavaliere inesistente (1959; The Non-existent Knight, 1962). Three characteristics unify these books: They are about a past based on reality, yet transformed by imagination; they present fantastic events in a straightforward style; and they are concerned with the opposition of artifice and reality, symbol and fact.

These are themes and techniques which also appear in other works by Calvino, along with a rich fund of understated humor based on shrewd observation of human life. Beneath the wit, beneath the dazzling artistry, beneath the double-edged symbolism, however, Calvino’s works have a profound and deeply rooted concern with the passions and problems of human life. The Cloven Viscount is a work about a number of subjects, but at its core it is concerned with people, how they live, how they make contact with one another, and how they grow and accept life.

When the young narrator of The Cloven Viscount hears that Dr. Trelawney is leaving with the famous Captain Cook, he rushes to the harbor: “But already the ships were vanishing over the horizon and I was left behind, in this world of ours full of responsibilities and will-o’-the-wisps.” This combination of hard fact and fantasy, of duties and dreams, is characteristic not only of The Cloven Viscount but also of all Calvino’s works, and it is his witty yet essentially serious exploration of these themes that makes him an enjoyable and an important author.

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