In combining his three comic fantasies into an eccentric trilogy, Italo Calvino contended that they made up “a family tree for contemporary man” cast in the mold of the contes philosophiques of Voltaire. In his introduction to the omnibus edition of Our Ancestors, the author informs readers that each fantasy contains allegorical references to the period in which it was written: The Cloven Viscount is, in part, a commentary on the Cold War, The Baron in the Trees is partly about the problem of ideological commitment in a world of rapidly shifting values, and The Non-existent Knight includes an investigation of the psychology of fitting into large bureaucratic organizations. Calvino’s observations are obviously as studiously ironic as the stories themselves.
The Cloven Viscount carries forward a long tradition of doppelgänger stories, which Calvino’s introduction traces back to the German writers Adelbert von Chamisso and E. T. A. Hoffmann, although The Cloven Viscount is actually closest in form and spirit to Théophile Gautier’s “Le Chevalier Double” (1840). Its moral is simple enough: All human beings have both good and bad in them, and a healthy person is one who can reconcile contrary impulses into a coherent whole. The book relates to the Cold War in its insistence that division and opposition inflame and exaggerate contrary tendencies to the point where conflict becomes inevitable—but the final confrontation in the story occurs because both halves of the unfortunate viscount have the same ideal in the humble but lovely Pamela.
The Baron in the Trees is a more original work, although it discovers its central motif simply by literalizing the common saying that idealistic intellectuals are not sufficiently “down to earth.” Cosimo has a good heart, and his sympathies are all of the right kind—he is as whole and complete, in his own way, as the reunited Medardo—but he can never get fully involved in the affairs of his fellow human beings. He loses his close friends and both his lovers because he cannot join in their adventures. He wins the respect of great men (and the enmity of some who are not great) for his nobility of spirit, but they are the doers while he remains an observer. Although he remains true to his reckless promise to the very end, his is not an example that can or should be followed. By the time he has lived through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars, a quieter evolution of folkways has devastated the great forests that had allowed him such freedom as he had; in the final paragraph, the anonymous brother who has told Cosimo’s story observes that Ombrosa itself no longer exists.
On one level, The Baron in the Trees is a forthright assault on the kind of idealism that refuses all material anchorage, arguing that such an attitude of mind is ultimately futile. The work is, however, a sympathetic commentary that deftly develops a great fondness for Cosimo, to the extent that his fate seems authentically tragic. What, after all, do the earthbound doers actually achieve? Their deaths are, for the most part, ignominious—Cosimo learns that Ursula eventually died in a convent. The titles of the utopian tracts that Cosimo writes in later life—but that hardly...
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