Jun 20, 2008

The Nonexistent Knight by Italo Calvino (and a question)

This story takes place (mostly) in France, during the time of Charlemagne. Among the emperor’s army there is a knight who does not exist. That’s right – Agiluf, the best warrior in Charlemagne’s army, is nothing but an empty white suit of armour filled with a very strong will.

The Nonexistent Knight follows his adventures and misadventures through medieval France, Scotland, England and Morocco. Along the way he meets the Knights of the Holy Grail, a determined female warrior, a loony squire, and a young man seeking to avenge his father’s death, among others.

This tale is narrated by a nun whose connection with the events in question is only revealed in the very last chapter. While telling the story, she shares with the reader her musings on writing and on her secluded life.

Decidedly playful in tone, The Nonexistent Knight is full of absurd moments that almost read like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A fun, engaging and fast read.

In case you’re wondering about The Cloven Viscount: my edition didn’t have the two novellas (I couldn’t find the right cover online), but, since I read it in my pre-blogging days, I thought I’d share my thoughts on it too.

I think enjoyed The Cloven Viscount more than The Nonexistent Knight. It’s the story of a Viscount who, when hit by a canon ball in battle, is neatly divided into two halves: one entirely good, the other completely bad. When the two halves return home, chaos ensues, and the events that follow eventually lead to a duel between the Viscount’s good and bad sides.

Also playful in tone, The Cloven Viscount is nonetheless a little darker than The Nonexistent Knight, and it manages to be both thoughtful and fun.

And since I'm at it: these two novellas, together with The Baron in the Trees, form a trilogy of sorts. They all tell different stories about different characters, but they are related in themes and in tone. The Baron in the Trees is my favourite of the three. It’s actually my favourite book by Calvino so far. Set in the eighteenth century, it tells the story of Cosimo, a young Italian nobleman who one day climbs a tree and decides that he is never setting foot on the ground again. He doesn’t, and still manages to live a very interesting life. A fable, a fantasy, a love story and an adventure, this was a book I couldn’t put down.

All three of Italo Calvino’s historical fantasies are books I very much recommend.

Does anyone know of a (good) historical novel that retells the lives of the English Romantics, preferably the Shelleys or Byron? The only one I know of is Passion by Jude Morgan, but I'm sure there should be lots more. This is a time period and a subject that just screams "write about me" and I bet a lot of writes have. Anything dealing with Keats would be good too. So if anyone has any suggestions they'll be most welcome. Thanks!


  1. I came across a YA novel called Angelmonster by Veronica Bennett about Mary Shelley's life. I don't know if it's any good, but I love the title!

  2. It's been so long since I've read Calvino. The three that you mention here are wonderful. I enjoyed "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" just for the fun I think he had writing it.

  3. Calvino is my favourite Italian author! And The Non-Existing Knight is my favourite of the three novellas. I'm glad you enjoyed them too!

  4. I've never read Calvino. In fact, though I've heard of him, I really had no clue what his writing was like. I actually think these might be something Rich would love. Totally different from the stuff he normally reads, but yet I think he'd love it. Maybe it was just your mention of Monty Python :)

  5. This sounds like all kinds of awesome. Well, it's been at least 2 days since I added something to the list, and this looks quick and fun.

  6. Eva: Thanks! I really like that title too.

    Terri B: Unfortunately I didn't enjoy If on a Winter's Night... much (it might have been bad timing), but I agree, I bet he had tons of fun writing it!

    Alessandra: I'd say he's mine too but I haven't read all that many, so I can't :P He really is great though.

    Debi: He's one of those incredibly diverse authors, but a lot of his books have in common the fact that they have fantasy elements. He's one of those respectable authors who gets away with it without being frowned upon somehow :P The kind of in this one humour is quite different from Monty Python (but then, what comes even close?), but something in the mood reminded me of it. I hope Rich enjoys Calvino when he gets around to reading him!

    Raych: I hope you enjoy it :)

  7. I've only ever read If on a winter's night a traveller by Calvino. I bought Invisible Cities though, so will have to read it one of these days.

    The English author Benjamin Markovits has published two excellent novels of a planned trilogy about Byron. Imposturefocuses on John Polidori,Byron's doctor,and A Quiet Adjustment focuses on the triangle involving Byron, his wife and his (half)sister. They are a good introduction to the man.

  8. I've never read any Calvino, but I think I'd enjoy these based on your review. Another author to discover! Thanks!

  9. I've never read Calvino either, but I do have "If on a Winter's Night A Traveler" on my TBR pile! I'll defintely have to keep an eye out for this "trilogy"!

  10. Sarah: Thank you! That is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

    Robin, I hope you enjoy his work!

    Stephanie: I hope that one works for you better than it did for me. I just couldn't get into it. Maybe I'll try again some other day.

  11. This is a bit off what you are looking for as a recommendation, but have you heard about The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. It is probably categorized as biography and includes Byron and his physician. About the night Byron challenges Shelley and group to write "the best ghost story." Result: Frankenstein. I've still got this book on my TBR mountain, so can't vouch for how good or bad it is.

  12. I love Calvino. My favorite of is The Path to the spider's nest, his first novel, but I loved loved loved The baron in the trees!
    The nonexistent knight was good too, but the baron in the trees will always be one of my favourite book.

  13. Calvino is another of those writers I keep meaning to read... I have heard so many good things about his books that I still can't believe I haven't picked one up! :)
    I hadn't heard of this one but it does sound fun.

  14. I haven't read Calvino's trilogy in a loooong time - thanks for reminding me of it! The only other collection of his that I've read is "The Crow Comes Last" - it's a series of semi-autobiographical short stories set in Italy during WWII, it's well written and it focused a part of the war that was unfamiliar to me.

    I read a biography of Mary Shelly for a college paper that was entertaining enough that I've reread it a couple of times over the years - "Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters" by Anne Mellor...

  15. I recall enjoying "Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land" by John Crowley. I read it a couple years ago so my memory is a little fadded but it's a ficitonal story about Byron's daughter Ada who finds a undiscovered manuscript of a novel Byron was working on. I remember really enjoying this and will need to go back and re-read it.

  16. This sounds like just the kind of farcical fun that I would enjoy. The comparison to Monty Python alone makes it worth picking up, but your opening paragraph instantly had me thinking that this is a book I'll have to check out.

  17. Terri B: I really like the sound of that one! I've added it to my wishlist. I knew about that ghost story contest, yes, and I've always found it such a fascinating story. Another result was Polidori's "The Vampire", which was a big influence on Dracula. How cool is that?

    Valentina: I haven't read his first novel yet, but I really want to. And yes, The Baron in the Trees is just great :)

    Iliana: I think you'll enjoy his writing!

    Ken: yay, my library has that book on Mary Shelley! It's so coming home with me tomorrow. Thanks for the recommendation. I need to look for that Calvino book too. I hadn't heard of it before and it sounds great.

    Amanda: John Crowley! I've read his Little, Big earlier this year and completely fell in love with his writing. I had no idea he'd written about Byron. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Carl, I hope you enjoy this book!

  18. Sounds like a fun series. I like the idea of splitting someone into a good and bad half as well as a nonexistant knight. The way it links to the Arthurian tales sounds interesting too.


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