The Red Horse

When I wrote about my favourite reads of 2021, I also wrote that starting this year I would share my thoughts on the books I enjoy. My intention was to go longer on specific titles instead of collecting small paragraphs in a round-up post in December. However, I cannot really say that I enjoyed the book I am about to discuss. What makes it still worth of some words is the fascination I found myself in when researching its origins and its author. A fascination that soon became an obsession because the more I dug the less I found. I am writing this piece out of an urge to put an end to the affair between Eugenio Corti’s Il cavallo rosso (The Red Horse) and me.

Il cavallo rosso came to my attention last year when a professor at Ca’ Foscari university mentioned it during one of his lessons. His was more than a title-drop, though. He went as far as calling it one of the best books of the twentieth century, and this really took me by surprise. I had never heard of Eugenio Corti and his work before. Why had such a work of art by an Italian author born not too far from my hometown always eluded me? I wanted a copy of that book as soon as possible. After about a month with its 1080 pages1 I turned the last one feeling confused and offended. I couldn’t possibly understand why Il cavallo rosso should be praised as a masterpiece and why a university professor should suggest it as a notable work to his students. Unless I was missing something, that is to say.

Il cavallo rosso is divided into three parts. Corti writes about his experiences during the Second World War on the Russian front in the first two, and how his life turned out to be after the war in the third one. In doing so he does not put himself directly into his pages. Instead, he splits ideas and different moments of his life among a set of closely related characters. Just like the author, all of them were born and raised in Brianza, an area between Milan and Lake Como which Corti depicts as an earthly paradise of Catholic traditions and pious solidarity. I use the word “Catholic” carefully here, because Il cavallo rosso cannot be read without taking into account what Corti wanted to achieve with it in terms of religious view. I would venture to say that it’s next to impossible to accept this book for what it is without sharing its author’s point of view on Catholicism and faith.

What is Corti’s view on Catholicism, then? Corti distinctively puts himself into a conservative position when it comes to religious matters, promoting a reactionary tale of the present which, according to the character of Michele Tintori, Corti’s closest alter ego, has diverged too much from the pure sanctity of the Middle Ages. The key to understand Corti’s version of reality is the third section of Il cavallo rosso, where the writer forgets about the depths of his male characters by reducing them to little variations of the same notion. The notion being that Communism and everything that has led to it are the prime sources for the moral decadence of the world we live in. Tintori condemns Marx multiple times, reassuring the reader that he studied his books when he was in a concentration camp, while at the same time conveniently forgetting about the differences between Marxism, Soviet Communism, and Chinese Communism. The same character later justifies the Inquisition, a noble cause that only Christians have the right to judge, and defends fascist censorship because it spared Italians the trouble of reading bad literature. At a certain point I lost count of the times Partisans and the Italian resistance movement are ridiculed, but the blind compassion for German soldiers and the hanged body of Mussolini did not escape me either. The more we proceed through the third part of Il cavallo rosso, the more Corti insists on the obstacles that an Italian government scared of Communist and Socialist propaganda placed on his younger self’s way to stardom. Again, it does not matter how Communism and Socialism differ from each other. What matters is that anything other than Catholic faith is inherently wrong and opposed to Tintori/Corti and his success.

I have to admit that Tintori’s tirades, angry and emotionally charged, can easily appeal to people who identify with his opinions. In this regard, Il cavallo rosso is basically a pamphlet of Catholic stances, a literary exercise in dogmatism for the sake of a cause the moral grounds of which cannot be argued with. The real problem with Il cavallo rosso is that only one on Corti’s side, and who basically thinks like him, can in all honesty consider this book a great artistic achievement2. As much as Corti’s experiences on the Russian front are telling of the horrors and the misery of the soldiers and the prisoners, shining a light on events which may not be always remembered as they actually deserve, it’s hard to applaud the third section of this book for the writing style or the content. For instance, Corti is incapable of portraying female characters. He measures them in terms of beauty and devotion to God and to their male partners. More so than with the men, the women have no real meaning here except serving as reminders of what a good Catholic mother and wife is supposed to be. In a couple of occasions Corti links one of this women, Alma, to Alessandro Manzoni’s Lucia Mondella. Is he trying to create a bridge between Manzoni and himself? If so, Corti fails miserably at it. Lucia is rich with inner turmoil and fear. In I promessi sposi, we witness her becoming a woman every time her unshakeable faith is put to test. Her chastity is not her pedigree, it’s not something to show off. It’s one and all with her intimacy, a private matter altogether. References to Manzoni are not enough to save a character so poorly developed as Alma, whose inexpressive look, a trait so peculiar the reader has to be constantly reminded of, is the only thing one can eventually remember her by.

Interestingly enough, Alessandro Manzoni is one of the writers Eugenio Corti is compared to in the reviews collected on the last pages of the edition of Il cavallo rosso in my possession. This is a baffling comparison, because even if it’s true that they both write from a profoundly religious perspective, Manzoni does not shy away from the wrongdoings of the Church, revealing the shallowness of don Abbondio over and over again. The only way for Corti to criticise a priest is by attacking his progressive views. But even if Manzoni did stand alongside the Church — think of Cardinal Federigo Borromeo — just take the arrival of Renzo Tramaglino in a Milan devastated by famine and weigh it against Corti’s description of life in a concentration camp. Manzoni judges but does not forget the scene in front of him, whereas Corti, in order to state his position on Communism, does it at every turn of the page. He spends an incredible number of words in detailing war scenes, which is probably the one thing he does really well, but prisoners are just good or bad, much like women are just beautiful or ugly for him. In Manzoni we sense the mob, we see poverty, and we feel anger because what Renzo sees is what Manzoni wants us to see. We know what Manzoni thinks because he lets the readers grasp it without force-feeding them. With Corti, however, we only wait for the next iteration of his commentary against Communism. This can obviously be a specific choice of his. Corti may be more concerned about the cause rather than the effects of the horrors around him, but then critics who make use of the comparison with Manzoni are either doing so mischievously or are ineptly trying to raise Corti’s status to that of a classic without securing solid grounds for their statements.

While reading and researching I kept asking myself: what are the praises for Corti and Il cavallo rosso based upon? Why is it that these praises seem to focus only on the poignancy of the historical content and blatantly avoid its more controversial aspects? Try it for yourself. Try to go onto your favourite search engine and look up “Eugenio Corti” or “Il cavallo rosso”. Unless you first hit some comments on Amazon which are openly against this book, you are going to find Catholic zealots rambling about the transformative power of these pages or the methodical removal of this literary talent from the history of Italian literature. The only piece of criticism you may find is Il nobel al provincialismo, which refers to a more interesting article on the now defunct Infonodo3. You will also note that most of the positive reviews are vague about the writing style and prefer to drop names such as Alessandro Manzoni, Lev Tolstoj, Vasilij Grossman and J.R.R. Tolkien to give you a general idea of the book without actually telling anything useful. Why should I think of Tolkien when reading Corti? The English writer hides Christianity away in the The Lord of the Rings and there is no single meaning consistently put forward. It’s up to the reader to decide what to take away from it. Furthermore, none of these writings on Corti questions the facts or his rather few ideas, and this only means that there is a common ground from which a specific worldview is thrown at the reader’s face. These are not studies on Il cavallo rosso. It’s not even proper criticism. At most it qualifies as advertisement.

In order to counter my theory one could point to the comments on Corti that have been published on paper. For example, on the pages of Il Timone, a Catholic-oriented Italian magazine, one can find various entries about him. Most of them come from Paola Scaglione, who also seems to be the only person to have published books about Corti in Italy4. What I find even more fascinating is that not only Corti wrote on this magazine, but the professor who led me to Il cavallo rosso published something here as well. Which brings me back to his advice. I am struggling to understand why a man who has taught philosophy for a long time felt it necessary to recommend so narrow-minded an author. I want to believe that there is more than a moral cause behind his words, because I want to believe that when you invest your life in philosophy you are always open to different contexts and ideas. Differences matter. Eugenio Corti, on the other hand, is all about removing them in favour of just one point of view: his.

Resources

The following are the most relevant resources in Italian I consulted when researching for this piece:


  1. I have this edition

  2. A heartfelt thank goes to professor Valentina Ciciliot for helping me put this thought into better words. 

  3. It’s still available through the Wayback Machine, although I made a copy (including all the comments at the bottom) to not let it disappear any time soon. 

  4. See Eugenio Corti: come la destra cattolica ha costruito artificialmente… in Resources