The Castle of Crossed Destinies

castle of crossed destiniesA little while ago, I took part in the summer re-reading of John Crowley’s Little, Big. One of the things I said about it was that it is a story made of stories: children’s books, myths, fairy stories, Shakespeare, George MacDonald, Aesop are all intertwined in the story of the Drinkwater family. Tom’s posts on Wuthering Expectations told me that not only was I missing lots of the references, but that I hadn’t even begun to read stories made of stories: he mentioned in particular Italo Calvino’s 1973 book (novel? not really) The Castle of Crossed Destinies, to which there is actually a reference in Little, Big. So, of course, I read it.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies begins with a castle in the heart of a dark forest, where a group of men and women have met by chance. All of them have lost their voices, and the only way they can communicate about the ordeals that have brought them there is by laying down the cards of a tarot pack, the meaning of which is reconstructed by the narrator. We hear in this way a series of stories, some of which are stories we already know (Parsifal, Lear, Oedipus) and some of which are new, or at least they seemed new to me. The second half of the book is very similar, but takes place in a tavern — a tavern that is mysteriously also the castle, as the castle was mysteriously also a tavern — where the guests have lost their voices. They use a different Tarot pack to tell their stories, but the results are the same: stories, all the possible stories in the world, contained in those mysterious cards.

This book explores the construction of meaning from the very first lines.

I crossed a rattling drawbridge. I slipped from my saddle in a dark courtyard. Silent grooms took my horse. I was breathless, hardly able to stand on my legs; after entering the forest I had faced so many trials, encounters, apparitions, duels, that I could no longer order my actions or my thoughts.

What orders our actions and our thoughts but narrative? We can’t know our thoughts until we tell them. Robbed of his voice, the narrator is disordered until he’s given a structure — the Tarot — to construct layers of meaning. The book itself is a narrative (Calvino, the author, creating the castle/ tavern), and that narrative creates a set of narratives (through the narrator and the Tarot, which Calvino says he actually used and laid out to see what stories he could recognize.) How many times would he have laid it out before Toad Hall appeared, or Narnia, or the Great Gatsby? And, of course, the narrator tells us about the characters in the Tarot; and we, the readers, react. This author/ narrator/ character/ reader relationship continues to shift each time the Tarot is shuffled and laid out again, but (as in Little, Big) it’s all part of the same larger story of the castle/ tavern/ Castle of Crossed Destinies — there’s no getting outside the story.

I realize that I’ve probably made this book sound boring or pedantic. It’s anything but. Each story is a little confusing miracle, magically appearing out of nowhere but the weird enchantment of the cards. Each story is a character’s story, weaving that living rope that ties the book, the author, the narrator, and you — the reader — together. The stories are tragic and funny and odd and wild and whimsical. What I really want to say is, Come on, it’s Calvino! It’s always worth reading! But this way-station in the midst of the dark forest is certainly worth a stop overnight.

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14 Responses to The Castle of Crossed Destinies

  1. I’ve learned so much by reading this blog and also from the frightening eclecticism of Wuthering Expectations that I have decided to try this book, even though I HATED “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Calvino. I like a nice clean narrative line, and Calvino clearly is anything but that. But “Crossed Destinies” (because it’s short) is already winging its way to me in my personal amazon pipeline (to mix a metaphor), to be added to the tower of unread books that haven’t even made it to my actual bookshelves yet. Isn’t it time for someone even more dead and famous–like James, or Eliot, or–dare I say it–Dickens or even Scott?

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I reveled in If on a winter’s night a traveler, so you might not enjoy this one! It’s certainly not a clean narrative line. But Christopher, I do 19th-century fiction all the time, you know that — just this year I’ve read Austen, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Dickens, and Isabella Bird. Scott, though — now there’s a good idea. I read Ivanhoe almost thirty years ago; it’s time to return!

  2. It is funny or weird but before reading the comments above, I was going to ask you “have you read “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller”? And I see that your reader did not like it and you “revelled” in it. I like Calvino a lot and revelled in “The Winter’s Night”! The “Castle of Crossed Destinies” is also a favourite for the broken narrative line. Like you, I read mostly classics but Calvino IS a classic by now! A new generation of classics is born with different narrative structures.
    I do enjoy this entry of your blog. And it is not an easy one to write. Brava (as we are going Italian)!

    • Jenny says:

      I like Calvino a lot, too, and have read several of his books — each is so different from the next, and I can never guess where he’ll take me. I do agree that Calvino is a new classic — not easy to write about, perhaps, but so interesting, always.

  3. Stefanie says:

    I read this book many years ago and really liked it. It has grown fuzzy in my memory so I especially enjoyed you review as it brought back pieces of my reading. I don’t think you make it sound boring or pedantic at all, far from it, you have made me want to reread the book!

    • Jenny says:

      Calvino really bears re-reading! There is always so much I find I’ve missed the first time, especially in terms of form and structure. He is one author who really, really makes me wish I could read Italian.

  4. Minor Calvino that did not seem quite so minor when I reread it. Which has become a common experience with Calvino.

    I feel more that I keep plowing the same row, but eclecticism has a nice sound to it. Calvino, now that is true eclecticism. What an imagination.

    Next year is the 200th anniversary of Scott’s best novel (says me) Old Mortality, hint hint.

    • Jenny says:

      With authors like Nabokov and Calvino, I sometimes wonder what is major and what is minor; it is perhaps a distinction without (much of) a difference.

      I’ll be happy to take you up on Old Mortality. I’d been going to re-tackle Ivanhoe, since I’ve got no memory of it, but after reading The Entail on your recommendation, I’ll more or less follow your suggestions.

    • Ivanhoe does have Robin Hood, which is no small thing.

      I was thinking of doing a little Calvino post of some kind. I had not meant to read so much Calvino during my Italian year, but – well, you know why.

      One book leads to another, but with Calvino it sometimes feels that all books lead to all others.

  5. Jeanne says:

    I have another Calvino on my “to read this year” list already, but I think I have to add this one, too.

    • Jenny says:

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. I’m slowly working my way through as much of Nabokov and Calvino as I can before I die, and so far it’s a very satisfying project!

  6. Blah, so, okay, I read if on a winter’s night a traveler, and it didn’t do it for me. I WANTED IT TO. Does this mean I simply do not like Calvino, or should I try again?

    • Jenny says:

      Every Calvino is different from the others, so no, I’d say you should try again. You might like Cosmicomics: they are stories about mathematics and quantum physics and other “hard” sciences, as if all the players (numbers, quarks, parallel lines) were people. So fun and whimsical and great.

      • Jenny says:

        But! Invisible Cities is more of a novel, Marco Polo talking about the fantastical cities he’s visited, so if you don’t want short stories, you might like that one more! Architects are sometimes given Invisible Cities to read, and told to draw one of the cities, isn’t that interesting?

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