A 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.