I read Calvino’s wonderful If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller a few years ago on a whim, not, at the time, knowing much about his work. It immediately became (and continues to be) one of my favourite books. An inventive, clever and – most importantly – fun, meta-fictional novel, it captured the joy to be found as a reader. Given this, it’s odd that I’ve not read anything more by Calvino.
Yesterday I finally decided to deal with this oversight and read The Castle of Crossed Destinies. This 1973 novel is similarly experimental with form, but I’m not so sure that it’s as successful as the other.
The novel opens with a group of travellers meeting at a castle in the heart of a forest and finding that they’ve been struck dumb. Calvino uses this to set up a number of tales, told via the device of the pictures on tarot cards. The first, and most obvious, reference is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, bringing together, as it does, a variety of travellers, who then go on to tell each other a number of stories to entertain one another.
The first half of the book, though clever, was actually a bit of a chore to read. The interlocking narratives and the device of using the pictures to create the narratives is, admittedly, interesting, allowing as it does for multiple interpretations of the text, and the distinct possibility that the narrator maybe misrepresenting his fellow travellers tales (whether by design or accident). However, and unlike If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, I found the implementation to be, if not quite academic (not that this is inherently a bad thing, but it’s more impressive if you can marry an enjoyable story with a complex meta-fiction), slightly dry as a piece of story-telling.
However, to this point, though I don’t believe that it was particularly successful as a piece of fiction, the second half of the novel, though following a similar pattern, worked a little better. Titled “The Tavern of Crossed Destinies,” this second part of the novel sees a group of travellers, suffering the same affliction as those in the first half, meet in a tavern and once again, tell a group of interlocking stories.
This set of tales has a group of more obvious allusions to European literature in particular (towards the end) a number of Shakespeare’s plays (in this case, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear). Somehow I found this half of the book to be more satisfying than the first, and perhaps more insightful than the earlier set of tales had been. It is possible that, because these are narratives with which I am familiar, I enjoyed the references a little more than I had previously. Perhaps the brief examination of madness just appealed to me more. Though this may just say more about me than the text.
In this section of the book – and given that the accuracy of the interpretation by the narrator has been until this point somewhat suspect – the decision of the narrator to tell his own tale is interesting. Until this point he has had to struggle with both the way that the images on a tarot card are interpreted – depending upon their positioning – and what he thinks is the intention of his companions in choosing a particular card.
Though he does discuss the way that cards can be interpreted when he is narrating their tales, he did seem a little quicker to relay their story than he was when telling his own. Certainly he seems keener that he should convey his story in as accurate a fashion as possible, agonising over the choice of cards. Of course, the other characters have their own choices to make, but they are denied the opportunity to explain their choices or to confirm or deny what they are attempting to say.
Despite some of my reservations, and after some initial frustration, this novel did move me. Had the novel not improved in the second part, Calvino’s mastery of language would have impressed:
“Discarding first one tarot, then another, I find myself with few cards in my hand. The Knight of Swords, the Hermit, the Juggler are still me as I have imagined myself from time to time, while I remain seated, driving the pen up and down the page. Along paths of ink the warrior impetuousity of youth gallops away, the existential anxiety, the energy of the adventure spent in a slaughter of erasures and crumpled paper. And in the card that follows I find myself in the dress of an old monk, isolated for years in his cell, a bookworm searching by the lantern’s light for a knowledge forgotten among footnotes and index references. Perhaps the moment has come to admit that only tarot number one honestly depicts what I have succeeded in being: a juggler, or conjuror, who arranges on a stand at a fair a certain number of objects and, shifting them, connecting them, interchanging them, achieves a certain number of effects,”
In the afterword, Calvino gives a little insight into his reasons for publishing the novel, he had been obsessed with using the tarot to construct narrative and how they would interact with one each other. There is also the suggestion that he had considered writing a third set of tales. I can’t quite decide if it’s a good thing that he didn’t. Though I hadn’t been overly enamoured with the first half of the novel, it did find its voice in the second part. So, while on the one hand, there’s no question of the book overstaying its welcome (my edition has 129 pages, including the afterword), there is also the feeling that just as I was starting to enjoy the book, it ends.
At times this novel is frustrating, intelligent, poetic and perceptive. While it isn’t entirely successful and I would recommend If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller for a taste of Calvino’s meta-fictional games – I don’t think that this was as well humoured – the time spent reading this isn’t wasted. It may not have been entirely successful, but I think it is better to lose yourself in the attempt to find your own path than to walk the same the well marked trail. With these caveats, this is a literary experiment that is worth your time if you can forgive it not being entirely successful.