I first came across Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies a few years ago when a student of mine decided to use the book as the basis for his Final Year Theatre Production. I never got round to reading it at that point, but I admit to having been intrigued by the concept behind the book, namely that a number of travellers arrive mysteriously at a castle and find themselves struck dumb. The only way they can communicate is through a set of tarot cards and each takes their turn to tell their story by laying a sequence of cards on the table for their fellow guests to interpret. It is a fascinating idea and one that Calvino seems to take on with relish.
Perhaps I should say first of all that my first-hand knowledge of Calvino is relatively limited. I have long been a fan of his Italian Folktales and whilst it is a work that comes in for some criticism by folklorists for Calvino’s editorial approach, it is still an impressive work of lliterature and scholarship. More recently I read his Six Memos for the Next Millennium (recommended to me by Andy Melrose), which is a fantastic collection of essays, full of thoughtfulness and pithy commentary, which I find myself quoting from time to time. The Castle of Crossed Destinies, however, is my first foray into Calvino’s fiction.
It is, in fact, two related books (The Castle of Crossed Destinies and The Tavern of Crossed Destinies) and in form they owe much to the medieval classics, in particular Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is undoubtedly a very involved and complex book and Calvino draws upon what he sees as the great stories of humanity as his source material. So here we have versions of ‘Roland’, ‘Oedipus’, ‘Hamlet’, King Lear’, ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, and so on and so on. For the reader, however, Calvino is relying on a detailed shared knowledge of these stories and even though I like to think of myself as being relatively well-schooled in the great myths and classical stories, I must admit to struggling with some of the stories told here -I just wasn’t sufficiently familiar with them to fully engage with Calvino’s writing. In this sense it is a book for the well-read and classically educated and so it could stand accussed of being something of an indulgence.
In his ‘Note’ at the end of the book, Calvino is revealingly honest. He says that he published the book in order ‘to be free of it’ and that ‘it has obsessed me for years’. He also admits to having planned a third section to the book, but that he had since moved on to new ideas and so abandoned the project. In this sense, it is an unfinished work and an experimental work and it reads at times like a work-in-progress (a very good one, of course), but nevertheless I had the feeling that this was something that had never been fully brought to closure, and I think it was to do with the storytelling. Calvino relies on the reader’s shared knowledge of the myths to which he refers and so large chunks of narrative are suggested or assumed, rather than related. The storytelling, therefore, is in itself incomplete and for a book that is essentially about storytelling, its complexity and its necessity, this is rather interesting. All in all, this is really a book to take slowly, like a collection of essays, absorb its richness, but expect to have to work hard for it.