The Castle of Crossed Destinies – Italo Calvino

A group of travellers chance to meet, first in a castle, then a tavern. Their powers of speech are magically taken from them and instead they have only tarot cards with which to tell their stories. What follows is an exquisite interlinking of narratives, and a fantastic, surreal and chaotic history of all human consciousness.

When my friend Chris passed this book and 100 Years of Solitude to me at the pub years ago, it really opened my eyes to literature beyond the bestsellers, and books that publishers pay to go in the ‘featured’ section.  Thankfully it sent me on a trajectory to discovering some of the best written and most imaginative works of literature, and then beyond to other genres.

As always, Calvino styles this books differently to all his others, it really is impressive to read an author who can consistently change his approach and write such strong works, each of the six books of his that I have read so far have been challenging and ambitious.

The introduction is atmospherically written in the style of Le Morte d’Arthur, presenting us with a medieval castle, a dream like atmosphere and then we are into the story.  Silently telling tales invites interpretations of body language as the placing of cards invites widely differing and not always clearly (for he narrator) conveyed ideas.  Handily for the reader, there are reproductions of the cards in the margins of the book, as they are introduced, the detailed ones do suffer from the necessary smallness of the illustrations.

Interpreting Tarot cards in a direct fashion is not only a refreshing plot device but proves to be equally as subjective as their traditional use is. It is a clever medium in which to tell various stories but not in the original intended style as symbolic, of cabalistic, astrological, alchemical, etc, but of stories the reader will be familiar with in some way.

The structure of the book contains nods to the literary styles of both Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s The Decameron. There are also plenty of references to a whole plethora of well-known stories based around such characters as Roland, Oedipus, King Lear, Mephistopheles, Parsifal, and Orlando Furioso to name a few.  It’s a delight to read and encompasses the need for humanity to understand both the world around them and our inner selves.

The book obsessed and challenged the author for many years so much so that the planned third part (entitled The Motel of Crossed Destinies, which would have involved comic strips) was abandoned due to Calvino’s desire to be free of it and wish to move onto another project.  TCoCD works thanks to its complex planning and the execution of interconnected linking, and whilst some stories didn’t quite grab my imagination as much as I hoped they would, the overarching plot device and the interpretative style always has something fascinating to keep the reader’s attention.

A labyrinth of connected stories, a second reading has allowed me to pick up on things I had missed before and will give away more as I read more into the Classics.  Whilst not up there with the great Invisible Cities it is nonetheless an ambitious work that pushed the author, and will stay with the reader once the last card has been placed and the book has been long since closed.

24 Replies to “The Castle of Crossed Destinies – Italo Calvino”

  1. Great review! I’ve been wanting to check out Calvino’s work for a few years now: so many people I respect list his books among their favorites. I’ll probably start with Invisible Cities, but I’ll have to add this to my TBR.

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    1. Invisible Cities is, in my opinion, his best work but each book offers something different both in terms of ideas and writing style. His books demand to be read quickly but I find I wish to read them slowly to appreciate them more. Usually I read a few pages then end up coming back about ten minutes later to read more, I figure that’s enough time to satisfy both urges.

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      1. I look forward to reading several of his books, then! I appreciate authors who can offer something different with each book. Duras, Capote, and Baldwin are some of my favorite ‘versatile’ writers, but I don’t know of many. Calvino’s writing definitely seems like it’d invite several readings, from what I’ve sampled of it.

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    1. Sorry I should have been clearer, there is full dialogue, the cards in the margin are there to show you the card and the what the images being used are. It would be an epic over estimation of the audience, to attempt a no dialogue work but it is an intriguing idea.

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  2. Dear Ste. J, Thanks for featuring Italo Calvino. I remember the day he died, I was in an elevator at my graduate school’s library, and was bawling my eyes out, and one of my friends entered and was puzzled as to why I was so upset. When I told her it was over Calvino’s death instead of over my boyfriend leaving, or something like that, she was nonplussed! I agree with you that “Invisible Cities” is his best, but then, I haven’t read absolutely every one of them (I haven’t read “The Baron in the Trees,” for example). When I started to read “The Castle of Crossed Destinies,” I got a tarot card deck and played along, as it were. It was really great fun. I think he’s about the best writer of the late twentieth century.

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    1. Some people just don’t understand literature! He was indeed a phenomenal talent, his imagination is up there with Borges. Baron is a wonderful fairytale, I hope I still have my copy somewhere!

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  3. This sounds fascinating – I actually was going to write a post at some point about using Tarot cards to inspire writing – I’m interested to know if he used traditional interpretations or made them up – if he picked cards to inspire him what to write or if he wrote the story first and then picked appropriate cards to go with it….

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    1. He used a mixture of stories first, random patterns. Reworking them over time he became a bit manic over the whole project. Aquileana wrote some tarot posts, if you are familiar with her blog, I think your post would be an intriguing take on tarot cards.

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  4. I agree with you about the majesty of Invisible Cities. I have been meaning to check out more of Calvino’s work and this sounds intriguing.

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          1. That’s really interesting. I decided to think more about it too. Perhaps it is, on reflection, unfair of me to suggest an author can be judged on the basis of ‘reliability’. I can think of several whose books I would always aim to read. But I would not then dismiss them as a favourite if one (or more) of their books did not appeal. William Boyd is one such example for me. I love many of his novels (eg Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms), but could not get into others (eg Any Human Heart). I would, however, still prioritise anything new that he brings out, and am looking forward to reading his latest when it is published (Love is Blind). Other authors in this category for me are: Sebastian Barry, Elizabeth Strout, Marilynne Robinson. Probably others too, but those spring immediately to mind. So perhaps by ‘reliable’ I actually mean that there is a high probability that I will like that author’s work, thus influencing my reading choices. What do you think?

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            1. I agree with that, I do tend to stick with those authors, I think when they do a book that is underwhelming compared to their usual high standard I perhaps judge it more harshly. I tend to generally be wary of all books and my own high hopes for a book or author. It is perhaps to the good that my choice is restricted…avoiding the e-book route as much as possible.

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              1. Ah, the e-book conundrum. You’ll see that I succumb to real books in my recent post, but I don’t think you can beat an e-book for convenience, especially when travelling.

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                1. I am getting around to visiting, it has been a while so I apologise for that. I have picked up a few but try to avoid them in favour of real books so I don’t spend all my time with my eyes on a screen. It’s partly working!

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