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Dennis Duncan
Dennis Duncan

Dennis Duncan is a Lecturer in Modern Literature and Culture at Birkbeck, convening the MA in Modern & Contemporary Literature and teaching modules on Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and Modernism & the City. His research interests include literary translation, the European avant-garde and novels with indexes.

Staff Picks 8


The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino


There’s a rather sumptuous Italian coffee table book from the late 1960s entitled Tarocchi: Il mazzo visconteo di Bergamo e New York, with large colour plates showing off one of the exquisite decks of tarot cards produced for the Dukes of Milan in the fifteenth century. As an added attraction, the book contains a specially commissioned set of stories by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, which makes unusual use of the tarots.

 

Taking its cue from the Decameron, Calvino’s tales are connected by a frame story in which the narrator, a traveller, is wandering in a forest somewhere in the loose quasi-medieval Europe of our collective fairytale imagination. Happening upon a castle, he discovers a party of strangers inside, but as he tries to greet them, he finds that everyone, including himself, has been mysteriously struck dumb. One man produces a deck of tarot, and the group proceed mutely to tell the story of how they each came to be at the castle, using only the cards, selecting the ones which illustrate the successive parts of their tale, as in the following scene:

 

“Now he’ll tell us about the duel,” I thought, and, to be sure, the card thrown down at that moment was the clattering Two of Swords.

 

The tales themselves, with their doomed brides and deals with the devil, have the feel of mythical archetypes, but as the above example shows, what we get is not just the travellers’ stories – in this case, a man having a duel – but also the narrator’s thoughts as he tries to interpret these accounts from the images on the cards, and he regularly reminds us that he’s only doing his best: “The probable hypothesis that occurred to me was that the card stood for…”, “I have no idea how many of us managed to decipher the tale somehow”, “a whole assortment of stupid cards began, and it was a problem to make head or tale of them”, and so on.

 

Those of us not fortunate to own a copy of the luxurious, limited edition Tarocchi can be thankful that Calvino’s text was republished separately, ably translated as The Castle of Crossed Destinies by William Weaver. It is an ordinary looking paperback, but as soon as you open it up, the layout is rather striking: alongside the text are reproductions of the tarot cards, reminding us of the primacy of the images. In a postscript, Calvino describes how the work was written: starting out by arranging a deck of tarot in a pattern (roughly a grid), then setting out to write a story based on the cards in each row and each column. Thus Calvino’s challenge is the same as that of his narrator, to take a sequence of illustrations and set them within the frame of a folktale. The narrator’s hesitations and frustrations, too, can be seen as Calvino’s own as he tries to solve the puzzle he has set for himself (at one point, for example, the narrator expresses confusion at a slew of less evocative tarots: “all those low cards, cups and coins”). The Castle of Crossed Destinies tells its stories while giving a running commentary on its creative process, its doubts and its decisions.

 

The tales are delicate things, uniformly slight. And sometimes they don’t work: one or two, in spite of their brevity, still manage to be boring – something about their sequence of events lacks suspense or motivation. Rather than diminishing the work as a whole, however, I think these reveal a deeper part of its meaning. With its tarots on show in the margin (and the whole grid reproduced towards the end), The Castle of Crossed Destinies is an edifice whose scaffolding remains in place: if we think we could do a better job, connecting the images in more elegant narratives, there is nothing to stop us trying. The puzzle of the tarots does not have one single solution, and Calvino’s narration is unashamedly subjunctive. A sense of contingency, of ambiguity, of other possibilities is scrupulously maintained. It is the very model of an open text, one which invites the reader to take it further.

 

But The Castle of Crossed Destinies is more than merely a reflection on the writing process, a story about writing a story. One of the later sections (in fact Calvino plays the game twice, using two different sets of tarots), is entitled “I Also Try to Tell My Tale”. In it, Calvino reflects on the difficulty of writing about oneself, and in the white-bearded tarot of the Pope he sees “the great shepherd of souls and interpreter of dreams Sigismund of Vindobona [i.e. Sigmund of Vienna]”. In these musings on psychoanalysis, and in the implied equivalence between tarot reading – with its connotations of superstition, fraud, or, at best, interpretation – and the life stories of the travellers, The Castle of Crossed Destinies seems to suggest the devastating possibility that the stories we use to make sense of our own lives – those narratives we most want to be stable: the tales we most want to own and control – are really as contingent and unreliable as the narrator’s hesitant stabs at interpreting the cards. Sometimes the stories of causation and justification by which organise our own histories “work”; sometimes they don’t ring true. But always there is the possibility that another story, another way of looking at things, might ring truer. The Castle of Crossed Destinies is an extraordinary work, whose very form challenges us to think both about the way that we invent stories, and the way that stories, in the final reckoning, are all we have.


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