Calvino, Italo 1923–
Italian novelist and short story writer, Calvino was a member of the Italian resistance during World War II; the events of this time recur in his work. His fiction blends reality and fantasy in both realistic description and surrealistic expression. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)
What Italo Calvino has done [in Il castello dei destini incrociati] is to take two different packs of Tarot cards, a fifteenth-century one from Renaissance Italy, and a much more plebeian one from eighteenth-century Marseilles, and to dispose the individual cards as systematically as he found possible as the supports of brief narratives. His use of the cards, in fact, is very precisely the use of them once made by fortune-tellers. But his methods are more complicated. As the title suggests, the stories he makes up from the sequences of adjoining cards must be made to intersect….
The stories in [the first] half are adapted to the origins and opulence of the particular Tarot cards they were written to accompany: they are courtly, gallant, formal, and eventually introduce characters and episodes from the Orlando Furioso, in a perfectly appropriate anachronism.
Because [the] second pack of Tarot cards had a quite different and less glossy origin than the first one, Calvino has also tried to induce a different kind of story from it, exploiting his yen for apocalypses: in the Tavern the narratives readily become disorderly and overstep the civilized bounds imposed on the earlier set. In particular, there are constant prophecies of how nature may take its revenge on mankind and eventually reassume full occupation of the inhabited world.
This, if you like, is a desperate reminder that the author himself is in trouble, that the cards are proving recalcitrant to his highly contrived schemes. And one of the charms of the Castello dei destini incrociati is the stealthy way in which Calvino so often dramatizes the very activity he is engaged on, so that such inescapable themes as the Grail quest merge pleasantly with the very cerebral endeavours of the progressive novelist.
The book is a limpid and elegant essay in the semiotics of narrative, as much a critical as a creative work. Its chief lesson is of the possibly inexhaustible resources of each image as an element in a story.
"Card Play," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 14, 1973, p. 1529.
Calvino's seventh novel [Invisible Cities] is a sensuous delight, a sophisticated literary puzzle. Within the imperial gardens, Kublai Khan and Marco Polo rest in their hammocks, smoke their pipes and create reality. Polo describes the cities outside the garden walls which are "invisible" to the Khan. "But are they real?" Kublai wonders, with good reason. Calvino has deployed 55 sketches of imaginary cities, fictive constructs reminiscent of utopias or Dante's Inferno, or Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." The short sketches, from 300 to 700 words each, are enigmas, like Zen koans, intended for the reader's meditation:
If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. Between two mountains, a suspended net supports a city….
Calvino plays with images, spatial jokes, associations by form. Besides these refined games, there is usually a philosophical problem: "Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long."
The sketches are arranged in formidable symmetry with at least three ordering principles. First there is the frame tale, as in The Arabian Nights, or in Calvino's own tradition, The Decameron. (Oddly enough the lives of Boccaccio and Polo probably overlapped a decade.) Within the frame, Polo's tales edify and entertain the emperor. The sketches are further ordered by one group of 10, seven groups of five, and a final group of 10. These are numbered in a bizarre fashion, which we find to be a countdown: 1;2, 1;3, 2, 1, so that each of the nine sections self-destructs (with the exception of the last, which somehow reconstitutes itself in symmetry with the first). These groupings are esthetic games of abstract design.
The third order leads us from abstraction into the themes of the book. There are 11 categories of cities (such as thin cities, trading cities, cities and the dead) that repeat in an elaborate, additive pattern, as if these basic patterns could organize (or create) the known world. The repetition of these categories invites the reader to make comparisons, to find recurring ornaments and meanings. As Polo says, "Everything I see and do assumes meaning in a mental space."
History and geography become mental spaces; all reality is thought. Aggressively he explores the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter, giving primacy to the mind, promoting solipsism, making life a chess board. The poor Khan ponders his own chess board, struggling to keep up with Polo's dazzling fluency: "By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire's multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes. It was reduced to a square of planed wood: nothingness…." Such frightening purity is worthy of Mallarmé. (pp. 30-1)
This is not a book for a general reader seeking linear plots, clear morals, social realism. Invisible Cities is a volume for lovers of hypothesis, mannerism, conundrum and fantasy. (p. 31)
Albert H. Carter, III, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 28, 1974.
[Calvino's] fictional and critical work is solidly placed at the crossroads of the major issues in contemporary social, cultural, and literary theory—Marxism and structuralism, anthropology and semiotics, popular culture and antinarrative. Under the guise of telling us tongue-in-cheek sophisticated fairy tales or self-conscious modern epics, he forces us to rethink through notions such as form and content, language and style, literary imagination, creative discourse, the role of science, the purpose of literature, the artist's participation in society. His achievement, however, has not yet been fully understood. (p. 414)
It is often said that Calvino's writings oscillate between two extremes, one being sociopolitical involvement resulting in a style that may be called "neorealist," and the other the fantastic or escapist literature of works like Le cosmicomiche or the recent Le città invisibili (1972). This polarity is believed to be caused by divided impulses or irreconcilable interests in the author. I would like to argue that, on the contrary, Calvino's works remain constantly focused on a basic vision of human activity as both praxis and poiesis, and that, if thematic polarity does exist in his narrative, it is not a contradictory impasse but rather a dialectic process reflecting his awareness of the very nature of culture as the highest and unique form of human "doing." I believe that Calvino's message can be best understood in the light of certain basic concepts that are central to his work and to the recent formulations of semiotic literary theory: the notions of langue and parole as defined by Saussure, narrative and discourse structures as defined by Propp, Greimas, and Todorov, the poetic function of language as defined by Roman Jakobson, the unconscious or symbolic function as defined by Lévi-Strauss, desire as redefined by Lacan, and the notion of écriture (writing, script) discussed by Barthes and Derrida. (pp. 414-15)
[It] is the conceptual basis of structuralism and semiotics that intrigues and affects Calvino the writer, giving a new slant to motifs and concerns already apparent in his earlier works and suggesting new modes of expression, new stylistic solutions.
Looking at the whole of Calvino's fiction, one is surprised to find, under a wealth of invention and an extraordinary stylistic variety, a remarkable constancy in what structural analysis would call (a) semantic content and (b) thematic investment, that is to say, the actantial or character oppositions and plot development that sustain the movement of each narrative (a), and the thematic elements that convey its first or most immediate meaning (b). For example, most of the tales of Cosmicomics and t zero are based on the binary actantial opposition of Subject-Opponent and Subject-Object….
In other words, the functional sequence of events making up the plot of Calvino's tales is constant and very simple, often consisting of only a few essential functions among the thirty-one that Propp showed to constitute the fairy-tale archetype. Likewise, the themes invested in this simple structure are the very elementary contents of human experience: desire, rivalry, guilt, the impulse to express and to communicate, the need for self-affirmation but also for belonging, the necessity to make ethical and existential choices. His longer tales usually show the journey of discovery or quest pattern, which is particularly evident in his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, and which is significant in view of Calvino's ideological and stylistic use of myth and folktale as his chosen narrative form. (p. 415)
Discourse may be defined as the particular way in which the semantic elements are organized by means of constructional and stylistic devices such as narration and point of view, spatial and temporal patterns, imagery, language, special subcodes, etc. In contrast to the stability of thematic and semantic structures, narrative discourse in Calvino is directly responsible for the extraordinary originality of his ever-changing formal solutions, from his first "neorealist" novel and short stories to the allegorical tales of I nostri antenati (1963), the cosmogonic and mathematical fiction of Cosmicomiche and Ti con zero, the philosophical and political vignettes of Marcovaldo and La giornata di uno scrutatore, the "oneirigrams" of Le città invisibili, and the combinatory games of his latest Il Castello dei destini incrociati (1973). (pp. 415-16)
Calvino's discourse evolves, not in the sense of a perfectible movement or progress, but diachronically, inasmuch as it is linked to the historical time of Calvino the writer. The narrative persona, screen of the historical and biographical person, which had been embodied in the naturalistic child-hero Pin, and in Qfwfq, spirit of the natural and technological evolution, or of scientific and mathematical thought, is further metamorphosed [in Invisible Cities] into the pure voice of a discourse totally rarefied, lyrical, oneiric, beyond the threshold of antinarrative….
[All] his writings bear witness to a precise ideological intent, an unambiguous poetics. (p. 417)
Both lexicon and syntax are subject to a deformation consisting mainly in the juxtaposition of the common "spoken language" usage and a highly specialized, scientific or literary language…. The numerous examples of enumeración caótica have their syntactical counterpart in the stream-of-consciousness passages such as the beautiful last paragraph of "All at One Point" or the whole of "Il sangue, il mare" ("Blood, Sea" in t zero) whose very title reflects the purposeful lack of syntactical organization.
Graphic symbols, different print types, and unusual spelling are also used to supply a strong visual perception (e.g., the signs hanging from the galaxies in "The Light-Years") or to indicate that a different temporal mode is used (i.e., the synchronic vs. the diachronic in Pt. II of "The Spiral"). Particularly original to Calvino are the purely graphic signifiers like the names of the characters of Cosmicomics, which are totally impossible to articulate as sounds, but visually suggest the qualities of their referents: the symmetrical, orderly molecular structure of Qfwfq, the unimaginative and gossipy narrow-mindedness of Mr. Pbertpberd, archetypal Fellinesque sexuality in Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, introverted visionary complexity in the sister G'd(w)n, or the terrestrial longleggedness of L11. In some of them a phonic suggestion is included: the uncivilized "immigrants" Z'zu, Mr. Hnw ("who later became a horse"), and De Xuaeau X, the lover of Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, who simply has to be a Frenchman…. Finally, the formulas of "t zero," used for individual and diachronic characterization … as well as for the synchronic system of interrelated characters and events in each of the possible time universes of the story … reveal the purely functional nature of narrative characters as roles or actants, and correspond to the more and more abstract narrators of their respective works. Even when, after t zero, Calvino no longer uses formulas as characters, but rather mythical or folklore figures, he represents them in the iconic fixity of the figures of a deck of cards (Il Castello dei destini incrociati). (pp. 417-18)
[The] specific and unique feature of Calvino's imagery is that it is based on the reversal of the semantic code, or on shifts from one code to another and, therefore, in addition to any or all of the … terms [usually applied, such as surrealistic, comic, plastic, and technological,] it is always ironic, self-conscious, self-reflexive. (p. 419)
All attempts to imagine or to describe analogically not only a difficult abstract notion like the curve of space, but any aspect of the world, are the product of the human capacity for formal organization and symbolic representation which Lévi-Strauss has identified as the symbolic function, standing at the origin of human society and culture. Such capacity, Calvino maintains, is able to produce infinite forms, and not limited, as claimed by the opponents of structuralism, to carrying out a single program inherent in the structure itself. Within the framework of the langue, the parole is capable of infinite variety, because the forms produced are the result of a dialectic interaction between the structuring capacity of the mind and the reality with which, at any given time, we must come to terms. Of literature in particular he says:
Readings and lived experience are not two universes, but one. To be interpreted, every experience of life recalls certain readings and becomes fused with them. That books are always born of other books is a truth only seemingly contradictory to this other truth: that books are born of practical day-to-day life, and of the relationships among men.
Thus the shifts in codes observed in Calvino's imagery are not there to denounce the absurdity of the world, but, on the contrary, to prove its certainty. (p. 420)
The awareness on the part of the writer of performing an act of writing, the questioning of one's motivations, purpose, responsibilities in writing, and of the very meaning of writing is reflected by a hyperconscious, willful manipulation of the code(s). Although this poetic and esthetic problem is also central to the work of other writers as different as, for instance, Borges, Barth, and Sollers, the formal and ideological solutions given remain as distinct as the (natural) languages in which they write. In Calvino, metalinguistic and metanarrative references have the main function of exposing, or even exploding, the code so that a new one may be created. No code or system is given once and for all, no matter how established or accepted by tradition.
Language, the primary and oldest code, is questioned…. [The] whole of "A Sign in Space" is about the nature of the linguistic sign, arbitrary and unmotivated, the result of the human need to express and symbolize. The social nature of the institution of language, for which communication is a circuit, as Saussure described it, is reflected in the frustrated isolation of Qfwfq whose signs of self-defense cannot be read or answered for billions of years…. The chivalric code of medieval legends and romances, Charlemagne's paladins, the Crusades, the Knights of the Holy Grail, and Ariosto's readaptation of that code, itself in turn becoming the code of Renaissance epic and heroic literature, are utilized again in another system which incorporates elements and values of the modern industrial society, of Freudian psychology and Marxist economic theory, in The Nonexistent Knight. Countless and continuous references to other fictional works are mingled with references to literary, mythical, and historical figures and events…. In fact, there are so many that only a cross-reference index could list them properly. (p. 421)
[Il Castello dei destini incrociati (The Castle of Crossed Destinies)] consists of two parts, two sets of tales told by different narrators in the manner of Boccaccio or Chaucer, the respective "frames" being a Castle and a tavern (Calvino's capitalization) surrounded by a forest, in an indefinite time and location. The essential formal innovation is that, the narrators having magically lost the ability to speak (i.e., to use the linguistic code), the tales are told by means of a substitute code or system, namely, the tarot deck…. Here language, imagery, and metalinguistic references are all dictated by the particular narrative code (the tarot) that the author imposes, as a strictly constraining grill, on his material.
That the book can sustain our interest, and in fact increase it as we read on, is indeed, on Calvino's part, a feat of inventiveness and stylistic mastery. But more important, it is a proof of the infinite resources of the human imagination, of the boundless freedom of the parole which exists and defines itself against the constricting rules of a closed internally coherent system, the langue…. If the opposition between langue and parole, as given unconscious structure and individual unique expression, is resolved by poetic justice in favor of the parole, it is because Calvino stresses the presence of the langue (of the code) which in his work appears in the guise of the fairy tale, myth, the epic-heroic code, the city as a system of social, architectonic, economic, visual, and emotional relations.
But the writer's parole is written and, once written, it becomes itself a system. The book, which is meant to be one vision of reality, must not be allowed to become the only view of what is. Thus the system-book must in turn be exposed and exploded, and for this purpose Calvino builds into the system the seeds of its destruction, the self-conscious metalinguistic irony. (Once the cards are all on the table, and the guests have told their stories, the deck is reshuffled and the telling begins anew….) Each of Calvino's fictions proposes new forms, new combinations of elements within the narrative structure as if, in order to escape from the closure of writing, which inevitably selects and fixates the undifferentiated flux of living memory and awareness, the writer must constantly seek to recover the images left out, the possibilities not realized, the elements latent in the system and not utilized, in a continuing effort to construct new models of possible universes, of invisible cities, of systems closed but constantly and dialectically reopened.
What I have called the evolution of Calvino's discourse from the neorealism of his early tales to metarealism, mythical discourse, and antinarrative is both the sign of an extraordinary literary awareness and a perfectly consistent statement of his poetic and ideological vision: human activity is at once "doing" and "saying," praxis and poiesis. (pp. 422-23)
Teresa De Lauretis, "Narrative Discourse in Calvino: Praxis or Poiesis?" in PMLA, 90 (copyright © 1975 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), May, 1975, pp. 414-23.
The reader needed evidence that Calvino was capable of thought, and he was to find it in "The Watcher." There were no games in this story. It presented the thoughts of a leftist assigned as observer to a polling place in a Catholic hospital for freaks: the crippled, the ugly, the mentally retarded, the deeply and permanently disturbed. Few of these men and women have known any life outside the hospital—which is to say, outside the caring and shaping arms of the Church. For him the Church has always stood immovably against any change that will bring Italy closer to human decency, but now he must admit that it has been silently caring for people he had not wanted to admit existed. He must cope with the revulsion he feels at having to look at these people, and he must ask himself seriously when someone shall be recognized as human and allowed to participate in decisions being made about his future. The watcher suffers no blinding conversions, makes no sudden retreat to his own slogans. He—and the reader—experience a slow-motion epiphany that brings back to their minds the reality hidden behind those necessarily simplistic slogans we use as battle flags. This story proved to the reader that Calvino is in fact a deeply thoughtful man.
Perhaps Calvino has one of those brains that turn to verbal play only when they become weary. I do not think so. Cosmicomics and t zero and Invisible Cities leave after-images, and those afterimages persist in the mind with the stubbornness shown by those odd facts, proverbs, formulas, and paradigms that one fastens on in the stupid conviction that some day they will be useful. Not knowing when, not knowing how, but knowing with certainty that they will eventually be used. (p. 215)
The Path to the Nest of Spiders is a story about the Italian resistance movement in the closing days of the 1939–45 war as it would have appeared to a child. Calvino is answering postwar Italian critics of the movement by showing that Italy owed even the most selfish, incompetent, and disagreeable of those fighters a debt of honor…. The novel is in the neo-realistic mode reminiscent of films like Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine…. (pp. 215-16)
Would I have guessed in 1947 that the writer of The Path to the Nest of Spiders would later write Invisible Cities and t zero? Not for an instant. Yet the Calvino we know today is shadowily present in that younger man….
The Path to the Nest of Spiders is a thoughtful answer to postwar backlash against the [resistance] movement, and the argument has a certain elegance. The unit Calvino invents for [the child] Pin to join includes individual fighters so disoriented that they would have fought with equal passion in the uniforms of its enemy. Nevertheless—as he points out through his spokesman, Kim—their blind energies do contribute to the goals of the movement. The movement did have a noble purpose, even if they did not.
It was Kipling's Kim who played the Great Game of espionage in British India, and it is the minor character bearing his name who will most interest the reader of The Path to the Nest of Spiders in 1977. Kim perceives reality and questions himself in the manner of the Calvino we know: "But, after all, is this only a struggle between symbols? Must a man, to kill a German, think not of that German but of something else, with a substitution which is enough to turn his brain? Must everything and everybody become a Chinese shadowplay, a myth?" One could write a long, unnecessary book on Calvino's mind with this passage as epigraph.
What we readers come to suspect, of course, is that just as Pin looks with only vague comprehension at the machinations of the violent, sex-driven adults in his alley and at the maneuvers and killing of the resistance fighters—so we who read the later works have only a dim comprehension of what is ultimately at stake: what is to be gained or lost by Calvino's risking. The nests in the title of this first novel are spider nests Pin has found for himself—cunning little tunnels with doors and traps that no one else knows about—and it is this labyrinth whose secret he will share with the person who finally proves a true friend. I shall resist the impulse to draw the analogy between Pin and Calvino, the true friend and the reader, the spiders' nests and the labyrinths of the writer's later work.
Beneath Calvino's cleverness, there is a fine, honest mind in fullest possession of itself in those later stories we awkwardly call fantasies (which I have now finished and am rereading). The Path to the Nest of Spiders does not have the power of these fantasies, but it is a novel anyone can enjoy: it has a special importance to those of us who have already taken an interest in one of the really good minds in Europe today. (p. 216)
Thomas J. Roberts, "Calvino Before the Fantasies," in The Nation (copyright 1977 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), February 19, 1977, pp. 214-16.
Although not yet as well known as he deserves to be, Italo Calvino is one of the world's best living fabulists, a writer in a class with Kobo Abé, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. He is most famous for his dazzling, astonishingly intelligent fantasies—"The Nonexistent Knight," "The Cloven Viscount," "Invisible Cities," "The Baron in the Trees"—but his mastery is equally evident in what might be called, loosely, his whimsical science fictions on the history of the universe—"Cosmicomics" and "t zero"—and in his more-or-less realistic fictions, for instance "The Watcher and Other Stories." In the realistic stories and in "The Baron in the Trees," Calvino creates substantial, moving characters and fully elaborated, thoroughly convincing fictional worlds. In all his books, but especially in "Invisible Cities," he has moments where the prose turns into pure, firm lyric poetry. In the science fictions he brilliantly translates modern scientific and mathematical theory into fictional emotion; and everywhere his final pursuit is metaphysical. His strange new production, "The Castle of Crossed Destinies," uses all these talents, rises directly from the world view he has been developing all these years, yet is like nothing Calvino has done before.
The book is, in a way, a collection of tales. The framing story concerns a group of pilgrims who, after traveling separately through an enchanted forest, come together at a castle or, perhaps, a cavern (no one is sure) and, trying to tell each other their stories, discover that have they lost their ability to speak. The tales are worth hearing, we know in advance. The hair of all the pilgrims, both young and old, has been turned white by their adventures. One of the pilgrims hits on the idea of telling his tale by means of tarot cards. He selects the cards which best represent himself, he thinks, then adds a line of other cards, and, with the aid of grimaces and gestures, tells his tale.
His actual story may or may not have much to do with the tale we are reading since we get only the narrator's interpretation, and the narrator is by no means sure of himself—an annoying, unsatisfying business, the narrator will readily admit. But the cards are all the pilgrims have, and they decide to do their best with them. Another pilgrim chooses his cards and tells his tale; then other pilgrims follow, compressing their narrative lines with those of other pilgrims when they need to make use of some card already played. By the time all the cards are on the table, the interlinking of tales—or the narrator's interpretation of the cards laid down—is incredibly complex and subtle: a history of all human consciousness through the myths of Oedipus, Parsifal, Faust, Hamlet and so on, and a history of Calvino's career as a novelist, since the pilgrims' tales repeatedly allude to Calvino's earlier fiction.
"The Castle of Crossed Destinies" is an ambitious, "difficult" book, though short, and one's first inclination may be to make top-of-the-head judgments: "overly ambitious," "annoyingly complex," "lacking in sentiment." Like Kafka—or Chaucer—Calvino makes plodding comedy of our scholastic need to explain things. Like those writers, he uses a squinty, insecure narrator who's forever searching out answers, mostly getting wrong ones, or raising intellectual obstacles in his own path. Such comedy inevitably slows the pace. Again, one may feel that Calvino's review of his own career as a writer is a touch self-regarding, even coy…. Or, thinking of the emotional power of books like "The Baron in the Trees," one may complain "The Castle of Crossed Destinies" is lacking in warmth.
Those objections—and others—may have at least some validity, but to register them, even in the timid way I've done, is to feel oneself squeaking like a mouse. Cranky, self-conscious, confusing and confused, "The Castle of Crossed Destinies" is a shamelessly original work of art. Not a huge work, but elegant, beautiful in the way mathematic proofs can be beautiful, and beautiful in the sense that it is the careful statement of an artist we have learned to trust.
All Calvino's philosophy is here, subtly reassessed: the idea of existence as an act of will confirmed by love ("The Nonexistent Knight"), the tragicomic mutual dependence of reason and sensation ("The Watcher"), Calvino's usual fascination with chance, probability and will and his theory of value (mainly worked out in "The Cloven Viscount," "Cosmicomics" and "t zero". What comes through most movingly, perhaps, is Calvino's love for the chance universe we are stuck with. (pp. 15, 29)
Calvino's celebration of things as they are comes through … in the central allegorical images, the tales and the structure of the whole. The place where the pilgrims meet—our world—is perhaps a castle fallen on hard times, becoming a mere inn, perhaps a tavern doing splendidly, becoming a castle. The meeting of minds and hearts we all hunger for, as pilgrims, is impeded by difficulties—language and interpretation, our differences of background (adventures in the woods), and the infuriating fact that no pilgrim's story is entirely unique: we need each other's cards, yet the cards never carry exactly the same meaning twice. ("Each of us," Calvino remarks elsewhere, "is a billion-to-one shot.") But despite the problems, the pilgrims tell their tales, each mixing his destiny with the other's destiny and thus helping to evolve (as the universe evolved in Calvino's science fictions) a total providence, so to speak—an enveloping work of art.
Art is a central theme here. Like the universe, it is partly brute substances in random combination. Studying the cards on the table, wishing to tell his own story, dear to him simply because it is his own, the narrator complains that he has lost his story in the stories of others. Thinking toward despair, he remarks: "Perhaps the moment has come to admit that only tarot No. 1 honestly depicts what I have succeeded in being: a juggler, a conjurer, 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." But through a fiction he learns that his deterministic philosophy is wrong. The tale of St. George and the Dragon shows him that "the dragon is not only the enemy, the outsider, the other, but is us, a part of ourselves that we must judge." Art cannot preserve our passing moments, make us live forever, but it can help us to live well.
Calvino has made his narrator both writer and reader (interpreter of the cards), both creator and victim of creation. In the metaphor of the cards he has exactly described the process of art as concrete philosophy, how we search the world for clues as a gypsy searches the cards, interpreting by means of our own stories and a few unsure conventions. Finally, he claims the search is moral and potentially tragic. Despite the permutations, tale by tale, we always learn the same tale of man: we celebrate and cleanse or we die, destroyed by our betters….
Like a true work of art, Calvino's "The Castle of Crossed Destinies" takes great risks—artificiality, eclecticism, self-absorption, ponderousness, triviality … and, despite its risks, wins hands down. (p. 29)
John Gardner, "The Pilgrims' Hair Turned White," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 10, 1977, pp. 15, 29.
In the effort to keep fiction magical, modern authors have resorted to alchemically elaborate trickery…. Italo Calvino, than whom no living author is more ingenious, tells the mingled tales of "The Castle of Crossed Destinies" … by means of tarot cards. The frame device is simple: travellers meet in a castle—or, in the second section, a tavern—where their powers of speech are magically taken from them, and a tarot deck is placed at their disposal. (p. 149)
The cards are depicted in the margin as they are laid down, so the act of narration is double and cunningly merges, in the voiced uncertainties and multiple possibilities of interpretation, with the act of listening, of understanding. "Invisible Cities," Calvino's previous work (his books can no longer be called novels; they are displays of mental elegance, bound illuminations), contained the idea of wordless speech…. The cardplay of Calvino's present exercise all but dissolves the reality of the tale itself. The writer reads as he writes; we read with him; the plane of narrative becomes a beaded curtain through which reader and writer loom to each other as one giant character seen in a speckled mirror. The price paid for this illusion is a certain tedium, short as "The Castle of Crossed Destinies" is. The chimerical "invisible cities" were, though fantastical, oddly solid and fascinatingly inventive. The personal histories related by tarot symbols—and the rules of the game call for many—flicker into sameness, blurred reshufflings of old romances and medieval themes, and eventually show themselves as the mere stories, thin and worn, of Parsifal and Faust, Hamlet and Oedipus, Lear and Lady Macbeth.
"The world does not exist," Calvino imagines Faust to be saying through the cards. "There is a finite number of elements whose combinations are multiplied to billions of billions, and only a few of these find a form and a meaning and make their presence felt amid a meaningless, shapeless dust cloud; like the seventy-eight cards of the tarot deck in whose juxtapositions sequences of stories appear and are then immediately undone." So much for the magic of fiction. The tale-teller's prestidigitation and significance-seeking swirl around an empty center; the "bald circumference of the Ace of Coins" is read to mean that "every journey through forests, battles, treasures, banquets, bed-chambers, brings us back here, to the center of an empty horizon." Calvino contemplates the death not of that notorious old moribund the Novel but of the Story, of the hopeful impulse that makes beginnings and seeks outcomes and imagines adventures in the middle. A collection of stories may not be the best means of illustrating this theme. For all his inventiveness and affectionate regard for the traditional fables he transmutes, they (with some exceptions; the tales told by women take on life) seem in the telling scantly sketched, too quick for the eye, too remote for the heart, professedly arbitrary. (pp. 149-50)
There are two decks used, and two sections: the "Castle" of the overall title and a second, not quite symmetrical half, entitled "The Tavern of Crossed Destinies." The castle sequence is more rigorously organized than the tavern sequence. (p. 150)
[As] we wander in the unmannerly inn of this second section, through tale after tale, we feel something is wrong. The same cards recur too often; the apocalyptic and erotic notes are struck too effortlessly, chiming with Calvino's usual cosmic and metropolitan preoccupations; there is an unchecked fluency. The nub of the problem can be located by those who, like this assiduous reviewer, trouble to trace with colored crayons a few specimen narrative sequences on the full spread of cards reproduced on page 98: the cards have been used in no special order. Calvino in his afterword confesses his breakdown of procedure…. (pp. 153-54)
Now, this most amiable of avant-gardists cannot resist a tour de force. Having written a novel about a viscount who, being cut in half, doubly thrives, he must follow it with one about a baron who lives a long, full life entirely in trees, and that with one about a knight who is, behind his armor, nonexistent. Within his absurd premises he remains rigorous. Here, having played the cards one way, he picks them up again but, instead of overtopping his previous trick, finds himself overwhelmed. The effect is disturbing, like a sonnet in which the poet fails to rhyme the sestet, having perfectly rhymed the octave. Why, if the cards are to be used so freely, use cards at all? If the first set of tales seemed at intervals mechanical, this second set feels a touch copious and pompous; the narrative sprouts historical and philosophical asides and self-conscious declamations: "But will I not have been too pontifical? I reread. Shall I tear it all up? Let us see." The afterword less gnomically describes Calvino's struggles with the second section, the maddening complications he conceived and discarded, his awaking in the night "to note a decisive correction," his abandonment of the project for a year, his decision to abandon "ironclad rules," break out of "this maniacal obsession," and "publish this book to be free of it."
The magician has been bewitched. The cards, his tools, have rebelled. Our aesthetic unease goes deeper than the analogy with rhyme suggests. "The Waste Land," its couplets so cavalierly slashed by Pound, and "Prufrock" before it, showed the effectiveness of rhyme that comes and goes, like a ghost behind the arras, as Eliot said of metre, "to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse." Formal correctness has so long ceased to be required of poets that those who adhere to it are viewed as eccentrics—who for a time published their own magazine, Counter/Measures. But cards possess a more ancient and intimate connection with order and disorder than poetic prosody. A deck of cards is a type of machine not easy to construct, a machine for producing random order. As such it admits, in its suspension of material causality, the possibility of divine pronouncement. It is the essence of cards, once shuffled and dealt, to constitute a given, whether the given is a bridge hand or a human fortune. As long as Calvino, having made his initial arrangement, took it as a given and read stories into it every which way, the infinite plasticity of the narrative art was demonstrated, and the infinite pluralism and final empty monotony of human experience were forcefully implied. But when, in the second set, he reads the cards selectively, the presiding narrator suffers a sharp demotion in magical capacity, and nothing is proved, however much is asserted in the style of "we have seen these greasy pieces of cardboard become a museum of old masters, a theatre of tragedy, a library of poems and novels." Calvino's array of medieval legend, Shakespearean melodrama, and twentieth-century woolgathering seems messily synoptic, a gaudy mulch. The book is published "to be free of it," in disarray. By breaking the rules of his own game, and breaking faith with his own splendid cleverness, Calvino has lost the definitive fatalism of the cards. (pp. 154-55)
John Updike, "Card Tricks," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 18, 1977, pp. 149-56.
Language for Calvino is a kind of plague, something like the smog, or the swarm of ants, which appear in his earlier stories. It is what we live in and long to get out of. But since Calvino doesn't want to give up communication, or even to break the linear clarity of his elegant prose, he must use language to point us toward other possibilities of expression: the comic strip (as in Cosmicomics), Marco Polo's objects and pantomimes, and, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the tarot pack….
[The] tarot pack is not only a machine for constructing stories, as Calvino modestly says, it is a labyrinth where all the world's stories can be found. But they have to be found, and finding them, it seems, does not interfere with the inexhaustible mystery of the labyrinth itself, which is organized, Calvino says, around "the chaotic heart of things, the center of the square of the cards and of the world, the point of intersection of all possible orders."…
This new work as a whole doesn't have the grace and tenderness of Invisible Cities—there is something too dogged, too methodical about Calvino's application of his imagination to the tarots—but it has the discreet pathos which is never far from the surface in any of Calvino's work. "When you kill, you always kill the wrong man," Calvino says in a gloss on the story of Hamlet. And Calvino's fiction, with its allusions to the denser speech of the visible world and indeed of life itself, is a monument to one of literature's most important half-truths: When you write, you always write the wrong book. (p. 36)
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), May 12, 1977.
The Tarot, a gaudy set of cards generally used for prophecy, is … complicated. One look at the eerie figures of the pack—the Popess, the Page of Coins, the Hanged Man—is enough to make it clear that these emblems are so embellished and so abstracted that they have become religious figures of unusual power. But the cards also represent early forms of narrative—the story of the past as well as of the future—and it is in this sense that Italo Calvino has used them in his latest book [The Castle of Crossed Destinies]. (p. 22)
Calvino believes in his writing, not in the stories; as a consequence his prose has a peculiarly weightless quality which the translator, William Weaver, has beautifully evoked. Calvino just concerns himself with the various orders and sequences which he has so assiduously and so obsessively created out of the cards. But by establishing such a distinctive set of relations, by forming circles and squares and double axes, the threat of disorder is—to use the old phrase—always on the cards…. (pp. 22-3)
[It] is as if the necromancer and the clairvoyant, by using the Tarot, can achieve what the novelist always fails to: '… our elderly neighbour, now that he finds a deck of tarot in his hands, wants to compose again an equivalent of the Great Work, arranging the cards in a square in which, from top to bottom, from left to right and vice versa, all stories can be read, his own included.' But the Great Work slips away so easily, since the cards themselves are signs to be read only in relation to each other. They are, literally, 'about' nothing: 'The kernel of the world is empty, the beginning of what moves in the universe is the space of nothingness….'
Some of the stories in the book culled from this knowledge are very elegant, and Calvino's fables seem to be perched precariously beyond the confines of ordinary narrative. In his previous book, Invisible Cities, a traveller returns with stories of eerie and enormous cities which bear some relation to those we know but somehow exist outside ordinary time and space. And so it is in this book: the fables which Calvino has rescued from the ultimate chaos of Tarot-playing are strange mixtures of the ancient and the modern, of solemn mythical personages and Calvino himself, pictured as the King of Clubs and clutching a gigantic pencil. The intervention of this card into the game allows Calvino to enter his main theme, which is the fortune of writing….
The Castle of Crossed Destinies is elegant, tightly constructed and totally self-enclosed. The only thing to do is to pack up the cards, leave the castle which may or may not represent the novel, throw out the Tarot pack which is pretty but in the end stale and pointless, forget about religion and all of its pagan substitutes, and begin another book. And this, I imagine, is what Calvino is now doing: '… to begin writing again as if I had never written anything before.' (p. 23)
Peter Ackroyd, "Sharp Cards," in The Spectator (© 1977 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 14, 1977, pp. 22-3.