Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Castle of Crossed Destinies + Pale Fire

Reviews of a couple of books that experiment with the art of

1. "The Castle of Crossed Destinies" by Italo Calvino

This little book has two parts.  Both use the same device, which some
reviewers have labelled as a gimmick, while others consider it a master

While riding a horse in the woods, the narrator stumbles across an
unusual castle.  He enters the castle and finds several people sitting
around a table having supper.  Nobody says a word - apparently everyone
has lost the power of speech.  After supper, the host brings out a pack
of cards and places them on the table.  These are not ordinary cards,
being a bit larger than normal, and in addition to the usual playing
cards the deck includes tarot cards.  One of the guests starts picking
out particular cards and laying them in a sequence on the table.  In
doing so he is announcing himself as the Knight of Cups, and the
sequence of cards tells his story.  When he finishes, another person
uses more cards to tells his story, with the cards laid out so that they
intersect with the previous storyteller's.  This continues until the
table is covered with the stories (the crossed destinies) of the guests.

The book has pictures of the cards (the Bembo deck), which apparently
date from the 15th Century.  Note that unlike tarot card reading, the
cards are not used to predict the future, and they are not selected
randomly.  As the cards are laid out, the narrator interprets the
meaning of the cards and their combinations.

The second part of the book, "The Tavern of Crossed Destinies", is based
on a similar idea.  This time people are meeting at a tavern, and a
different set of playing/tarot cards is being used in telling their
stories.  Also, the sequence of cards making up the story can go in any
direction, instead of being restricted to straight lines.  The actual
stories are based on well-known characters from literature and history,
including Parsifal, Oedipus, Hamlet, Lady Macbeth and Saint Jerome.

I'm not sure if the execution of the stories always lives up to the idea
behind their construction.  Fortunately the stories are short, so
overall this was an interesting and enjoyable book, but not quite a
great book.

2. "Pale Fire" by Vladimir Nabokov

The construction of this book is in three main parts (plus an Index).
At its core is a 999-line poem, "Pale Fire", written by John Francis
Shade during his last days.  The poem ostensibly tells the story of the
poet's life.  His neighbour and friend, Professor Charles Kinbote,
provides both a Foreword to the poem, and a detailed Commentary on
selected parts of the poem.

Kinbote, professor of literature at Wordsmith college in New Wye (in
eastern USA), may not be the most reliable commentator.  As you read the
lines of the poem and the related comments, it appears that Professor
Kinbote is a bit of a spin doctor.  He uses episodes in the poem to
weave a rather different story: that of the exiled King Charles II of
Zembla ("a distant northern land" in Europe) and a plot to assassinate
the King that goes horribly wrong.  He tries to convince the reader that
he has had a profound influence on Shade (the poet), particularly on the
content of Shade's last poem.  Kinbote highlights words and phrases in
the poem to "prove" his case, and alludes to other "truths".

It's amusing to read the poem together with Kinbote's commentary.  Is
Kinbote delusional, or is he actually telling the truth?  Other readers
have provided even more bizarre interpretations of what is going on -

Overall, quite a good read, especially if you're looking for something a
bit different.