Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino

I read this book largely on train rides and one long flight, and it was a wonderful companion. It's been a while since since I've read something that made me this happy. The story starts in the 1760s, with a twelve year old Italian Baron climbing up into a tree to defy an order from his father. The family assumes that after he is through sulking, he'll come down, but the Baron decides that he is never going to return to land; and like Robinson Crusoe, there is some pleasure to be had just from seeing how he manages to stays up there. The book is, in some ways, an elegy for feudal Italian society, since the Enlightenment happens while the Baron is up in trees (incredibly, he finds a way to take part); and after his death, the thick groves of trees that allowed him to travel over such an immense distance are gradually cut down.

The book is narrated as a memoir written by the Baron's younger brother, and a great deal of the book's beauty comes from Calvino's creation of this sad, wise voice. Calvino clearly understands the danger of a fanciful premise, and makes sure that there is nothing fanciful about the prose or narrative style. It reads something like an exceptionally well-written journalistic account, with attempts at corroboration and alternate versions of the same story.

A little over halfway through, thoroughly delighted, I thought about how lovely it would be to read this story to a child. And then the book began dealing with the adult Baron's love affairs and, to my mind, started to unravel a little -- or at least become less purely delightful. At first I thought it was just because the fairytale world of the first part of the book had been spoiled with adult concerns, but now I think it's something else. The memoir is clearly being written for the public by a nobleman in the early 19th century, and there's something jarring about this man mentioning a woman opening her blouse to bare her rosy nipples. There is something far too modern and unreticent about his treatment of the Baron's affairs, and it breaks apart the reality of the book.

Calvino could still have dealt with them, but it would have to be done in a different way. (At the end of the book, the brother indicates he is just writing in a notebook for his own private pleasure, but I suspect that this is Calvino realizing that something has gone wrong, because this is certainly not how the first part of the book reads.) After the Baron's affair with his one great love, the book never feels quite as pure as did in the beginning; it's hard to forget, now, that you're reading a whimsical story. Characters from other books start to show up (well, at least one, from War and Peace); events strain credulity; and one catches the author trying to be funny, instead of letting the story produce its own humor. But, for a long stretch, this is a brilliant, delightful book. And strangely sad, somehow. I've read if on a winter's night and Invisible Cities, and it's astonishing how wide-ranging Calvino's talents are, how many voices he can assume with integrity and ease. I may have to go back and read those books again, but right now this is the only one I really love.


The Chronicler of Mare Caelorum said...

Ahoy, fellow reviewer. I stumbled across your blog doing a search for "Calvino" on Was delighted to find your review of The Baron in the Trees.

By a funny coincidence, I've also written a Calvino review this week, on Invisible Cities.

Look forward to reading your future posts!

Sherry said...

I'm very much enjoying your reviews, please keep them coming. Would love a review on Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzshce if you get the chance to read it. I'm in the middle of it now.

Anonymous said...

Very much enjoyed reading your review, impressive understanding of the novel. I'm currently studying this text alongside the other two in the triology at university and have to disagree ever so slightly!

The adult stage of the baron's life, however explicit, is simply a natural stage - From childhood fantasies, to adult fantasies and then to an elderly retirement. The sad, nostalgic voice of Biagio echoes this natural progression but cleverly avoids the inevitable fall of death with the illusion of Cosimo's ascent in the hot air balloon.

I don't think that Biagio stating that this was a personal account is Calvino trying to cover up that the novel had gone wrong at some point, I think it was a way to justify such a long, indulgent reminisce about his brother; also a way to personalise the narrative, to plea with the reader a sense of sympathy against the possiblity of mockery where his brother is concerned and also to complete the character of Biagio as a conscious, first person narrator who does in general speak as an omniscient figure.

However, I can definitely accept that it tarnishes the infantile fantasy of the first segment of the book, the magic of the trees and Cosimo's inventions and adventures; but I don't believe that Calvino ever wanted the baron to remain an eternal tree-climbing child, I think the fantasy of the book is that he can and does mature on the treetops of Ombrosa.

Anonymous said...

I loved your blog. Thank you.

chelsjmakely said...

I had the same idea--that this was the ideal bedtime narrative. Then my partner pointed out that the ecstatic tree top love making might not be suitable (but whatever, kids learn about that stuff, right)? I love that in Calvino books, there are always books. Cosimo's other relationships are volatile, but books are stable. Moreover, knowledge (book reading) takes him out of this world and literally, in Cosimo's case, elevates him and broadens his horizons.