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.