Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees

     Our father leaned out the window. "When you're tired of being up there, you'll change your mind!" he shouted.
     "I'll never change my mind," exclaimed my brother from the branch.
     "You'll see as soon as you come down!"
     "I'll never come down again!" And he kept his word.

That's the end of the first chapter of Calvino's novel, and Cosmo Piovasco di Rondó did keep his word. From that moment in 1767 when Cosimo was twelve and he climbed into a tree rather than eat snails, he stayed in one tree or another. And when his father died, Cosimo became the baron in the trees.

The novel has the delight of something like Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson: there's quite a lot of ingenious invention as to how Cosimo carries on his life in the trees. It's a boys' own adventure book with that sort of charm. How he gets around, how he gets food, how he sleeps, how he bathes, eventually how he meets girls--all these things are non-trivial problems and they're fun to watch him (and Calvino) work them out. Initially he has help from his younger brother Biagio, who is also the narrator of the story. He makes friends with the gang of boys who steal fruit from the orchards. He has a relationship with the proud daughter of his father's enemy among the local nobility. (More on her as we go along.)

Eventually, though, Cosimo is reconciled to his parents and they, particularly his mother, help. He becomes famous, first for his eccentricity, but then for his usefulness, in tracking wolves in the winter or preventing fires in a dry summer; then the whole community is his friend.

But the novel also takes place in an interesting time and has gentle intellectual interests. In 1767, the Enlightenment is in full swing, and Cosimo is affected by it. What is his relationship to the church, to learning? These are questions in the air:
'Cosimo...acquired a passion for reading and study which remained with him for the rest of his life. The attitude in which we now usually found him was astride a comfortable branch with a book open in his hand, or leaning over the fork of a tree as if he were on a school bench, with a sheet of paper on a plank and an inkstand in a hole in the tree, writing with a long quill pen.'
I may have perched in a tree and read a book once or twice when I was younger, but I never thought of making a career of it. Maybe I should have!

As an enlightenment thinker, he begins a Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees, he writes to Diderot about it, and gets a short note in return. At a later date, Napoleon on one of his marches around Europe decides he wants to meet this baron in the trees. Neither has much to say to the other.

There are love affairs, or rumors of love affairs, but there is only one love: Viola, that proud daughter of the family's enemies. She returns more than once to the story and perhaps the main question is what will happen to them.

Anywho, it's a great novel and I recommend it. I've read it a few times before, and it still has the power to bring me both tears and smiles.

It's recently been retranslated by Ann Goldstein, now spectacularly well known as the translator of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. I got her translation from the library (and I've read about a third of it and will probably read it all again) and it's quite good, but I don't know that I will need to rush out and buy it to replace my old translation (done by Archibald Colquhoun in 1959) which still seems to me to be fine. I do like the new cover. Although it should be said the Other Reader* in the house prefers the older cover.  Even though I'm not convinced that it needed to be retranslated, any attention it brings is more than welcome. Calvino is not exactly obscure, but he could (and should!) be better known. Almost all Calvino I've found to be great reads, but if I were to recommend one, this would be it.

*for the Other Reader, see Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler.


  1. Replies
    1. In case you didn't realize... :) ...it's absolutely one of my favorite books!