The Baron in the Trees

It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time.

Italo Calvino opens The Baron in the Trees with a flourish. This novel is about a young Italian nobleman — twelve on that fateful day in 1767 — who climbs into the trees as an act of rebellion and never comes down to earth again, not even for an instant. He lives the rest of his full life in the branches: hunting, learning, taking care of his estate, conducting his love affairs and his correspondence with the great minds of the Enlightenment with equal enthusiasm, and finally, at the end of his life, stepping not to earth but to a higher plane.

Like all of Calvino’s works that I have read so far, this novel is a seamless blend of the whimsical — or perhaps I want to say the wildly inventive, since the whimsy is mostly on the surface — and the profound. The first few chapters have a sort of Robinson-Crusoe appeal to them, as we see Cosimo settle himself in the branches, with ingenious solutions to the problems of food, water, hygiene, scholarship, and companionship.

But the farther into the book you read, the clearer it becomes that this is not a simple story about a rebel or an eccentric who spends his time in trees for some reason. The references to Enlightenment philosophers are impossible to ignore. Towards the beginning of the book, Cosimo spends a chapter or so getting to know his kingdom physically: the nature of each tree, the animals, the sounds and scents.

On a fig tree, though, as long as he saw to it that a branch could bear his weight, he could move about forever; Cosimo would stand under the pavilion of leaves, watching the sun appear through the network of twigs and branches, the gradual swell of the green fruit, smelling the scent of flowers budding in the stalks. The fig tree seemed to absorb him, permeate him with its gummy texture and the buzz of hornets; after a little Cosimo would begin to feel he was becoming a fig tree himself, and move away, uneasy.

This, of course, is pure Rousseau, pure Emile: move away from society and educate yourself from Nature. (Voltaire retorted that Rousseau’s books made him feel like “crawling on all fours,” but that he really couldn’t consider it at his age. I adore Voltaire.) Later, there are equally pointed references to Diderot and his collection of encyclopedic knowledge, Montesquieu, and others. Cosimo becomes a deist, and he takes part in his local, small revolution, a faint echo of what is happening in France.

Perhaps the most important part of the book, though, is not what happens, but why and how. How can a man restricted to the branches of trees receive all the most modern — the most revolutionary — ideas? The answer, of course, is through books. Early on, Cosimo takes lessons from his tutor, but he quickly moves beyond his tutor’s competence and begins devouring all the books he can find, novels and nonfiction alike. When he runs across a legendary local bandit, the relationship between them swiftly turns into a friendly book exchange, and their last moment together consists of Cosimo sitting in a tree outside the brigand’s cell window, reading aloud to him the night before his execution. Cosimo’s whole life is guided by books: his ideas of love, his ideas of honor, his ideas of government and nature and what is possible.

In the end, the trees become the connecting metaphor. Books and correspondence connect Cosimo to the entire changing world of the Enlightenment, just as the interlocking branches of the Ombrosa valley connect him to all the places he wishes to travel. The narrator, Cosimo’s brother, paints a dismal picture of the present:

Trees seem almost to have no right here since my brother left them or since men have been swept by this frenzy for the ax. And the species have changed too: no longer are there ilexes, elms, oaks; nowadays Africa, Australia, the Americas, the Indies, reach out roots and branches as far as here.

(This is a particularly lovely irony, because Calvino was born in Cuba.) Yet even when the trees fail, the words remain. Calvino’s words remain. Go and read them:

That mesh of leaves and twigs of fork and froth, minute and endless, with the sky glimpsed only in sudden specks and splinters, perhaps it was only there so that my brother could pass through it with his tomtit’s tread, was embroidered on nothing, like this thread of ink which I have let run on for page after page, swarming with cancellations, corrections, doodles, blots and gaps, bursting at times into big clear berries, coagulating at others into piles of tiny starry seeds, then twisting away, forking off, surrounding buds of phrases with frameworks of leaves and clouds, then interweaving again, and so running on and on and on until it splutters and bursts into a last senseless clutter of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends.

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13 Responses to The Baron in the Trees

  1. Thank you so much for your wonderful commentary on “The Baron in the Trees.” I adored Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and “The Castle of Crossed Destinies.” He’s the only writer I know of whose death was in my lifetime and made me cry (at least, so far, though I’ve felt sad at hearing that other writers are deceased). I hope to read “The Baron in the Trees” soon, but feel that I would like to be a bit better educated about the Enlightenment before I do so.

    • Jenny says:

      I couldn’t find other reviews of this book that mentioned the Enlightenment connection at all. (I didn’t do an exhaustive search, though.) I honestly think you could read it with pleasure and understanding if you had only a basic knowledge of that time period. It’s such a lovely book. I will follow Calvino just about anywhere.

  2. No no, shadowoperator, if that is your real name, Calvino’s novel is the education. The knowledge-reference chain goes in both directions. I read it as an undergrad and loved it. What did I know about the Enlightenment – nothin’ – well, in some sense a lot, but still.

    • Well, Amateur Reader Tom, I just remember playing one of those competitive games with my brother and his girlfriend where you start out by being able to say several words to get the other person to guess a famous personality’s specialty and end by being able to say only one. My brother’s girlfriend kept looking at me despairingly and saying “Voltaire. Voltaire.” But I drew a blank; I think I was trying to think of specific and exact titles or something. What she wanted me to say was “the Enlightenment.” From that point on, I knew I would have to review what I knew of the Enlightenment and get it down to some facts I’d mastered (my specialty is 19th-20th century literature and some contemporary world fiction). So, whereas you don’t mind approaching the Enlightenment through fiction, I want to do justice to what I suspect is yet another masterpiece by Calvino and come to the book with a few trace remains of a good education, even if I have to be a autodidact to get some of it. And no, while my avatar is “shadowoperator” on WordPress.com, I doubt if anyone outside of a fantasy novel has it as a “real” name. For my real name, why not check out my site, and read my “ABOUT” page? I decided to use “shadowoperator” after I’d already chosen the name “creativeshadows.wordpress.com” as my site name and in honor of two cats, both names “Shadow.” If you really liked “The Baron in the Trees,” though (to get off me and back onto Calvino), I feel sure you’d like “Invisible Cities.” Calvino has also written “If on a winter’s night a traveller,” a book composed only of the openings of novels, and he has a huge collection of Italian folk tales that he’s retold which are (not to condescend but merely to use the corrrect word) quite “charming.” (Sorry, Jenny and Teresa, to go on so long, but Calvino is an especial enthusiasm of mine, though I haven’t read all his works.)

  3. “if that is your real name” – that’s a joke, I say, that’s a joke, son.

    i think I have read all of Calvino available in English except for Italian Folktales. I wonder if that is still accurate. (checking internet) No, I see two books, The Road to San Giovanni and Hermit in Paris, that I missed. Yes, Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveler are amazing. Cosmicomics is a favorite, too.

    • Don’t worry, I wasn’t angry. I joke a lot myself. Just issuing a friendly invitation to come and visit my site. I’m impressed that you’ve covered so much Calvino. I really liked the Italian folktales book, because I feel that even when Calvino is very “modern,” he’s influenced by folk and fairy tale elements, just as another favorite writer of mine, A. S. Byatt is. She also writes some fantastic (in both senses of the word) short stories and collections.

    • That is just what I did! And then I plopped your address into my blog reader. You are off to a heck of a start.

      Shelf Love is an outstanding nexus for exploring other book blogs.

      I barely know Byatt. Possession, The Virgin in the Garden. I should read more – she seems to share some of my aesthetic principles.

    • Jenny says:

      Italian Folktales is well worth the read, if you like that sort of thing. It sparked a lot of ideas in my mind about the connecting motifs, and the reasons behind telling the tales in the first place.

      I was thinking of The Castle of Crossed Destinies next. Is there anything you’d particularly recommend?

      • I’m not sure quite whom you’re asking, but never slow to respond, I’ll answer and hope. “Mr. Palomar” and “t zero” (small t) have been recommended by a lot of people; I picked up used copies, but haven’t had the chance to read them yet. Also, Calvino’s book of essays on important literary values, “Six Memos for the Next Millenium,” is supposed to be very good. “Had we world enough and time,” as Marvell says, I would like to cover everything he’s written, but from what Amateur Reader (Tom) suggests above, perhaps they aren’t all translated yet. Hope I responded with what you were talking about.

      • Those are good recommendations. It would be worth trying his short fiction, too – Difficult Loves or The Watcher. Numbers in the Dark is more of a scrap-pile, although it has one killer in it.

  4. Belle says:

    I have not read any of Calvino’s books, but you have certainly piqued my interest with this one. I think I would love to live in a tree!

    • Jenny says:

      Calvino makes it sound both appealing and quite lonely, though Cosimo is not a hermit. Try the book. It solves every problem it poses, but rarely in the way you would expect, which is Calvino’s specialty.

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