The OF Blog: Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

Fu il 15 di guiugno del 1767 che Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, mio fratello, sedette per l'ultima volta in mezzo a noi.  Ricordo come fosse oggi.  Eravamo nella sala da pranzo della nostra villa d'Ombrosa, le finestre inquadravano i folti rami del grande elce del parco.  Era mezzogiorno, e la nostra famiglia per vecchia tradizione sedeva a tavola a quell'ora, nonostante fosse già invalsa tra i nobili la moda, venuta dalla poco mattiniera Corte di Francia, d'andare a desinare a metà del pomeriggio.  Tirava vento dal mare, ricordo, e si muovevano le foglie.  Cosimo disse:  - Ho, detto che non voglio e non voglio! - e respinse il piatto di lumache.  Mai s'era vista disubbidienza più grave.

It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, my brother, sat among us for the last time.  And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly.  We were in the dining room of our house at Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park.  It was midday, the old traditional hour followed by our family, though by then most nobles had taken to the fashion set by the sluggard Court of France, of dining halfway through the afternoon.  A breeze was blowing from the sea, I remember, rustling the leaves.  Cosimo said:  "I told you I don't want any, and I don't!" and pushed away his plateful of snails.  Never had we seen such disobedience.

Italian author Italo Calvino wrote stories and novels of all shapes and forms from his earliest published tales in the 1940s up until his death in 1984.  His 1957 novel, Il Barone Rampante (The Baron in the Trees in English translation), however, might be his most picturesque.  Set in the waning years of the aristocratic 18th century, Calvino through the Rousseauesque lead of Cosimo explores the changes that occurred in Europe from the days of the Enlightenment through the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the short-lived restoration of near-absolute monarchs in Western and Central Europe.  It is in turns a comic and tragic novel, seen through the travels and experiences of the tree-dwelling man, Cosimo.

The passage quoted above is from the first paragraph of the story.  The English translation, done by Archibald Colquhoun in 1959, for the most part attempts to remain true to the basics of the story, but there are times where Colquhoun changes the imagery Calvino employs.  In the excerpt provided above, Colquhoun in his substitution of "house" for "villa" removes the aristocratic element from the di Rondò residence.  Cosimo, and his narrator brother of course, are not simply well-to-do bourgeois who live in grand houses; they have some seigneurial rights in the region of Ombrosa (the boys' father has his heart set out to regaining the lapsed title of Duke of Ombrosa for the family).  Throughout the rest of the story, there are several other small yet sometimes significant semantic shifts that occur in the translation into English.

Yet despite this and the adoption of the more innocuous "The Baron in the Trees" title over the more direct "The Rampant Baron," the translation does succeed in capturing much of the general thrust of Calvino's story.  Cosimo in his youth rejects his father's authoritarian, aristocratic ways, declaring as he climbs into a nearby oak tree that he will never again set foot on earth.  This rather exaggerated defiance of paternal power (and paternalism in general) resembles in some ways Rousseau's then-radical ideas on youth and their education.  Yet Cosimo is not a full stand-in for Emile; in his experiences living from tree to tree (often carried out to exaggerated effect, such as when later in life he comes to talk with Napoleon), he converses with people, famous and ordinary alike, about then-current philosophical trends, on life, on suffering, and all the emotional palettes that comprise that rich painting we call life.

Calvino treads a fine line between the reduction of this tale into farce and the possibility that Cosimo might become merely a moralizing spokesperson.  Having a protagonist wandering from tree to tree, living separate and yet surrounded by grounded humans and their concerns, allows Calvino to keep Cosimo slightly distant and aloof from our affairs without removing him from quotidian concerns.  The view in the trees might be higher than that on the ground, but it is also obscured, a point which Calvino exploits at times, especially with Cosimo's love affair with Viola.  In addition, while Cosimo is living apart from his family, we see through his brother Biagio's eyes, the tyrannical and mad aspects of the di Rondò family life, as the loveless marriage of their parents begets arranged marriages that lead to tragedy for the brothers' sisters.  It is this undercurrent of sadness and inflicted cruelty that gives The Baron in the Trees a darker tone that keeps it from being strictly a light-hearted affair.

At times, however, Calvino risked having his story becoming too distant from its central character (and narrator).  He almost loses control of the story when he has Cosimo discoursing with Spaniards, Russians, and other folk from the time immediately following the French Revolution.  It seemed in those places that the focus had shifted from Cosimo's relationship with the changing world to Cosimo being merely present at anything remotely historical.  However, Calvino manages to swing the focus back to a more personal take on Cosimo's continuing act of rebellion.  The concluding chapters serve to reinforce what Calvino has set up throughout the tale and Cosimo's end becomes true to the life he has read.

The Baron in the Trees is not my favorite Calvino tale (that would be Invisible Cities, followed by If on a winter's night a traveler...), yet it would be near the top of his works that I would recommend to those who are unfamiliar with his works.  Here Calvino is more direct in conveying what he wants to explore and Cosimo certainly is an engaging character.  Calvino's prose is clear, incisive, and rarely tedious or digressive.  Even at his most farcical, he manages to imbue this story with serious elements that cause the reader to consider more than just the humor being displayed in sometimes outrageous fashions.  This results in a deceptively complex tale which at first seems to be almost whimsical until the narrative "hooks" are firmly set in place and the reader comes to reflect upon the whole range of emotions and movements embedded within the tale.  Highly recommended.


Daniel Ausema said...

"The Baron in the Trees is not my favorite Calvino tale (that would be Invisible Cities, followed by If on a winter's night a traveler...)"

I might switch those last two around, but otherwise I agree. Baron was the last Calvino I read (I've reread some of the others since then, and there are a couple, I think, that I haven't read, but I read it for the first well after I'd read most of his other works), and I had very high expectations. It was a very enjoyable book that I'd definitely recommend...and yet it didn't meet the expectations I'd had. I wonder how much translation plays into that. I'm pretty sure all the other Calvino books I own have William Weaver as translator. Baron is full of Calvino's whimsy, and that whimsy has his usual philosophical/questing/uncertain undertone to it, but my recollection is that the telling of it seemed to be missing some of the force of the two books you mentioned, or say Cosmicomics and t zero.

It's been, maybe, 3 years by now, so I should reread it and see what I think this time around.

marco said...

After Invisible Cities, I tend to favor Mr. Palomar/Cosmicomics/The Marcovaldo Stories.

March 17th said...

I came to this last in my Calvino studies as part of my French & Italian degree. It's tough at the top but I think this is my favourite,I personally love the 'whimsy' I agree he sometimes sails close to farce but I adore Cosmo so am forgiving. Thanks for discussing Calvino at length I do worry that he is consigned to undergraduate reading lists !

Jacques, a robin said...

"Il barone rampante" is just wonderful Calvino. I read it in Italian (it's my mother-tongue), and I guess a translator must be pretty awesome to replicate Calvino's flowing, whimsical but utterly precise writing. It's incredibly poetic too, and such translator should be a poet as well! As an Italian, and a Northerner one, hence from the same geographical and cultural area the story takes place, I came across so many unheard of expressions and words. Despite the usual display of imagination, the strength of this story lays in the underlying human tenderness felt for the characters, and that might be why it feels less powerful: it's a brother celebrating his own brother's life without sentimentalism, just pure affection and admiration. I love this book so much. It's true, Invisible Cities might be Calvino's masterpiece because it's so 'out there', but Baron just brings you to a less deep and more familiar world and makes it poetic. Cities might be about some sort of collective unconscious, while Baron is just love for an individual character, with his humanity, uniqueness and flaws.

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