Italo Calvino’s novel Baron in the trees (1957) is a picaresque affair in comparison with the beautiful metaphysics of his later work. The Baron is Cosimo, who as a boy of twelve argues with his father over the eating of a plate of snails, and heads up a holm-oak.
Cosimo climbed up to the fork of a big branch where he could settle comfortably and sat himself down there, his legs dangling, his arms crossed with hands tucked under his elbows, his head buried in his shoulders, his tricorne hat tilted over his forehead.
Our father leant out of the window-sill. ‘When you’re tired of being up there, you’ll change your ideas!’ he shouted.
‘I’ll never change my ideas,’ exclaimed my brother from the branch.
‘You’ll see as soon as you come down!’
‘Then I’ll never come down again!’ And he kept his word.
Cosimo starts to map out the rules of his refusal to return to the ground that same day, in conversation with Viola, the capricious little girl in the garden next door. Many pages and years pass before she finally ventures into the hollow of a nut-tree to be with him.
It’s unsurprisingly a great novel about trees, though in a less explicit way than Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, in which a man named Holland promises his daughter’s hand to the suitor who can correctly name all of the hundreds of species of eucalyptus tree that he has planted on his land. But Baron in the trees also manages to combine the elegiac spirit of Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa’s contemporaneously published The leopard with the comic aspects of the adventures of Casanova. And it makes you yearn a little for the age when England was covered in trees rather than fields, roads and buildings, and you might have chosen to swing through its forests from one county to another, an arboreal aristocrat and, like Cosimo, a proponent of a Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees.