The Baron in the Trees

When Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò is forced to eat snail soup by his eccentric sister, he retreats to the trees around their estate. Rather than return home and face punishment, Cosimo decides to remain in the trees. He travels from limb to limb around the village, eventually meeting the beautiful Viola d’Ondariva as she swings from a branch. Cosimo explains to Viola the rules of his new game—to never touch the ground. From that point forward, he never does.

Italo Calvino takes the imaginary village of Ombrosa, Italy, for this mock conte philosophique. Through the course of the novel, Cosimo witnesses the real historical events of the Expulsion of Jesuits from Spain, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. He also interacts with famous figures, including Voltaire, Diderot, and Napoleon himself. From the trees, Cosimo has a number of adventures, takes lovers, and reads and writes philosophy—including a utopian treatise for how to govern a society of men, women, and animals living in the trees.

While the novel imitates and mocks numerous genres, it ends with a love story that is only half-parody. When an adult Viola d’Ondariva returns to Ombrosa, Cosimo realizes that all this time he has been living in the trees for her alone. Their love is pseudo-modern, Romantic, Petrarchan, and above all painful.

“Why do you make me suffer?”

“Because I love you.”

Now it was he who got angry. “No, you don’t love me! One who loves wants happiness, not suffering.”

“One who loves wants only love, even at the cost of suffering.”

“So you make me suffer on purpose.”

“Yes, to see if you love me.”

-Chapter 22

In the end, The Baron in the Trees is a coming-of-age tale, in which a young man resists his father’s influence and the ills of his society, not by adopting the latest counter cultural philosophy (for instance, Romanticism in a time of Enlightenment) but by literally rejecting the earth itself and taking to the trees.

This is a must-read for fans of Italo Calvino, but it should appeal to anyone interested in the Age of the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, European history, the philosophical novel, or literary satire. For me, the novel started slowly. As Calvino is writing a “high concept” story, he takes some pains establishing his world and explaining the logical ramifications of a young man living in the trees. For example, how did Cosimo eat, go to the bathroom, wash his clothing? After these entailments are lengthily resolved, Cosimo is able to get to the business of spying on his fellow villagers, having adventures, and falling in love. Here the story finally gets off the ground.

Classic Corner: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Kundera’s most well-read novel recounts the lives of four interconnected lovers—Tomáš, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz—and a dog named Karenin.

Tomáš can’t commit to a life of monogamy, even though he desperately loves his wife, Tereza.

Tereza, though she loathes her mother and the Soviet occupation of Prague, finds she can’t remain in democratic Zurich and must return to both out of incomprehensible love and loyalty.

Sabina, Tomáš’ closet friend and mistress, struggles to create art that is not politicized just because she is a Czech dissident.

Franz, a Geneva professor, loves Sabina but can’t love her authentically or fully, pigeon-holing her as a romantic figure—just as the rest of her audience.

Karenin is a dog.

In this modern classic, Kundera reflects on what it means to be Czech in a Europe torn apart by fascism and communism, pulled toward the moderates of ideal conservatism, represented by well-meaning Americans, and ideal liberalism, represented by European socialists.

He also reflects on concepts of censorship, kitsch, responsibility and, of course, the “unbearable lightness of being,” the idea that whatever happens only once, such as human existence as we know it, ought not happen at all.

Tomáš’ answer to this unbearable lightness is a German phrase he attributes to Beethoven: “Es muss sein,” which translates as “It must be.” If there’s no way to improve upon our mistakes in this life, then Tomáš concludes we must rely on fate. Our actions are our actions because they must be. Therefore, he abandons safety in Zurich and follows Tereza back across the iron curtain to Prague.

The rest you will have to read for yourself.

This is a fantastic novel for anyone interested in Eastern European history, Western philosophy, or the art of the novel. Throughout, Kundera deconstructs his narrative as he tells it, drawing attention to the artificiality of the form and offering insights into the craft of fiction. Despite these post-modern digressions, the narrative remains compelling and infinitely readable.

Art of the Sequel: Silence of the Lambs

As I finish up what is hopefully my last round of edits, I find myself thinking more and more about my next project, a sequel to my current novel. Sequels can be tricky, and they often pale in comparison to the original, so I thought I would look at a novel that is so exemplary that many don’t even realize it’s a sequel: The Silence of the Lambs.

I can’t recall when I first met Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, but I do know it was the movie rather than the book and I was likely too young.

I recall better my first time reading one of Thomas Harris’ novels, Red Dragon. The first book in the series, it begins shortly after Hannibal’s initial capture. An FBI agent, Will Graham, must consult with the doctor to solve a murder. Unlike the protagonist of Lambs, Clarice Starling, Graham has a long history with Lecter. They worked together profiling killers before Lecter’s incarceration. In fact, Graham is the reason Lecter is behind bars.

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I devoured this book (pun intended), but didn’t pick up Silence of the Lambs until just this year. Now, having read all three of the original series (there’s also a prequel, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet), I can confidently say Lambs is the strongest. Let’s look at why.

Rather than follow up with disfigured Will Graham in the sequel, Harris retires Graham and introduces Clarice Starling, an up-and-coming trainee. He does keep Graham’s mentor Jack Crawford, though. Plucking Starling from Quantico, Crawford sends the trainee to interview Lecter and glean what she can about a recent killer they’re calling Buffalo Bill. While Dragon feels like an in medias res opening, Lambs has the aura of new beginnings. Starling’s relationship with Lecter is also more dynamic than Graham’s. Rather than wanting her dead and plotting toward that end, Lecter falls in love with her—while also kind of wanting to kill and eat her.

While the original Lecter book followed detective Will Graham and killer Francis Dolarhyde, Lambs gives us Lecter’s perspective as well. In a real sense, this POV overshadows the other plot lines. The technical climax of the novel comes as Starling tracks down Buffalo Bill in his home (the night vision goggle scene). But Lecter’s climax is perhaps more memorable: he must escape from Memphis authorities while handcuffed in a roofless cell in an ornate hall on the fifth floor of a building with only one, heavily guarded exit. I won’t spoil it if haven’t read Lambs, but it is a masterful scene—albeit a bit gory.

The best sequels build on what works from the original. They go deeper into the world the author created while also giving readers something unexpected. Silence of the Lambs does this and more.

As I begin to brainstorm and outline for my sequel, I’m on the lookout for sequels that outdo the original. If you have some favorites, drop their titles in the comment section below. Who knows? I just might review some of them here on my blog!