In Liguria recently I took on our walks my much-read copy of Italo Calvino's Our Ancestors, which contains his short novel The Baron in the Trees. In the book's introduction Calvino says that its tales 'breathe the air of the Mediterranean which I had breathed throughout my life ... So the Ligurian landscape, where trees have almost disappeared today, in the Baron is transformed into a kind of apotheosis of vegetation.' He imagined a world of abundant fruit trees and olive groves of 'silvery grey, a cloud anchored halfway up the hillsides.' Above these were the oaks, and then the pines and the chestnuts. 'The woods climbed the mountain, and you could not see their bounds.' Choosing to live out his life in these trees, the Baron would come to know a world of 'narrow curved bridges in the emptiness, of knots or peel or scores roughening the trunks, of lights varying their green according to the veils of thicker or scarcer leaves, trembling at the first quiver of the air on the shoots or moving like sails with the bend of the tree in the wind.'
These steep wooded hills sloping down to the sea were important to Calvino from the outset, as he explained in a 1964 preface to his first novel, The Path to the Spiders' Nest (1946). They had not really featured in literature before, except in the poems of Eugenio Montale (the subject of an earlier post on this blog). Like the other neo-realists, Calvino was striving for authenticity, working with his own 'lexis and landscape', although his was a version of Liguria that omitted the tourist coastline centred on San Remo.
'I began with the alleyways of the Old Town, went up along the hillside streams, avoiding the geometric fields of carnations: I preferred the terraced strips planted with vines and olives surrounded by crumbling, dry-stone walls. I advanced along the mule-tracks rising above the fallow fields up to where the pinewoods began , then the chestnut trees: that was how I moved from the sea - always seen from above, like a thin strip between two green curtains - up to the winding valleys of the Ligurian Pre-Alps'
Seen from the aeroplane: Calvino's Liguria
All the walks we made began by the shore and took us, like Calvino's descriptions, up through the trees towards the mountains. In his autobiographical sketch, 'The Road to San Giovanni', Calvino recalls another of these climbs, from the family home to the experimental farm his father ran in the hills above San Remo. The carnation fields Calvino would avoid mentioning in his novel a few years later were bypassed by his father too, 'as if, despite working professionally in the floriculture business himself, he felt secretly remorseful about it. ... What he wanted to achieve was a relationship with nature, one of struggle and dominion: to get his hands on nature, to change it, to mould it, while still feeling it alive and whole beneath.' His son, reluctantly accompanying him on these walks, 'could recognize not a single plant or bird'. Living in the midst of nature, he wanted to be elsewhere. 'My father is talking about the way olive trees blossom. I'm not listening. I look at the sea and think I'll be down on the beach in an hour.' It was later, in writing, that he would come to explore this landscape and it was through literature that he sought a different kind of connection to nature, where 'everything would become true and tangible and possessible and perfect, everything in a world that was already lost.'