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Umberto Eco & why he is wonderful

And on the advice of Marsilius, who had taken a liking to me, they decided to place me under the direction of a learned Franciscan, Brother William of Baskerville, about to undertake a mission that would lead him to famous cities and ancient abbeys.
This is where Umberto Eco caught me. I was 11 or 12 and had struggled through the introduction and the beginning of Adso's story, but Baskerville was a name which resonated.

In some ways, I was far too young when I first encountered Eco. The library in my home town had just moved, and the grown-up section was no longer separated from the children's section with an impassable barrier (or a terrifying staircase, as the case may be). I had seized the opportunity to read Sherlock Holmes (and Wodehouse and Dickens). And then, The Name of the Rose.

But much as I was awash in a sea of references that I could not hope to catch, the description of Brother William gave me one of my first conscious experiences of literary allusion (tall, thin, with penetrating eyes and a beaky nose!), and once it was pointed out that the man could solve mysteries, I was safely on firm ground. With that as my guideline, I could observe (and absorb) references to people and places I had never heard of (yet), and with them a feeling of complexity and depth that I think I've been looking for in books ever since. The plethora of references were not meaningless to me, but came to signify the potential for knowledge of history and literature laid out before me. Opera aperta, indeed.

I have returned to The Name of the Rose at regular intervals, each time armed with more weird knowledge, and it has expanded the work itself. But more importantly, I have absorbed all manner of knowledge through Eco. My elation when I studied Ancient Literature, read Aristotle's Poetics and had a lecturer mention the possibly lost second half on comedy resulted in a mad silent giggle which I think bruised a rib. And when I discovered Jorge Luis Borges (and Borges' library), well...

Sherlock Holmes references aside, it was not the postmodern side to it I kept returning to in the beginning. It was the apparent accuracy of historical reference. I would look up William of Ockham, Ubertino of Casale, Michael of Cesena or Bernardo Gui and they would be there for me to find, fitting neatly together. With the promise of more if I kept looking.

And then I picked up Foucault's Pendulum. One small aside: It would seem wrong to bring up Dan Brown in a blog post written on the day Umberto Eco died, if it did not offer an excuse to direct people to Eco's wonderful take on the man:
The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.
My problem with Brown is precisely that he is not Eco. When Eco writes a conspiracy theory, the facts fit eerily well together, can be verified (if nothing else, then by historical rumour) and provide a compelling and original narrative; and then he undermines the whole edifice in the end. I have, lately (and rather late), been reading The Prague Cemetery. It seems to me to pick up again that tread from Foucault's Pendulum (a thread I missed in Island of the Day Before and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana). It points out the recurrence of the pattern of conspiracies, what makes them compelling and dangerous, but oh so seductive.

Which brings me to why I keep returning to Eco, after 20 years (it may not seem that long to some, but it is to me). He fuelled my love of literature already when I was a child, and he kept doing it as I grew up and realised that literature was more than individual books. The first thing that hooked me that first time was the intertextuality, and it became ever more prominent (though it is not really separate from the historical reference, except in how I experienced it). The texture that comes from interconnectivity (rather than any attempt to capture something absolute or supposedly eternally human) is what draws me to Eco. He is Calvino meeting Borges over Dumas' kitchen table, while Doyle serves tea and Carmina Burana plays in the background and Cagliostro sits in a corner looking sinister if it were not for the fact that his shoelaces have been tied together.

I enjoy it in part because it encourages that creative destabilisation of stories which I've talked of elsewhere (and which I think are fundamentally healthy); in part because it goes hand in hand with a political logic of which I approve. We could do with more of that these days.

Much as I respect Eco the theorist, it is Eco the novelist who makes me so sad today with the news that he has died. Thankfully, he wrote the kind of books I can keep returning to with different ideas in my head and find all manner of new things.
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Eco

Tor,  22.02.16 07:42

I've been thinking I should read Eco for a while, probably 15 years or so. But it feels more urgent now, for some reason. I should probably make it my goal to read Name of the Rose this year. Maybe as an Easter crime novel?