Day 11: A book by my favorite author

I have been neglecting the book challenge for a while now, simply because as I look ahead, I can’t really see myself addressing some of the upcoming challenges, i.e. “a book whose main character I’d like to marry.” I mean, what am I, 12? Moreover, it seems to me that this challenge is best-suited for people who have read only a moderate amount. Clearly someone who has not read at all, or too little, would find it impossible to complete, but it’s equally difficult for someone, like myself, who has read so much. It’s proven nearly impossible at every turn to come up with a single book to respond to the daily challenges. But I began this challenge and so I will press forward and see it through.

Today’s challenge, despite my complaining above, is not too difficult. My favorite author is Umberto Eco, and I think anyone who has been following my blog since the beginning will say that it’s obvious. I have written about him repeatedly (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and as I was getting my blog off the ground I had to curb my desire to write about him more lest this become an Eco blog (not that it would be a bad thing). He has been my favorite writer since I was introduced to him in my first college English Comp. course, and have loved his work ever since, his fiction and non-fiction equally.

His work is superbly intelligent, philosophical, historically rich, and always challenging,  while at the same time expressing such a love of language and the written word that reading it evokes a feeling of sheer joy.  They are brimming with an almost excited intertextuality that create these wonderfully complex literary labyrinths. Through his brilliant and beautiful use language, his fiction, which often revolves around the theme of the power of words to shape reality, has the ability to create universes that the reader can easily lose themselves in, as I have repeatedly. In short, reading Eco’s work fills me with a giddy excitement and happiness that I seldom feel with other writers (except maybe Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, both who are linked to Eco in many ways).

Insofar as a particular fictional work by Eco, I’ll select my favorite to discuss briefly here, Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times, each subsequent reading revealing something new and unexpected. I mean no hyperbole when I say that no two readings of this book have been the same. The book, sometimes referred to as the “thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” (they’re in an entirely different league if you ask me), tells the story of three bored editors who, on a bit of a lark, start feeding random bits of a seeming never-ending list of conspiracy theories (think Freemasons, Illuminati, Templars, Rosicrucians, Blavatsky, etc.) into a computer program, Abulafia, who invents connections between their entries. As with many of Eco’s books however, what is written becomes reality, and as they re-write history, their immediate realities are greatly affected.

A superficial read will reveal an exciting and enthralling story, but it is far more than that. I am always surprised the level of historical detail, and although not a philosophy book, it is indeed deeply philosophical in nature. It is far less about the conspiracy theory than it is a book about language, symbol, text, and reality. It evokes Saussure and Meillet in the sense that in this narrative, language is a system where “tout se tient” or where “everything hangs together.” The narrative is only half as exciting as the revelation that language is everything, with lines such as “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.” or “what our lips said, our cells learned.”

Another thing that makes this book, well any book by Eco, so wonderful to read is the care he takes with words. The writing is beautiful and the joy he takes in the written word is clearly evident. These are the opening lines of the book…

That was when I saw the Pendulum. . . .

I knew- but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing – that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by π, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.

Eco wrote, in his essay “Postmodernism, Irony and the Enjoyable”  that the perfect postmodern book is one that can be enjoyed both for its surface story, but which also contains a rich philosophical subtext. This book, along with the rest of his novels including his most recent The Prague Cemetery, seamlessly fit that description.

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First Impressions of The Prague Cemetery

I’ve been reading The Prague Cemetery every chance I’ve had since I received the book yesterday afternoon.  So far, so good!  The main character, Simone, a truly hateful and hate-filled man, is a fascinating study of the prejudices of 19th century Europe, and the fact that he is the one fictional character set amongst a rich array of historical characters (both major and minor), and is at the center of some of the era’s major events, just adds to his role as a reflection of the darker side of the times.  It has called to memory a book that I just recently finished, Peter Gay‘s Cultivation of Hatred, but I’ll leave that train of thought for another post.  I will also leave any detailed discussion about the book for later, as I want to get just a little further into it (I haven’t even reached the halfway point).

I did, however, want to mention how much I am enjoying Eco’s blurring of the lines between Reader, Narrator, and Author.  In fact, one of the narrators (there are three, although two may be the same person), is writer (of diary entries that the other narrators read), reader (of the diary entries of his possible “second self”), and narrator.  One of the voices “The Narrator” speaks (writes) directly to The Reader (in this case, me), after reading the diaries and letters of the two others, further complicating this already intricate dance between text and reader.  Have I mentioned how much fun I’m having with all of this?

I’m reminded of what he wrote in regards to constructing the perfect reader in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, where he states,

What model reader did I want as I was writing? An accomplice, to be sure, one who would play my game.. . . But at the same time, with all my might, I wanted to create a type of reader who, once the initiation was past, who would become by prey – or, rather, the prey of the text – and would think he wanted nothing but what the text was offering him.  A text is meant to be an experience of transformation for its reader.

He’s succeeded, I’ve fallen prey once again and I’m certainly more than willing to play his game.

There so much else going on here that I will have to sit and write more when I have more time.  There’s the story itself, the history, the conspiracy theories (reminiscent of Foucault’s Pendulum), the notion of memory and loss thereof (a theme he explored in his previous novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana), the concept of the word as a cosmological force (a reoccurring theme for Eco, as we’ve seen in Baudolino, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before) the question of the reliability of every word printed on the page, and, of course, what role I, the reader, am playing in all of this.

The book calls…

Umberto Eco? Forget it!

In just six days I finally get my hands on a book that I have been waiting to read for over a year.  Umberto Eco‘s The Prague Cemetery will arrive at my door next Tuesday, and I feel like a child waiting for Christmas morning.  When this book was released last year in its original Italian, I attempted to work my way through it, to no avail.  My Italian is not nearly good enough to be able to appreciate the sheer beauty of Eco’s writing and the subtleties of his ideas.  I tried in Spanish, and although my Spanish is decidedly far better than my Italian, it was just not good enough.  So I waited, and pre-ordered, and then waited some more.

Now let me explain about my love (obsession?) with Umberto Eco.  I first encountered him during my freshmen year of college in an English Comp. class.  I was assigned The Name of the Rose.  I don’t recall the essay I wrote (for which I received an A, that I do recollect), nor do I remember much more about the class or the professor, but I do remember finding myself so completely lost in the world that he created and the words that he used to create it, that I instantly fell in love.  I began to obsessively read and reread everything that I could get my hands on that he had written. I read Foucault’s Pendulum (to this day, my favorite), Baudolino, The Island of the Day Before, and before long I was reading his non-fiction, knee-deep in semiotics, literary interpretation, and once again, his beautiful, beautiful words.  For the last 20 years I have revisited Eco often, and always on the look-out for something new (I even celebrated his release of On Beauty with a relatively pricey bottle of champagne).

So here I am again, less then one week away from his new book.  Impatient.  Excited.  And finding myself abandoning my other readings (even Peter Gay, another intellectual rock star), to immerse myself in Eco.  For the moment, in his essays.  Namely, “An Ars Oblivionalis? Forget it!,” a serious essay he penned in 1966 after not-so-serious conversation over a  few glasses of wine with his friends and colleagues.

Whetting my appetite for new Eco with an old favorite.

They attempted to construct non-existent (and impossible) new academic disciplines, of which ars oblivionaris, or the art of forgetting, was among these “impossible sciences.”  The essay begins with Eco’s usual warmth and humor, and rapidly becomes quite a scholarly article on the impossibility of voluntary forgetting, since, as Eco explains, memory is grounded in semiotics, and semiotics produces presences not absences.  He concludes that perhaps the only way to “produce oblivion” is via addition. Instead of attempting to remove a memory, confuse it.  He writes,

“There are no voluntary devices for forgetting, but there are devices for remembering badly…. One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.”

I think it was Cicero who once quoted Themistocles as saying “What I don’t want to remember, I remember; yet what I want to forget, I cannot forget” (Nam memini etiam quae nolo, oblivisci non possum quae volo).   This common desire to occasionally and voluntarily sip from the River Lethe makes this essay strike a personal chord. Let’s face it, we all have things we would rather forget.  But its not only the subject matter.  As is the norm with Eco, his ideas and the expression of his intellect make any subject that he decides to tackle instantly consuming.  His joy of language and of intellect is contagious, and reading his work invariably brightens my day.

Next on the Eco reading list, an interview with Eco regarding lists (yes, lists), and Baudolino, where “lying about the future produces history.”