Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The mysterious flame, and other crap

I like Umberto Eco, I really do. He's smart and funny. I've always enjoyed him in interview, and I've made a point of getting out to his readings and lectures when the opportunity arose. I read quite a bit of his work in the course of my studies, on semantics and the philosophy of language (I have a particular fondness for The Search for the Perfect Language).

So I like Eco. (I even wrote him a clever (I thought) letter once, regarding my copy of Misreadings, which was misbound, with some signatures missing and others repeating. He never replied.)

Then there's his novels.

I loved The Name of the Rose. Frankly, though, it's the movie I remember more clearly than the book. Different beasts, both wonderful. Full of wonder.

Foucault's Pendulum I raved about, without really understanding it, having read it when I was young and pretentious. I'd like to read it again someday.

The Island of the Day Before has languished on my to-read shelf for many years, bookmark stuck on page 55. I've tried a few times, but I can't seem to get past page 55.

Baudolino I received as a birthday present the day after Helena was born. I read it while breastfeeding. I enjoyed it well enough, but without ever feeling fully engaged. Reading while breastfeeding can do that, but some authors can do that all on their own. It occurred to me that maybe I didn't really like Umberto Eco's novels after all.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was painfully boring, and, as far as I can tell, pointless.

The premise is this: Yambo, a rare-books dealer, suffered a stroke and lost his memory. He retains implicit memory, automatic things like how to brush his teeth and drive a car. Explicit memory is twofold: Yambo's semantic or public memory is intact — it's scholastic, general knowledge; but his episodic, autobiographical memory is gone. So he goes in search of it amid the objects in the attics and secret rooms of his old family home.

I like this idea. What am I without my memories? What do my belongings say about the sort of person I am? Yambo learns very little from his wife, family, friends, emphasizing the limits on how well anyone can possibly know him.

So the novel starts pleasantly enough, in Yambo's haze of fog. Eco quotes TS Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, Dante, Dickens; he makes reference to all manner of classic literature, poetry, and fairy tales. I know many of these. This starts me on my own sentimental journey, wondering why I remember some things, why they resonate, and not others.

But the more references Yambo has, the less they mean anything, to him or to me. The novel quickly degenerates into a beautifully illustrated but dry catalogue of experience without significance.

Yambo has lost his emotional sense of being. Would he necessarily then be unable to react emotionally to his present? Yambo is detached from himself, and so are we. This makes for a plausible and intellectually consistent point to the story, but it doesn't make for very good fiction.

The storytelling, those loose threads strung between cultural objets, is never personal enough for me to buy into this character, to engage in his quest, to feel for him. And it's not general enough to be the cultural odyssey of everyman. It leaves me cold. It seems to leave Yambo mostly cold too.

Some stimuli do manage to spark something:
"It's not that," I said. "It's that I felt something inside. Like a tremor. No, not like a tremor. As if . . . You know Flatland, you read it too. Well, those triangles and those squares live in two dimensions, they don't know what thickness is. Now imagine that one of us, who lives in three dimensions, were to touch them from above. They would feel something they'd never felt before, and they wouldn't be able to say what it was. As if someone were to come here from the fourth dimension and touch us from the inside — say on the pylorus — gently. What does it feel like when someone tickles you pylorus? I would say . . . a mysterious flame."

Hence the title. I happen to have read Flatland, so this actually means something to me.

(Queen Loana does not make an appearance till quite far along in the book. Her image is inextricably linked to Yambo's sexual awakening and his first love, unrequited, he now believes to be the love of his life.)

Previously I mentioned that I had the distinct impression that Eco is shitting on his readers. My words were chosen carefully.

Two particular scenes made me scrunch up my face — and I'm not a squeamish person. First, shortly after arriving at his childhood home, Yambo goes out to take a shit in nature, in the vineyard, "enjoying a pleasure that went back to Neanderthal man" even while "Shit is the most personal and private think we have." Second, Yambo learns the story of his grandfather's revenge on the Fascists who detroyed his newspaper office and forced him to drink castor oil, a little lesson about talking politics. His grandfather tracked the one man for more than 20 years; revenge involved a bottle of aged essence of shit.

It's not the events per se that disturb me, it's that they seem so out of place. I don't feel like they have shock value exactly, it just feels uncomfortable, like here's a man (I mean Eco here, not the Yambo character) indulging himself, finding it somehow satisfying, maybe even liberating to be so frank, but at the expense of others.

A sixty-year-old man (Yambo, but Eco in a way too) trying to recapture his youth (granted, Fascist Italy and war stole a good portion of it from him), possibly having spent his whole life doing so, reliving his vaguely sexual, adolescent longings. After a brush with death, is that really what a 60-year-old man will devote his brainpower to thinking about — copulation and evacuation?

(It's all much clearer to me now as I write about it. The book is making some kind of sense. But it wasn't any fun for me.)

In The Name of the Rose, Jorge condemns Aristotle's Poetics, Book II, on Comedy. He disapproves of laughter. There's no doubt the man couldn't take a joke.

Anthony Burgess in his review of Foucault's Pendulum wrote, "For while it is not a novel in the strict sense of the word, it is a truly formidable gathering of information delivered playfully by a master manipulating his own invention — in effect, a long, erudite joke."

In interview, on writing such epic novels as Flame Eco says, "The real challenge is to make the writing process last as long as possible, always delaying the moment of the end. It is so beautiful to live for many years with your story, while nobody else is knowing what are you doing, and in every moment you can pick up an idea or an image from your everyday experiences… I cannot understand these authors who concoct a new novel every year. Where is the fun, then?"

Eco then is having fun. Writing novels is his hobby, his secret pleasure, all for himself, like a private joke. He plays, and he jokes, on paper and in person (I've heard him). He must live well. He's a Bondologist. I suspect he likes his women. Like Yambo, I'm sure he occasionally revels in his bodily functions, this dirty thing called life.

I'd really like to think he's putting one over on us. The Mysterious Flame sits better with me if I think of it as an old man's joke (even if I don't find it very funny).

Interestingly, the only review of Flame on Eco's official website is a negative one: gimmicky, clumsy, boring, static. This gives me hope that Eco acknowledges it as such, perhaps even wants the public to know it.

Apparently Eco has stated that The Mysterious Flame will be his last novel. I'm kind of relieved.


A clip from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (via Maud Newton), in which the depiction of bathrooms and toilets is psychoanalysed and it is postulated that waiting for a film to begin is like staring at a toilet bowl waiting for the return of excremental remainders.

An examination of the social contract of male restroom etiquette, breach of which places the very fabric of our civilization in peril.


cipriano said...

For a long long while now I have had Eco's Foucault's Pendulum on my bookshelf here. Hardcover, waiting to be read. You blog inspires me to take the thing down. And not only that, but also.... to maybe try a bit of breastfeeding while I am doing it. I'll have to ask Jack if he is interested....
-- Cip

Tim said...

Okay, this is inspiring me to sit down and finally post a review of Foucault's Pendulum (which I finished back in July). I'll try to get it done by tomorrow. No, really I will.

Isabella said...

Cip: Though I don't generally condone the practice, I sincerely hope for your sake that Jack is declawed.

Tim: I've been looking forward to your review since July. Some days I think I have time to reread it so I'll be able to comment on your review.

ren.kat said...

Okay, really: do you read latin, skip it or look it up?

Maxine said...

Well, I am no intellectual when it comes to literature, being scientifically trained. But I did read The Name of the Rose and I have to admit that although I found it a huge amount better than the movie, which unlike you I didn't enjoy that much apart from Sean Connery's usual excellent performance, I was glad I saw the movie before I read the book, as it sure helped! I found the book quite good, but not great-- because I felt it was neither a good straightforward detective or historical fiction novel, nor a piece of literature, though it tried to be something of everything. In other words, I found it a touch pretentious.

I read several of Eco's articles and some of Focault's Pendulum, but I found FP so annoying that I didn't finish it and haven't read anything by him since. I suppose that makes me a Philistine.

renee said...

oh no. Mysterious Flame is on my TBR shelf. And I felt exactly the same as you about his other books, except Baudolino I couldn't even finish. It's so huge-- maybe I just won't read it.