“… he must, must write a sequel,” wrote Pradeep Sebastian about Umberto Eco and The Name of the Rose. Now, alas, he never will. My own enthusiasm for Eco’s work has cooled over the years, yet I couldn’t have been more excited when I first stumbled upon a copy of Eco’s medieval murder mystery. Set in a Benedictine Abbey and featuring a Franciscan Friar named William of Baskerville who plays sleuth assisted by a naive Watsonian narrator (a Benedictine novice named Adso), I had to buy it. Later, naturally, I discovered Foucault’s Pendulum and felt Eco had, as Alec Nevala-Lee puts it, “seemingly managed to weave the entire world into a single book.” Nevertheless, I have to confess that I never managed to finish either book.
Phillip Lopate’s reassessment of Stendhal is a rather apt summing up of my present attitude to Eco:
… one of those writers, like Montaigne or Borges, whose sentences are incurably interesting, regardless of whether the piece they are embedded in comes together.
(The Pursuit of Worldliness, from Rereadings)
Sentences. And ideas. I still find his definition of a moron very useful. (Jacopo Belbo, the world weary book editor from Foucault’s Pendulum, defines it in a conversation with Casaubon, the narrator, about the gradations of foolishness.) Though undeniably interesting and intellectual playful, Eco’s books are so packed with erudition, the esoteric and the arcane, and so cerebral in purveying their erudite esoteric arcana, that they are neither easy nor lively reads, pop-cultural references notwithstanding. As John Updike points out:
Foucault’s Pendulum is a monumental performance, erudite beyond measure, and, insofar as Eco’s brainy presence on the page is enjoyable, enjoyable. But as a tale of human adventure … it totters and sags, and seems spun-out and thin.
The medieval characters of The Name of the Rose had at the least the solidity and colour of their richly evoked fourteenth-century milieu. Those of Foucault’s Pendulum belong to our era, and they seem, rather than creations of the author’s erudition, victims of it.
(In Borges’s Wake, from Odd Jobs)
These days I lean towards a livelier brand of erudition as offered by, for instance, A.S. Byatt.
Yet, Umberto Eco’s books continue to possess an idiosyncratic charm, one that I get a whiff of every time I browse through them. And if it weren’t for my, rather brief, infatuation with The Name of the Rose, I wouldn’t have discovered (Jorge Luis) Borges. (A blind librarian in the novel is named Jorge of Burgos. And the library is, practically, architected from the one in The Library of Babel.) It was, also, an object lesson in the paradigm and techniques of postmodernism and the first overtly literary novel and bibliophilic mystery that I read. It was therefore inevitable that, when I started blogging a few years ago, I would call my first blog Naturally, a Manuscript. For all this and more I will always be grateful.