Author Umberto Eco has passed away. He was one of my favourite writers, and two of his books: Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Name of the Rose, are imprinted in my brain because I’ve read them so many times.
His books were complex, multi-layered, beautiful, sometimes bewildering, but usually mesmerizing creations.
The first book I read by Eco was his first novel: ‘The Name of the Rose’. I still have the beaten-up paperback copy that traveled with me on a trip through Europe once upon a time, and I wrote about it here: This old book: Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”. I loved the book, loved the murder mystery it contained, loved the library it described, loved the invented story within the story: of how the medieval manuscript that was the book itself, had been found by the author. I even half believed it, for a while.
As much as I loved ‘The Name of the Rose’, my favourite book by Eco is ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’. As I’ve said before on this blog, I love this book madly: “I love its labyrinthine story-line, I love how it travels through history, and through the world, how it brings together religion, philosophy, history, literature, mythology, and turns it all into a story about creation and destruction, science and faith, belief and doubt, love and death, that is both funny and terrifying. I love the glimpses of life in Italy and Brazil. I love its worldly and esoteric insights (from pinball to the Torah). I love it in all its convoluted, brilliant glory.” (This old book – FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM, by Umberto Eco).
For many years, this was my “comfort book”, meaning: it was a book I would pick up when I felt stressed out, sad, overwhelmed, exhausted, or lost. I could open it anywhere and find my place in the story and dig deep into a part of the tale once again; burrowing into Eco’s deep and gorgeous prose. I loved to go down into the rabbit-hole at the heart of Pendulum, exploring Eco’s sharp and insightful thoughts on the world, humanity, and our obsession with stories and secrets, and our penchant for inventing insidious conspiracy theories. What I came to understand as Eco’s “message” in Pendulum, is that the world is a mystery and a miracle in itself: we don’t need to invent grand mysteries and complex secrets and evil plots that move the heavens and the earth; the universe and human life are wondrous and mysterious enough.
One of my favourite quotes by Eco (and there are many) is this one from Pendulum:
“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”
This interview in The Paris Review is a great way to hear him “speak”.
On his books:
To what extent are your novels autobiographical?
In some way I think every novel is. When you imagine a character, you lend him or her some of your personal memories. You give part of yourself to character number one and another part to character number two. In this sense, I am not writing any sort of autobiography, but the novels are my autobiography. There’s a difference.
On symbols and power and secrets:
In Foucault’s Pendulum you write, “The more elusive and ambiguous a symbol is, the more it gains significance and power.”
A secret is powerful when it is empty. People often mention the “Masonic secret.” What on earth is the Masonic secret? No one can tell. As long as it remains empty it can be filled up with every possible notion, and it has power.
On Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code, and Foucault’s Pendulum:
Have you read The Da Vinci Code?
Yes, I am guilty of that too.
That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault’s Pendulum.
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.
Eco’s best books were marvels: intricate and complex, funny and beguiling, always obsessed with words, lists, the telling of stories, and how we create ourselves and the world through the stories we tell others and ourselves.
He also collected books, and his love of reading and books shines through in his work. To quote ‘The Name of the Rose’:
Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves.
RIP, Umberto Eco, and thank you for all the books.