Umberto Eco is my hero, my idol, my God. If I were to sell my soul to the devil, it would be so that I could have the knowledge, wit and writing ability of this man.
I am somewhat loathe to admit that my obsession with Umberto Eco began with the film version of The Name of the Rose - but seeing as I was only 10 years old when the novel came out, I suppose I can be excused from not having been an Eco fan before the movie was ever made. I was a precocious 10 year old, but not that precocious.
I couldn’t say exactly when I first saw the film, but I know that, from the very beginning, I was enthralled by the atmosphere and the arguments about heresy and dissent in the medieval Church. I remember that the film struck a chord in me because it was, ultimately, about books. When William/Sean Connery emerges from the inferno of the Aedificium with the pathetically few books he has salvaged from the fire - well, I understood the pain on his face. It’s the kind of pain that I feel when I think of the Great Library at Alexandria, and of how much knowledge and genius have been lost to humanity. I like to think that I, too, would have run into the Aedificium to grab as many books as I could.
I didn’t, however, run to a bookstore to grab a copy of The Name of the Rose - that part came later. In high school, I checked out a copy of The Name of the Rose from the library but never got around to reading it. Then when Foucault’s Pendulum came out, my mom read it and raved about it, so I took it and tried to read it - and I failed miserably. What can I say? I was 17. The book starts with a diagram of the 10 Sefirot and a quote in Hebrew, for God’s sake. There was lots of Latin in there. And what was “the Demiurge, Yaldabaoth, the first Archon…"? I just couldn’t deal with it.
I kept the book with me, though. I didn’t give up on it because I knew that, when I was ready for it, it would reveal its mysteries to me. As it turned out, it revealed its mysteries to Jeremy before it revealed them to me: he took the book, read it, and laughed hysterically the whole time. I couldn’t believe that it was so funny - what was he getting that I had missed? What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t get past Chapter Two?
In his “Postscript to The Name of the Rose,” Eco says that “entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.” In light of this idea, I realize what was wrong with me: instead of just walking up the mountain and enjoying the scenery on the way, I stopped at every single plant and stone and tried to examine it, analyze it, categorize it, determine why it was where it was and what that meant for this mountain in particular and nature in general… Hence, I got absolutely nowhere - neither up the mountain nor into the book.
Spurred on by Jeremy’s success with Foucault’s Pendulum, I picked it up again and just sat there and read for the joy of it. When you let yourself go in Foucault’s Pendulum then, as Casaubon says, you find that “all is clear, limpid; the eye rests on the whole and on the parts and sees how the parts have conspired to make the whole; it perceives the center where the lymph flows, the breath, the root of the whys…" The story is there, quite plain and simple for all to see, and it’s amazing and amusing and brilliant. It’s a book that reveals more of itself each time you read it. After taking a class on Jewish mysticism, learning some Latin, and reading more and more medieval history, I “get" a lot more now than I did to begin with, and each time I read it (and I read it a lot), something else snaps into place.
In other words, if I were stranded on a desert island, this is the book that would be at my side.
While taking a class on medieval heretical and apocalyptic thought (as you do), I decided that it would be a good time to take on The Name of the Rose. I could only get hold of a copy in German, but since it was written in Italian to begin with, I figured it didn’t matter whether I read it in German or in English; either way, it was just going to be some translator’s interpretation of what Eco was wanting to say. So I put my German skills to the test and plowed through the book.
I had the flu at the time (a good excuse for sitting around and reading all day). I remember that Jeremy was sketching a lot back then, and as I sat on the couch day after day - bundled up in blankets, wretchedly sick, reading incessantly to forget my woes - Jeremy would sketch me. Despite the fact that I felt awful (and you can tell from the drawings), I quite like the idea that my first reading of The Name of the Rose is documented in pictures.
The Name of the Rose was the perfect book for me to read while ill. My sinus infection seemed like nothing in the face of monks being burned at the stake. Trying to decipher the German really took my mind off my cold as well; Adso admiring the door of the church took every ounce of concentration and patience I had (having now read the book in English, I realize that it wasn’t just that my German wasn’t so good - Eco does not lie when he says that “those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation” - in any language).
I really did manage to escape into the Middle Ages - and if William and Adso bore the faces of Sean Connery and Christian Slater in my mind, well, so be it. There are worse people I could imagine for the roles.
I have to admit that The Island of the Day Before didn’t capture me in quite the same way as the previous two novels - but I’ve only read it once so far, so maybe I shouldn’t be too hasty in my judgement. If I remember correctly, the fact that I can speak German came in handy while reading this book - and the fact that my Latin is rotten did not help me at all. I’ll tackle it again one of these days. My copy of it seems to have mysteriously disappeared, though…
How to Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays is an Eco book that I have only read in German, and I read it at a time in which my German wasn’t so good, so I know I missed a lot. I remember that the parts I understood were ridiculously funny. I recall that the essay on Italian libraries could just as well be applied to German libraries, and I alternately laughed out loud, groaned in sympathy and felt oddly comforted that I am not the only one on the planet who thinks that trying to check out a book in certain European countries is like entering into some looming, Kafkaesque maze of red tape and complete irrationality.
I recently bought The Search for the Perfect Language, and though I’ve only read the introduction (I’m trying not to start too many books at once, and I’m already working on two others), I am hooked already. Language has always fascinated me, especially the history of language, especially the idea (the admittedly wrong idea) that all human languages could be traced back to one (perfect?) ur-language, the mother of all languages. Stupidly enough, I always avoided taking linguistics classes in college because I had been convinced that they were closer to science and math than to language and history. Only in the past year have I taken linguistics courses and discovered the big wide world of sociolinguistics, historical linguistics and, yes, semiotics - Umberto Eco’s domain.
I shall follow in my master’s footsteps.