In Memoriam: Umberto Eco

Out of all the deaths of famous and somewhat famous people that have occurred recently, the one that personally hit me the most was that of Umberto Eco.

When I was around 13 or 14, I read his novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which I had found serendipitously in a bookstore. At the time, I was fascinated by all the historical references, and to the conspiracies and secret societies which it described and satirized. To this day I still think it’s a great satire of what happens when you really jump down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theorizing. And from a literary perspective, the writing in this, and other books of his that I would later read, strike me as just the right mix of erudition and accessibility. You enjoy reading Eco, not only for the story, but for the use of language, which comes across even in translation from Italian. You also inevitably learn something.

Many years later when I heard about Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which tread upon some of the same ground as Foucault’s Pendulum, I was annoyed that such an inferior work could enjoy so much more success.

Eco had an amazing ability to make the past seem like a living, breathing reality, something that really comes across best in the other three novels pictures above:  The Name of the Rose, The Island of the Day Before, and Baudolino. The first is a murder-mystery set in a medieval monastery, with a Sherlock Holmes-type monk sent in to investigate. The Island of the Day Before is concerned, among other things, with the 17th and 18th century race to discover an accurate way to measure longitude, with all its immense implications for transoceanic navigation. Baudolino is about a peasant boy sold off to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who eventually goes off in search of the legendary Kingdom of Prester John, and after wandering through a variety of fantastical lands, ends up in Constantinople while it is being sacked by the Fourth Crusade.

Of course, as well known as he was for his literary works, Eco was also a scholar, working most often in literary theory and “semiotics,” the study of signs and signification–a field in which he was a central figure. This scholarship certainly informed his approach to literature, and to some extent it’s no surprise that his earliest novel, The Name of the Rose, would deal with questions of medieval philosophy, the subject of his earliest scholarly work. At the same time, his scholarly concerns never seemed to displace the artistry or fun in his fiction works, something that isn’t true of many figures.

Thanks for the stories, Mr. Eco.

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