I hate doing obituaries on this blog. I don’t do it often, but when people who have really touched my life pass on I feel compelled to say something about them. I was stunned to learn on Friday afternoon (February 19, 2016) that Umberto Eco, my favorite novelist, had died at his home in Milan, Italy. Ironically I learned the news as I was finishing up a post showcasing a historic library. Despite being an amazing and ground-breaking novelist, Eco for me will always be associated with libraries, knowledge and learning, which he loved more than anything else in the world. Furthermore, he made those subjects exciting and infectious. His work got people excited about the mysteries of the past and the possibilities of human intelligence, consciousness and belief. Very few people in our modern world could have accomplished that, but Umberto Eco did, and for this he deserves to be remembered as a 21st century Renaissance man.
Eco’s life was pretty interesting. He was born in 1932 in northern Italy and many of his childhood memories involve World War II, experiences which found their way into Foucault’s Pendulum, one of his most fascinating novels. In the 1950s his father wanted him to be a lawyer, but instead he pursued a degree in medieval literature. That decision was the genesis of the incredible gift Eco was later to give to the world. Through his magnificent intelligence Eco plumbed the depths of the medieval mind, gleaning from ancient texts an incredible understanding of how medieval people thought and how they constructed the world around them. Far from being crude, primitive, violent or reactionary, Eco’s study of medieval thought showed us just how rich, marvelous and exciting was the world of ideas in the Middle Ages. Through this study Eco became known as one of the leading thinkers in the realm of semiotics, or the study of how humans construct cultural and intellectual meaning. It probably sounds boring to most people, but Eco, with his amazing talent for communication, made it live.
The sorry condition of these Eco books attests to how much I’ve loved them over the years. The copy of The Name of the Rose I’m holding here has been in my possession since 1990.
I first encountered Umberto Eco without knowing his name. In high school, in the late 1980s, I took Spanish as a foreign language; the fact that I can speak far more Norwegian, which I learned mostly from the Internet, than Spanish, probably tells you how effective my Spanish-language education was. However, one assignment I had in Spanish class literally changed my life. We were assigned to read Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Aleph” (ironically we read it in English, not Spanish) and it captured my imagination like nothing before or since. Anyone who reads this blog knows I am a huge Borges fanboy. Well, Umberto Eco was the original Borges fanboy. His work deliberately emulates the Argentine master of magical realism. In fact the labyrinthine library depicted in The Name of the Rose, Eco’s most popular book, is directly based on the short story “The Library of Babel” by Borges. Hints of Borges and Eco creep into my own work all the time, from the “hierarchy of universes” concept in Life Without Giamotti to the endless maze-like corridors in The Valley of Forever. Concepts of infinity and existence, intimately linked with books, knowledge and thought, are the backbone of my own writing. I credit Borges, and especially Eco, with inspiring this in me.
In the fall of 1990 I began reading my first Eco book. It was The Name of the Rose, a copy of which I found at Powell’s Books in Portland for $2. Originally published in Italy in 1980, the book became a best-seller when it was translated into English. I had not yet seen the movie version. To say the book blew my mind is a vast understatement. Though most people think it’s a detective story set in a medieval monastery, it’s far more than that. It’s a rumination on good and evil, on love and hate, on thinking and knowledge, and on what makes us human. The book is so incredibly rich in meaning and image that it’s almost impossible to describe. When I finally did see the movie (made in 1986, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud) I was shockingly disappointed. The film captured the story but little of the intellectual magic. I’ve since come to appreciate the film much more–my husband and I watched it just last night–but the book is still far better. Like The Winds of War, I will be reading and re-reading it probably until the end of my life. I still have the copy I bought in 1990. Amazingly, this ragged paperback book, worth only $2 a quarter-century ago, remains one of my most treasured physical possessions.
Though much lesser-known than his 1980s best-sellers, The Island of the Day Before is classic Eco, and just as absorbing.
My next adventure into Eco’s amazing world was Foucault’s Pendulum, a book every bit as magical as The Name of the Rose, and also a hilarious satire in its own right. A cheerful and intelligent lampooning of conspiracy theories and irrational thinking–in the novel a 14th-century laundry list is mistaken for a centuries-long plot by a global elite for world domination–the book excels at showing us how, despite the trappings of our modern world like computers and scientific advances, we’re not so far away from medieval patterns of thought and world-building. Though not nearly as popular as Foucault’s Pendulum, I liked even more Eco’s 1994 novel The Island of the Day Before, which tackles, as only Eco could, the meaning of time. There are several homages to The Island of the Day Before in my short story “The Antimeridian” (free on Amazon, by the way), to which my as-yet unpublished novel The Valley of Forever is a sequel.
It’s hard for me to imagine a world without Umberto Eco, without his brilliance, the artistry of his words and the beauty of his imagination. Earlier in 2016 we mourned the passing of musician David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman, and the outpouring of emotion for them–which I shared–was touching. Umberto Eco deserves a remembrance every bit as powerful. Somewhere in a library in northern Italy, filled with medieval books and ancient manuscripts, there is an empty chair tonight. It can never be filled with a presence as great as Eco, but I’d like to think that his influence will live on through the books he left behind, for as long as thought, ideas and consciousness remain the architecture of Western civilization.