What do you do with the man who has just died?
I came to Umberto Eco early in my reading life. I was 21 or 22 when I first read Foucault’s Pendulum, and it was, then, for me, revelatory. I hadn’t read a book like it – erudite, historically aware, energetic, humorous, obsessive, conspiratorial, laid-back. It was both a rollicking story and a deep exploration into European history. It was dramatically unlike the other kinds of books I had read at the time.
And then time passed, and I read a book or two of Eco’s, but nothing grabbed me. I was fine with The Name of the Rose, but I hated Baudolino, and his essay collection, How to Travel with a Salmon was pleasant and fine, but nothing. I read Foucault’s Pendulum again a few years later and enjoyed it for nostalgia’s sake.
All of this is to say that Eco meant something to me when I was young, and then my literary tastes diverged sufficiently when I was older that I no longer had a connection to his work. I can appreciate his many strengths – his intelligence, his immense erudition, his extreme understanding and appreciation of European history – but for whatever reason the sum of these parts (and his other qualities) added up to a whole that I was not particular interested in. See also: Salman Rushdie.
So when I heard about his death on Sunday I was sad, because he was an important writer to my youthful self. And so I began The Prague Cemetery, and I shall be honest – the first one hundred pages was a blur of names, dates, occurrences, events. Nothing stuck. Nothing coalesced. I kept on – still the same.
I abandoned the book 260 pages in. Of around 600 pages for the edition I own. Almost halfway. I don’t know. I was ready to sink my teeth into an immense European romp through the 19th century, with a bit of conspiracy, a bit of mystery, a bit of murder. And that was all there, but it signified nothing, and it never went anywhere.
I’m sad Eco died. I really did admire his writing. But I can’t continue the book. It isn’t holding on to its ideas sufficiently for me to want to travel along with it. There’s too much of things that don’t matter too me – too many references to Eugène Sue but not enough writing like Eugène Sue. Too many references to real characters but not enough weight. Too many hate filled comments towards Jews without a commensurate pay-off. So…. so what? I can’t do it, and I won’t, and the book is abandoned, and here we are.
The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.