“In (those) years… there was a widespread conviction that one should write only out of a commitment to the present, in order to change the world. Now, after ten years or more, the man of letters (restored to his loftiest dignity) can happily write out of pure love of writing.”
Umberto Eco died recently; his seven novels and countless essays are there as testimony of his pure love for writing. His work blended the most challenging of intellectual assaults with an ability to entertain: when he wrote “The Name of the Rose” he seemed to know exactly how many pages in Latin readers could withstand before flinging the book away. That book’s worldwide success could hardly be repeated, (there’s no film of “Foucault’s Pendulum” starring Sean Connery) but Eco’s literary influence never waned. It’s beyond me to comment on his work on his achievements as a critic of eminence, but I’m re-reading his novels chronologically. Obits often compels us to do these things.
It’s not a hard task, no dry slow slog through some academic’s arid pronouncements. Eco drew zestfully from all sorts of cultural wells, and though nothing of mixing the waters. In “The Name of the Rose,” when he names his detective monk William Baskerville, you smile at the nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Eco could allude to Alexandre Dumas (the poisoned-book twist is taken from “Queen Margot”; the intro owes to the preface from “The Three Musketeers”) or to Jorge Luis Borges (the character of the blind librarian Jorge de Burgos; any number of allusions to mirrors and labyrinths and mysterious manuscripts). And he could be frequently funny: it’s what made all that erudition palatable. He knew semiotics and semen come from the same source. No matter how grizzly the murders related in this most literate of whodunits, there’s a sardonic vein of humor running throughout: when its philosophically-inclined clergymen heatedly argue theological minutiae- in linguam Latinam as often as not- they can be penetratingly brilliant one moment, and then wind up resembling children busy debating the relative merits of Batman vs. The Joker at the playground.