Posts Tagged ‘Baudolino’

On disappointment

October 3, 2016

51bp1419yjl-_ac_us160_Have you ever started a book which you were really looking forward to reading, expecting it to be really good, and gradually been let down, realising that actually you weren’t enjoying it very much? Optimistic, you continue, hoping it will pick up… sometimes it does, a bit, but it never actually matches your original expectations. And perhaps, like me, for various reasons you’re reluctant to just give up.

It’s happening to me a little more frequently nowadays, and has got me thinking. I’m always quite sceptical of reviews, especially those that rave about how brilliant a particular book is. Perversely, perhaps, the more fashionable, trendy or popular a book seems, the more suspicious I am of it.

Disappointment is often linked to the length of a novel. I’m not put off by the proverbial door-stopper, expecting to find depth and detail more satisfying, and some lengthy tomes are worth the effort – War and Peace, Life and Fate, the Arbat Trilogy – but others have deceived. When I came to re-read Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros, I wished I hadn’t bothered; the last Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day, sustained me during a lengthy illness, but I can’t imagine myself reaching for it again, and Don De Lillo’s Underworld, which so many raved about, was a masterpiece of tedium to me: I really couldn’t see the point. I’ve been disappointed by some of my favourite authors: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was a great let-down after The Name of the Rose; The Island of the Day Before was a little better, but not a lot. But then he gave us Baudolino

When I consider what’s happened, I’m often struck by the thinness of the plot – too drawn-out and self-indulgent, even: a story that takes too long to get not very far, and after having really enjoyed a previous novel, I’ve thought, ‘well, I’ll try this, it should be good’, and it’s not. Are writers doing a Dickens, and writing by the yard because they need the money?

My current disappointment – I’ll write a proper review when I get to the end – and what’s prompted this post is The Tower, by Uwe Tellkamp. It’s a novel about the complications and frustrations of life in the former DDR (German Democratic Republic), set in Dresden among a relatively privileged group of families. So far, in 400 of 1400 pages (!) there have been some interesting glimpses of daily life, a sense of menace from the ever-present Stasi, and a lot of tedium reading about a group of people for whom I do not really care. I shall persevere, though I currently feel victim of my enthusiasm for books that do not seem likely to get translated into English. This one will be no great loss, on current showing.

It strikes me that I’ve become harder to please as I’ve grown older, and perhaps a little more conservative in my tastes. I used to read a good deal of experimental literature, including some quite weird stuff, and really enjoyed it. But then, I have recently enjoyed Ben Marcus and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and they are hardly run-of-the-mill writers. Maybe one has less patience as one ages?

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Farewell, Umberto

February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco was the sort of person who made me feel proud to be a human being, if you can understand what I mean. Like all of us, he had a brain, and powers of reason. And unlike many humans, he used them.

If people know who he was, they probably immediately think, oh yes: The Name of the Rose. It is a lovely novel, one of may all-time favourites, and I say lovely advisedly, for it is so many things: a wonderful detective story which pays tribute to another of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes, a disquisition on mediaeval history, theology, the religious life, human nature – in short, a work which allows Eco the mediaevalist to shine at his best. And Baudolino, his other mediaeval novel which explores the search for Prester John, does the same. His other novels are less impressive, though I have intentions of returning to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I remember as quite autobiographical.

Eco described himself as a philosopher who wrote novels at the weekends. I’ve only dipped into his other work. Some of it, especially more abstruse stuff on semiotics and meaning, has given me a headache and left me none the wiser: I haven’t the tools to access it. Other writings, on languages and translation, I have found fascinating and thought-provoking. And his writings about art, culture and literature, in such books as On Beauty, On Ugliness, The Infinity of Lists and especially The Book of Legendary Lands are works of beauty and great erudition.

So, he was a man of learning, a man who valued learning and knowledge for its own sake, who revelled in it and in sharing it with others. For me, this is one of the greatest things a person can aspire to. When I learned yesterday of the passing of Harper Lee, I was saddened. Opening the paper this morning, I was without words for a long time.

Umberto Eco: Numero Zero

November 28, 2015

51dLXWHIREL._AA160_I think I shall stop looking forward to new novels from Umberto Eco, as the last couple have been disappointments. The previous one, The Prague Cemetery, was long and a bit tiresome as Eco got off on conspiracy theories with his take on that old chestnut, the Protocols of The Elders of Zion; this one is at least shorter.

It’s another conspiracy theory novel, and so the narrative is layered like an onion, to create vagueness and obscurity, as a fake newspaper, never intended to be published, is projected and developed in order to blackmail a leading industrialist; we are quickly embroiled in murky Italian politics of the sixties, seventies and eighties, enmeshed in various events and names we vaguely recall having heard of but never really understood. Perhaps Eco’s native readers will get rather more from this than the rest of us? And then the big conspiracy, the possibility of Mussolini’s death having been faked using a double, is introduced, and this is where it all seems somewhat rushed, and becomes a little tedious, as it feels a bit as though this section has been spliced into a rather lighter novel… Various plot developments are also rather predictable after this point. After I got a bit tired of all this, Eco collapsed the entire plot into an interestingly twisted conclusion: is his heroine’s logical and matter-of-fact explanation of everything the obvious one, or are there just endless layers of conspiracy at work, ultimately normalising everyone’s paranoia, and allowing the dark forces to continue their work unobserved?

Eco establishes the atmosphere at the start of his novel really well: there is powerful satire of the media, particularly the press. Its penchant for inventing, creating and managing the news agenda rings very true in these times; Eco casts serious doubt on all journalistic enterprise, and rightly so, it seems to me, living in a country where so much of the press is controlled by rapacious business interests. Very quickly we become unable to distinguish the truth from the lies, either from his fictional hack journalists, or from Eco’s own pen; the likelihood of hidden agendas adds more layers of obfuscation, and this is his best achievement in Numero Zero. We become clear that newspapers groom their readers, in order then to provide them with more of the same: think about it… (or am I just drawn into the conspiratorial web?)

Eco is a mediaevalist primarily, and that is why his two novels set in mediaeval times, the superb detective story which is The Name of the Rose, with its tribute to the master, Sherlock Holmes, and Baudolino, with its fictionalisation of the Prester John legend, are such masterpieces. His other novels are much paler in comparison.

Robert Silverberg: The Realm of Prester John

November 10, 2015

51Hlfo-MbXL._AA160_The Prester John legend seems to have its roots in the idea that the apostle Thomas (doubting Thomas) travelled to India and set up an early Christian community there; with the sketchiness of mediaeval geography and Muslims in between the Middle East and the Far East, all sorts of rumours emerged… Prester John, according to a forged document which first came to light in the early decades of the twelfth century, was a Christian priest and ruler of fabulous wealth and power somewhere ‘out there’ in the east, and a potential ally of the West in its struggle against the spread of Islam.

I first became interested in the legend after I read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, a novel I rate a close second to The Name of the Rose, and which shows off Eco’s mediaevalism brilliantly. I then hunted out John Buchan‘s Prester John, and started reading whatever I came across on the legend, including early travellers across the Silk Road such as William of Rubruck.

Robert Silverberg I already knew as a science fiction writer, but this is an impressive volume of historical and literary research: he reviews and details the possible origins of all aspects of the legend which arose at some point in the twelfth century. The detail is fascinating, as is how mediaeval knowledge was so circumscribed (geographers conflated India and Ethiopia, which is why Prester John was to be sought in both places…) The story was developed, enlarged, embroidered, pirated and plagiarised over the centuries, even when real travellers brought back increasing amounts of accurate information, accounts of places, events and peoples.

Mediaeval travellers failed to hunt down the fabled ruler in the far East, although they visited the courts of Genghiz Khan and his successors and brought back many fascinating accounts of life there, as well as encountering the Nestorian (heretical) branch of Christianity which had flourished in the region for many centuries. So they turned their attention to Ethiopia, which is where the story links in with Portuguese empire-building in the sixteenth century… Europeans came to insist on calling the ruler of Ethiopia ‘Prester John’ even though it was not his name, he had other names, and had never heard of Prester John.

Utterly fascinating for being a full and easily readable account of the entire story as far as it is known, and clear insights into the workings of the mediaeval mind and its attitudes to knowledge, I must also mention that it’s a well-produced and bound US hardback from 45 years ago, good for another 45 years at least. The Americans do know how to make decent quality books.

On compulsive book-buying

October 27, 2015

I have too many books. There are people who would say you can never have too many, and I was once one of them. But they are taking over, and what is worse, I can’t see myself ever reading them all. Life is now too short.

The problem is, I love bookshops, especially secondhand ones, and I love looking in bookshops when I’m in France, with a chance to see all the books that are never going to be translated into English. And I treat myself, rather than regret not doing so, later. The books pile up; a lot of them do get  read, but for some of them, the moment passes and they just sit there, reproachful.

I have often been scathing about people who spend money on things I don’t approve of, who waste or fritter money away, by my standards, on things they’ll never use, clothes they’ll only wear a couple of times, and so on: I’m very moralistic about such things. And then I think about my book-buying habits: how is buying a book I’ll never get round to reading any different? Except that I can tell myself it’s something worthwhile, cultural, mental stimulus or whatever, and therefore superior to other people’s fripperies. The fact of the matter is that I’m likely now only to read it the once, or maybe twice if I really like it…

With other stuff, that other people (and I) accumulate, disposal seem easier. But parting with books is, while not exactly painful, pretty difficult for me. I can always tell myself, well, you may read it one day, well you may re-read it one day, if you’ve got rid of it then it will be harder to find when you do want it and it will cost a lot more than the £x you paid for it… I don’t have the patience to re-sell books online, so I end up giving them away to charity, a sort of tax, if you like.

I can criticise others for impulse-buying, and yet that often happens with books! I’ll be in a secondhand bookshop and see something, think, ‘That looks interesting!’ or, ‘I read something about that last year and I’d like to read more…’ and another book joins the pile. So, last week, a book about Prester John joined the pile, because I love Umberto Eco‘s Baudolino which is partly about the quest for Prester John, I enjoyed John Buchan‘s eponymous novel, and I have two volumes of a weighty Hakluyt Society publication about Prester John that have beenwaiting for me to read for over ten years…

I’ve also gradually learned that there’s something like overeating, but with books: I can follow a theme or topic and overdo it, acquiring and trying to read too many books on that subject, eventually too full with it, as it were. So, my next post will be about an Arabian traveller of the twelfth century, with whom I probably should not have bothered, like an extra serving of cheese or pudding…

Umberto Eco: Serendipities

October 2, 2015

51ODnlHPHtL._AA160_Some of you may have the impression that I think everything Umberto Eco writes is brilliant; I’m not that uncritical. I have never managed to get to grips with Kant and the Platypus, for instance – it’s way above my head. And this slim volume in the end became rather too tiresome and obscure.

Eco’s thesis is interesting enough. Humans have believed lots of things through the ages, some of them completely wrong, like the idea that the world is flat, or the Ptolemaic picture of the universe. And yet, erroneous beliefs have nevertheless led scientists, discoverers, researchers in the right directions after all – hence the serendipities in the title, as we have learned things almost in spite of ourselves.

Eco also enjoys playing with conspiracy theories, as many do, and as this is a relatively early work, it’s possible to see the genesis of some of his novels here. Thus his interest in the legend of Prester John led to the marvellous novel Baudolino, and the Illuminati and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the perhaps less successful Prague Cemetery.

It’s useful to be reminded of some of the weird things people have accepted as fact over the centuries, and to reflect on what we might currently treasure as gospel that will be mocked in the years to come.

Umberto Eco: Confessions of a Young Novelist

April 28, 2015

9780674058699Eco knows how to get you thinking: his first question asks what we actually mean by creative writing, and we’re off…

What he has to say about the genesis of The Name of the Rose, which has been one of my top three novels ever since I first read it, was very interesting: he added both to my understanding of, and pleasure in the book by explaining the origins of certain moments and episodes. I like it when an author colludes with his readers like this. There were also some fascinating insights into Baudolino, which I love almost as much; I was less interested in Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, though I’ve read these too.

When an intelligent writer enters into dialogue or conversation with readers like this, we gain greater understanding of their work; we can also tune in to Eco’s evident enjoyment of his art and his craft. He’s clear that his readers have a certain amount of work to do: I like this honesty, having long felt that a good novel is more than mere diversion or entertainment. Eco I love because he has a brain that joys in questioning, thinking, annoying, finding connections.

He moves on to some very interesting and thought-provoking reflections on our relationships with various fictional characters: why are novels, and some of the characters in them, able to have such a powerful effect on the reader? His prime example, which he explores in some depth, is the reader’s response to the heroine’s suicide in Tolstoy’s Anna Kerenina. He recognises that we are capable of being influenced by fictional characters, and explores the nature of their ‘existence’ in ways which had never occurred to me… and Eco is at the same time anchored in that idea which we so often lose sight of, that fiction, and characters, are deliberate constructs.

In the second half of the book, Eco becomes a little more self-indulgent as he rides one of his favourite hobby-horses, the list and how it has been used in literature by himself and other writers. It is interesting, and clearly a rider to his full-length, fascinating tome The Infinity of Lists.

There’s rarely a dull moment in any book from a writer of such erudition; there were pointers for me in lots of new directions, as well as reminders to get on and re-read certain books as well.

Umberto Eco: Baudolino

May 11, 2014

51PVGQSNS2L._AA160_

I saw it on the shelf and thought, ‘I haven’t read that for a while!’ picked it up and was off…

It’s a wonderful yarn – a romance, I suppose, to be technically correct – set in mediaeval times, where I’ve always felt Eco is at his best. I don’t call it a novel, because I think Eco has deliberately written a story in the style of the times: the plot is linear, centred around the adventures of a central character, with everyone else as companions or incidental to the plot. It’s a Rabelaisian tale for the twentieth century, complete with the fiction of the teller needing someone to whom to tell his story.

Except – there is also the meta-narrative of the power of the storyteller over the hearer or the reader: we know from the outset that Baudolino is a liar, or an inventor; can he be trusted? but then, what author can?

The story centres around the legend or myth of Prester John, allegedly a Christian king with a great empire somewhere in the unknown lands of the East (perhaps India way, or maybe Ethiopia, depending on which source you follow) with whom various Western monarchs are keep to make an alliance of some kind. Baudolino and his companions create and build the myth, believe in it and eventually set off on the quest. Eco is masterly here, in his understanding of mediaeval ways of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes to knowledge, which is so outside our rational(?) paradigm: something must exist because there is no reason for it not to exist, and, abracadabra! – there it is. “There is no better proof of the truth than the continuity of tradition” – what? Thus the Prester John myth is manufactured, documents created to authenticate it, and so, you can set off to find his kingdom, because it must exist! And if we think it’s a mediaeval trait for humans to be prisoners or dupes of their own inventions, what about the evidence of WMD in Iraq before our invasion…. untruth has its part to play in the powerplays of the world; you can make things have existed just by writing them down, such is the power of the written word. Nor has Eco invented everything himself; much of it is taken from mediaeval sources, such as Mandeville’s travels. If it is in Pliny or Isidore, it must be true!

The imagining of other worlds is done under the influence of alcohol and drugs: no change there, then. There is ample documentation of this in Eco’s fascinating tome The Book of Imaginary Lands.

The actual story involves Baudolino’s relationship with his adoptive father, Frederic Barbarossa and his wars of conquest, his (Baudolino’s) education in Paris and his companions there, their search for clues and maps to enable them to get to Prester John, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople at the end of the twelfth century, and their journey eastwards and the increasingly weirder creatures they encounter, as they make their way to the city of Pndapetzim, the gateway to Prester John’s kingdom. The weird creatures, whose pictures can be seen around the edges of the Mappa Mundi, and in the Nuremburg Chronicle, embody all the different Christian heresies feared at the time, reinforcing the idea that the truth depends on the teller…

Our hero never gets beyond Pndapetzim; no-one there actually knows if the fabled kingdom is actually beyond the last chain of mountains, or what is there: the kingdom is also the kingdom of Heaven, if it exists, and here we are, confronted with all the possible inventions and unknowables of religion in the world; ironically Prester John’s world seems to be the refuge of all the heretics expelled from known Christian lands over the centuries. So, as well as swashbuckling adventure, we are exploring the nature, purpose and meaning of religious faith, the afterlife, and I don’t know what else… there’s even some masterly detective work in the style of William of Baskerville in the closing chapters.

I think Baudolino is an underrated work; it lacks the polish and tightness of The Name of the Rose, true, but it’s as knowledgeable and as challenging, and a compelling read.

Umberto Eco: The Book of Legendary Lands

December 23, 2013

513WwIWE0qL._AA160_This was a pre-Christmas treat from me to me – and what a gorgeous book! It’s beautifully produced and matches the other three on my shelf, On Beauty, On Ugliness and The Infinity of Lists. And it’s utterly fascinating, and I read it from cover to cover.

Eco is a mediaevalist, and, as I thought about this, I realised that it was possible for someone of his age to know pretty much everything there was to know from those times, given that knowledge, learning and resources then were rather more limited that nowadays. His encyclopaedic knowledge of literature, history, culture, theology and art really shows. A couple of years ago I read about someone trying to work out how long ago in the past it would have been when someone could have known everything there was to know – perhaps four or five centuries ago, perhaps. And that took me back to Isidore of Seville (now officially patron saint of the internet), who wrote his Etymologies in the seventh century, attempting to codify everything that was known about everything for certain at that time.

People used to believe all sorts of strange things about the parts of the world they had no knowledge of, and it’s when he writes about these imagined lands that Eco is at his most captivating: Atlantis, the unknown southern continent, the lands of Prester John… and their bizarre inhabitants, both animal and ‘human’.  Again, I found myself realising how differently people looked at and thought about their world; in the West, all was considered through the looking glass of religious faith and revelation, giving a view of the world that we find hard to get our minds around today, but then we see the world through scientific and materialist glasses today, and I think I’d argue that that was just as limiting to us today in our exploration of ourselves and out world, as the Christian glasses of the mediaeval epoch.

You can see where much of the inspiration for his fiction has come from, too; I have re-read Baudolino several times (and it’s coming up for another re-read) and still marvel at how Eco has drawn his reader into the world, beliefs and mind-set of his mediaeval characters, who end up seeing all the fantastic creatures that they have been brought to believe in…

Eco also demolishes the Rennes-le-Chateau story, and Dan Brown’s awful novel, in a thorough and masterly way. The whole thing was a fraud from start to finish.

The illustrations in the book are a joy, too. Lots of them, some vaguely familiar, and others totally new to me; strange maps, weird creatures and visions, and I was bought up short again by the question of perspective, or lack of it, in mediaeval art: I cannot believe painters in those times could not see how weird their pictures looked, and cannot see why they couldn’t do perspective properly… which is a limit to my imagination, I suppose.

Anyway, this book was a real joy and I know I shall enjoy it many times more.

Umberto Eco

December 9, 2013

9780631205104I don’t really have heroes, but if I did, I think Umberto Eco would probably be one of them; he’s the kind of person I admire, knowledgeable, catholic in his interests, writing and exploring intelligently and communicating clearly in a wide range of genres – a polymath, I suppose. Ever since I came across The Name of the Rose many years ago, I’ve read and enjoyed, and learnt from, many of his books.

I’ve re-read The Search for the Perfect Language; not an easy read, but a fascinating one, and it has helped clear up for me what I think is Eco’s particular genius as it appeals to me. Everything I’ve read of his seems to show his fascination with how the human mind has changed over time, in the way it thinks and looks at and attempts to make sense of the world. So, for example, his novels in a mediaeval setting, such as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, as well as being entertaining stories, recognise and demonstrate that the people of that time saw the world through very different spectacles from those of our time, and that helps illuminate why we are the way we are now. His works on art, such as On Beauty and On Ugliness show how those concepts have changed and developed over time: what the Romans found beautiful, for instance, is not the same as what a twenty-first century observer might judge beautiful. And in the book I’ve been reading, he looks at language over time: how the understanding of the workings of language, and the science of etymology, has developed through the ages.

So, we are no longer preoccupied with such questions as ‘What language did God use when he said “Let there be light!”?’, or the language he used to talk with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or how Adam managed to name all the creatures that God brought to him to name (and how did he manage with the fish?) – questions which preoccupied earlier minds as they strove to rediscover the original language, which must have been perfect, of course, and have existed before the Tower of Babel…

These questions led learned men into horrendously complex attempts to codify language and speech and develop codes that, while they might have been perfect languages, would have been of almost no real use to the world, and unexpectedly led them towards structured approaches to translation, that actually overlap with how computer translation works nowadays…

Eco demonstrates how people went around in circles chasing something that was not practical or achievable, and then stopped as they gradually realised that language was constantly evolving and changing in everyday use, which implied that perfection could not be attained… I think. As I said, it was complicated. But I enjoyed it, and it got me thinking.

And… why is the alphabet in the order that it actually is?

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