Posts Tagged ‘Umberto Eco’

Josef Skvorecky: An Inexplicable Story

April 21, 2020

51ECHZPYPGL._AC_UY218_ML3_     This was a really strange one to come back to; apart from the Roman setting I’d completely forgotten the plot, which is presented in the standard ‘mysterious manuscript found’ trope, with all sorts of spurious annotations and authentications.

A mysterious set of decayed scrolls in Latin, from the years of Tiberius, has been found in Mexico, in a settlement where the Maya civilisation once existed. Translated, it provides a very scrappy and disconnected tale of a Roman who was perhaps in some way related to the poet Ovid and who is interested in the poet’s exile and final disappearance, and who also seems to have been an inventor of some kind who may have invented a steam engine which assisted a ship across the ocean…

It’s obviously an exercise in constructing a plausibly fake manuscript and story, and meshing it in an already known reality, in the way such writers and Defoe, Eco and Conan Doyle have successfully done, along with many others. I should have recalled Skvorecky’s interest in, and writing of, detective stories among his other novels, and his particular liking for Edgar Allen Poe (he weaves in the latter’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym very cleverly).

The story is nested in many layers to give it a semblance of authenticity: a corrupt manuscript, introduction and detailed commentaries and annotations from academics, which weave in many well-known details and figures from Roman history, and supporting documents provided by others… and yet, in the end the author’s dedication to his wife of forty years makes clear it’s basically a very elaborate hoax he’s devised to refer back to their mutual admiration of Poe. It also links nicely into my favourite Skvorecky novel, The Engineer of Human Souls, in which the hero is a teacher of American literature to college students, and one of the chapters focuses on Poe.

It’s a short read, a diverting one, and a clever one, and a reminder of how much I have long admired this under-rated Czech dissident writer.

Do you really need another reading list?

April 12, 2020

One or two bloggers whom I follow have posted lists of books they recommend during the current lockdown. I haven’t done this, but felt moved to revisit one of my ‘pages’ (as opposed to ‘posts’) where I listed my favourites way back in 2013, to see if I still agreed with what I said way back then. Here we have my listing of world fiction, which is of writers who hadn’t originally written in English:

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read this, and it still blows me away every time. The magical rise and fall and eventual disappearance of the city of Macondo and the Buendia family sweeps you along, and the final section is, for me, a tour-de-force almost on the level of the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. However, Marquez’ other great novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, has grown on me and crept up to become an equal, as I’ve found myself in my later years reflecting on what exactly I understand by love, and what it means/has meant to me.

Günter Grass: The Tin Drum. I was fifteen when I first visited Gdansk, then behind the Iron Curtain, and as we went on a boat trip out to Westerplatte, where the Polish forces heroically held out for days against the Nazis in September 1939, I noticed graffiti, which my father translated for me: “We have not forgotten, and we will not forgive.” I was pretty shocked. Gradually I learned about what the Second World War had done to Eastern Europe, and I understood a little more; a couple of years later I came across this novel, which is another I have regularly re-read. It recreates a loved and totally vanished world. Some ten years ago a relative took me around some of the sights and places Grass writes about: it’s now a much-followed tourist-trail. Grass opened my eyes to what many Germans have tried to do by way of understanding and trying to come to terms with what they or their forbears did in those awful years.

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose. This one is often top of my list, Eco’s absolute best, filmed well and also a reasonable TV series. I think it’s what Eco does with time that moves me most, with the aged Adso looking back after so many years to his days with William of Baskerville, unravelling the mysteries and murders at the abbey, a forerunner of our beloved Sherlock Holmes. We are connected both to eternity and to our own mortality through Adso’s reflectiveness, and the beautifully created mediaeval setting.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime & Punishment. Russian novels can be a slog, more of a duty than a pleasure, although they are usually worth it, and this one certainly is. The murder is quickly done, and it’s the aftermath that grips you: the man who thought he was so strong he could kill and not be affected by the deed, and how his conscience and the police investigator reduce him to an ordinary human who must suffer, repay his debt to society and redeem himself. And he does.

Giovanni di Lampedusa: The Leopard. Here’s another novel that lyrically recreates and recalls a vanished past, this time of Italy before its unification in the late nineteenth century. It must be coming up to time for a re-read because I remember very little other than the powerful impression it has on me; I had a copy of Visconti’s film for years, intending to watch it and not got round to it yet.

To be continued…

Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.

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There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…

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I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.

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Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…

The Name of the Rose – TV series

December 14, 2019

Well, I finally watched the last episode of the internationally-produced series of The Name of the Rose. I’m glad I made the effort to stick with it – I nearly gave up after two episodes – and yet it was a very flawed production.

What worked? We did get a very detailed picture of the awfulness of the Inquisition and how it worked, and the casting and acting of Bernardo Gui the Inquisitor was superb. I was chilled a couple of years ago when I toured the Palais des Papes in Avignon, and there high up on the wall in one of the huge rooms was inscribed ‘the Inquisitor Bernardo Gui used to sit here’. Generally the casting and acting was good: I wasn’t too enamoured of the young Adso of Melk, but William of Baskerville excellently played, far surpassing Sean Connery’s effort in the earlier film of the novel.

More attention was paid to the scope of the original novel, which of course is rather more easily done in an eight-part series than in a feature-length film.

And yet… The set of the abbey itself I found rather cheap and tacky. Much of the earlier film was shot in an around a well-known, real abbey (Kloster Eberbach) in Germany; this studio set failed to convince, and the library was particularly poor, I felt.

The screenplay was a very unbalanced version of the novel. And for such an intricate and carefully composed text as The Name of the Rose, I think that really matters. What spoiled things most for me was the way that, gratuitously, the Adso story was expanded, and the ‘romance’ with the heretic girl was developed in completely unconvincing ways, with the novice heading out into the countryside for secret assignments with her. Eco’s version in the novel is much briefer, and far more convincing as an integral part of the story and of Adso’s life: it’s a brief, one-off sexual encounter where he is seduced and experiences the pleasures of the flesh as a youth. That experience clearly marks his life; the girl is burnt as a witch and there is also a cruel message in that for him. The earlier film remains true to the novel; in the TV series there is a very long rigmarole involving another woman stalking the Inquisitor, and rescuing the seductress, and yet Adso just leaves her then… what? I’m afraid the producers just wanted there to be more female interest that Eco had not provided, so they invented it – badly.

Similarly, the labyrinth that is the library in the novel is an integral part of the plot and the detective work, as well as a metaphor; this was very much sidelined and then rushed through in the final hectic episode. And the whole matter of the nature of the mysterious book that monks would kill for is also sidelined, whereas it’s at the core of some of the key theological arguments that run through the book: did Christ ever laugh? Is laughter a necessary part of human existence? Again, a rushed and nodding gesture in the final episode only. I also felt that the detective work by William and Adso was rather underplayed, only allowed to intrude occasionally rather than developing in any connected way. Why did the producers think Eco named his protagonist William of Baskerville, for goodness’ sake?

Even the title of the novel itself, which Eco links into the scholasticism of the mediaeval era in which he sets the novel, is glossed over almost incomprehensibly in the final seconds of the series: you’d miss the allusion were you not familiar with the novel. And finally, the framing of the entire novel by the aged Adso as he nears the end of his earthly life is lost, given up, when that shift in the closing pages of the novel is so powerful in drawing all the strands of such a complex story together.

It’s a little trite to say that perhaps some stories cannot successfully be filmed, but, after two very different and imperfect versions, perhaps this has to be the verdict on Eco’s finest novel, and for me, one of the best ones of the last century.

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Gilbert Sinoué: Le Livre de Saphir

April 1, 2019

81gEuxNWzxL._AC_UL436_This is quite a fascinating and gripping mystery, set in Spain in the final years of the Reconquista, shortly before the fall of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada. It’s set around the search for the Sapphire Book, hidden somewhere by one of its last guardians; it purportedly contains proof of the existence of God. There is a whole set of cryptic clues which send the searchers on journeys all across the country. The searchers are three, one from each of the faiths of the book: an ageing rabbi, a middle-aged sheikh and a young monk, who each have been entrusted with a partial version of the clues: Sinoué is setting up his trio for dialogues about God, faith, religion and their three differing interpretations.

So, at one level it feels like a Dan Brown kind of thriller, but there’s rather more to this Egyptian-born writer’s novel than that. The focus is on the similarities and connections between the religions, which even the three adepts are not always aware of. Their quest is complicated when they are joined by a female who is a plant from the Inquisition who have gained knowledge of the quest and through subterfuge have obtained some of the clues: she is a clever and learned woman, confidant of the Queen, but is playing a dangerous game: as well as being in constant danger of giving herself away or being uncovered, she is tailed by the Inquisition and also a rival group linked to the Queen…

An atmosphere of sadness permeates the story as we know the Moors are about to be driven from Spain, and the Reconquista will shortly mean the expulsion or enforced conversion of Jews and Muslims. I was saddened by the suspicions between the three seekers, as well as the way trust gradually grew as they advanced in their journey, and came to realise how much more similar than different their faiths were; all of this makes the story so much more tragic, of course. At times the book felt worthy of a writer like Umberto Eco, and I did find echoes of his Baudalino occasionally.

The female agent improves the story as a foil to the men, and provides romantic interest as it is she and the monk who find their lives and fates entangled further than they expected. All are changed by their shared adventures: the monk becomes a killer and a lover, the treacherous woman comes to understand a purpose to her life and is disabused of her fanatical Christian opinions, and the Sheikh learns what forgiveness means.

I enjoyed the book for its atmosphere, for making me think, and for exploring the nature of faith. I was annoyed by one gross error which someone ought to have picked up: a reference to the work of Copernicus and his dangerous astronomical discoveries, when that learned monk would actually only have been 14 years old at the time the story takes place… and if I’ve whetted your interest, I’m sorry that the novel has not been translated into English.

August favourites #28: author

August 28, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_The idea of someone who is widely knowledgeable – a polymath? – is an old one, harder to countenance in these times of so much knowledge and data. It’s been a long time since it was possible for one person to ‘know’ everything that could be known – Isidore of Seville wrote the first encyclopaedia in the seventh century, and Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth is regarded by some as the last person who knew it all. But in our own times, I was always impressed by the Italian writer, critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who produced novels, art criticism, philosophy, works on linguistics, and – in his own language, and as far as I know, still largely untranslated – regular newspaper columns on an incredible variety of learned and light-hearted topics. The Name of the Rose is probably my all-time favourite novel. I’d really like to have met him, and I don’t say that about a lot of my heroes.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #7: detective fiction

August 7, 2018

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I’ll come to my hero Sherlock Holmes in a few days’ time: he’s in a class of his own. And although I have a soft spot for the melancholy Czech detective Lieutenant Boruvka, created by one of my favourite writers, Josef Skvorecky, my award has to go to a writer who paid the greatest tribute possible to Holmes in his creation of the monk William of Baskerville, who puts his observational powers to work, assisted by his young novice Adso of Melk, against a background of monastical murder and the inquisition in the early fourteenth century. I’m referring to Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, The Name of the Rose, which, as well as being a marvellous detective story, is also full of history and philosophy and relgion, as well as a poignant consideration of the nature of human love. In a way, the plot centres around a curious question: did Jesus ever laugh? It’s one of my top three novels of the twentieth century.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

On re-reading

April 11, 2017

I know there are people who never read a book twice; I’ve never been able to understand why, since, if I’ve really enjoyed a book, I always want to come back to it again and again. We often used to discuss this in class at school, and I was happy that most students would agree with me; they also liked to return to a story once enjoyed, and when we looked more deeply, we found ourselves agreeing on the reasons why, too.

I think most of us would probably accept that on a first reading, it’s the plot that we are most interested in, and depending on how gripping or exciting it is, we perhaps find the pace of our reading increasing, and our attention to other details falling off. And, although I find I can forget quite a lot of the details of a plot, depending on how much time has elapsed since I read a particular book, I never forget everything; there has to be something left in my memory to trigger the pleasurable memory that drives me to eventually pick the book up again.

Second time around then, plot isn’t so important, and I can focus more closely on a different aspect: perhaps development of character, or the writer’s intentions, or her/his use of language; there will be something else to hold me as I relive that first pleasurable reading. And the same will be true in subsequent re-reads. My favourite novels have been re-read up to half a dozen times, I think – certainly Jane Austen, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And in my science fiction collection, the novels of Philip Dick and Ursula Le Guin. Philip Pullman is catching up with them…

These well-loved books sit on the shelves in and among less-popular tomes; sometimes they are replacement copies because my first one has actually worn out and fallen to bits. But what actually triggers a re-read? Sometimes it’s a conversation – perhaps some aspect of Jane Austen’s work comes up, or we watch a film of one of the novels, and it will come to me that it’s several years since I last read a particular book, so I pick it out and read it. Sometimes I’ll be in a certain mood and feel a need for some science fiction, and go and pick out three or four Philip Dick novels – I rarely read only one when I go back to him. I may be gazing vaguely at the shelves when something will suddenly strike my eye. One novel may suggest another: I certainly find it difficult to have a plan of what books I’m planning to read over a certain period of time. Something else will always push itself in… There are some novels that do feel like old friends, needing to be visited every now and then, and there are others which are like nurses and come to look after me when I’m under the weather.

The other side of the coin, of course, is those novels that have been read once and put back on the shelves with the thought, “I’d like to re-read that one day…” and that day never comes; after some years I will realise that the moment has past, that I don’t actually want to read it again, and if I have the self-discipline at the time, I’ll put it on the pile to donate to the next Amnesty International book sale. And don’t mention the books that I’ve bought thinking, “That will be a good read one day…”. They sit there, calling and reproaching, elbowed aside by something else.

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