Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The glorious cul-de-sac of Umberto Eco

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[Umberto] Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.

Tom Wolfe

Perhaps because I just saw Sneakers again, I’ve been playing a lot with anagrams, especially for the titles of my own novels. Kamera, may it rest in peace, never had much of an anagram to its credit (A Maker is the best I could do), but one of the nice things about The Icon Thief is that its title provides a secret clue to the debt I owe one of my favorite writers. Hint: Eco thief.

Foucault’s Pendulum, by the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, is probably the novel, for better or worse, that has influenced me more than any other. I say “for better or worse” because it’s far from clear that its influence has been a good thing. I first read Foucault’s Pendulum, along with The Name of the Rose, when I was thirteen years old, which was just the right age for me to be completely blown away by Eco’s intelligence, ingenuity, erudition, and above all his way of engaging a world of ideas through the mystery and conspiracy genres. When I was a teenager—and this hasn’t changed much—I wanted to know something about everything, and Eco, more than any other author I had read up to that point, had seemingly managed to weave the entire world into a single book. (It’s only as I’m writing this now that it strikes me as appropriate that his translator is named William Weaver.)

The trouble, of course, is that the vision of the world expressed in Foucault’s Pendulum isn’t nearly as complete as I had once believed. There are no truly persuasive characters in the novel—merely vehicles for astonishing conversations, which, as Salman Rushdie points out, are “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” For Eco, it’s idea, idea, idea, which is great when you’re thirteen and craving intellectual structures, even satirical ones, but not so much when you’re thirty and trying to write real novels. It wasn’t until a year or two later, when I first began to read John Fowles, that I began to see how massive erudition could be conjoined with genuine plots, characters, prose, and formal invention. But the damage had already been done. For the rest of my life, I’d be more comfortable writing about ideas than human beings, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to move gingerly in the other direction.

And yet even that isn’t the whole truth. The fact remains that Foucault’s Pendulum has given me more pleasure than just about any other novel. My original copy, which still sits on my bookshelf, is flaking and falling apart, but if there were a fire in my apartment right now, it’s one of the first ten things I would save from the flames. Eco turned me on to Borges (his master), the cabalists, and The Golden Bough. The Icon Thief, with its elaborate verbal conspiracies, would be unthinkable without his influence. And Eco himself remains the perfect intellectual. In some ways, I still wish I’d discovered him after Fowles—my entire inner life, not to mention my writing, would have been immeasurably different as a result. But it’s also possible that Eco simply encouraged an artistic tendency that was already there, and showed me its greatest possible realization, as well as its limitations. I don’t think I’ll ever move beyond him. But perhaps, very gradually, I can become something else.

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