The Eco Maker
Umberto Eco died on Saturday. The news shattered me, all the more because Eco had been slowly drifting away from the central role in my life that he had played for so long. But I was thinking of him just a few days ago, daydreaming, as I often do, about living on the road with nothing but what I could carry in a backpack. Foucault’s Pendulum, I decided, would be the one novel I would bring for my own pleasure, consumed a page or two at a time in hotel lobbies or on train station platforms. I’ve noted here before that just about everything I’ve published at novel length, notably The Icon Thief, has been a kind of dialogue with Foucault’s Pendulum, which rocked my world when I first read it more than twenty years ago, so that countless thankfully unfinished manuscripts from my teens bore the mark of its influence. The paperback copy I bought in my hometown all those years ago has accompanied me on every move ever since, and it’s been read so often—certainly more than a dozen times—that it has taken on some of the qualities of my own face. On its spine, it bears two deep parallel creases, about half an inch apart, like the lifelines on the palm of a lovingly worn workman’s glove: a testament to a lifetime’s faithful service. And although I’ve retreated from and returned to it countless times over the last two decades, every cycle brings me closer to its vision again, so that by now I’ve accepted that it’s a part of me.
But it wasn’t until I heard the news of Eco’s death that I began to reflect on what this really meant. Eco was an incredibly prolific writer and scholar, but for most fans, I have a feeling that he’ll be remembered best for two books. The Name of the Rose remains, rightly, the more famous and beloved, and the first to be mentioned in any obituary: William of Baskerville is still the most fully realized character Eco ever created, even if I insist on picturing him as Sean Connery, and for a lot of readers, Brother William became the guide to a labyrinthine library that some of us never escaped. He pointed me toward Borges, as he did with so many others, which is legacy enough for anyone. If I’m honest with myself, he also turned me onto Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek, which I spent four years studying in college in part just so I could read that novel’s many untranslated passages. (I achieved that goal with mixed success: there was probably a period of six months or so where I could easily read those sections at sight—as if the meanings were appearing in the margin in invisible ink—but the words have long since faded again.) And Foucault’s Pendulum, his other lasting work, opened up a whole world of ideas, or, more accurately, the idea that seeking patterns in those ideas was the greatest game in the world. Eco warns us that it can also be a pathology, but he can only make his case by exposing us first to its delights, and I’ve spent most of my life walking the fine line that he traced.
That remarkable ability to spin webs of ideas into a book that ordinary readers could love—a challenge that many writers have tackled since and none has done nearly as well—explains why Eco was such a problematic figure to so many other authors. There was Salman Rushdie, who appears to have glimpsed the similarity between Eco and himself, in a sort of uncanny valley, and famously trashed Foucault’s Pendulum as “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” And I’ve often quoted Tom Wolfe, who said, accurately enough: “Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” (Although when I look at that statement now, I can’t help but echo Tobias on Arrested Development: “There are dozens of us. Dozens!”) Eco was a dangerous example for all the obvious reasons. He came to fiction in his fifties, after an entire career spent living in the world and thinking about ideas, which is very different from doing it in your twenties. His preternatural facility as a writer camouflaged the fact that his accomplishment in The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum was not only difficult, but all but irreproducible, even for him: I never managed to finish any of his later novels. These two books wouldn’t exist at all if they didn’t pull off the impossible feat of making us care about ideas as if they were people, but it’s such a freakish trick that you want to warn young writers to spend their time with authors who struggle honestly with creating real men and women.
I agree with all of this. And I’ve spent much of my life trying to free myself from Eco’s magic spell, even if it took me the better part of two novels to do so. But I’ve also come to realize that if Eco is a dead end, it’s one that’s still worth taking, if you’re one of the dozens of young writers for whose souls Wolfe was so concerned. To take an illustration that Eco, with his omnivorous embrace of popular culture, might have liked: if this is a cul-de-sac, it’s like the fake tunnel that Wile E. Coyote paints on the side of a wall, only to have the Road Runner race through it. There’s something tantalizingly real and moving about Eco’s artifice, and it strikes me now as just as valid as the ones created by all those painstaking noticers of human behavior. It’s a story of books, not of everyday worries, as he writes in The Name of the Rose, and it’s the story in which I’ve found myself, when I look honestly at my own life. It’s a dead end that feels more expansive, as time goes on, than any other alternative. Even if it isn’t for everyone, I’ve come to recognize that Eco was the point of origin from which I had to distance myself, only to find my steps curving back in its direction after I’d acquired some necessary experience that didn’t come from libraries. And I can only return to those words from Thomas à Kempis that Eco shared with us so long ago: In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro. I sought peace everywhere, and I found it only in a corner with a book. And its title was Foucault’s Pendulum.