Lessons from novels: Umberto Eco

Vale author and academic Umberto Eco, thank you for your many ‘little scraps of wisdom’.

I can remember exactly when I first saw Name of the Rose, but I do remember when I first read it. It was as part of the recommended reading for my undergraduate degree and it was over the summer break. After first or second year I understood and appreciated the Medieval setting, the symbolism of the cathedral and its scriptorium, and the division of time for the monks.

Yet, it’s not my go-to Umberto Eco book. That’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and I understood it more deeply after Honours year and appreciate it even more after being involved, even slightly in the publishing and media worlds. When I longed to escape, or yearned for the exotic, Pendulum’s meandering conversations and historical conspiracies were a comfort.

Thank you Umberto Eco for writing what many others could never imitate properly.

Thank you Umberto Eco for writing what others could never imitate properly.

Looking back, today, it seems I absorbed unbeknownst to me, stories that became lessons, and lessons in stories of German monks and PhD graduates working as editors. When I try to recall the logic classes of my degree, it’s all Venn diagrams, while Eco’s explanations and games made so much more lasting sense.

Of books and writing and dreams and ambitions, Eco, through his characters, spoke to me in ways I can only indicate now. Before, it was aimless appreciation. Now it is more like identification:

Belbo didn’t understand that he had had his moment and that it would have to be enough for him, for all his life. Not recognising it, he spent the rest of his days seeking something else, until he damned himself.

I strongly suspect, that like Bello, I too had my moment and missed it, some when in my childhood when I wrote my first story, or perhaps during some high school drama class triumph. I wonder if this searching now will be as futile.

I worry too that of those instances when I write something that may seem profound, it’s only because I piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth. That’s what I suspect about my academic record, but if the surfaces are shiny enough, or, like sirens, if they lure enough sailors to their joyful deaths, does it matter? The answer is I don’t know. His novels haven’t provided certainty and I appreciate that.

Nothing if not contrary, I thus persist in my writing pursuits despite the doubt, in furious agreement with Eco:

Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.

I suppose though, all of this is accidental. I didn’t realise until now, the books I’ve read and the courses I, by some miracle, were accepted into, led me to the lessons I needed to learn as a writer before I knew it was something I could be. Like William the Monk, I realise there was no plot… and I discovered it by mistake. 

There is no hope of my work ever coming near Eco’s erudition or scope, nor approaching the inventive density of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories, yet I am in their debt. And thanks to them, I can dream.

So vale, once more Umberto Eco. A little like Oliver Sacks, you explored the absurd, the obscure, and the disturbing, and made stories profound, humane and intellectually stimulating.  Thank you.

I know, it’s not the truth, but in a great history little truths can be altered so that the greater truth emerges.

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