Two authors died today, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.
Ms. Lee wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that was largely derided in its debut as being unbelievable, because the 6-year-old narrator was too wise for her age. I didn’t care; the book, in its simple goodness and in its arch morality tale, stuck with me, as it did with so many.
More recently, Ms. Lee was reputed to have written — or to have had discovered — another novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” I read several excerpts of that book, which featured several of the characters from “Mockingbird,” but 20 years on, and decided quickly that a full visit to that book would have ruined the previous book for me, so I stayed away. I also suspected that the novel was not so much “discovered” as cobbled together, or raised by witchcraft in some fashion, because of the millions of dollars in sales that would surely follow. (And did.)
So, in full, I read one book by Harper Lee. That was half of her oeuvre, and it was the half that counted.
The great contemporary Italian novelist Umberto Eco wrote dozens of non-fiction works and collections of essays, of which I read a few, and seven novels, of which I read four in translation, which I consider to be the essential four: “The Name of the Rose,” “Foucault’s Pendulum,” “The Island of the Day Before,” and Baudolino.”
“The Name of the Rose” was a masterpiece — a 1983 novel that greatly affected me in its ruminations over the nature of justness and proper religious observance, and also as a reminder of what was the 1300’s had in common with our own time, and what was strictly alien. In the novel, the lead character, a monk serving as a Sherlock Holmes of his time, is the owner of the latest innovation: an early set of spectacles that enable his fading eyes to read. The entire novel centers around the question of what is proper for an abbey in its obeisance, to wit: Is it proper to laugh, given that no mention is made in the Bible of Jesus ever having laughed? When your worldview is based entirely upon a literal reading of an ancient text, this is a pressing question, and is made immediately relevant to every literate reader asking himself every day what is right, and what is wrong. That vast passages of “Rose” are in untranslated Latin served only as a further inducement to think a little harder, to research, to parse out the meaning. This was a book that one leaned into intellectually, and, at the same, it was a thriller, with a murderer on the loose. It stands as a great achievement.
“Foucault’s Pendulum” (1989) is even moreso a game, in which Eco debunks the conspiracy theory from “The Holy Blood the Holy Grail” (which I had read previously) that Jesus had sired an heir and that a conspiracy everafter secretly controlled human events. “Holy Blood,” which in its center photo spread hilariously included an image of the authors’ believed current descendant of Jesus, is the book that ultimately led us to the accursed Dan Brown novels that started with “The Da Vinci Code.” As a novel, the fault in “Foucault’s Pendulum” is a series of extended dream sequences / journal entires that can be completely skipped; my brother Ray had warned me of the time, and I sneered inwardly at the thought of skipping any part of a book, but later I found to my dismay that he’d been entirely right, that the journal entries were irrelevant, and that the novel would have been stronger without them. Nevertheless, all the other areas of the book are extraordinarily compelling, as one is pulled along on the trail of a conspiracy, and led to a very strong conclusion, with Eco again playing his strong cards: marrying an intellectual pursuit with a classic suspense thriller.
With “The Island of the Day Before,” my interest in Eco diminished, and my capacity for skipping pages grew. I even found it unable to finish the book. What I remember of it is that it took place on a ship where time seemed fractured — and that I didn’t care a lot, in fact at all, about any of it. It was now 1995, 12 years after “Rose,” and I’d discovered many other authors, most notably Rilke and Tolstoy, far more worthy of my time.
In 2001, having almost sworn off Eco, I put “Baudolino” on my Christmas list — and found myself surprised and delighted by it. Here, again, was the Eco I enjoyed: a wry commentator and occasional satirist drawn to the story of an earlier Christianity, but skeptically. In addition, it afforded the opportunity to learn a lot about the 13th century AD, the Holy Roman Empire of its time, and a great early Germanic leader — things I’m always curious about and don’t know enough about. And the book was a romp — it wasn’t a great achievement along the lines of “The Name of the Rose,” but it was fun to read, pulling you along like iron filings to a magnet.
And then… Eco produced three more novels, and I left him behind. “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” sounded too close in theme to “The Island of Day Before,” centering around a character confused about his whereabouts and his past, and by the time “The Prague Cemetery” (2011) and then “Numero Zero” (2015) came along, I had moved on. Given that I have 79 novels on my bookcase waiting to be read, it’s doubtful I’ll return to Eco.
I’ve had a history with both of these authors, as each of us has with anyone whose art we’ve followed, whether it’s David Bowie or Eugene Ionesco or Darrin Bell. I never expected anything great again from Harper Lee, but I’m glad for what I got (both the novel and the movie version). With Umberto Eco, it only gradually occurred to me that “The Name of the Rose” was a singular achievement, and that I shouldn’t expect it again. How delightful it was, then, to find in 2011, after reading all 11 novels of Julian Barnes, that his most recent, “The Sense of an Ending,” was his very best. All of them, mind you, had been good, with all of them having flashes of greatness, but “The Sense of an Ending” showed a greater sense of wisdom and insight than all its predecessors put together — its lucidity about adulthood remains astonishing, and so the novel remains one of my most recommended. (That, and this one, which I promise you is elegantly written and unexpectedly incredibly moving.) I felt rewarded for having stayed in the game.