The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a mishmash of high and pop culture, and I wish it were more a mishmash of action and philosophy. Instead, the latter predominates, and the “novel” becomes a mediation on the nature of memory with only incidental, minimal plot. The obvious comparison is to Proust, who Eco alludes to or references at least several times that I caught and probably more that I didn’t. The comparison is not flattering for Eco, however, and I can’t help but like the precision and the depth of Proust over the comic book and literary metaphors used by Eco. Long descriptions of books and records jar me from what story of Yambo I try to find and grasp. Yes, I understand that I’m supposed to be following his story through the stories he inhabited as a child, but the device too often became tedious instead of enlightening.

The novel starts with the scattered observations of Yambo as he returns to consciousness, and at first we get a stream of his impression. Then the narrative takes on some of the traits of a conventional, structured first-person perspective, dipping in and out of descriptions of comics, books, and politics, until it descends again into a hallucinatory realm as Yambo plunges back toward the memories he has forgotten. In this dreaming coma it is hard—intentionally so, I’m sure—to follow what happens, and in time I gave up the attempt to follow the narrative thread as images and disjointed philosophy became everything.

The division between life and books, whether comic or otherwise, breaks down toward the final pages, as heroes and villains from comic books (sometimes literally depicted, as shown in the image below) become symbols in Yambo’s struggle to regain the memory of the distant Lila. His banal schoolboy infatuation becomes the focus of the struggle that plays out against comic book characters, and he realizes that he has been searching for Lila for his entire life—she is the eternal feminine. I’m not sure that I buy this yearning; in a writer like Robertson Davies, it would be seen in retrospect as suspect or fleeting, as the feelings of David Staunton are, or those of Dunstan Ramsay with Diana. For Yambo, the memory is everything, but its pursuit through the perpetual obsession of symbols/people who define life grows tired, especially because Yambo does not recognize that he lets himself be defined by these ludicrous characters. The power of the comic book characters is not truly being able to fly and such, but in their ability to reflect the reader back, who, in this case, is Yambo, and he in turn reflects us.


All very clever, but also rather irritating, especially with the comic art depicting the struggle. Maybe my criticism is unfair, as I just read The Name of the Rose and it is not really fair to hold a regular novel, even a literary one, against a masterpiece. So I cannot blame Eco, as his early novel sets the bar too high for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Towards the end I also see how the blurbs chosen for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’s jacket work: The Sunday Times writes that “As always with Eco, there is much to admire,” but perhaps some not to be admired, and the Observer writes that The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana “confirms Eco as an outstanding writer of philosophy dressed fiction.” The dressing is too flimsy for the fiction section.

I also have to compare The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana to Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, as I read them back-to-back and both are obsessed with memory and meaning to an almost Proustian degree. I don’t recommend the two consecutively, and I ended up with them thanks to more bookstore oddities.

Both novels also implicitly ask how we know what we know. My Name is Red has characters who constantly refer to “common knowledge” that is anything but common and to whether they will be remembered; Shekure, the vain woman, says that “[…] Perhaps one day someone from a distant land will listen to this story of mine,” though later in the same paragraph she says, “If I happen to tell a lie or two from time to time, it’s so you don’t come to any false conclusions about me.” Marlowe of Heart of Darkness is a better liar and the amnesia of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana a better dissembler, but all three tell as much about telling tales as they do about the tale itself through the way they seek memory. But Heart of Darkness has something the other two lack: a strong, consistent narrative drive. My Name is Black doesn’t have one by its multiple-perspective design, which becomes disorienting, as though the reader needs to understand not just the murder or clues to the murder but who is speaking and giving the murder. It gave me a sense of vertigo I didn’t like, but My Name is Black also has the sense of a novel that will satisfy much more the second time around, like Faulkner. So try it and Heart of Darkness and The Name of the Rose, but let Loana remain mysterious.

One more link post

Book|Daddy has a great essay on the otherwise (mostly) silly debate about blogs, books, and criticism. You can see evidence of its percolating here and here. What caught me is this quote:

As Jessa Crispin of Bookslut said during the panel on literary criticism that book/daddy moderated at the Texas Book Fesival in Austin over the weekend, the major review outlets keep reviewing all of the same authors, and few of the kinds of books and authors she likes were getting attention, so she started writing about them on her website.

Seriously. Who is writing about Robertson Davies, and who is commenting on B.R. Myers? Somehow I’ve never found a demand that I read The Name of the Rose, a novel that encapsulates why I read in the first place: to be so blown away that it’s hard to discover where I should start writing. I linked to some of the other books that come close to that effect here.

The Bad Girl, digested

The Guardian posted a digested read of The Bad Girl that does more justice to the novel than I could:

“I’m working as a translator and interpreter now,” I boasted.

“That’s a rather obvious metaphor for someone who lives his life through others,” she [the bad girl] observed.

“I’ve been in love with you for 10 years,” I swooned.

“Well, you’re a complete idiot then,” she said, “but if you want to go down on me, be my guest.”

(Found courtesy of Bookslut.)

The New York Times on the Kindle

A New York Times article called “Freed From the Page, but a Book Nonetheless” discusses the Amazon Kindle, which I don’t like. But I agree with the article’s conclusion:

The object we are accustomed to calling a book is undergoing a profound modification as it is stripped of its physical shell. Kindle’s long-term success is still unknown, but Amazon should be credited with imaginatively redefining its original product line, replacing the book business with the reading business.

I just analogize the Kindle to mp3 players before the iPod in the sense that it shows promise but just isn’t there yet. When it is there—less expensive, better interface, easier content management and acquisition (and what a vile phrase that is)—I will be too.

Hugging the Shore

I found John Updike’s Hugging the Shore through Critical Mass’s the Critical Library series of posts, where this collection repeatedly came up. It’s out of print and, I suspect, a book that shaped older critics but is no longer essential and feels too much likes its opinions, like most, have either become accepted or unimportant. Like many revolutions, the ideas in Hugging the Shore seem to have become part of the ossified landscape. Some of the pieces still thrill: the one on Ursula K. Leguin is short but good, while those on Bellow seem to both stretch and not be able to wrap themselves around Bellow. Many of Updike’s opinions I respect, but, at the same time, I flip to the next essay halfway through the one I’m on.

To me, something like Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971 – 2000 feels more vital, for lack of a better term, and maybe Amis’s verbal pyrotechnics show off, but they also convince. Give me it instead of Hugging the Shore, and throw in Orwell’s Essays (more on Orwell here) to give an overview of many of the same topics but better. I like Hugging the Shore, but with criticism even more than novels the essential is everything.

The Other Boleyn Girl and Starship Troopers

How odd it was, standing in a bookstore 7,500 miles from home and pondering the choices in a small but reasonably good English section of an airport bookshop. The most appealing books I’d already read: On Chesil Beach, The Golden Compass, The Name of the Rose (oddly enough, given that I’d read it on the first leg of the plane ride). The choices left dwindle to John le Carré’s* latest or Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I take the latter, figuring that once I’ve read four or five of le Carré’s novels I’ve read them all. Earlier I described them as “trust no one and everyone, including you, is guilty of something, or would be in the right situation,” novels, and I eventually tire of their torrid, in-the-know sentences.

And so I chose The Other Boleyn Girl and came to a novel I dread writing about because it is awfully, unabashedly bad, filled with adverbs as egregious as the two I just used, and I was stuck with it for too many hours on a plane. Normally I would’ve stopped after a few chapters. Trapped as though in the Tower of London, I had nowhere to go but on with the story, reading endlessly of the narrator, Mary Boleyn, reminding herself of how she is a Howard, and having other characters constantly tell her that as well. Most of the characters speak in platitudes, as though aware of history’s spotlight on them, and yet the characters are simultaneously self-absorbed to a degree tiresome in anyone, including monarchs and their playthings.

Then there is the writing: on page six a “moment of pure envy swept through me,” and on 90 a horse is coiled like a spring. Adverbs proliferate like the plague and, worse for me, I just finished The Name of the Rose, a novel with a powerful, inflammatory inquisition scene that lights up like an inferno, while Gregory offers a brief, sputtering description on page 716 of my mass-market paperback. The theological discussions are similarly opposite, with The Name of the Rose like a gorgeous Ph.D. thesis and The Other Boleyn Girl like the musings of a pupil. There is much discussion of wit and little evidence of it, just as there is much discussion of what it means to be part of the family and little evidence of it meaning anything more than being part of a band of nitwit navel gazers.

There are bizarre anachronisms in the novel, as when characters use the term slut, which, as Geoffrey Pullum’s quote from the Oxford English Dictionary in this post on contemporary usage shows, slut has meant that “bad housekeeping, loose sexuality, general uppitiness and terms of endearment have been all mixed together since the middle of the 17th century.” The Other Boleyn Girl is set towards the beginning of the sixteenth century. Likewise, despite repeated references to skill in French and Latin, no characters display any knowledge of either language or its literatures; Anne’s linguistic ability extends to saying “Bien sur!” once. Indeed, the characters seem caught purely in their own times, as if history was absent and the future as well. No culture exists outside of mentions about Thomas More and jousting. If not for the device of the king and the mention of horses, this novel could be set in a frat house, or any number of contemporary settings.

All this is frustrating because The Other Boleyn Girl shows rare moments of genuine feeling, as when Mary acknowledges to her brother that she cannot wed the man she wants. These few evoking moments come amid the tedious descriptions of royal maneuverings that read like the post-season situation in basketball. By the end of the flight I wanted to take back all those snide thoughts about le Carré, who is by comparison a writer of tremendous greatness.

The other novel I bought during a layover back in the United States: Starship Troopers, which I think a family member has lying around somewhere but I also knew would make for good and quick reading. As a teenager I missed its political context, which startled me now because that is the entire novel. Sure, the politics are simplistic and lack even the depth of Stranger in a Strange Land, but I can see why arguments for independence and power appeals to boys. There are even flashes of Wilde-like aphorisms, as when a comment from the protagonist’s History and Moral Philosophy instructor is repeated: “He says that you are not stupid, merely ignorant and prejudiced by your environment.” Glimmers of tolerance in an otherwise militaristic novel appear, when the narrator says “But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Bugs are just stupid insects because they look the way they do and don’t know how to surrender.” Grudging, yes, but you get it.As I come back to Heinlein I see his many flaws and the reasons literati snub him, and were I to read him for the first time now I don’t think I would have much use for him. But for all his weaknesses he serves a need, much like the often-hated Ayn Rand. On a plane, when you’re inclined to skip over the more foolish discussions, Heinlein is pretty good—just as he is when you’re 12.

The title of this post may startle you, but there is a slim connection between a novel about sex and power in the sixteenth century and one about militarism and politics in the distant future.

I haven’t yet commented on The Name of the Rose, mentioned here, but that’s only because it’s so good that I both want to save the best for last and struggle to formulate something to say, as the novel is so vast that it’s hard merely to decide which aspects of it to discuss.

* For a fascinating essay on le Carré, see—as usual—B.R. Myers’ essay in The Atlantic.


“Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then a place of long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

A brief hiatus

I’ll be out of the country for close to three weeks, but you’re welcome, as always, to the archives at right. Here are a few of my favorite posts—and books—of the last year:

* The Indian Clerk
* A Reader’s Manifesto
* The Lucifer Effect
* The Dud Avocado
* The Mind-Body Problem
* The Rest is Noise
* Bridge of Sighs
* A Simple Plan

And some good blogs:

* About Last Night
* The Elegant Variation
* Critical Mass
* Book|Daddy

I don’t have much spare room to pack, so I’m bringing Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose—compact in size but packing a big wallop, I hope. Perhaps you’ll see a post on it.

See you in February!

Bridge of Sighs

Richard Russo said he’s been in Seattle to promote every one of his books, and I wish I’d been to previous talks, as his droll yet earnest comments at Elliott Bay went on for the perfect length of time—unlike Bridge of Sighs, a quality book made less so by its length. Around page 400 I was ready for the other cover. Still, it’s his third excellent book in a row, and one in which Russo said he identifies more with the protagonist than any of his other novels. That protagonist is Lou C. “Lucy” Lynch, one of the three main characters in a novel stuffed with as many minor characters as Tolstoy. I think Russo would be pleased with the comparison to Tolstoy, though Russo also has the advantage of being funny, though without easy one-liners I can quote without context.

The novel itself is largely about interpreting life. Russo said that he’s rapidly approaching 60—too rapidly, I heard him think—and the time when, according to him, any way you slice it, it’s half over. He says the central question becomes, “What has this been about and how did I get here?” That’s certainly the topic of Bridge of Sighs, a novel partially told by a man (mis?)remembering his childhood. The technique annoyed me as often as it interested me, and yet the annoyance helped build interest as I remembered with Lucy, whose childhood friend Robert Noonan is painting the bridge referenced in the title. It’s too obvious a metaphor for a writer as sophisticated as Russo, and it’s also been long used by Whitman and Hart Crane, though for Russo the metaphor is one that shifts with the characters who observe it, and by the end it has come to have enough meanings that perhaps it has shed all of them and simply is.

His characters—Lucy, his wife Sarah, and their somewhat-friend Robert Noonan–are everymen (and woman) set up as a continuum, with Lucy “hat[ing] the very idea of change,” Noonan being change incarnate, and Sarah the sensible woman between them who has antecedents in Victorian literature. Lucy is attempting to understand all three, including himself, while he is “trying to square the past as I remember it today.” Ah: the past, mentioned again, as you can’t help when discussing this book. What I liked most from Russo’s talk was a comment pertinent to the issues in Bridge of Sighs and one that I’ve implicitly realized and tried to incorporate in my life: if you go back far enough, you see how someone came to be the way they are. Russo said that in his work and life he asks “What’s the initial assumption?” Why do people go down the “stupid, hateful path,” or at least a path that seems stupid and hateful to outsiders. His forceful language struck me because most of the time he hedged his answers in response to the world’s ambiguity, but in this he didn’t, presumably because it is ingrained in his novels. The question he’s always trying to answer gives an impressive texture to Bridge of Sighs and his other novels, and in it he writes about people in a way similar to Robertson Davies; Davies summarizes how he fits with the English tradition of sympathy in part because he writes about people as people—”[…] their sorrows and their distresses are made sometimes more poignant by the fact that they don’t know why things are happening to them[,]” in an interview.

Russo’s asking “What’s the initial assumption?” also explains the characters in his novels, many of whom have failed in the conventional sense of acquiring money, power, prestige, social standing, and usually all four together—if you go far enough back, they have reasons for staying in places that Seattlites and other coastal city dwellers condescend to (imagine New Yorkers’ opinions of upstate, or of Maine). The question scales up, too: if you go back far enough, you might see how a city, state, country, or even world came to be the way it is. Call it the cellular automata of the individual. I heard elements of Davies in this too, as when he says in 1970, “[…] I am depressed by the readiness with which people attribute to the Russians, or the Chinese, the evil passions and tendencies that make them dangerous themselves, without any awareness of what they are doing.” Well spoken: and a reminder of what Kundera writes about concerning the internationalism of literature and the interconnectedness of life that too many overlook.

The reading continued in an ambling way, like the novel, and it helped me see the humor I’d missed in the first 140 pages. Hearing a scene in which a man’s married mistress breaks up with him, followed by a confrontation with the husband and non-friend, gave them the lunacy you can miss from just the text. Still, the novel had flaws that couldn’t be covered up from sound: the dialog sometimes meandered, but perhaps that is the nature of trying to thrash out causation and understand life. It ranges from interpersonal relations to the undercurrent of populist anger at decline of small-town life—although I’m not sure when, historically, small-town life was really healthy and wonderful, especially given books like Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street—combined with the fatalistic realization that not much can be done to reverse the slide. In this respect, small-town life functions as a metaphor for aging: things are changing, perhaps for the worst, but there’s only one way to go. For Lucy Lynch, moving isn’t an option, and I suspect it isn’t for Russo, either.

Bridge of Sighs is worth trying, and my complaints about its length are preempted by Lucy when he says, “If this narrative seems whimsical simply by virtue of its being untrue, all I can say is that it’s even more realistic than the truth […]” Well, maybe, but it seems whimsical mostly because it is often whimsical, like part of Russo’s discussion. I would’ve liked to ask Russo if he knows of or likes Robertson Davies, and whether my supposition about his work defending small towns and their inhabitants is accurate. But time ran out before we could go back and see his initial assumptions, so we are left with Russo’s novels and interviews. Despite the length of Bridge of Sighs, I will read his next one even if it’s 1,000 pages.

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