Umberto Eco at the New York Public Library for The Prague Cemetery

In a talk with Paul Holdengräber, Umberto Eco said that “I have no particular interest in psychoanalysis,” but the interviewer kept pressing. Eco said, “My problem with psychoanalysis is due to my pride.” He’d be too eager to “trick” the analyst. It’s a writerly comment, and I get the impression that he’s playing tricks with and on readers (and listeners) too, continually pulling himself back from definitive statements and teasing one with the power of narrative (did you guess the murderer and his reasons in The Name of the Rose? Can you reconstruct the weirdly chopped narrative in The Prague Cemetery? For me the answers are no.)

In addition: Eco said he’s not tempted by psychoanalysis because it’s too expensive, which is rather hilarious given his obvious wealth and the relative lowness of monetary concerns compared with the abstract, aesthetic or intellectual concerns around intellectual power and honesty. I identify with Eco, and if I were in psychoanalysis I’d want to trick the therapist too, which might defeat some of the purpose. Besides, Eco says he “doesn’t offer cures,” which is good: novelists should offer stories. Eco’s are tall, and he has the glint of a precocious child caught in a lie but still amused and chuckling at his ability to trick you, and he has that childlike sense of the very intelligent and curious, akin to your favorite professor in college; I’m trying to cultivate the same attitude, but it’s a bit like trying to grow tomatoes in Seattle.

Eco revealed other things: he loves the English words “discombobulation” and “flabbergasted,” both of which I also admire, though not as much as “specious” and “callipygian.” He says “stupidity is fascinating,” which is true, especially because stupidity can often be harder to define, and one can go from feeling pleased with one’s own intelligence to feeling quite the fool with astonishing quickness—which is one of the delights in The Name of the Rose, when William realizes that his vaunted mind has created connections where none exist and that he has been led astray by his own certainty. In The Prague Cemetery, Simonini the forger preys on the trust and paranoia of others. Eco calls him a character without any kind of morality. I would add that he has no epistemological foundation, which lets him ply his trade; Eco says “the world is full of Simoninis,” which also implies we should watch for them and the conditions, like war and paranoia, that allow them to prosper.

The Prague Cemetery is set in the 19th Century, but, like all novels set in a time not our own, it invariably comments on our own. Eco cited the imagined Iraqi weapons that gave a pretext for the second Iraq War in 2003 as an example of Simoninis at work. We tend to have too much credulity. Generalization is a scourge and specifics beautiful—except, of course, for this generalization.

Hearing and reading Eco shows a powerful and finely calibrated mind at work, which is a great and too rare pleasure. Listening to the talk and reading Eco’s work makes me want to be a better writer—and a better reader, since the two can’t be separated from each other. Another point: I can’t convey most of Eco’s hilarity. It’s too dependent on delivery and comic timing. Eco uses timing effectively, and he’s willing to let agonizing silence hang.

In Reflections on The Name of the Rose, Eco said that novels are born of a single, seminal idea; in the case of that novel, the desire to see a monk murdered (he originally wrote that he wanted to poison a monk, but he has since made the subtle but important change to take some of the agency out of his hands). So Holdengräber asked about the seminal idea in The Prague Cemetery. Eco said he didn’t have one. Things change. It might be futile to ask a writer about their methods, since writers, like lovers, might be motivated by all sorts of things at different times and places.

Eco said in the talk that “The novel is always a way of discovering something,” but I wonder if novels are really means of discovering how little we know and how strange things really are if we look closely enough. We really are strangers to ourselves, but we often don’t recognize it. Eco, I sense, does, and that may explain his uninterest in psychoanalysis. He’s essentially wary of the mind’s associative tendencies, which he associates with conspiracy theorists. The idea of conspiracy enters those of his novels I’ve read: The Name of the Rose, where William imagines a possible conspiracy, Foucault’s Pendulum, where Casaubon and the editors make up a conspiracy for their own amusement, The Prague Cemetery, which, so far, is overrun with characters whose dubious ability to infer causal relationships where none exist enables Simonini to flourish.

The end of the talk was disappointing: Holdengräber asked about the role of the Internet in changing research and the role of libraries in the age of the Internet, Eco offered platitudes long familiar to New York Review of Books readers, and, besides, no one really knows what’s going to happen over time.

I haven’t deeply discussed The Prague Cemetery in this post because he didn’t speak much about it. In addition, I’m about halfway through the novel and continue to dislike it—not because of its protagonist, a man as close to wicked, evil deception (as opposed to the humorous kind Eco practices) as Eco can probably make, but because of is narrative structure. The novel is divided between three major narratives, two of which may be multiple personalities from the same person, and much of it is told in diary form. It’s hard to track who is doing what and why he’s doing it.

Narrative games are a long-standing interest of Eco’s; to return to Reflections on the Name of the Rose:

Another problem: the encasement of the voices, or, rather, of the narrative points of view. I knew that I was narrative a story with the words of another person, having declared in the preface that this person’s words had been filtered through at least two other narrative points of view, that of Mabillon and that of the Abbé Vallet, even if they had supposedly operated only as philologists (but who believes that?). The problem arose again, however, within Adso’s first-person narration. Adso, at the age of eighty, is telling about what he saw at the age of eighteen. Who is speaking, the eighteen-year-old Adso or the eighty-year-old? Both, obviously; and this is deliberate. The trick was to make the old Adso constantly present as he ponders what he remembers having seen and felt as the young Adso.

But “the encasement of the voices” is easily followed in The Name of the Rose, and the various voices in Foucault’s Pendulum are anchored by Casaubon. One can follow what someone is doing and, more or less, why they are doing it. That’s not especially true in The Prague Cemetery, where the protagonist, Simonini is mostly writing a “diary,” while other voices track what he’s doing.

Does this sound confusing? I’ve reread the last couple paragraphs a couple times and find no way to simplify my explanation. The novel begins to feel more like an exploration of narrative games, along the lines of late Henry James, Herman Hesse, or Philip K. Dick, and less like a story. In Reflections, Eco writes that “Unquestionably, the modern novel has sought to diminish the amusement resulting from the plot in order to enhance other kinds of amusement. As a great admirer of Aristotle’s Poetics, I have always thought that, no matter what, a novel must also—especially—amuse through its plot.” Maybe he is no longer convinced “a novel must also [. . .] amuse through its plot,” or he has expanded his definition of “amuse,” or Eco has changed his mind, as he has about the need for a novel to come from a seminal image.

I keep reading Eco because I hope for a novel as powerful as The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum. I hope to get one.

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