Umberto Eco has written two fabulous, wonderful novels that I often reference and recommend to friends: The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum (have you read them? If not, stop reading this and get copies). He’s also written a number of others. The Prague Cemetery fits in with the others. I continue to read his novels, or at least start them, because writing one extraordinary novel, let alone two, is so rare that I continue to hope.
I meant to write a long review, but The Prague Cemetery is so tedious and plotless that I gave up. Nonetheless, I will point to a Paris Review interview with Eco that may explain the source of the malaise in his later novels:
Many of your novels seem to rely upon clever concepts. Is that a natural way for you to bridge the chasm between theoretical work and novel writing? You once said that “those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate.”
It is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to a sentence by Wittgenstein. The truth is, I have written countless essays on semiotics, but I think I expressed my ideas better in Foucault’s Pendulum than in my essays.
Relying “upon clever concepts” requires unusually deft execution, which Eco’s later books don’t seem to have—the problem is one of proportion: in his first two novels, Eco let narrates predominate, and ideas drove narrative. In his later novels, it feels like he’s taking an idea and forcing it into a narrative, instead of letting the narrative itself lead. The application of force might make for an “interesting” novel, or an interesting exploration of an idea or set of ideas in fictional form, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying read.
I am not opposed to reading novels that are “hard” or hard to follow (think of something like Peter Watt’s Blindsight); I’m opposed to reading ones that are pointlessly hard, or seem deliberately abstruse for no obvious reason. Which describes The Prague Cemetery. There are clever sentences, as always (“Artists are insufferable, even from afar, always looking around to see whether we have recognized them;” “People believe only what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy”), but they’re not linked well. It feels like extended finger exercises, not a final performance. I gave up two-thirds in.
A novel without ideas might be impossible and certainly bores me; novels with characters who don’t know or seem to know very much aren’t very satisfying to me, on average, unless perhaps those characters learn a tremendous amount as they go along.
As so often happens, I set out to write about a book and ended up writing about Books. It’s a hazard of the hobby (and profession), I suppose, but I still catch myself doing it and decide that, oh well, I like it after all.