I know that as an American I should be mourning the passing of Harper Lee, and I am, but another literary death has me sitting at my desk, staring into space, trying to grapple with the realization that another great author has left the world.
Umberto Eco died this week, at the age of 84 – only five years younger than Lee, and surely both of them have lived long lives. In contrast to Lee, who died in the nursing home that she had lived in for years, Eco died at home, in his apartment in Milan. his newest book, NUMERO ZERO, came out last year.
It’s a silly exercise to contrast these two authors on a larger scale. Lee produced one masterpiece; Eco seemingly couldn’t stop writing, putting out seven novels, several works of theory and probably a bajillion academic things that I haven’t read. An they certainly didn’t write in the same genres.
But on the small level of my personal reading life, Eco’s work held sway over me in a way that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD never did. And since they’ve died within a few days of one another, I can’t help making the comparison. Eco is one of my favorite authors. I’m actually a little angry at myself that I didn’t include THE NAME OF THE ROSE or THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE in the post I made at the end of 2015 talking about some of the books that shaped my reading. THE NAME OF THE ROSE was one of the first books I read where I felt that sense in the back of your mind of things expanding – of being given a glimpse into a world of meaning that you’d previously only guessed was there.
And then after that I read everything else he’s written, including the mammoth FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM (which I have in hardcover, and which weighs approximately a thousand pounds) and the claustrophobic, dreamlike THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE. Of his novels, there are only two that remain unread: BAUDOLINO and his latest, 2015’s NUMERO ZERO. Baudolino I made a stab at when it came out, but I just couldn’t get through it. (Sorry, Berto!) Even the books of his that just didn’t work for me on a structural level (Looking at you, MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA) or because I couldn’t get past how awful the protagonist was (PRAGUE CEMETERY, in which the anti-semitic protagonist literally invents the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) resonated for me long after I put them down.
These mammoth, ridiculous books, with their dense layers of references and allusions and twisty, complicated, baggy plots are some of the earliest books that rationalized the eclectic nature of my reading habits. I grew up in a one-genre family (two, if you count mysteries) and my bookshelves at home are covered in many genres and nonfiction of all stripes. Which sounds a bit like one of those “I’m so quirky and weird” complaints, a humblebrag of originality, but when I was in middle/high school I genuinely felt weird for my reading tastes, that even though the rest of me was weird I couldn’t conform in this one area, either.
Anyway. This is all to say that though Lee looms larger in the American literary consciousness – especially given the controversial publishing of GO SET A WATCHMAN last year – Eco’s death is the one that is with me today, looking at my bookshelves, wondering what he would have written next.