Saturday, February 27, 2016

When Eco died last week, a friend wrote, "Somehow, I hoped he could live forever."

Not many reading experiences burn themselves onto your consciousness, but I have the most vivid memory of the first time I read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: my father’s winged armchair in which I was sitting; the view from my parents’ living-room window; the very angle of the sunlight as it fell upon their carpet. Few other novels from the last 40 years have given me that fierceness of reading pleasure, a pleasure so intense you never forget it.

I’ve always been something of a philistine reader and nowadays I sympathise more and more with Kingsley Amis’s view that life is too short to read any books that don’t begin with the words “A shot rang out”. Plenty of shots ring out in The Name of the Rose – or plenty of monks are poisoned, which is almost the same thing – but it is also, of course, a dazzling novel of ideas. I prefer it (just) to Foucault’s Pendulum, in which Eco made his love of pop culture and pulp fiction even clearer. Here, indeed, he anticipated The Da Vinci Code by decades: and in fact when asked by journalists for his views on Dan Brown, claimed that he was a fictional character and “I invented him”.

My own surname may be an anagram of Eco’s but sadly our relationship never got any closer than that. For me he remains the model of a European intellectual, making complex ideas accessible, casting the kind of sceptical eye over culture and politics that can only come from having a vast, panoramic historical sense. Many of us have a fantasy of reconciling the magnetic readability of genre fiction with the more ambiguous virtues of great literature: Eco was one of the very few who made it a reality.

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