The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco

This work from 2004 is a puzzling novel, a frustrating novel, a highly unusual novel. Which might be expected from a professor of semiotics, a professor whose novels are unlike that of any other current author and which range across both the centuries and multiple literary techniques.

This novel begins beautifully. Yambo Bodoni, a rare book dealer from Milan, has suffered a stroke before the novel begins and has no memory of who he is—although he remembers every piece of literature he has ever read. I was fascinated by those early pages as he slowly learns his identity, guided by his wife Paola and his family. And the narrative is enriched as he recalls snippets from his vast reading, brief lines that range across the world’s literature. But it is his self-discovery that drives this novel, and as he begins this painstaking process, one expects this novel to be about the gradual understanding of his past.

But this is Umberto Eco, and no novel of his would solve an amnesia problem in such a straightforward way. No. So Yambo journeys to Solara, a family summer home where in his bookish youth he spent many years and where he was fascinated by his grandfather’s collection of reading material. And now he seeks to recapture his youth and its memories by exploring the dusty rooms and the attic where his grandfather’s collections are still stored. Which not only expands on those previous snippets from literature but also opens wide the door on all of his literary memories.

And with this, the novel shifts gears radically. Eco not only describes the literature, comic books, songs, and journals that Yambo discovers in his grandfather’s attic, he also presents real illustrations of them to the reader, apparently from the author’s own collection. And displays them over hundreds of pages. Which is why he subtitles this work, “An Illustrated Novel.” As a result, we realize that this work is much less about our hero Yambo discovering his past and much more about Eco recapturing his own Italian past from the 1930s and 1940s. And, yes, he captures it beautifully. But it is not about Yambo, as one casual paragraph even acknowledges.

And so, as a result, as magically as Eco has recreated that era of Mussolini and World War II, I found myself skimming over these hundreds of pages, waiting for our author to move back to Yambo and his recovering memory. Which he finally does. First, describing a love affair with a girl named Lila that his boyhood friend Gianni helps him to recall. And second, describing his gradual adolescent awareness of sex and then of the death around him during those wartime years. And, finally, describing a wild adventure in which Yambo helps eight soldiers rappel down a mountainside and rejoin the local partisans.

And yet it is not quite clear how some of these memories come back in such detail. There is the implication of a second stroke, when Yambo discovers in his grandfather’s attic an original copy of the Shakespeare folio of 1623. But Eco does not clearly assign cause and effect here, as he does not do so in the entire novel. And then comes another abrupt shift by Eco, a shift to dreams. Spoiler alerts for three paragraphs.

Yambo wonders if he is dreaming all these adventures from the past, even his fascination with that Lila who disappeared from his youth. Now he wants to remember her face and cannot, despite all the detail he recalls. And to bring back that image, he beseeches Queen Loana from one of the old comic strips, an unreal person, to make his dream world real, a dream world that includes his lost love. And so the novel concludes with a parade of characters from the comic books, from past literature, and from the entertainment world, all of whom parade down a Hollywood stairway, and who are to be followed at the end by the image of Lila.

The dream world will thus be real, and Lila will be real. But, ah, we the reader have gone through so much to see this love fulfilled. Could this novel’s recreation of the past really been about just that? About a lost love.

And just as our hero is to look up and see that memorable face from the past, a fog veils his view. Indeed, fog has appeared throughout this novel, not least as a metaphor for the fog that clouds his memory. And then, in the final paragraph, the sun turns black. Is this a print metaphor for Yambo Bodoni? It certainly seems to mean that his vision of Lila will never appear. That perhaps she is the final metaphor for his blank memory.

What is Eco trying to achieve here? It is a work of memory, of the historic past, of a love unfulfilled. Indeed, the unfulfilled love of his youth, of Lila, appears intended as the unifying element. It has become a symbol of his innocent past, a past of unattainable love that he seeks to capture when he is 60 years old. And because it is unattainable, like the magical adventures from the children’s books and comic strips of his youth, he seeks that love in a dream world, a Hollywood dream world. Only to see it vanish at the moment of attainment, like a dream on waking.

I am continually intrigued by what Eco tries to accomplish in his fiction. But here I was far from intrigued, except at the opening and toward the close, with his adolescent memories in wartime that open up following the second stroke. Otherwise, like many of the reviewers, I did not find Yambo a complex enough character to identify with his desperate need to understand his past. And the other characters, whether his family or his friends, were as shallow as the comic book characters he continually refers to.

This work has been a disappointment. It creates an intellectual world rather than an emotional world. Memory belongs to the intellect. Love belongs to our emotions, and Yambo’s pursuit of love here is intellectual. As Stephanie Merritt writes in The Guardian: this novel “confirms Eco as an outstanding writer of philosophy dressed as fiction.” (March, 2016)

The Whites, by Harry Brandt (Richard Price)

This multi-level mystery novel from 2015 is true literature in every sense. It begins as a police procedural that establishes the bono fides of Billy Graves, a side-tracked police sergeant now assigned to the Night Watch in Manhattan. It is also a portrait of a once-heralded police team, the Wild Geese, whose members still love and support each other, even after some have left the force.

Interwoven also is the story of Milton Ramos, a renegade cop out to extract revenge for the personal injustices which life has dealt him. The ending, moreover, relies on a solution that is a classic of the mystery genre, and then humanizes that solution. And, finally, helping this work to a truly literary level is the moral issue raised by that solution in the minds and souls of characters whom both we as readers and Billy himself have become comfortable with.

The novel works on all levels. We are especially close to Billy and his wife Carmen, both of whom have endured tragedy in their past. They both love each other and are protective of each other. And Billy also remains especially close to four former policemen who were members of the Wild Geese. There is Pavlicek, now a real estate baron; Redman, now a funeral director; Whelan, now a building superintendent; and Yasmeen, now a campus security chief. Each will play a key role in this novel, as well as exemplify the ties of police brotherhood.

The title, The Whites, refers to the criminals the police have pursued obsessively but have failed to catch, not unlike the white whale that Ahab pursued. It is an ironic designation in terms of color (not race), but it also reflects the complexity of police duty and the frequent moral issues that are raised. The basic moral issue raised here is: should the guilty be punished? But also, should the past be forgotten? And: what is the nature of true justice, and who has the right to deliver that justice? It is a moral issue that is examined in all great literature, and here Price as Brandt is reaching for those heights—and achieving them.

But morality does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the actions of human beings; and these human beings, in literature, need to exist in a specific world. In this case it is the island of Manhattan, yes, but it is also Manhattan at night, and even more significant it is the felony crime scene in Manhattan at night and the human beings responsible for catching the criminals in the name of justice. This is why the policemen are the prime movers of this novel, and why Price as Brandt has made such an effort to show us the cruelty that they confront, the frustration they often feel, and the camaraderie that keeps them going.

This camaraderie, indeed, is a key element of this novel, both for the resulting interaction it causes and for the humanization it brings to men whose blue uniform often makes all of them seem alike. As Kakutani writes in the Times: [Brandt’s] “ability to map his characters’ inner lives—all the dreams and memories and wounds that make them tick—results in people who become as vivid to us as real-life relatives or friends.”

And Billy Graves is the first to have any vulnerabilities. His police career was detoured before the start of this novel, when a bullet he fired at a criminal hit an innocent boy, and he became fodder for the tabloid press. This resulted in initial assignments to dead-end posts; but he has finally earned recognition, and been placed in charge of the Night Watch. However, his private life is also in travail, because his first wife had abandoned him after the shooting scandal and left him with two young sons. Now, he is married to Carmen, a nurse and a temperamental woman whom he loves but does not always understand.

And while we realize that Billy is a good man at heart, we begin reading about another cop, Milton Ramos, who also lost a wife and is left with a young daughter. But he reacts to his unfortunate situation very differently from how Billy does, and seeks revenge on someone for some unknown reason. And we sense he will confront Billy at the novel’s climax. As we follow Billy through his routine investigations, however, and watch as a new and violent crime confronts him with memories of his past, with his own white—and also reunites him with his colleagues of the past—this building confrontation with Ramos moves from the background to the foreground, drawing the reader into this novel even more, although we do not know what will prompt the climactic confrontation.

What is not clear to me is why Price chose a pseudonym for this novel. Is it to be part of a series? Is it the police aspect that makes it different from his other works? He dedicates it, in part, to a Carl Brandt. Is that a family member or a friend, perhaps a policeman, whom he wishes to recognize? Perhaps the most reasonable difference to be found in this novel is that it does not focus on a specific location in sociological terms, as in his previous novels, but rather on individuals in psychological terms. But why would this shift prompt him to use a pen name? In any event, the reason does not really matter.

This reader will continue to pursue the work of Richard Price. While he has his dedicated followers, his work has thus fear not entered the contemporary literary canon. Perhaps because of his subject matter, the underside, the criminal side, of daily life. But the underdogs of his novels—victims, pursuers, and perpetrators—are worthy subjects that we in our comfortable reading chairs tend to forget. And Price stands out because he portrays these people, even the most villainous, like Ramos here, as human beings. And he helps us realize that there are often reasons why they are what they are. (March, 2016)

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

This 2014 work is certainly a professional job, a detective story expertly presented and traditionally resolved. But my emotional commitment was to the detective, Cormoran Strike, and to his glamorous assistant, Robin Ellacott. Their personal stories and their evolving relationship drew my interest more than did learning who the dastardly killer would be.

The author probably had fun writing this novel. Because it is about writers, publishers, editors, and agents, a world she herself now belongs to. It is about the murder of Owen Quine, who dies gruesomely, exactly like the main character does in his latest novel. Was the killer his wife Leonora, as the police think? Or was it his ex-friend and rival writer, Michael Fancourt? Perhaps his editor Jerry Waldegrave or his agent Elizabeth Tassel? Or even his publisher Daniel Chard, or his mistress Kathryn Kent?

Actually, it does not matter, at least to me, who the killer is, for Quine was an adulterer, a seducer, a blackmailer, a betrayer, and a pornographer—plus a bad writer. Which means, of course, that many had a reason to murder him. And that I didn’t really care. Moreover, identifying the killer resides more in the reading of character than in the reading of clues. Indeed, much of the interest in this work lies the subtle motivations inside each of these angry, envious, deceitful suspects.

Perhaps it is the complexity of such characters in their complex world that explains why the author required 450 pages to tell this story. We continually confront these characters as Strike goes back and forth questioning them. Other pages, moreover, revolve around Robin as she tries to please both her boy friend and her boss Striker. While others pages are used to describe other cases Striker is working on, apparently to emphasize his praiseworthy struggle to succeed financially.

Striker’s own personal story is interesting, that he lost the lower part of his right leg to a bomb in Afghanistan, and now must endure the consequences of that loss. But what became aggravating was the number of times that we are reminded of the pain he endures while walking up and down and around the streets and stairs of London, even being forced to remove his artificial limb at times and use crutches. As a reminder of his suffering character, it became a little too much for me.

Another, and more serious, frustration came toward the end of the book. Strike states that he knows who the killer is, and he has a plan to prove it. The author, however, withholds his theory from the reader, and, instead, describes his going about with Robin and others to implement his plan. But he never tells what they are actually doing, what the proof is that they are seeking. This withholding of information is to create suspense, of course, and it is a familiar technique employed by many mystery authors. But it is always frustrating.

What is also aggravating is the final revelation. That is, there is little drama. Strike simply confronts the killer, and goes into a long description of what the killer did and why—until the killer’s reaction becomes the confession. It is, again, a technique used by many mystery novelists, but it is a copout. It is a tired formula, not a creative means to develop unbearable suspense—such as, for example, putting someone’s life at stake. And since the reveal is about a murderer and a victim that I care little about, the impact is even less.

But the twists and turns to reach that final scene are, as I indicated, fascinating. My interest never flagged, not least because the gruesomeness of the murder promised an equally dramatic conclusion. And if such a conclusion never resulted, the twists and turns to reach it did work. As did the exploration of a variety of characters, and the internecine rivalry that drove the actions of this small literary group.

Indeed, one wonders how much of this novel about a novel that is a roman a clef is itself a roman a clef. Roman a clef means, literally, a novel with a key, with the key being which fictional characters represent real characters. The Silkworm here is the anglicized title of the novel Quine has written, which portrays in an evil light fictional versions of the characters in the Galbraith novel. Which prompts one to wonder if the characters in this novel we are reading are versions of people Rowling has met in her literary world as a result of the popularity of Harry Potter.

It is an intriguing thought. And one might assume that she has legitimately appropriated here at least character types for her fictional purposes. Of course, one might also challenge the literary value of that fictional purpose. For Harry Potter lives in a marvelous fictional world, whereas these Cormoran Strike novels are merely detective stories. Yes, professional detective stories at a high level, but they stake no new ground. They merely build on past duos: of Mr. and Mrs. North, of Holmes and Watson, etc.

Perhaps a reason that Rowling as Galbraith is less ambitious here is that she was exhausted in a literary sense, and wanted to take a break. But she did want to continue writing, and saw the English detective story as a legitimate avenue to explore, yet one that would not tax her resources—although one that would allow some originality, in this case an exploration of the Jacobean horror angle in the juxtaposition of today’s literary world.

Yes, this novel invites one to search out the two other Cormoran Strike novels. But I wonder if there will be more. Or will Rowling strike out in another direction? In the meantime, I note that a new Harry Potter work is due this summer. Will it be merely a rehash of the past, or will it continue Harry’s story but in a new direction? One hopes for the latter, along with an expectation that it will again offer something original. (February, 2016)

NOTE: The new Harry Potter is a dramatic play that explores Harry in his thirties with a son— where the postscript to the series left us. Rowling plotted the play, but did not write the dramatic script. (June, 2016)


Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

This 1938 work is generally recognized as Greene’s first serious novel. And justifiably so, I will now agree. It had not impressed me, however, when I first read it perhaps sixty years ago.

And now I can see why.

Because this is not written in the beautiful, rich style of the serious novels that followed. It features a very gritty style, with metaphors that emphasize the ugliness of nature and the world. But it is nevertheless a true Greene work, as well as his first successful one. Because it is about evil. And about love. And about the two in conflict, the boy Pinkie being evil and the girl Rose not seeing the evil because she is in love.

It is a theme that will become richer, and more subtle, in subsequent Greene novels. It is a theme that naturally rises out of the newly acquired Catholicism of the author as well as the Catholicism of these two characters he has created. But it is not a visible theme until the second half, when Rose’s love blinds her. Indeed, Norman Sherry writes in his biography of Greene that the author had intended that this book to be a thriller, but as he passed the 30,000-word mark, he saw the possibilities in writing about more than a murdering punk; it could also be about a punk who personifies evil.

The story until then revolves around two murders initiated by an ambitious Pinkie. He seeks, through the power of his gang, revenge on a man who has betrayed his leader, who was also a father figure; but he also plots to avoid being blamed for the first murder. Greene explores the Brighton underworld and Pinkie’s efforts to survive it for a greater part of the novel, an approach which frankly turned me off in my first reading long ago. But this time I found it provocative because it was unclear how deep the evil went, and I was curious about where this novel was going.

Where he was going was Pinkie’s conviction that Rose could be a witness against him for the murder that opens the novel. He then pursues her, thinking that if he marries her she cannot, by law, testify against him. And Rose, being both unattractive and untutored in the wiles of men, succumbs to his attention, and then falls in love with him. What makes this relationship even more fascinating is that Pinkie is physically repelled by her, as well as by all women. For he has not only never experienced women, being a virgin and terrified by the idea, but also appears to be a latent homosexual. Or, perhaps, not even latent in Greene’s mind.

And so we have another example of Greene’s fascination with characters torn by internal conflict. Pinkie hates physical contact with women, but must seduce Rose. And Rose wants to live with Pinkie, but soon is convinced she must die with him. Indeed, the climactic moment when Pinkie plots with her to commit a suicide pact together—and we know he does not intend to fulfill his side of the bargain—is the most intense and most accomplished scene in the book.

The resolution of that scene, however, is not convincing, for Greene has taken the easy way out. He has three characters arrive fortuitously on the scene, and interrupt Pinkie’s plans. The most important of the three is Ida, whom we have been following at intervals throughout the novel. She was with the initial murder victim at the start of the novel, and seems to feel some responsibility for letting it happen. She is also, in contrast to the lovers, a very secular person, a believer in Right vs., Wrong, rather than, like the Catholic lovers, in Good vs. Evil. In any event, she is intent on seeing that justice is done and that Rose is saved. Indeed, she has been in pursuit of Pinkie for the second half of the novel. Which does lead to her presence in the climactic scene, when she arrives with a little help from the author.

The Raven of This Gun for Hire and Pinkie here are blood brothers. Each personifies evil, and each is involved with a girl who loves them and prefers to see the goodness inside them. J. M. Coetzee also points out that a death in This Gun prompts the killing that Pinkie commits as revenge at the opening of this novel.

One does ask how Greene could be so effective in portraying these characters on the underside of life. Granted, he wished to explore the nature of evil, and evil flourishes most on that underside. Sherry’s biography clearly shows how Greene researched the Brighton scene, using the race course, the hotels and bars, even the Kolley Kibber character who leaves cards all over Brighton and offers a prize to whomever first identifies him. He also cites actress Mae West, whom Greene recently reviewed, as a model for the spirited, blowsy Ida. As for his knowledge of the evil in these underground characters, Sherry says Greene “was tapping his own fundamental view of mankind and religious belief. What he is demonstrating in the novel is the limitations of religious belief which do not accept the existence of innate evil.”

The title, Brighton Rock, is never explained within the novel. It is a type of hard candy, and critics have assumed that the first murder was committed by stuffing the candy down the victim’s throat. This would make sense, and the title also reflects the hard life for these characters in Brighton. But Greene never makes clear why he chose it, as he chose his other titles.

It seems clear that Brighton Rock marked the turning point in Greene’s literary career. He realized that his new Catholic faith offered the entre with which to explore the contradictions in life between evil and sin on one hand, and human innocence and love on the other. And for literary purposes, this was most present in the sexual desire that drove his own life—desire as an expression of pleasure and also as an expression of love.

This is an ugly work on the surface, in its concentration on evil, in its unsympathetic characters, and in the hard metaphors of its style. But it offers a key to understanding the works to come, especially Power, Affair, and the plays. This is where the external world is replaced by the internal world—and by sin, redemption, and pity. It is where Greene finds his true subject: the contradictions within the human mind and the human soul. (February, 2016)