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)

Someone, by Alice McDermott

I should get tired of writing the phrase: This is a beautiful novel. But I cannot, not when it is a beautiful novel. Even if this 2013 work is not structured, as I prefer, chronologically. Even if it is not concerned with story. Even if it is concerned with just one person, its narrator, Marie, from when she is seven years old to when she is enduring the infirmities of old age.

But even more, I believe, this novel is concerned with life. As personified by Marie. Which is probably the reason for the title: Someone. Marie is someone, someone McDermott makes us concerned about. Not for what she is, as much as for what she experiences. Which is life.

Yes, she is plain and nearsighted. And when jilted by a supposed boy friend, she is near despair. ”Who’s going to love me?” she asks. And her kind brother Gabe answers: “Someone. Someone will.” And, yes, this gives the novel its title; but it is meant to do more, I believe. It is meant to give Marie a more generic life, to make her represent more than herself, to make her represent everyone. To make her represent the life that everyone experiences.

And this is why McDermott does not tell Marie’s story directly. Why she jumps around chronologically. We are not to focus on Marie. We are to focus on the life she lives. As representative of the life we all live.

Not that it is easy to get used to a structure in which childhood, adolescence, motherhood, and old age do not appear in sequence. That is, we experience her first heartbreak and her eventual marriage; her brother’s brief stint as a Catholic priest, his loss of his vocation, and his breakdown; her parents’ deaths; her “temporary” ten-year job in a funeral home; life at home with squabbling children; and the changing world of Irish-Americans. Marie labels everyone as fools for thinking anyone cares about us in a world in which we are victims of suffering, injustice, and mortality. But the novel suggests many do care. And the life of fools that we endure is a condition of this life that the novel celebrates.

Because Marie’s story is not told in sequence, we read of her pregnancy before her marriage, of her grown children before she gives birth. As a result, we read to learn not what will happen next to Marie, but to learn how what has already happened grew out of her earlier life. Thus, there is a different kind of suspense, based on a different kind of reader curiosity.

As with life, this novel reaches no conclusion. The ending recalls the opening pages, but what really happens when Marie recalls the death of a childhood friend from a fall on cellar stairs, as she herself climbs down her stairs in the dark? Is it that she has just helped to protect her brother Gabe’s life? And now: “We’ll see what happens next.” Who knows? Just as I was not sure why her beloved brother left the priesthood and later was confined to an asylum. Yes, there were hints and rumors, but, as in life, there are no sure answers; and McDermott offers an anecdote by husband Tom to stress this.

It also happens that Gabe is the most interesting character here, undoubtedly because he changes and yet there is no explanation for those changes. Because of the author’s skill and compassion, however, we feel not frustration as a reader but a greater understanding of Marie’s own concern.

One can only conclude that this uncertainty is part of the ordinary life that the author is depicting here. For that ordinariness is at the heart of this novel. Indeed nothing extraordinary occurs here—nothing besides death, childbirth, madness, and love—that would make Marie’s life different from any other. And the key to conveying that ordinariness is a prose style that is simple, that itself is ordinary, that focuses on the presumably insignificant details, on intimate family scenes, on familiarity with both physical and emotional pain, and, overall, on an empathy for the human condition.

Kevin Spinale sums this up in America. “It is the story of woman’s life—someone named Marie.…Yet, the majority of the story is empty, emphasizing the beauty of the story that is given—how fragile and subtle someone’s life is. How indefinite and ordinary and beautiful anyone’s life can be, if there is someone, anyone with whom one can share it.”

And Roxanna Robinson adds in the Washington Post: “Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief. Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it’s this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom and caritas, that’s at the heart of Alice McDermott’s masterpiece.”

This is not a novel that required research, or a special knowledge. It simply required a way of life to have been lived, and then to capture it in a simple prose that matches its subject matter. It required a middle-class Catholic life lived among a changing urban society. And an author who understands, identifies with, and sympathizes with that way of life.

Interestingly, this is a novel written out of a Catholic sensibility but not one in which Catholicism plays a major role. Its heroine Marie, indeed, rebels against her faith’s restrictions, just as she does against the conventional wisdom of others, including her parents and her doctors. Even when her brother Gabe leaves the priesthood, it is accepted rather than explored.

In an interview, McDermott calls herself a contrarian. One wonders how much her Catholicism has contributed to that sense of herself. For the Catholic way of life is not only separate from the mainstream of traditional American society, it is also out of the mainstream of the traditional literary world. Catholics, with their own values, look at life differently. And surely this novel looks at an American life differently from most current novels. I refer not to the structure but to the ordinary life shown here in that structure.

To sum up, may this not be the capstone of McDermott’s career. But it could be. For it simplifies a novel down to its basics. It is about one life, and yet about all lives. It focuses on the ordinary, but the ordinary that encompasses all our lives. It is about the limitations to our knowledge of others, rather than the usual omnipotent delineation of others by the author. And it is about writing simply, without the flourishes of an author calling attention to herself. (July, 2014)