Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Musings on Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, the thirst for meaning and the recipe for a good novel

This review contains no spoilers, nothing you won't find out in the first fifty pages or so.

Why I read the book: I have read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana before and I thought it was an amazing idea with the perfect conclusion and terribly dragging middle. Recently I stumbled upon a comment Viktoria left on an old blog post of mine, saying that Foucault's Pendulum was her favourite Eco and a much-needed antidote after she pulled through The Da Vinci Code. Too intriguing a description to ignore.

About the book: Foucault's Pendulum is a novel by Italian writer Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver. Eco spent eight years writing the book and the years of research is evident in every word.

One of the genres dominating the book world for the past decade has been thrillers involving secret societies. Foucault's Pendulum has been called "the thinking man's The Da Vinci Code", as both books no doubt deal with the same theme, but in remarkably different ways. Foucault's Pendulum can be seen as a sort of parody and analysis of our gullibility and constant search for meaning.

When I read this interview, I delighted in a joke Eco made upon being asked if The Da Vinci Code was a bizarre little off-shoot of Foucault's Pendulum, saying he had read it, but-

"The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters' fascinations - the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist."

Summary: Picture a quaint Italian bar in Milan. 1970s. Casaubon, a scholar researching the Knights Templar, meets Jacopo Belbo, a failed writer who has turned to publishing. Belbo and his cabalist friend Diottalevi are editors at a vanity press. Casaubon joins the firm as an expert on the history of secret occult societies.

Bored of reading scholarly manuscripts on far-fetched conspiracy theories, one day, the three editors decide to invent their own conspiracy. As a joke. They call it "the Plan." It is a hoax that connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups throughout history and promises existence of a lost treasure. According to the fake Plan, the key to this treasure lies at a point in a museum in Paris, the place where the Foucault Pendulum is housed. What starts out as a game becomes all too real when existing secret groups begin to believe the Plan, going to desperate measures to track the treasure.

In the present day, where the book opens, Belbo has gone missing and our narrator Casaubon is in hiding, fearing for his very life...

THEMES Foucault's Pendulum is more than critique on history and culture. In the guise of a parody on society, the novel presents each of our struggles for identity, for purpose. The book talks about that concept in history and philosophy of the ultimate quest, the true knowledge, the lost treasure, you name it. It is the idea that has travelled all over the world and throughout all time, the idea that has always been present. This concept, the book shows, is what forms secret societies and occult and religious orders, whether in reality or in the mass imaginations.

The novel dissects conspiracy theories and categorizes them as not social phenomena but personal ones. The thirst for an all-encompassing answer is unquenchable, and every individual's desperation to satisfy an unending curiosity, an end which is by definition out of reach, is what makes one human.

Most books that revolve around religious cults and secret societies like the Knights of the Temple use a small twist on the canon and give an alternate version of history. Admittedly, I have only read a few such books, other than the Robert Langdon series I remember The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. But what these generally do is weave a legendary puzzle or prophecy into a modern-day murder mystery or theft and have anthropologists and semiologists study clues and scriptures to find solutions.

Most books about conspiracy buffs are books for conspiracy buffs. Because these books become willing participants of the crazy conspiring instead of questioning its existence. Foucault's Pendulum does the latter, its focus lies in discovering the psychological root of secret societies and occult theories rather than piecing together another hypothesis through scraps of historical evidence. And what better way to engage in an introspection of the psyche than to take worldly sceptics and make you watch them transition into reluctant, and soon demented, believers.

TECHNIQUE (Plot, Characters, Writing Style) I have noticed lately that I get somewhat Literature-student about certain aspects of fiction. So I have separated my rants into sections that the weary reader can skip if not interested.

Characters: As I said, this is book about people. Eco uses great technique to bring out the many facets of his characters. Take for instance Jacopo Belbo. He is the kind of man I would be instantly attracted to. He is witty and on the whole, lost in his own erratic world. At Pilade's, the bar where the Casaubon meets him, Belbo is the sort that sits in a corner and judges people. He makes snide jokes with a straight face, does not appear to be bothered if no one finds them funny. He has opinions, lots of them. Firm and fixed. He puts on an air of nonchalance, but is in fact very particular and selective about making his views known. Belbo can be exasperating, often is, and though he makes a cool sceptic, he lacks any real strength. When he falls in love, he appears kind of bumbling, under her spell. And yet, in spite or partly because of his awkward but frequently self-aggrandizing ways, he is a man I would find charming. I got through half the book before I realized I had no idea how he looked, I wondered if Eco had even bothered to describe his appearance, and I didn't care.

But you don't only see Belbo through the narrator's lens. Interspersed through the narrative are his own writings. These reveal a curious detail about human behaviour that most of us ignore when reading books - that you cannot really know a character, unless you have been inside his mind. That any story with only one narrator is essentially incomplete or misleading. In today's writing world, multiple points of view or shifting points of view are frowned upon as taking the easy way out. I disagree, and this book illustrates why. Whereas to the narrator Belbo seems harmlessly frivolous and whimsical, his self-indulgent pompous raving makes him sound grossly delusional. And this revelation tells you a little something about Casaubon too, his point of view becomes clearer when in contrast with another. And you begin to question his reliability as the narrator. That is an intriguing approach to character-building, I think.

The women, on the other hand, are something of a problem for me. I kept expecting more out of Belbo's muse and recurring lover Lorena Pellegrini and she failed to capture me till the very end. In a book that has so much to do with personae it is a let-down to find this maudlin a symbol of seductive womanly wisdom. A quasi-reincarnation of the goddess of love Sophie, Lorenza is beautiful and decadent, but she never transcends the stereotype. The gorgeous untameable woman supposedly has a discerning intellect, and she does seem to know it but never quite manages to show it. You are told over and over that she is the ultimate muse, both “the saint and the prostitute,” but really, Lorenza is just a flimsy paper doll of a character. 

Style: Eco's writing is vastly exaggerated to mock the pseudo-intellectuality typical of the scholarly world. It is laden with allusions and symbols, reminiscent of The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie. The esoteric lushness of the prose is not for everybody. However the book avoids sounding pretentious and redeems itself with witty quips on things each of us can relate to. I read this wonderful book review today, which talks about the "good bits" in books. The reviewer says, "they’re moments of fiction with the observational acuity, the immediate formal rightness, of a successful joke. They generate a feeling of surprised recognition by illuminating things we've noticed but never noticed ourselves noticing." Foucault's Pendulum is full of these, which contribute to making more fluid an otherwise trudging writing style. To illustrate my point, I give you an excerpt from the point of view of Casaubon - 

That day, I began to be incredulous. Or, rather, I regretted having been credulous. I regretted having allowed myself to be borne away by a passion of the mind. Such is credulity.

Not that the incredulous person doesn't believe in anything. It’s just that he doesn't believe in everything. Or he believes in one thing at a time. He believes a second thing only if it somehow follows from the first thing. He is nearsighted and methodical, avoiding wide horizons. If two things don’t fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there must be a third thing that connects them, that’s credulity.

Incredulity doesn't kill curiosity; it encourages it. Though distrustful of logical chains of ideas, I loved the polyphony of ideas. As long as you don't believe in them, the collision of two ideas - both false - can create a pleasing interval, a kind of diabolus in musica. I had no respect for some ideas people were willing to stake their lives on, but two or three ideas that I did not respect might still make a nice melody. Or have a good beat, and if it was jazz, all the better.

"You live on the surface," Lia told me years later. "You sometimes seem profound, but it’s only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth, solidity. That solidity would collapse if you tried to stand it up."

"Are you saying I'm superficial?"

"No," she answered. "What others call profundity is only a tesseract, a four-dimensional cube. You walk in one side and come out another, and you're in their universe, which can't coexist with yours."

Plot: Now here lies my greatest issue with the book. It is not so much a complaint as a question, to you - what would you say is the right recipe for a good work of fiction? For me, to be honest, this book made a far greater read than something of the likes of Dan Brown's novels - which, I admit, I had thoroughly enjoyed. Foucault's Pendulum has a warped ending, that is all the more disappointing after a tense build up. But I deem books with absurd plot twists or snail-speed stories, which provide personality and rich writing, still more worthy of my time than swift but well crafted plots that allow little space for detailing or self-reflection. But I understand and appreciate the attraction of either.

I would be a fool to say Foucault's Pendulum is a better work of fiction than its quick thrilling contemporaries. It isn’t. Eco is undoubtedly an erudite thinker and deserving of all his critical and popular acclaim. But, in my humble opinion, he is not a good storyteller. It wouldn’t wholly surprise me if people whose tastes usually match mine find The Da Vinci Code better than Foucault’s Pendulum. Because unlike Eco, Brown has nailed that trick of writing that makes you stay up late into the night, eyes glued to the book, both unable to put it down and unwilling to finish it and end the ride. And storytelling is not easy.

There were multiple times reading this novel when I began to lose my way in the maze of symbolism and heaving philosophy, and had to put the book down and rest my eyes and mind. I don't think it was simply clunky translation that made me do this. There were pages and pages of dialogue and description that made me crave for action. I was also aware throughout that there was much more to glean from the book than one read would let me. 

All these factors took away some of the sheer abandon and enjoyment only good fiction can provide. Reading this book felt, at times, like a chore. In the end, it was worth it, but I wouldn't lie and say the experience could not have been better. Perfection to me would be an author who has both, the storytelling techniques of a thriller writer and the sagacious attention to detail of a scholar – any suggestions?

According to Eco every detail he has included is crucial to understanding his work. But still fresh in my memory are long winded monologues, chunks of description, lists of data that made me wish he had had a stricter editor. And it is no surprise that this was true of the other book I read by Eco. I really like Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, but the staunch philosophizing makes it a tough book to love. 


Unknown said...

That's a wonderfully detailed review but it reminded me all too well why I dragged myself through The Name of the Rose. I found that book difficult to grasp and this one sounds similar. Just reading the first two passages you have quoted made me laugh out loud. They sound whimsical and profound at the same time. Interesting paradox.
I haven't read any of Dan Brown's books. Maybe one day.

I would take a gripping story over literary writing every day. One that manages to combine the two would be perfect but if I had to choose....
That's why I love King's writing, he knows how to tell a good story to keep you glued to the book, and he doesn't need purple prose to achieve that.

Divers and Sundry said...

This has been on my tbr shelf for a long time. I think his wordiness is what has kept me from picking it up. Your post encourages me, though. I should make it my next read. Thx!

Viktoria Berg said...

This is an excellent analysis, and thanks for the link to the "good bits"-essay, I enjoyed that very much. Actually, you have provided me with some much welcomed insight into my own reading drive, which is, I think, all about wanting to find the good bits and I realize that all my favourite novels have barely any plot at all! I now want to read Hollinghurst very badly... ;-)

Priya said...

Delia, you are right about King. But you know what, I would put King in the category of writers who do both - tell a good story, manage to be profound and detailed without taking away from the pace. In the Stephen King books I have read, he has put a lot of effort into characters along with story, don't you think?
I suppose that is Eco's style of writing in all his books, and if I were to read another, I would have to "drag myself through it" too. But I am still curious to try one more...

Divers and Sundry - It is worth a try, even if you don't finish it, you will have enjoyed many of the "good bits!"

Viktoria - Isn't that just a wonderful essay. It's such a unique way to review a book, I too want to read Hollinghurst after reading that. And also, a book I found written by the writer of the essay - The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth. Thanks for stopping by!

Unknown said...

I don't really see King's writing as profound. He's certainly not a purple prose writer. But he does write in a very down to earth accessible way, and yes, he does pay attention to details. It's the way he creates his characters, he makes them real somehow and makes you care about what happens to them.

Priya said...

I'm surprised you say that Delia. I wouldn't call King particularly literary but he does have moments of sheer profundity, especially in later books like 11.22.63 or Joyland or Mr Mercedes maybe. What you say about his characters is of course hi best feature! :)

Unknown said...

Well, 11,22.63 and Joyland were not my favorites so I probably missed on the profundity there. :) I haven't read Mr Mercedes yet.
I prefer his darker novels.
Many writers have moments of profundity in their works, King included, but I wouldn't characterize him as profound. Obviously different readers will see different things.

Jason C said...

You really weren't kidding about putting in that extra effort to make any new posts worthwhile. A most impressive review!

The comparisons you make to "The Da Vinci Code" have piqued my interest but Umberto Eco is one of those authors that I remain apprehensive about reading. Maybe its the length of his works or subject matter that he tackles, dunno. I don't mind philosophical digressions as long as it is compelling enough but it seems Eco doesn't quite succeed in that department here. I'll put this one down on the "maybe list" but doesn't he have anything a little less daunting for newcomers?

The only other author that I can think of at the top of my head who is good at balancing great story telling with a host of complex ideas is Philip K. Dick but even he has delivered his fair share of duds.

Priya said...

Jason, the moment I made a big fuss about blogging being a chore and decided not to care, it became much easier not to! I went kind of overboard writing this, but it is a book that really makes you think. I know what you mean, and I do agree he may not be as compelling as many writers out there - but he is still worth a read. I have heard that The Name of the Rose is his easiest novel, and so the most popular. Maybe you could start with that? Meanwhile, I'll add Philip K. Dick to my TBR...

Brian Joseph said...

I have been reading some of your posts Priya. You have a fantastic blog.

I love this book. As you alluded to, the parallels to the Da Vinci Code are striking. I personally liked this a lot better then the Dan Brown books.

I too had difficulty the first time around but a second reading was much more enjoyable. I got so much more out of this on the repeat.

I really like your take on the characters. I did not give them enough attention when I read this,

Priya said...

Thank you, Brian. It is usual for me to get most involved in a book's characters. Maybe if I read it once again like you have, I will look past them and get much more out of the book too. :) I liked it better than Dan Brown's novels too, over all, but I can see why Brown can be more accessible to certain readers..

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