February was the cruellest month - Mari Biella

Goodbye and good riddance, February 2016. You were a hideous month, a month that robbed us of two great writers: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee.

I’m not going to attempt a critique of Eco’s and Lee’s respective contributions to literature – that’s already been done, and done far better than I could do it. This is just a very small personal tribute to two writers who made a big difference to me. It’s a small, belated ‘thank you’ to two people I’ll never be able to thank in person.

Umberto Eco. Image credit: Bogaerts, Rob / Anefo | Wikimedia Commons

I gobbled up Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in just a few sittings. It was for this mediaeval murder mystery, of course, that Eco was best known, at least in the English-speaking world. The novel was an instant, international success, and I like to believe that this was – at least in part – because Eco, in these dumbed-down times, never underestimated his readers’ intelligence. He was an unabashed intellectual, a professor of semiotics at Bologna University; he frequently commented on political and cultural life in Italy, and his remarks were always pertinent, always enlightening in some way. A living encyclopaedia, his books drew upon a dizzying range of cultural, historical and philosophical influences.

St Michael's Abbey in Piedmont, supposedly the inspiration for the monastery in The Name of the Rose. Image credit: Elio Pallard | Wikimedia Commons

I also devoured Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, in which Eco – a rationalist who nevertheless found the occult and the arcane irresistible – invoked secret societies, cabals and conspiracy theories – several years before Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code romped up the bestseller charts. It’s a dense, rich, almost insanely erudite novel; Anthony Burgess famously suggested that it needed its own index. Some find Foucault’s Pendulum a more-or-less empty exercise in symbology and cryptology; others, like me, love it, both as a satirical take on conspiracy theories, and as a dazzling mystery-thriller in its own right.

For all his intellectual prowess, Eco delighted in the ephemeral and in pop culture, gleefully deconstructing cartoons and comic books, believing that no cultural artefact should be denied exegesis (Italy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon world, does not generally observe rigid demarcations between high-brow and low-brow culture). He impishly pointed out that one day Harold Robbins might be considered a greater novelist than Umberto Eco; but then Eco always downplayed his own literary achievements. He was a philosopher, he declared; writing novels was just a hobby, a harmless little frippery, a holiday from genuine intellectual effort. He once happily suggested that his readers were ‘masochists’. He was being too modest. I love his books, and I’m not noted for my masochism – quite the opposite, in fact.

While Eco was consolidating his reputation as a prolific writer (in both the fictional and academic realms), Harper Lee, on the other side of the Atlantic, seemed to have resigned herself to having just one published book under her belt. Admittedly, this is not so much of a problem if that one book is To Kill a Mockingbird. Following the book’s publication and instant success, Lee quietly kept out of the public eye and steadfastly refused to release any further books. There were apparently other manuscripts that she worked on, but was never really happy with; sometimes she insisted that, having said everything she set out to say, she felt no need to say it all again. Perhaps this is what happens when a writer’s talent and vision crystallise and form something as good as Mockingbird. You’ve done it once; why do it again?

Harper Lee. Public domain image | Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the master stroke of To Kill a Mockingbird was that it was written from a child’s eye view. Children are often mystified by their elders’ bizarre behaviour, never more so than when they’re presiding over the unthinking condemnation of a blameless man. ‘Children are children,’ the novel notes, ‘but they can spot an evasion faster than adults.’ They can spot a great deal else too, much of it unflattering to adult society, which is perhaps why this novel is a perennial favourite amongst younger readers – a group of which I was once a member. The combination of adult perspective and child’s voice must be tricky (I think; I’ve never attempted it myself), but Lee gets it perfectly, effortlessly right.

Adoration of Lee’s novel was not universal, of course, and criticisms of Mockingbird ranged from the reasoned and reasonable (with its ‘white saviour’ theme, perhaps it actually reinforces racial stereotypes), to the dismissive and plain nasty (such as the persistent rumour that Truman Capote wrote the book and then, inexplicably, allowed Lee to attach her name to it). Some people find Lee’s vision saccharine and naive, the characters one-dimensional. But for many readers, the character of Atticus Finch – having little faith in victory but quietly doing what he believes to be right anyway – became a moral compass.

Then in 2015, quite unexpectedly, there came a startling announcement: after so many years, Lee was planning to publish a sequel to Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman was, from the off, surrounded by controversy. Some wondered whether publishers were taking advantage of the by now frail Lee, and whether she had actually ever wanted the book published. The controversy heated up considerably when Watchman hit the shelves. Was it really a sequel, as had been claimed, or just a discarded early draft of Mockingbird? And what had happened to Atticus? The wise, moral man we thought we knew had been transformed into a curmudgeonly racist. Was this more in line with Lee’s original intention? Had Mockingbird, in its earlier incarnations, been a darker, more complex and ambiguous, work than the novel we’re familiar with?

Probably only Lee knew the definitive answers to these questions. Whatever her intentions, though, I hope that we’ll continue to regard the original Atticus Finch as one of our moral Watchmen; now, as much as ever before, we need characters like him.

I hope, above all, that Watchman was published because Lee really wanted it to be published. And I hope that both Lee and Eco will be remembered with fondness and admiration for generations to come.


Wendy H. Jones said…
We have indeed lost two literary greats. You have brilliantly captured the essence of their work and what made them the literary figures they are. To Kill a Mockingbird certainly helped to shape my thinking as a child
Jan Needle said…
Fine piece, Mari.
Lydia Bennet said…
A heartfelt tribute to two giants in different ways. Interesting that one book, or even one poem, could be enough in the past to make someone's reputation for life - nowadays that success would be followed by intense pressure to produce more and more. I wonder how many writers would write better books if they had more time to write them than the one a year often demanded by publishers. Not that a brilliant book can't be written in that time, but perhaps some of them are rushed. Another advantage of indie/self-pub I suppose!
Bill Kirton said…
Excellent and enjoyable, Mari. For my sins, I read Mockingbird for the first time only last year and, like millions of others, was captivated by it. It was easy to read, totally absorbing and, well, it just seemed perfect. I shamefacedly admit, however, that I found Eco a bit of a struggle. I agree he was a genius but at times, it was hard work.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes Eco could be hard going. I remember the earliest, radio 4, version of Alan Partridge, they had a sketch about Eco and Alan's critique of Rose was 'don't drop it on your foot'.
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone. It's an interesting question, whether a writer these days could build their reputation on one book - followed by a long, stubborn silence. I agree, Valerie, that that's one area in which self-pubbing offers a definite advantage; but then again, when you look at some of the advice that's regularly exchanged amongst indies, 'write more, more often' seems to be right up there at the top of the list. I don't know!
glitter noir said…
Moving tribute indeed, Mari. Thank you.
Umberto Tosi said…
I always enjoy your succinct and insightful literary commentaries, Mari, and this is no exception. Thank you!
'Name of the Rose' used to be one of my favourite books - I read it ages ago, and now feel a need to re-read and see if I still like it. Lovely tribute.
Dennis Hamley said…
'Name of the Rose' was a huge influence on me. It lies behind my The Long Journey of Joslin de lay and, in fact, was an subconscious driver of 'Hell's Kitchen', which I only realised was a sad and subliminal way of traversing similar ground when I realised I had no alternative to ending the book with a fire in a library! And yes, 'Foucault's Pendulum' was dizzying. Dan Brown's efforts are an insult to Eco's memory.
Fran B said…
I was very interested in the controversy around 'Watchman'. I blogged about it at:

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