Jim Elkins's Reviews > The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
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did not like it
bookshelves: italian

I read parts of this (I couldn't read the middle hundred pages) as part of a project to read novels with images. Eco calls this "An Illustrated Novel," partly alluding to the comic books that he remembers from his childhood. I found the book intolerable.

1: The narrator's knowledgeable voice

Well-read and scholarly authors, like Canetti or Richard Powers, tend to be praised by people who think they have endless erudition. I think that's a mistaken way to evaluate an author, because no author I know has that really "peregrine" erudition. Eco is limited, and so was Canetti. ("Peregrine" is a word Leopardi used to describe his own learning, and it fits; in my book, only people like Arnaldo Momigliano are genuinely bewilderingly erudite. Everyone else is obviously mortal.)

The problem here, aside from readers' reactions, is that Eco himself hows off continuously, unconsciously, happily, as if he wasn't showing off at all. Here's a typical passage. The main character has woken in a hospital, and he can't remember his name.

"And yet I did have it on the tip of my tongue. After a moment I offered the most obvious reply.
"My name is Arthur Gordon Pym."
"That isn't your name."
Of course, Pym was someone else.

[Note how coy this is: the name is part of the title of Edgar Allen Poe's only novel. Eco doesn't quite tell us, but alludes to the fact that the name does mean something. He's already done this on the very first page of his book, alluding to Bruges-la-Morte, the most important predecessor of his own book, but not quite telling readers what he's doing. It's a wink and a nod for people in the know.]

"Call me... Ishmael?"
"Your name is not Ishmael. Try harder."

[This is supposed to be comedy, because readers are expected to get this allusion.]

"A word. Like running into a wall. Saying Euclid or Ishmael was easy... I tried to explain. "It doesn't feel like something solid, it's like walking through a fog."
"What's the fog like?" he asked.
"The fog on the bristling hills climbs drizzling up the sky, and down below the mistral howls and whitens the sea... What's the fog like?"

[Again, coy: he's quoting, but this time it isn't at all clear what the source is. It's a puzzle, like on "Mastermind" or NPR.]

"You put me at a disadvantage... I'm only a doctor. And besides, this is April, I can't show you any fog. Today's the twenty-fifth of April."
"April is the cruelest month."

[Another in-joke, which readers will be expected to get. Eco makes sure we know now everyone gets jokes like this:]

"I'm not very well-read, but I think that's a quotation." (pp. 6-7)

The book is like this throughout. Eco apparently doesn't think he's boasting, but he is. He also lectures: there are long pages with medical diagnoses, bibliographic citations, historical references, etc. What's intolerable here is that Eco only half-realizes he's showing off. He is also exuberant about all kinds of cultural detritus, and that's great -- it's the semiotician of his early work. I liked pp. 108-110, where he tells us about obscure torture techniques, and then gives us lists of flags, musical instruments, weaponry, heraldry... he has no idea when to stop, which is great. But often what he does is either unconscious boasting, presented as the products of a full imagination, or else professorial lecturing, presented as an interest in the variegated facts of the world.

The impetus to appear scholarly overflows the narration, because the book ends with a long list of sources for the illustrations. This list wasn't necessary: it goes beyond what copyright restrictions would require, and so it becomes a sort of scholarly apparatus, as if it was written by the narrator. It's also, in the end, more showing off.

All this is just one reason I found the book unreadable. The other reason has to do with the images.

2. The images

The use of images is ham-fisted, for at least four reasons:

(A) The use of color.
Eco is lucky -- and nearly unique -- in that his previous sales enabled him to produce this book in full color. It's one of just a few novels with color illustrations, and the fact that they are of good quality means that he can conjure objects of nostalgia differently than, say, Sebald. When Eco's character finds a cocoa tin in an attic, he can show it in full color and detail, and bring it into the present in a way that an author like Sebald couldn't (I don't mean he would have always wanted to, but the option wasn't available). But Eco makes very little use of this; most every object in this book is scanned, at apparently high resolution, and simply presented to us.

(B) Reproducing objects without backgrounds.
There are a few photos of three-dimensional objects in the book, but they are cropped white all around, as in catalogues. The reason for that decision isn't acknowledged in the book; it makes them look like objects in catalogues.

(C) The effect of cropping.
All the other hundreds of illustrations are cropped tightly to the edges of the image or cover, or else they're details. Some are arranged in rows and columns (pp. 138, 140), making them look like illustrations in a reference book. These layout and design choices are again odd, and unremarked by the narrator. Why allude to scholarly or reference works? After all, the narrator is rummaging through boxes and piles of papers in an attic -- he isn't supposed to be preparing a book for publication. In fact, Eco was preparing a book for publication, and that fact intrudes on the fiction. (One image is reproduced with its tattered margins, the way Anne Carson does; that makes it seem precious, but that isn't remarked on either.)

(D) Image manipulation.
The final episode of the book is an hallucination: the narrator imagines himself in a drama with comic book characters. On pp. 422-45, full-page illustrations from comics are matched with facing pages of text. It's the only time in the book where the text isn't full page, because Eco wants to match it to the pictures. From the list of illustrations it's apparent that Eco put these together himself from a number of different comics. They are credited as "montages by the author." But as montages, they're ham-fisted: characters are just pasted together, without even the adjustments that an artist like Erro makes when he does collages of comics. Many of the images have vignetting -- Eco used a blur function in Photoshop or some other application, and it needs to be said -- in the 21st century, when everyone has some photo-editing skills, and in the context of a novel that is all about images -- that he used the blur function very badly. He could have capitalized on this, for example by saying his narrator's mind was blurred in a simple fashion, but he apparently does not think his photo manipulation requires comment. But it does: these images are as awkwardly done as William Gass's graphics in his novel "The Tunnel."

I once had a chance to ask Gass about those illustrations. Why, I wanted to know, do the images all look like mid-1980s computer graphics, with thick outlines and primary colors? Because, he said, the narrator inhabits that world. I think that would have been a good answer if the narrator of "The Tunnel" had a computer, with a graphics program, and was producing images as best he could. But there is no such theme in the book. Instead the illustrations in "The Tunnel" appear the way Eco's illustrations do in "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna": as the products of rudimentary digital skills, which appear to their makers as adequate, but which cannot appear that way to anyone who pays as much attention to images as the authors themselves ask readers to do.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
August 1, 2013 – Shelved
August 1, 2013 – Shelved as: italian
August 1, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by elithea (new)

elithea i have found eco unreadable ever since the book that was clearly spinoza, without ever mentioning spinoza, caused me to throw it across the room. i find him about on a par with dishonest dan brown. only i have always thought that, rather than boasting, eco's dishonesty relies on the fact that people WON'T ever possibly get his "allusions" because he, himself, is so damned smart... (brown i always figured stumbled on what he thought was arcane material and figured he'd exploit it for all he was worth. still dishonest, but less cynical.) considerng this, i imagine eco rendered illustrations he figured were "good enough" for his audience.

message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 1 star

Jim Elkins e wrote: "i imagine eco rendered illustrations he figured were "good enough" for his audience...."
Yes, that sounds exactly right.

Joshua Thanks for the line about Momigliano. I had not heard of him before, and have now started reading Alien Wisdom.

message 4: by Jim (new) - rated it 1 star

Jim Elkins Great, I'm delighted.

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