Let the cork out

John Bayley

  • Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
    Secker, 641 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 436 14096 9
  • The Open Work by Umberto Eco, translated by Anna Cancogni
    Radius, 285 pp, £9.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 09 175896 3

Stendhal, or Lieutenant Henri Beyle, as he then was, irritated his shivering companions round the campfire on the retreat from Moscow by chuckling aloud over a tattered copy of Voltaire’s Diatribe of Dr Akakia. But laughing at human folly is more often a comfortable activity reserved for the study and the reading-room. At one moment in Foucault’s Pendulum someone snaps his fingers excitedly and says: ‘It’s obvious. Reich was definitely a Templar.’ ‘Everyone was, except us,’ retorts his colleague. That is indeed the point. Hermetic investigation always reveals that every secret society and mystic body of lore, from the Masons and the Illuminati to the Elders of Zion and the Order of the Golden Dawn, turns out to have a higher or perhaps a subterranean unity. Freud of course was a Mason or a Templar too. The author and his reader, in a cheerful conspiracy of two, are the only people outside all this kind of thing.

And since outside it, all the more able to participate in it with readerly and writerly zest. Umberto Eco seems to be having it both ways, as he did in The Name of the Rose, offering mystery, quest and romance, while retaining, for himself, and for us, the privilege of the higher frivolity. It is in a sense an old trick, which his fellow-countryman Ariosto practised in epic verse with especial felicity. But it is also very up-to-date, conforming with contemporary critical specifications for all literary activity, and yet done with wit, learning, bravura and a sense of style worthy of the culture and society that produced the Renaissance. As Sterne’s sentimental traveller might have said, they do these things better in Italy.

Like The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum shoots at every fictional goal in sight: satire, fantasy, sophisticated fun, cautionary tale for the times. By scoring each time it could still be said to lose the match, for novels that have something for everybody usually have no soul of their own. The story does not take itself seriously enough to be Science Fiction, nor does it possess that deep inward dottiness which gives an imaginative persona to The Lord of the Rings, King Solomon’s Mines, The Hound of the Baskervilles. At the same time, it is supremely chic. Its deftness and scholarly style go with great good humour, more like Ariosto’s than Voltaire’s; and while its deadpan exposition of historic cults and mysteries is both hilarious and absorbing, its nuggets of generalising ‘wisdom’, most frequent in the book’s final chapters, never lapse into pretentiousness. The narrator-hero Casaubon reflects at the end, as he awaits probable liquidation at the hands of the Masters of the Hollow World, that ‘the certainty is that there is nothing to understand.’ ‘I understood the Kingdom and was one with it,’ he continues, eating a peach and contemplating the vines where once the dinosaurs wandered about. ‘The rest is only cleverness. Invent; invent the plan, Casaubon. That’s what everyone has done, to explain the dinosaurs and the peaches.’

The rest is only cleverness. And the cleverness is what matters, at least to the masculine intellect, whether it is inventing atom bombs, spawning secret cults that all turn out to be the same, or writing novels. Women are rather different: they have children, and the hero’s mistress Lia, who has been helping his research, has one in the course of the book, giving him a different attitude to the way things are. In Eco’s sprightly narrative this is less banal than it sounds, but it does pin things down. Something is going on beyond the unbearable lightness of writing: procreation, and cultivating the garden. But the novel, as novel, is not going to give up as easily as that. The surprise it has in store is that beyond the male need to invent – history, science, metaphysics, mysticism – something really is going on, an Evil Principle, the Diabolicals, whom human ingenuity discovers almost by accident in the course of its asinine craze for diversion and self-deception.

The experienced reader will see at once what motif has been made use of here – one that used often to be encountered in ghost stories. Those on the quest, sleeping in the haunted house or whatever, are doing it for fun: but beyond all the pretences and ghostly properties something really is there. The game begins with Colonel Ardenti, an old standby of the thriller mystery with his brilliantined hair, maroon socks and Adolphe Menjou moustache, who calls on the editors of a Milan publishing house and reveals to them his discovery of a coded message about a Templar plan, centuries old and of diabolical complexity, which could tap a mystic source of power far greater than atomic energy. Living as they do in the world of books, ghost writers and retreatments, the editors are delighted with the Colonel, and see the possibilities of his ‘script’. Nothing if not up-to-date, they have the services of an office computer for processing manuscripts on the Great Pyramid, or the Count de St Germain, who lives for ever. The computer is nicknamed Abulafia (Abu for short) after the Medieval Jewish Cabbalist, and into its maw they decide to feed every possible kind of mumbo-jumbo they have on the files, from Rosicrucianism and Brazilian voodoo to the Satanic initiation rites of Templars and Assassins, Nazis, Black Hundreds, Druids, Freemasons and Benedictines. (‘The Benedictines were the heirs of the Druids. Everybody knows that.’) Nor, naturally enough, was Marxism to be left out of the brew. Why, after all, did Marx and Engels in 1848 begin the Communist Manifesto with the revealing sentence: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’? Why the Gothic overtones? Naturally because the founding fathers of the socialist state were anxious, too, to get in the act, join the secret hunt for the Plan, the mystic knowledge, the buried secret.

Coming on top of all this, Foucault’s pendulum itself is a trifle supererogatory, but let’s have it for good measure. It was demonstrated at the Observatoire in 1851, and afterwards at the Panthéon, with a wire 67 metres long and a sphere weighing 28 kilos. It’s a geometric point which can’t move because it has no dimension and does not rotate with the Earth or even round itself. ‘There is no “itself” ’ (a dig, perhaps, at Foucault the philosopher and all sages whose words have no dimension, not even that of their own being?). But apart from supplying a title, the pendulum’s more important job is to hang the chief editor under the earth, in the final dénouement when fantasy discovers that it has created terrible fact, or at least helped to will it into being, and the players and devisers of the game are confronted with the real horror film, with one of their number the girl to be sacrificed, and another the victim of an almost literal cliff-hanging. A good touch here: the editor, whose name is Belbo, which can hardly help recalling Tolkien’s Bilbo, is unable even at the last moment not to see his predicament in terms of a scenario. Moreover the sight of all these synoptic and synergistic Diabolicals at their fell work redeems and recovers for him ‘his most genuine gift: his sense of the ridiculous’.

A sense of the ridiculous, and its consummation in terms of art, is some sort of antidote against that obsession with power embodied in secret rituals and inner rings and world-transforming formulae. Belbo’s last words to the Diabolicals are uttered in Piedmontese dialect, Ma gavte la nata, a phrase he has uttered before and which means roughly, ‘let the cork out’ – a reference to persons so inflated with their own portentousness that they should be decorked from behind, like champagne bottles. Eco’s chapters have epigraphs, one of which is from Karl Popper: ‘the conspiracy theory of society comes from abandoning God and then asking: “Who is in his place?” ’ This goes with the heading of the final chapter, which comes from Giordano Bruno, who was burnt by the Inquisition in the Roman marketplace, and who wrote that although ‘fate has ordained the viscissitude of shadows and light, the greatest evil comes from those who hold it certain that they are in the light.’

Eco’s superb entertainment is a way of putting these ancient truths into an art form fashionable and acceptable today. Anthony Burgess is quoted as saying that it exemplifies ‘what Post-Modernist fiction is about, with its learning – real and bogus – its concern with books talking to books ... its semiological obsession’: ‘This,’ Burgess says, ‘is the way the European novel is going.’ One sees what he means, but the book does not read like that somehow. The admirable translation by William Weaver conveys a wonderfully Ariostan easiness of style, a genuine gaiety far removed from the kind of modish fiction of today which suits Burgess’s clinical and depressive prognosis on the modern novel. Bad modern novels do indeed sound and read as Burgess says, mingling the obligatory ‘seriousness’, clung to by reviewers, with jokes, obscenities, fantasies, pseudo-scholarship. Foucault’s Pendulum may give the impression of being like that, but somehow triumphantly isn’t. For one thing, Eco’s scholarship (so far as I can guess) is real, however engagingly grotesque the uses he makes of it.

We need a more seductive explanation, says Belbo at one point, after creating an ingenious scenario in which Masonry is invented by the Jesuits from their esoteric knowledge of the Templars (remember that St Bernard initiated this cult by sucking three drops of milk from the Black Virgin of Isis) in order to justify their existence and have something to fight head-on. In one sense, Eco has produced his own version of The Satanic Verses. But he has less in common with Rushdie than with Kundera, the brilliant author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in that both are obsessed with social and novelistic kitsch, and have to find more and more seductive ways of overcoming it. (The most rewarding essay in his little collection The Open Work is on ‘The Structure of Bad Taste’.) One pioneer of Modernist fiction, Robert Musil, remarked that the novel existed in order to destroy kitsch. But also, perhaps, to make the right, the new use of it? The ‘heroism’ of Belbo, like the parenthood of Lia and Casaubon, is not unlike the ‘weight’ of Tereza, heroine of Kundera’s novel, in that both express something deep and true which kitsch has vulgarised and made use of. Belbo is finally a ‘character’ like Tereza, whom the Reader’s Digest would kitschify into ‘the most unforgettable character I have met’. Eco is sagely and sensibly aware of the novel’s doomed quest to shake off the stereotypes of kitsch, and of how it can become more and more kitschily sophisticated in the process. In the Milan bar where the editorial games begin, his narrator has noticed how fanatic radicalism has gradually been undermined by the sophistication of consumer growth. ‘I could write the political history of those years based on how Red Label gradually gave way to 12-year-old Ballantine and then to single malts.’ The grail of the terrorist in fictional time becomes a beaker of Laphroaig.