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The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco | BOOKTHS

Welcome back to another book analysis and review of a book so difficult to read it took me far longer than expected.

Eco is not for the faint of heart, this is something I knew ahead of time, since he is a genius with prose. His writing is long and syntactically complex, his subjects expansive and developing at a micro-level. His works are absolutely re-reading material.

Nevertheless, Eco’s writing is a delicious experience for the linguistically-obsessed.

Let’s begin.

Who are you talking about?

Good question. This is Umberto Eco.

umberto eco smoking

I love this man. You don’t understand. I love him. Look at him.

eco with a magnifying glass

This sweet old, pot-bellied italian genius makes me so happy I get so excited to see one of his books in a store, what have you. Unfortunately he died in 2016 and it has saddened me to yet again be bereft of a favorite living author.

I’d recommend him to anyone, but I also know he’s very academic, so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s work.

Some quick info on Eco: he was born in 1932 in Alessandria in the Italian region Piedmont (recall that Italy only became a democratic nation in 1946 post-WWII). Despite his father’s wish that he pursue law, Eco pursued medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin. After that he was a cultural editor for the state broadcasting station where he met some avant-garde artists.

He wrote a book piggy-backing off of his thesis on Aquinas and boom, we have a fantastic semiotician and writer.

The important note here is that he was born pre-Mussolini AND he lived during that angry meatball’s reign. The man knows fascism, he knows censorship, and he writes extensively on those subjects and how they manifest.

Oh and best of all, he had a personal library of 30,000 books in his Milan apartment and 20,000 in his Rimini vacation home (goals.) He died last year at the age of 84.

He used to teach at Bologna University which is 1088 years old. I once stayed in Bologna in a 1000 year old student-housed monastery. I regret not tracking Eco down just to meet him.

They collected passport photos of guests.

What even is the plot?

Glad you asked.

To put it simply, if I even can, in 19th century europe everything is much as it is and has always been: rife with conspiracies and plots. Behind many of these conspiracies and forged documents and domestic terrorism is Simonini (our main character), an agent of the French and Italian secret services.

We follow Simonini in a very, very complex manner, as he wakes up positively flabbergasted by the fact that he appears to be sharing his apartment with a priest he does not know. He begins to write in his diary, noticing that Abbé Della Piccola—the mysterious priest—responds in kind with the same amnesia.

The narrator clarifies sections for us, since he is reading the diary decades after its actual use.

Very complex, you see?

Eco in his library.

From Turin to Paris, Simonini uses his grandfather’s teachings on anti-semitism and hatred for Jesuits/freemasons as fuel to incite violence for the government, as he slowly begins to write a document that will change the world for the worse.

His incendiary document is titled the Prague Cemetery. Simonini writes the dramatic piece with borrowed scenery and ideas from older, racist and extremist writings to build an illusion of truth as he creates a scene of rabbis meeting to plan their destruction of the modern world.

As Eco says in his Paris Review Interview that I highly suggest reading, “Simonini is a forger, and understands that in order to tell secret information to a secret service you always have to tell what is already known. Otherwise they will not believe you.”

That’s all well and good, a book about a forger who feeds governments fake information and secretly works in his hateful agenda—very interesting.

I’ll let you in on a secret. The documents in this book, as well the characters, are nearly all real. The Prague Cemetery? The forged anti-semitic document? It’s based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Guess who referenced that fabricated anti-semitic piece in his book?

Hitler.

“How much the whole existence of this people is based on a permanent falsehood is apparent in the famous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Every week the Frankfurter Zeitung whines that they are based on a forgery: and here lies the best proof that they are genuine…When this book becomes the common heritage of all people, the Jewish peril can then be considered as stamped out.” Hitler, Mein Kampf

Now that’s juicy….and scary

Yep. I audibly gasped at the conclusion of this novel. I couldn’t believe it that in all the despicable events and thoughts I had read, sometimes disgusting enough for me to put the book down in horror, I was reading truth. Eco only created one character: Simonini.

“All the others (except for a few incidental minor characters such as Notaio Rebaudengo and Ninuzzo) actually existed, and said and did what they are described as saying and doing in this novel.” Eco, The Prague Cemetery, “Useless Learned Explanations”

Even the illustrations in the novel are real portraits half of the time or real propaganda. Eco says it creates an “oscillatory function” in which you are shocked to discover that the normal, fiction-like function of a story is suddenly very real.

And of course it’s real. Of course there are all kinds of forged documents fed to governments and the masses to create fear, motivation, anger, what have you. The instances of planned violence in this novel—the bombings, the use of extremist students and groups as pawns to make public arrests or create safety or discontent. Of course it’s real.

You see it everyday. The note at the beginning of The Prague Cemetery says the reader will “look anxiously behind him, switch on all the lights, and suspect that these things could happen again today. In fact, they may be happening in that very moment.”

Nothing is new, is it? Nothing is ever new.

The book featuring my dog, who wanted to sniff literally every page.

What is the reading like?

It is not easy. Not solely because it’s Eco, since he is quite readable after being a pop culture author from The Name of the Rose, but because our main character is a bigot. He hates women, he hates Jewish people, he hates Jesuits and Freemasons, he even hates French people and he lives in France for many years.

“The German lives in a state of perpetual intestinal embarrassment due to an excess of beer and pork sausages on which he gorges himself.” (Eco, 6.)

“Priests…They are idle and belong to a class as dangerous as thieves and vagrants.” (Eco, 12.)

“I hate women, from what little I know of them.” (Eco, 14.)

And I could not forget his hatred of the Jews.

“My grandfather described those eyes that spy on you, so false as to turn you pale, those unctuous smiles, those hyena lips over bared teeth, those heavy, polluted, brutish looks, those restless creases between nose and lips, wrinkled by hatred, that nose of theirs like the beak of a southern bird…” (Eco, 5.)

Simonini also has an erotic obsession with food, so at the very least we encounter many beautiful descriptions of foreign foods that you’ve likely never heard of. At least the bigot has nice thoughts on restaurant meals.

We must mire through a rather despicable mind, we must go where we never want to go, to the place where angry and motivated people wallow. I can assure you it’s not a breeze, but I do think it’s vitally important.

Like this passage, which is chilling and horrible, which details Simonini’s “contribution” to mass genocide of the Jewish race:

“I wouldn’t have to destroy them myself—I am (as a rule) a man who recoils from physical violence—but I knew how it had to be done, since I lived through the days of the Commune. Take gangs of men who are well trained and indoctrinated, and drag anyone you meet with a hooked nosed and curly hair straight up against the wall. You’d end up losing a few Christians but, in the words of the bishop who had to attack Béziers when it was occupied by the Cathars, it is better to be prudent and kill the lot. God will recognize his own.

As it is written in their Protocols, the end justifies the means.” (Eco, 426.)

First: Simonini has murdered multiple times by this point in the book, ironically, for a man who “recoils from physical violence.”

Second: Reading this makes me uneasy and queasy.

And so?

Ultimately, this novel on 19th century conspiracies, written in 2011, is uncannily relevant. I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking understanding in the realm of false information or the dissemination of mainstream information.

Of course after Charlottesville and in this tumultuous time, some wonder how things got suddenly bad and, of course, any oppressed member of society will tell you it did not suddenly become tumultuous. Indeed, the soup of hatred has been simmering and boiling over and simmering again for centuries.

The violence of white men is old. It’s in Colombine, in Timothy McVeigh at Oklahoma City, in the extremism of masculinity, in colonization, and in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don’t have time to type it all out. But if you need a way to understand the age of conspiracy, of forgery, and of the libel of the “other”, perhaps begin with The Prague Cemetery.

I should say Eco has a sister collection of essays titled Inventing the Enemy. I will do my best to get to it as soon as possible.

Bisous à tout le monde et tout qui souffre,

 

Sources used:

Eco, Umberto. The Prague Cemetery. New York, Mariner Books, 2010.

“Umberto Eco.” Umberto Eco Biography, www.umbertoeco.com/en/umberto-eco-biography.html. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.

Bookths

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf | BOOKTHS

Bookths is back after a whirlwind of graduating and life changes.

I also bought about 30 or more so books at a fill-your-own-box book sale at CASE in Downtown Cleveland.

claire with a box of books
Pictured: me downplaying my pride and trying to make copious literary purchasing seem cool to the youth.

So, I will have plenty more material to work with in the future. As of this moment, let’s talk Woolf.

I wrote a story in the last semester of college and drew some inspiration from Virginia herself, drawing some parallels to her rather upsetting suicide, when she filled her pockets with rocks and let herself sink into the river before another war broke out.

As she is one of THE MOST influential authors in history and of the modern (20th century) period, people are often shocked that I haven’t read any of her novels. Which, considering the amount of classic novels and must-reads out there, you’ll have to cut me some slack as I try to sprint through them all.

In the middle of a rather desperate moment of self-doubt, I had driven to the library to ease my mind (something 13 year-old me was fond of) and went traipsing through the fiction section, saw Mrs. Dalloway and its relatively small stature, decided I could fit it into my eight other current reads (I don’t know how, because no, I couldn’t) and here we are. Let’s break it down.

The Author:

Virginia Woolf is one of the big dogs of literature. If you want to talk literature, you better talk Woolf (and I certainly didn’t until now.) As I mentioned, her contribution to writing happened in the 20th century, so her work is considered modernist. And, if you’ve ever read The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, you know about the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, which is something Virginia Woolf pioneered.

Profile of young Virginia Woolf

She was London-based, born of a rich family, and went to Kings College London—a smart cookie! Between WWI and WWII (sheesh what a time to be alive) Virginia Woolf was a central part of London’s literary scene and, later on, became a figure for second-wave feminism with her works highly regarded world-wide and translated into over fifty languages.

Who is Mrs. Dalloway, what’s going on?

Now that my Wikipedia explanation of Woolf is over, we can get to the story. There are a whole lot of characters in this book which covers a single day in our titular character’s life, as she prepares for a party. Sounds like it’s going nowhere, right? Oh how incorrect one can be.

  1. Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa): Our main character, the woman who is throwing a party later. She is often described as having buckets and buckets of charm but also as all too stiff and strict in her character. During her day, she reminisces on her marriage to Richard in lieu of Peter and, if after all, one made her happier than the other.
  2. Peter Walsh: Clarissa’s old flame, he worked in India where he fell in love with a married woman. Peter has a habit of opening and closing a knife while he’s nervous and often projects a desperate and loathing energy towards Clarissa, whom he still loves but recognizes the impossibility of their match. Others describe him as adventurous, smart, and interesting, but far too desperate to be in love to ever be successful. No one wants to help him get a job, which reminds me a bit of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich, when a man dies and at his funeral everyone spends time dividing his possessions and position in lieu of mourning him.
  3. Richard Dalloway: Clarissa’s husband, a clear-minded man who isn’t nearly as romantic as Peter Walsh, but does indeed love Clarissa even if he misunderstands her. There is a lovely scene regarding Richard’s purchasing of flowers for her and wanting her to see that it means he loves her, because he is incapable of saying “I love you” to her (which raises the question: does he in fact love her?) This is after he chooses not to purchase her jewelry, not knowing her taste—a heartbreaking hint to how they are strangers to each other.
  4. Septimus Warren Smith: War veteran and husband to Lucrezia Smith, he suffers from what appears to be PTSD or a form of depression (much like Woolf herself) and, after promising his wife he would kill himself, is presented to a doctor. To the  first doctor, he attaches all of human error to, a living symbol. Septimus is unable to feel reality, sees it all as something false and the people in it as unaware of the tragedy they live. He is coded as Clarissa’s foil.
  5. Sally Seton: Clarissa, Peter, and Richard’s old friend, albeit closest to Clarissa and Peter. She is fun-loving, wild, and openly passionate. She seems to facilitate communication between stubborn and prude Clarissa and to obstinately romantic Peter, acting as their medium. She works quite well as a contrast to them both, but also as a hint as to what Clarissa and Peter desired and what everyone else expected of them.
  6. Miss Kilman: A deeply religious and deeply spiteful woman who instructs Clarissa and Richard’s daughter in history, as she is among the British experts of history. She is well-educated, but poor and plain-looking. Using her religious fervor as a self-righteous justification, she is openly rude to Clarissa whom she sees as materialistic and vain.
  7. Sir William Bradshaw: A premier doctor for mental patients, of whom he says over and over again, simply need to realign their sense of “proportion.” I can’t say much about him, because of how he manifests in this story…you’ll just have to read it!
  8. Elizabeth Dalloway: The daughter of Clarissa and Richard. Someone I deem important in relation to her parents and thus, their characters. She is not her mother by all accounts and is used against her mother by way of Miss Kilman, yet there are moments where she and Clarissa collide and make sense of each other.

The plot of this book is relatively difficult to describe, it being mainly a hop-skip-jump from character to character as we swim through their thoughts. To sum it up Clarissa Dalloway is having an important party, Peter Walsh is back from India to get a job and try to bring back his lover from India, Sally Seton shows up, Septimus gets hospitalized, and we finally get to have our party at the end. As for the rest, the details are beautiful, the phrasing immaculate, so that I can’t do it justice. (See: read it.)

What of it:

Who cares about the day in the life of some rich old white lady in England? Why bother with a book of no chapters and hardly any paragraph indentations? What is the meaning of this single day?

“She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”

Honestly, it’s a dense and complex piece that requires re-reading (the best kind of book) and my impressions at the moment are as follows: Woolf is a masterful writer, her turns of phrase and her figurative language is appallingly rich in meaning. This is a novel that reflects a modernist conundrum—remember we are pre-WWII and post-WWI, the game of world politics and violence has changed—in which the frivolity of modern life is set against a backdrop of astounding violence. The utter meaningless nature of a party, a marriage, and the past are pit against the overwhelming weight of what it means to live and exist.

Or, at least that’s how I saw it.

Update:

That’s two down: Nemesis by Agatha Christie and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I’m in the midst of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, so I hope to have that wrapped up soon. Warning: it’s a doozy.

As always, thank you for joining me, if you did.

Bisous,

Bookths

Nemesis by Agatha Christie | BOOKTHS

nemesis, agatha christie

Hey.

I know I promised to read a book a month and post about it and I know February was a really long time ago. There are a number of excuses I could spout here but there’s really no point in doing that. My mom always says “what did you learn from this?” when I screw up…

…therefore: it is not always possible to do things as originally planned. I said Nietzsche and I guess I really, truly meant Agatha Christie!

“Any coincidence,” said Miss Marple to herself, “is always worth noticing. You can throw it away later if it is only a coincidence.”

I picked one of her books, an interesting murder mystery from a library sale titled Nemesis, as it looked quick and easy to read (I don’t have all the time in the world to analyze philosophy on top of classes!) The books is especially strange, since I suppose in 1972 books like these had ads in them. They were trying to sell readers cigarettes and perfume mid murder mystery!

The Author:

Agatha Christie is the strangest woman. She wrote 66—sixty-six—crime novels in her lifetime and 14 short story collections. That’s a lot of writing. 

Also she happens to be the best-selling author of all time.

This is all very impressive, but the wildest thing about this famed and damed (she was honored as a Dame after her enormous literary success) author is that she disappeared mysteriously for 10 days.

To make a long story short: Agatha and her husband were fighting and preparing to divorce, when he left to go hang with his lover. Agatha wrote a letter saying she too was going to hang somewhere chill (Yorkshire) but she was not in Yorkshire or seen anywhere really; her car was found empty and abandoned on a road. For those 10 days mass hysteria ensued with a giant police force searching for her—she was even featured on The New York Times  front page!

Then—she was found in the Swan Hydropathic Hotel under the name of her husband’s lover. She never explained or referenced the disappearance in her own memoirs. Many theories floated about: publicity stunt, trying to embarrass her husband, a result of her overworked state and her mother’s recent death, some doctors say a Fugue state…but none of these have explained the strange disappearance and blasé reappearance of Christie. At the very least, it made for some good writing material for those 66 books, of which I would encourage anyone to pick up at any time. But now, onto one of those, a Jane Marple (one of her serial detectives) mystery, Nemesis.

The Who, the What, the Where, the Whatever:

In this particular piece, we have a number of humans to keep track of. They are as follows:

  1. Miss Jane Marple: an older woman with a penchant for crime and a serious intuition for evil, she is our main character and obsessed with gardening.
  2. Verity: our corpse, a schoolgirl of the teenage persuasion, she began to live with three sisters who were friends of her deceased parents, after falling in love with a boy she mysteriously disappeared and was apparently found with her head bashed in!
  3. Mr. Rafiel: the newly deceased friend of Miss Marple from an earlier novel, as a rich and clever man he led Miss Marple to Verity’s case in his will for mysterious reasons…
  4. Michael Rafiel: the son of Mr. Rafiel, wicked by nature and always getting into trouble, he’s imprisoned for the murder of Verity of which the details are still unknown as he claims to be innocent.
  5. Clotilde: one of the three sisters and the loving caretaker of Verity when her parents passed suddenly, she loved Verity like a daughter, Miss Marple thinks of her as an “Ophelia-type” constantly.
  6. Mrs. Glynne: one of the three sisters and “plain but pleasant-looking” according to Miss Marple.
  7. Anthea: one of the three sisters, definitely has issues: she can’t look at people straight and says strange things.

Of course, I couldn’t put every character on here, but just enough to paint a picture.

Miss Marple, according to the will of Mr. Rafiel (with whom she prevented a murder in the West Indies before his death) finds herself on a paid-for garden tour where she is to stay with the three sisters and learns of Michael Rafiel and the violent death of young Verity. Strange things begin to occur: another death and a foreboding feeling in the town where Verity died. Miss Marple enjoys gardens and walks, as she slowly untangles the complexities of Verity’s death…

And so?

This is a lovely light read and a very pretty, retro-looking novel. I would really recommend Agatha Christie to anyone. She’s likely a good gateway drug to crime novels. The book is no Tolstoy but it’s got some good language and dialogue. I especially appreciate the copious descriptions on gardens which is a fun juxtaposition to death and murder and also, in a way, an appropriate one (can you say life from death? hope for justice? this metaphor has legs.)

However, I always try to read critically and I would be remiss to ignore the glaring differences in attitude towards crime during this time. Christie is a traditional woman from middle-class England, born in the early part of the twentieth century. The attitude towards rape in this book is astonishing and also interesting for that reason.

Only recently has punishment and public shame for this crime been so fervent (you could still legally rape your wife in the eighties, after all), but the mention of that part of this murder in this book is strange…

First, the jarring attitude comes from male characters, which is an interesting choice. What does Christie mean by putting these words in these mouths?

Second, these rapes are painted as frivolous and motivated by social shame (which could very well be true, but perhaps not in the way they are explained here.)

One male character says: “Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be. Their mothers insist, very often, that they should call it rape. The girl in question had had several boyfriends who had gone further than friendship.” (Christie, 111.)

While a lawyer later affirms: “Well, we know what rape is nowadays. Mum tells the girls she’s got to accuse the young man of rape even if the young man hasn’t had much chance, with the girl at him all the time to come to the house while Mum’s away at work or Dad’s gone on holiday. Doesn’t stop badgering him until she’s forced him to sleep with her.” (Christie, 134.)

Interestingly, Mrs. Glynne later says in reference to Michael Rafiel and the rapes he’d been accused of: “Once assaulting a teen-ager—other things of that type. Of course I consider myself that the magistrates are too lenient with that kind of thing. They don’t want to upset a young man’s university career. And so they let them off with a—I forget what they call it—a suspended sentence, something of that kind. If these boys were sent to jail at once, it would perhaps warn them off that type of life.” (Christie, 141.)

I can’t quite discern what Christie is doing here…if she were condemning the 70s attitude for rape, you’d think she wouldn’t continually define it as a nagging-mother’s solution for prudency or as a device to slut shame teenage girls for accepting their sexuality. Conversely, the mention of a girl forcing a boy to have sex is, in fact rape, but just in reverse order of sex. Either way: these men are quite lost on what is and isn’t rape!

It could, however, be a subtle critique. I think it’s telling that the men in these dialogues condemn rape as an inconvenient blame game, while the women are either skeptical (as Miss Marple seems to be) or critical of those who remain lax on punishment for assault.

I have to applaud Christie if this is the case; she both appeals to those who side with the gentlemen (at the time, authority figures) while also slipping in a solution that is reasonable: let’s jail them first and stop them before crime is their career.

Epilogue:

One really ought to follow their gut. That’s what Miss Jane Marple does and that’s what I did when I knew I couldn’t finish all that Nietzsche in one month (the shortest of the year too!) This post is later than I wanted to post and I’m already reading March’s book, which will hopefully be posted about by April.

If you would like to join me in reading, by all means please do. I’m doing The House on Mango Street right now (SUPER quick read if you want to pick it up and tell me how you feel about it) and then I’m working on a two-parter: Inventing the Enemy which is a series of essays by Umberto Eco (one of my all-time favorite writers) and the novel that is its friend The Prague Cemetery also by Umberto Eco, which I’m finding to be a thick and complicated text. This is a good thing: it means it has a lot of re-reading to it!

Or, you can just read my Bookths series where I’m just going to talk about the experiences I have reading these books, which is as unique the first time as the next. I hope maybe if you’re looking for something to read, I can help!

Thanks for joining, bisous et plus bisous,

 

Works cited:

Christie, Agatha. Nemesis. Pocket Books, 1973, New York, New York.