A Review: Part I, The Prague Cemetery By Umberto Eco

November 20, 2011

A Review

 THE PRAGUE CEMETERY

 By

 Umbert Eco

 Review by R.E. Prindle

 Eco, Umberto: The Prague Cemetery, A Novel, 2010, Houghton Mifflin, NYC

Part I: Prologue

 Little Bags Of Memory

 

Umberto Eco As Atlas

In this novel Eco attacks the dark subconscious mind of nineteenth century Europe. It was the moment when Europeans discovered the difference between their conscious and subconscious minds. As a historical novel Eco mines his fifty thousand volume private library to construct his story. His sources range from Dumas and Eugene Sue at one end to George Du Maurier and J.K. Huysmans at the other. At this point in history, other than Dumas I presume the other authors are virtually unread if not unknown. Fortunately I have read most of Eco’s sources with my more modest five thousand volume library.

Eco seems to have a very fond spot in his heart for George Du Maurier and I found his treatment of the author most interesting.. Du Maurier was a long time contributor to the English humor magazine, Punch in both text and artworks through the heart of the nineteenth century. The illustrations Eco uses in his novel are very reminiscent in style to those of Du Maurier. Indeed, Du Maurier is very seductive both artistically and literarily. When he was turned down for the editorship of Punch he was crushed, turning away to write and illustrate his subtly fantastic three novels Peter Ibbetson, Trilby and The Martian, the last finished just before his death in 1896.

Like Eco Du Maurier lugged a lifetime of memories, literary and personal through his novels. I’m still working my way through his sources, or favorites at least. Du Maurier was a Bohemian artist in Paris at about the same time as Henri Murger who wrote his fabulous description of Bohemian life, The Bohemians Of The Latin Quarter that was turned into Puccini’s opera, La Boheme. DuMaurier found Murger’s description of Bohemian life repellent to his own sensibilities so he romanticized the nearly same story into the lovely fairy tale of his own version, Trilby. Trilby was a sensation of its time and remains a classic.

Eco has read and thoughtfully considered Du Maurier and while Du Maurier tended to romanticize painful or repellant memories into order to create a fairy tale existence for himself all that sunshine seems to cover a bitter undergrowth. Eco who astutely perceives this was led to parody him in Eco’s own fabulous first chapter of Prague that is a hilarious stand up comedy routine worthy of the mordant, sick humor of Lenny Bruce. Eco then makes his character Dr. Du Maurier the chief of an insane asylum parodying Du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson while reversing the roles of Ibbetson and the Duchess of Towers in the character of Diana Vaughan. Very nice bit of inside humor on the part of Eco.

While I make it a rule to not recommend books, a rule I often violate, if you’re reading this I presume you’re simpatico. I heartily recommend any of these sources of Eco if you haven’t already read them.

Obviously Du Maurier’s novels holds a special place in Eco’s heart and a well merited place both in his and mine. However, Eco gives precedence to two of the greatest French novelists of the nineteenth century, Alexander Dumas and Eugene Sue. As it happens I revere both authors as much as Eco. Dumas’ most famous titles are still widely read while Sue’s much less so or, perhaps, not at all.

Eco mentions Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and The Count Of Monte Cristo and the French Revolution novels centered around the magician Cagliostro or by his other name, Joseph Balsamo. I first read The Three Musketeers as a youth while I have reread it again along with first time readings of Monte Cristo and the Cagliostro series within the last ten years.

What Eco is doing in the Prague Cemetery is writing his version of a Dumas novel. While a good novel Prague falls far short of Dumas. What Eco lacked that Dumas had was a collaborator of the quality of Auguste Maquet who researched and worked up the material in outline so that Dumas could concentrate on composing the dramatic touches of the story. This allowed Dumas a much wider scope and deeper detail that brought out the fabulous myth of Three Musketeers or the huge scope and depth of Monte Cristo and the Revolution novels.

I’ve read reviews of Prague where Cagliostro is apparently thought of as a Dumas creation. Oh no, Dumas could write historical novels to place alongside his role model, the great Walter Scott, or as a model here for Eco. While novels, Dumas’ Revolution stories are accurate as history. Cagliostro was a real person. Such a collaborator as Maquet might have given Eco room to expand his horizon and widen the scope of his novel to include for instance the rise of psychology and the discovery of the European unconscious while introducing some of the stage hypnotists and magicians such Robert Houdin, the model for the subsequent Houdini who used his name.

Eco’s novel is OK but he could have made it much better. The Simonini dual personality touch is a surface probe of the unconscious that had real potential perhaps bringing in the Society for Psychic Research but I think the execution of Simonini was weak and not properly developed. Still the character was a nice stab at Dumas’ and more especially the unbelievably fantastic Eugene Sue. What a madman. One could think him insane but I choose to believe he was touched by the divine afflatus. Sue, if mad, had the madness of the gods. If Dumas was more than human, Sue far exceeded Dumas. I have never read anything that comes near Sue’s The Wandering Jew or The Mysteries Of Paris, especially the latter which probes the outer limits of sanity.

The unfortunately named Wandering Jew will drive off most American readers who have been conditioned to avoid anything concerning Jews lest they be considered anti-Semitic. Although as Eco points out the hidden hand of the Jesuit priest Rodin that haunts the novel from beginning to end is one of the most terrifying apparitions in all literature and Sue was the master of terrifying images.

Both he and Dumas were obsessed shall we say by the historical memory. Eco himself is obsessed by memory as am I. I have that in common with these writers. I have explored my personal memories in several novels I have post the internet and most of my essays here on I, Dynamo are concerned with ordering the historical memory. Eco sought to recapture the memories of his youth in his previous novel The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana. Both Eco’s and my own efforts are much after the fashion of George Du Maurier. I would recommend Du Maurier highly except that it takes some dedication to understand the luxuriant beauty of his work; his three novels have to be read several times to acquire his intense longing to never lose his memories, taking them with into the Great Beyond. But, if you are of a like mind and feel up to it, have at it.

So, Dumas proposed to novelize the whole of French history, the racial memory and had a magnificent go at it. The guy is really spectacular. Eco mentions also the last novel of Eugene Sue, The Mysteres Du Peuple which is has yet to be translated; as Eco says he labored through the French. Apparently Sue took the task he set for himself quite seriously as Eco says the story is quite complex and I imagine very long. Mysteries Of Paris itself is three volumes or about fifteen hundred pages.

The title translates as I see it, The Mysteries Of The Folk. As Eco says Sue begins his story with the Frankish invasions of the fourth to sixth centuries, then tells his story along two family lines one Frankish, one Gallic. This would be a prodigious feat of historical and racial memory, an explosion of Sue’s past educational imprinting in both society and school. This would be especially important to him as both he and Dumas were of the first post-Revolution generation of which they very likely heard many first hand reminiscences growing up while reading reams of memoirs. As the Revolution was primarily racial in character, Gauls versus Franks, this would give added poignancy to Sue’s search to retrieve the history of the two races.

So, what Eco seems to be doing in the Prague Cemetery is carrying the personal, racial and historical European memory forward from the work of Dumas and Sue. How well I think he did it will be in the concluding part of the review. First we have to take a huge memory detour in order to bring the historical and racial memories from the beginning back up to Dumas, Sue, and Eco and late nineteenth century history. When I say huge detour, let us begin our magical memory tour at the beginning, Pangaea.

Part II will follow.

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