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Florence in Words

Memory, Take Six: Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Umberto Eco’s bulky, unwieldy novel, part history, part comedy, supported by illustrations in color of the covers of books or the interiors of comics and magazines of the thirties and forties, provides another encyclopaedic resource on memory. Yes, it’s a bit overwhelming, perhaps especially to someone who was not a participant. (I never had comics and I saw no magazines. My mother’s interest in such radio programs as “The Shadow” are what I recall of that wartime period, though I do remember something of Superman and Batman.)

Eco’s hero, Yambo, generously autobiographical, suffers at first from almost total memory loss after one stroke, then gains total recall after another, though he appears to his family as comatose. But readers enter his fully recalled childhood and youth, including fascists on the one hand and such heroes as Flash Gordon on the other. Most gripping are several sections on the war, and the way in which a profound tactile memory enables Yambo’s feet to lead a group, including eight partisans, across a dangerous Gorge.

In opening the class, Professor White asked—as a little quiz—what the ending signified, what meaning does the author intend to communicate with the sudden question that forms the last words of the novel, “Why is the sun turning black?” Death, of course, is the answer, though it’s hardly the point of this novel. For this course, like Proust, Eco provides a guide to the various kinds of memory humans can call on.

Finally, Professor White showed two bits of film: the first film made of the comic strip in which Flash Gordon is played by Buster Crabbe. Yes, this sophisticated twenty-first century class were left panting for “what happens next,” as the film ended. And then we watch the last eight minutes of Fellini’s “81/2,” as Professor White suggested that Eco was thinking of this film as he wrote his startling, sudden ending of The Mysterious Flame.

Yes, need I say it? I am enjoying the course immensely, both the reading and the class time. Some of the students sparkle and of course Professor White is in tireless motion throughout the hour.
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