Blind Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges prided himself on never writing anything as long, cumbersome (and tiring) as a novel. Instead, he imagined the novels and then wrote amusing summaries. He was happier creating l9ibraies and labyrinths. Still, if he had ever taken the trouble to construct such an ornate edifice, it would probably have resembled The Name of the Rose. You can’t help feeling that Umberto Eco – who delights in the drudgery and and fine detail work of narrative brick-laying – wants it that way. Any author whose book features a library that is a labyrinth, presided over by a sightless gnome named Jorge, clearly knows the sources of his inspiration – and enjoys tipping a nicely blocked fedora to them.
In writing about this immense novel one could discuss Borges, or semiotics, or the Catharist versus the Dolcian heresies (In short: shame the rich by example, or just slaughter them); one could discuss labyrinths and libraries as metaphors and symbols. One could talk about reason versus superstition and faith versus logic, since most of the monks in the murder-riddled monastery think the recent deaths are due to the immanent apocalypse, and the Grand Inquisitor from Avignon assumes that various agents of Satan are he culprits. Only William Baskerville – named with a wink after the infamous hound and its famous hunter – applies intelligent common sense to the welter of contradictory clues that baffle the clerics. You could write a speculative treatise on what (or who) the titular ‘rose’ actually represents; you could draft an entire essay on the parallels between Eco’s 14th Century and our own.
But I’m going to limit myself to a tiny sliver of Eco’s narrative technique, his approach to a single problem. Like a tiny sliver of wood, this quandary has gotten under my skin and lodged there, ignored but infecting, since I first started writing. Eco talks about the problem himself in his own Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. He calls it “lingering”.
I call it pace.
Whatever you call it, the problem remains central to a writer’s relationship with his readers. In the third of these Charles Elliot Norton lectures (delivered at Harvard more than a decade ago), Eco describes a famous Italian novel I Promessi Sposi (translated as The Betrothed), by Alessandro Manzoni. At one point in the book, a cowardly 17th Century curate named Don Abbondio is attacked by ‘bravoes’ – mercenaries in the pay of the Spanish aristocracy.
Another writer might wish to placate our impatience as readers and tell us straight away what happens. Not so Manzoni. He does something that the reader might find quite incredible. He takes a few pages, rich in historical detail, to explain who the bravoes were. Having done this, he goes back to Don Abbondio, but he doesn’t have him meet the bravoes at once.
According to Eco, Manzoni goes on to lay out the nature of the Don’s plight – nowhere to run, no one coming to help – and concludes this grim inventory with a question: “What was he to do?”
What is to be done? Notice that the question is directly addressed not only to Don Abbondio, but also to the reader. Manzoni is a master at mixing his narration with sudden, sly appeals to the reader, and this is one of the less sneaky. What would you have done in Don Abbondio’s place? This is a typical example of how a model author, or the text, can invite the reader to take an inferential walk. The delaying tactics serve to stimulate the walk.
Looking back further into the history of the novel, you can find far more extreme examples of this lingering tactic, as when Victor Hugo took a lengthy holiday from the most compelling action sequence he ever wrote, the chase through the Paris sewers in Les Miserables, to inform his readers about the value of human effluent as fertilizer. There are other antique examples – Tolstoy gassing on about his Great Man theory, Proust spending page after page describing the vegetables on the dinner table at Combray, Laurence Sterne composing a novel (Tristram Shandy) that was in essence nothing but a series of digressions. Before movies and television and computers, before the X-box and YouTube and Attention Deficit Disorder, writers could pretty much do as they pleased. It was the golden age of the ramble and the pet peeve.
Manzoni, and Eco himself in The Name of The Rose, use the tactic of narrative delay more pointedly. Eco is particularly concerned with the distinction between what he calls “story time” and “discourse time”. Story time is the chronology of the text. Seven Days in May unfolds in the course of a week, but the discourse time, the linguistic reality of our actual reading (and writing) is very different. It takes James Joyce hundreds of pages to present a single day in Ulysses. It can take weeks for a diligent reader to absorb the text. Alternately:
If the text says “A thousand years pass”, the story time is a thousand years. But at the level of linguistic expression, which is at the level of fictional discourse, the time to write (and read) the utterance is very short. This is why a rapid “discourse time”may express a very long “story time”.
When story and and discourse time move together – in dialogue, for instance – you get a phenomenon that French Structuralist Gerard Genette calls “isochrony”. Dauntingly technical as it may sound, I would call this my safety zone as a writer. When the reading time and the action described move at roughly the same pace, like a hunting dog beside a cantering horse, my fictional world remains balanced and the momentum of events stays steady. Any infraction of the isochrony statutes involves serious consequences for me. So I study, with baffled awe, the meandering style of The Name of the Rose. Remember, this book spent months on the New York Times Bestseller List and was made into a hit movie with Sean Connery.
Whatever Eco did, it worked – artistically and commercially.
So how did he do it? Well, for one thing, he set the metronome of his story early. He could have begun with something punchy – a provocative, pulpy sentence like, “The monks started dying two days before the Grand Inquisitor arrived.” But he doesn’t. He starts like this:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. This was begi9nning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted. But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world, so we must spell out its faithful signals even when they seem obscure to us and as if amalgamated with a will wholly bent on evil.
Okay – he’s in no rush. Though he does finally get to the word evil, right at the end.
Eco is creating what he calls his “model reader”, training you as you read, to a leisurely investigation of his story. When events actually do transpire, when Baskerville deduces the whereabouts (and even the name) of the Abbot’s runaway horse, when he and the faithful Adso get lost in the monastery’s library, when Adso loses his virginity to a girl from the village, when that girl is burned at the stake … we feel a giddy rush of narrative energy. Prepared for liturgical debate, we sense the muscles of the plot flexing under the didactic skin, and the excitement is almost erotic.
Whereas … in my own writing, I find myself trapped in something very much like a cattle chute, galloping and stumbling mindlessly forward toward the slaughterhouse climax, afraid to stop and be trampled. The ‘model reader’ I’ve created is ravenous and impatient, chanting “what happens NEXT, what happens NEXT” as he charges along, eyes straight ahead, noticing nothing around him, drugged with events and consequences, thirsty for blood. Eco has staked out a broad space for his story; he can wander all he wants in those woods, because we know there are dead bodies and codes and tyrannical inquisitors in the underbrush. My attempts to stall the cattle run just seem self-indulgent. Look at this passage from my Hollywood novel Just Like in the Movies. Michael Gersh has just screwed things up for his two friends, and they are trudging through Central Park, working on damage control.
They were walking uphill along the asphalt path cut between green slopes and jagged rock formations. Mike had climbed these rocks endlessly as a child, imagining himself ascending Half Dome, or dodging through Dead Man’s Canyon just ahead of an angry posse or a gang of Mexican bandits. The memory made him feel old this morning. He looked away. The trees fronting Fifth Avenue, elms and oaks and birches, were burning with color in the cold autumn air. It wasn’t just a conceit; in fact they were oxidizing
Okay, so far so good. But I have to burrow in, try to slow things down even more:
This was a conflagration in slow motion, a million leaves turning into carved sunlight and speckled flame, smokeless and calm as the wind moved through them. Mike wished he could slow things down that way, impede the messy torching of his friends’ lives and aspirations, reduce it to an incremental beauty that would give him time to think.
And the reader is thinking – shut up and get on with it!
So is it just a matter of cutting, like the sculptor who trims away everything that doesn’t look like the Madonna? Or might it more plausibly turn out like the child who keeps whittling until he has nothing left but a pile of shavings? It may just be that each story sets its own pace, creates its own model reader. Once Eco decided on a 14th Century time frame, and a murder investigation set against religious theories of a looming apocalypse, the battles between the Pope and the Emperor, the struggle over the nature of Church doctrine, once he found himself with clues hidden in literal and figurative mazes, in books that have never been read, and languages that no one understands now, he had no choice but to move his readers elliptically through the material.
I have bomb threats and land swindles. What did I expect?
Most of the people working in the field of crime fiction don’t bother with such matters, and no one seems to care. I recently read the new Robert B. Parker book (There’s always a new Robert B. Parker book); I won’t go into much detail (he certainly doesn’t), but suffice it to say, the book might as well be a transcribed film script – just talk and action, mostly talk: snappy one-liners, tough-guy ping-pong, boy-girl badminton. People are described by the clothes they’re wearing. Forget being herded up a cattle chute – this is being shot out of a cannon. As to setting, weather, thought, memory, emotion, theme … you might as well ask the bullet about the gun barrel. The answer would be: “It was smooth, and it pointed me at the target.”
If you set the bar this low, you trip over it.
I want to make something more of my own work. Reading Italo Calvino’s Elliot Norton lectures, Six Memos for the New Millennium, provided inspiration as well as comfort. His lecture on “Quickness” explores the difference between the two gods of prose – Vulcan and Mercury. Vulcan hammers and sculpts and forges perfect artifacts in the volcanic dark of his earth-bound cave. Mercury is always in flight, effortless and dexterous. By this formulation, Robert B. Parker is all Mercury, pirouetting forward, never touching the ground … though without lightness of touch and unique sensibility that makes Calvino himself such a delight. When I think of Vulcan, Proust comes to mind, meticulously, relentlessly working every angle and facet of every observation, no matter how seemingly trivial. Somehow, Eco finds his way between these worlds, strolling in his fictional woods.
For the rest of us, wandering in that forest, it’s all too easy to get lost.