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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing through Literary Memory

Following is the opening section of Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.  Check out what he's done here.  Try it yourself:  write a narrative--short or long--using, as at least fifty percent, excerpts from works of writing that either fit the character or you as an author.

                “And what’s your name?”
                “Wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue.”

                That is how it all began.
                I felt as if I had awoken from a long sleep, and yet I was still suspended in a milky gray.  Or else I was awake, but dreaming.  It was a strange dream, void of images, crowded with sounds.  As if I could not see, but could hear voices that were telling me what I should have been seeing.  And there were telling me that I could not see anything yet, only a haziness along the canals where the landscape dissolved.  Bruges, I said to myself, I was in Bruges.  Had I ever been to Bruges the Dead?  Where fog hovers between the towers like incense dreaming?  A gray city, sad as a tombstone with chrysanthemums, where mist hangs over the facades like tapestries...
                My soul was wiping the streetcar windows so it could drown in the moving fog of the headlamps.  Fog, my uncontaminated sister…  A thick, opaque fog, which enveloped the noises and called up shapeless phantoms…  Finally I came to a vast chasm and could see a colossal figure, wrapped in a shroud, its face the immaculate whiteness of snow.  My name is Arthur Gordon Pym.
                I was chewing fog.  Phantoms were passing, brushing me, melting.  Distant bulbs glimmering like will-o’-the-wisps in a graveyard…
                Someone is walking by my side, noiselessly, as if in bare feet, walking without heels, without shoes, without sandals.  A patch of fog grazes my cheek, a band of drunks is shouting down there, down by the ferry.  The ferry?  It is not me talking, it is the voices.
                Yet every so often it was as if I had opened my eyes and were seeing flashes.  I could hear voices: “Strictly speaking, Signora, it isn’t a coma….  No, don’t think about flat encephalograms, for heaven’s sake….  There’s reactivity….”
                Someone was aiming a light into my eyes, but after the light it was dark again.  I could feel the puncture of a needle, somewhere.  “You see, there’s withdrawal….”
                Maigret plunges into a fog so dense that he can’t even see where he’s stepping….  The fog teems with human shapes, swarms with an intense, mysterious life.  Maigret?  Elementary, my dear Watson, there are ten little Indians, and the hound of the Baskervilles vanishes into the fog.
                The gray vapor was gradually losing its grayness of tint, the heat of the water was extreme, and its milky hue was more evident than ever… And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us.
                I heard people talking around me, wanted to shout to let them know I was there.  There was a continuous drone, as though I were being devoured by celibate machines with whetted teeth.  I was in the penal colony.  I felt a weight on my head, as if they had slipped the iron mask onto my face.  I thought I saw sky blue lights.
                “There’s asymmetry of the pupillary diameters.”
                I had fragments of thoughts, clearly I was waking up, but I could not move.  If only I could stay awake.  Was I sleeping again?  Hours, days, centuries?
                The fog was black, the voices in the fog, the voices about the fog.  Seltsam, im Nebel zu wandern!  What language was that?  I seemed to be swimming in the sea, I felt I was near the beach but was unable to reach it.  No one saw me, and the tide was carrying me away again.
                “Please tell me something, please touch me.  I felt a hand on my forehead.  Such relief.  Another voice: “Signora, there are cases of patients who suddenly wake up and walk away under their own power.”
                Someone was disturbing me with an intermittent light, with the hum of a tuning fork.  It was as if they had put a jar of mustard under my nose, then a clove of garlic.  The earth has the odor of mushrooms.
                Other voices, but these from within: long laments of the steam engine, priests shapeless in the fog walking single file toward San Michele in Bosco.
                The sky is made of ash.  Fog up the river, fog down the river, fog biting the hands of the little match girl.  Chance people on the bridges to the Isle of Dogs look into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging under the brown fog…  I had not thought death had undone so many.  The odor of train station and soot.
                Another light, softer.  I seem to hear, through the fog, the sound of bagpipes starting up again on the heath.
                Another long sleep, perhaps.  Then a clearing, like being in a glass of water and anisette….


  1. Umm... this is AWESOME.

    Stream-of-(un)consciousness. Wow, great stuff. Plenty of cool literary allusions, too, although I'm sure I only picked up on a few, Sherlock, obviously, "I had not thought death had undone so many," and, my favorite, a GERMAN allusion! We read this last year in class, the part about, "Seltsam, im Nebel zu wandern." Not sure if you're familiar with the English translation, but it's by Hesse. This line means, "Strange to walk in the fog," which obviously goes along with the writing, but also, the last line is, "Jeder ist allein," or, "Everyone is alone," which is how she feels in her coma. She cannot reach through to anyone. Anyway, I'm sure I missed the remaining 82 allusions or so, but German pays off again for at least one!

  2. *he feels, actually, I think. I thought, "she," because I've seen a similar concept done where it is a woman who is unconscious. Amazing how your mind starts subconsciously making connections like that.

  3. An additional greatness is the direct connection between this and Hulme's Red Girl Dancing philosphy: http://mrcenterswall.blogspot.com/2010/12/red-girl-dancing-by-te-hulme.html

    As far as language is concerned, it is one of my favorite aspects of Eco--language play, experimentation, and multilingualism is everywhere! I got the German passage regarding fog (it's similar enough to English in lexicon and I've read enough), but didn't catch the bit about everyone alone.

    One of the many brilliancies of the book--Mysterious Flame--is that it maintains the literary, pop cultural, and artistic allusions, but backs off enough as to not overwhelm the reader; plus he uses allusions that you don't have to recognize; that is they have the mark of allusion, but knowing the referent is not required.

    The only down side to any of this, is that it often seems--especially in this book--that Eco is boasting. He is very pleased with himself.


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