The Pendulum Ran Its Course

“Science gains from it [the pendulum] more than one can expect. With its huge dimensions, the apparatus presents qualities that one would try in vain to communicate by constructing it on a small [scale], no matter how carefully. Already the regularity of its motion promises the most conclusive results. One collects numbers that, compared with the predictions of theory, permit one to appreciate how far the true pendulum approximates or differs from the abstract system called ‘the simple pendulum’.”
― Jean Bernard Léon Foucault

Ice Sculpture

Let me look back… it was October 1 of last year when my Difficult Reads Book Club began plowing through Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. One of the reasons we chose that book was because it was a bit shorter (a mere 642 pages) than the other’s we have tackled (Gravity’s Rainbow – 770 pages, The Brothers Karamazov – only 586) and we planned to be finished well before Christmas. There were some delays… COVID related, death in the family, which delayed the schedule and we didn’t get to the end until the New Year.

It was not an overly popular book and a good number (most) of my fellow readers dropped off before we reached the conclusion. I stuck it out, however… and am glad I did.

The book was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a thinking-man’s Da Vinci Code – but it turned out to be more of a satire on the genre than a homage. Humberto Eco was asked about the popular book:

INTERVIEWER: Have you read The Da Vinci Code?

ECO: Yes, I am guilty of that too.

INTERVIEWER: That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault’s Pendulum.

ECO: The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.

I like the idea that Dan Brown is a character from the book. It fits (except that Foucault’s Pendulum was written first).

So the book kept surprising me. I’ll admit I skimmed a lot of the center sections – they were a long, long list of various obscure (and not-so-obscure) semi-supernatural groups from history and explanations of the fictional connections between them. I understood the point right at the beginning, but there were hundreds of dense pages to make sure that point was driven home.

All through all of this, I could not imagine how it would all end. And it ended in a way I could never have imagined. There was a climactic scene of insanity and bizarre violence that answered no questions at all. It was fun. Then there was a final section of quiet nostalgic contemplation and an slight sense of almost closure – with plenty of mystery remaining.

It was a thought provoking book – I’m not sure if it was worth the effort – but I haven’t read anything remotely like it before (and doubt I ever will again).

So now we’re taking a break – I’m catching up with some of my other reading – and then we’ll decide on our next project. We are thinking about a selection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels (The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) and one other) – which sounds good to me. I’ve read Left Hand when I was a kid but remember little about it.

So many books, so little time.

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