Geoffrey Brock talks The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco

Erik Ketzan interviews Geoffrey Brock

Geoffrey Brock is a poet and translator who’s landed the coveted spot of Umberto Eco’s newest English translator, now that the venerable William Weaver is stepping down. The following is a spoiler-free look at Eco’s new novel and new translator.

Erik Ketzan: How did you learn Italian?

Geoffrey Brock: I contracted a bad case of Italophilia as an undergrad in 1984, when I spent a semester in Florence. I knew Spanish pretty well before going to Florence, and that no doubt jumpstarted my learning of Italian. I fell in love with the language, the culture, the art; when I returned to the States I kept studying the language and began studying the literature, and when I graduated I sold my car and returned to Florence and stayed until my money was spent and my credit cards were maxed out. I’ve been returning, time and credit permitting, ever since.

How did you become involved with the project?

Unfortunately, my involvement came about as a result of William Weaver’s declining health. (Weaver, of course, is the translator of all of Eco’s previous fiction and dozens of other important Italian novels.) Harcourt asked several translators to “audition” for the job by translating the novel’s first chapter – an extremely difficult chapter, as you’ll see when you read it. It was all quite daunting but also a great challenge, and I spent a week working feverishly on it. To my surprise, my version was chosen. At first I was elated – until I realized that I was now faced with the truly daunting task of translating the rest of the book. Fear of failure is a good motivator.

As for how I got on Harcourt’s radar to begin with – I think that Tim Parks, who had read my Pavese translations and liked them, may have passed my name on to someone who passed my name on to Harcourt. He had given my name to Knopf the year before, which led, after a similar audition, to my translation of Calasso’s marvelous book about Kafka, which just came out. For Parks to have done that was both generous (especially as we didn’t know each other) and flattering: if you’ve read his translation of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony or Ka you know he’s a truly great translator. He’s also a brilliant writer himself, of both fiction and nonfiction, and he quit translating to do more of his own work.

Eco is known for collaborating with his translators on difficult problems of translation. Did you confer with him at all?

Absolutely. I emailed him every chapter as I finished it, and he read it closely – his English is excellent – and promptly emailed me back a brief list of comments and suggestions, helping me improve the translation in various ways. He also gave me a great deal of freedom in certain areas. There are several passages in the novel in English (the two playful strings of quotations in the first chapter, for example) that are not really translations so much as imitations, to which he gave his stamp of approval without hesitation. He also omitted or changed or allowed me to change several lines that simply didn’t work in translation – a couple of punny one-liners, for instance, that weren’t as funny in English, and a few allusions that only Italians could possibly have made sense of. And he was generous in his praise when he noticed that I had done something difficult well – he saw immediately, for example, that I was translating the song lyrics such that they could still be sung to the original melodies. It pleased him that I had done so, and of course it pleased me that he had noticed. He was a delight to work with.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a heavily illustrated text, and the pictures seem to follow the chronology of a life; those of the first book are culled from children’s comic books, the second from adventure stories and mystery novels, while the illustrations of the third book reflect maturity: women, sexuality, and love. Is this a fair characterization?

For the most part, the images are of items that the main character, Yambo, discovers in the attics of his childhood home. He has a kind of amnesia and is trying to reconstruct childhood memories by reading the books, looking at the pictures, and listening to the songs he had read, looked at, and listened to as a child. And for the most part, his reconstruction is chronological, beginning with children’s books and moving through the sorts of things that interest teenagers. But along with his own history, Yambo is also reconstructing the history and popular culture of his generation: his childhood coincides with the rise of Fascism and Vespas and movies, and it ends with the end of World War II. As for the images of the third section – you’ll just have to wait till it comes out.

The final thirty pages contain a number of collages. Did Eco create these himself?

Yes. The graphic designers at Bompiani, his Italian publisher, may have tweaked some of them, but Eco created them.

Will the text in the illustrations (film and book titles, the word balloons and captions of comics) be translated into English or remain in Italian? Why was that decision made?

They will remain unchanged. Most of the images are self-explanatory, even if they contain a few words in a foreign language. And in any case, their significance is always made clear in the text of the narrative itself.

Without revealing specifics, how is The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana similar to Eco’s previous four novels?

Some similarities, broadly and briefly: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, like other of his novels, borrows tropes and techniques from adventure novels and detective novels. As the title suggests, there is a mystery (indeed more than one) at the novel’s heart, and it generates various kinds of suspense, which makes the novel another Eco page-turner, despite (or because of?) his propensity for digression. (“Digressions are the sunshine,” as Laurence Sterne once said.) Also, Eco in this book is concerned with many of the same general subjects that have concerned him in the past: memory, history, fantasy...

Some differences: the history in question – the rise and fall of Fascism and the schizophrenic pop culture that went along with it – is more immediate and less esoteric than that of his other of his books, and the memories in question are (or at least have the appearance of being) more personal. This book is set in the 1990s and is about the formation of modern Italy and of a man who in certain ways resembles Eco himself. Not what we were expecting. I think it will be seen as an exciting new direction in his work.

One perennial criticism of Eco is that he writes from the head rather than the heart, creating works of undeniable erudition that feel, nevertheless, too removed from human emotion. Will The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which seems like a very personal work, dispel that criticism?

I don’t think that criticism can be made of this book. It’s a passionate book.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a novel about memory, and I saw a mention of Proust as I was flipping through the pages. Does Proust figure into the book at all?

Well, the book is, as you say, about memory, and it’s hard to write a book about memory without getting a whiff of Proust’s tea or a taste of his madeleine. Other writers figure in, too, for similar reasons: Augustine’s caverns of memory, for example, are bodied forth in the sprawling attics of Yambo’s childhood home.

Do you have a Web site?

Now that’s an easy question:

Additional Information

Selected Bibliography

Translated Books

Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950, by Cesare Pavese (2002)
K., by Roberto Calasso (2005)

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco (2005)

Links – The translator’s homepage.

Gorge, by Umberto Eco – a chapter of Queen Loana, online at The New Yorker

The Queen Loana Annotation Project - An ever-growing resource on the countless allusions and quotations in Eco's novel.


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–Erik Ketzan
21 March 2005

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.