"Novels", as the protagonist of The British Museum is Falling Down claims, have "just about exhausted the possibilities of life" (BM: 118). The narrator of the preface to Il nome della rosa tells us that what we are going to read is a "storia di libri", story of books, not of "miserie quotidiane" (NR: 15). Could the latter statement be offering a solution to the problem posed by the former? And how is it related to the uneasiness manifest in the prologue to Borges's Ficciones: "Desvarío laborioso y empobrecedor el de componer vastos libros (A laborious and impoverishing madness to write vast books)"?(F: 12) How come in the tree books alluded to the libraries are so important? If Borges is correct, the answers to these questions already exist, hidden in some library, in all libraries; what remains to be done is to find them and print them in one place: "A scholar is just a library's way of making another library" (Dennet 1991: 202).
The general observation that insinuates itself is the complicated tangle of relations between life and literature, i.e. reality and textuality, to be found in the fictional works of Borges, Lodge and Eco. The initial hitch is that of having to study to the life-to-fiction connections in, and as expounded in, works of fiction themselves. Still, it is rather apparent that narratives can, on the one hand, attempt to create worlds as close as possible to the actual world and, on the other hand, they can dispel this mimetic illusion even as they create it, and thus admit their indebtedness to other works of fiction. Borges is explicit:
No soy el primer autor de la narración La biblioteca de Babel: los curiosos de su historia y de su prehistoria pueden interrogar cierta página del número 59 de Sur, que registra los nombres heterogéneos de Leucipo y de Lasswitz, de Lewis Carrol y de Aristóteles. (I am not the first author of the narration The Library of Babel: those curious of its history and its prehistory can consult a certain page of the 59th issue of Sur, which records the heterogeneous names of Leucippus and Lasswitz, of Lewis Carroll and Aristotle.) (F: 11)
In this story, like in most others, Borges almost completely renounces the pretence of reflecting life - as Adam Appleby would say, "there is no risk of confusing that sort of thing with life, of course" (BM: 118). But with novels it is different, he claims: "you might pick a book at any time and read about an ordinary chap called Joe Smith doing just the sort of things you did yourself" (ibid.). Thus, a mimetic novel, dealing with realistic characters, creates a very strong illusion of reality. The same applies even to such self-conscious and autothematic narratives as Lodge's and Eco's.
The British Museum is Falling Down recounts one day from the life of a Catholic postgraduate student Adam Appleby, as in the British Museum Reading Room he tries to advance his Ph.D. on "The Structure of Long Sentences in Three Modern English Novels", getting into all sorts of preposterous situations, while his wife Barbara, taking care of the rest of their "alphabetical family": Clare, Dominic and Edward (Morace 1989: 132), frets at home about he overdue period, wondering whether the shortcomings of the "Vatican Roulette" they use as contraception are going to present them with a fourth, impossible descendant.
Adam's vicissitudes are related in a collage of styles parodying the modernist novels he is himself investigating, but a casual reader can follow the intrigue undisturbed. The novel is "a concatenation of voices transformed into a seemingly sequential and apparently seamless narrative" (Morace 1989: 135), the echolalia and mimicry lurk under the surface of a deceptively transparent storytelling. As Morace observes, "in Lodge's . . . novel, realism and parody, life and literature, feed on and reflect each other creating a comical but nonetheless disturbing confusion of realms" (1989: 133). A particularly immediate example of such mirror-play is offered in the episode where the adolescent Virginia finally allows Adam to read Merrymarsh's unpublished manuscript, and she expects him to have sex with her in exchange:
At this point the story broke off. . . . It was a great pity. Robert and Rachel wasn't quite a literary work of art: it was feeling crude and unrefined, turned out clumsily from the rough moulds of real experience. There was a kind of embarrassment, a shamefulness in the confessions, from which no detail was spared, of a man whose sexual desire was ignited for the first time at the very moment when his sexual vigour was declining. It wasn't really art . . . but it was unquestionably the best thing Egbert Merrymarsh had ever done. That description of the young girl, for instance, standing nude in the tin tub, her hair falling to her waist... As Adam turned back to read the passage again, the manuscript was snatched from his hands.
'That's quite enough,' said Virginia.
Adam's protest died in his throat. Virginia was sitting beside him, quite naked. (BM: 141)
Adam wants to re-read a passage from a book "turned out clumsily from the moulds of real experience" but what happens instead is that he has to re-live a version of this paper-mediated experience. How life mirrors fiction and vice versa may be mad, but there is a method in this madness. A method that Adam, confused as he may be, is able to detect, having read most of the narratives that shape his experience:
So all of us, you see, are really enacting events that have already been written about in some novel or other. Of course, most people don't realize this - they fondly imagine their little lives are unique... Just as well, too, because when you do tumble to it, the effect is very disturbing. (BM: 118-119)
He even tries to distinguish life and literature: "Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round" (BM: 56).
He spends his day in and around a library full of fictions and "'his perceptions of life around him become increasingly phantasmagoric'" (Morace 1989: 136; quoting Jackson). Finally he comes home to spend the night with his Penelope/Molly-like wife and their three children and to once again taste life: a real life they try to tailor so that it suits the exigencies of the various calendars, charts and temperature graphs of the Rhythm Method - yet another fiction taking over their lives? (Morace 1989: 140). The constant clash and confusion between the fiction-ridden life of a scholar and the family-ridden life of a husband provides the structural scheme of the novel. In an episode echoing Henry James's Turn of the Screw, Adam has a vision of his lost-in-fog, apparition-like family come to see him at the Museum - he is sure what he saw cannot have been real.
Although the Museum was notoriously a place where you eventually met everyone you knew, this law didn't include dependants. Scholarship and domesticity were opposed worlds, whose common frontier was marked by the museum railings. This reversal of the natural order, with himself outside the railings, and his family inside, was a vision pregnant with symbolic significance if only he could penetrate it. (BM: 96)
Earlier in the novel, in a lengthy passage (parodying DH Lawrence this time), the Museum Reading Room, with its spherical form, is compared to a huge womb where the process of knowledge gestation is going on, and the "foetus-like scholars" enclosed in their warm world of books are contrasted with their wives living outside lives:
They [scholars] curled themselves more tightly over their books, for they did not want to leave the warm womb . . .
But the women who waited outside felt differently. . . . From their dingy flats in Islington and cramped semis in Bexleyheath they looked out through the windows at the life of the world . . . and they found [it] good. And they resented the warm womb of the Museum which made them poor and lonely, which swallowed up their men every day and sapped them of their vital spirits . . . (BM: 44)
The worlds of scholarly studies and of everyday life are seen as incompatible and hostile. Those dealing with texts, Adam among them, are isolated in the library - an enclave of textuality in the surrounding realm of daily life. Those who belong to life rather than to literature (and they tend to be female) never come to the library and are resentful and suspicious of it. Mrs. Green, Adam and Barbara's landlady, thinks it highly unnatural for an adult man to spend his day reading books (BM: 23)- an activity proper maybe for children (but are the foetal students trying to get back to mother's womb anything but children?).
Nonetheless, the communication between the two worlds, intrusions of one into the other are inevitable: what Adam thinks was a hallucination, was really his family on the other side of the railings. Adam is a student but he is a husband and a father of three, too, and he cannot work properly when he is worried about the situation of his wife and children. Which, due to the uncertainties of 'natural' methods of contraception and the irregularity of Barbara's period, means "once a month at least..." (BM: 153)
When the scholars are "expelled from the womb" (BM: 45) they take their notes and file cards with bits of the library on them into the outside non-fictional world dominated by women and babies. Adam, peeing in the Readers' lavatory, wonders what will happen if they have another child. How would they accommodate it in the flat?
It comprised only two rooms, plus kitchen and bathroom. One of the rooms had originally been a living-room, but this has long ago become Adam's and Barbara's bedroom, while the children occupied the other. This seemed the good and logical design of a good Catholic home: no room for living in, only rooms for breeding, sleeping, eating and excreting. As it was, he was compelled to study in his bedroom, his desk squeezed up beside the double bed, constant reminder of birth, copulation and death. (BM: 79)
After this quote from Eliot he goes on in the same vein of wasteland desperation and concludes that "perhaps he could live in the Museum, hiding when the closing bell rang and dossing down on one of the broad-topped desks with a pile of books for a pillow," (ibid.) and thus avoid the interference of life with scholarly research.
Adam feels the stifling pressure of literature on his life as much as he feels the pressure of life on his study. Throughout the day he is aware of falling into "moulds prepared by literature" (BM: 32) Escaping from Virginia the seductress's room, "as he cautiously descended the ladder he was conscious of re-enacting one of the oldest roles in literature"(BM: 145). This uncanny experience is then in turn going to be textualized - a kind of closed circuit of life and fiction - since, according to Barbara, Adam projects to write "a novel where life [keeps] taking the shape of literature, did you ever hear anything so cracked, life is life and books are books and if he was a woman he wouldn't need to be told that." (BM: 157)
The main part of Il nome della rosa, Adso's da Melk's narrative, is enclosed in a Russian-dolls-like structure. The inner frame is provided by Adso's Prologue, where he explains the circumstances that led to the events he is about to describe: the conflict between the emperor and the Pope, the unaccounted-for death of a monk in the monastery where both sides are to meet and negotiate, and the summoning of his master Guglielmo (i.e. William) da Baskerville, who as a former inquisitor is to help unravel the mystery (which seems to be connected with the labyrinth-like Library and the "libro proibito" it conceals). The outer frame is a preface, whose author tells the story of the manuscript which was put in his hands - as we shall see, a very complicated story indeed. The book ends with a counterpart to the prologue, the "Ultimo folio" - the latter like the former written by Adso as an old man.
In this last part he describes how, after the fire had destroyed the monastery's library, he collected the scattered, scorched remains of its manuscripts and was (re)reading them throughout his life. Having arrived at the end of the narrative, he confesses:
. . . ho quasi l'impressione che quanto ho scritto su questi fogli, che tu ora leggerai, ignoto lettore, altro non sia che un centone, un carme a figura, un immenso acrostico che non dice e non ripete altro che ciò che quei frammenti mi hanno suggerito, né so più se io abbia sinora parlato di essi o essi abbiano parlato per bocca mia.
(I almost have an impression that all I have written in those pages that you are now reading, unknown reader, is nothing but a compilation, a figurative poem, an immense acrostic which does not say and does not repeat anything but what those fragments have suggested to me, neither do I know whether I have spoken of them or they have spoken through my mouth.) (NR: 502-503)
Saying that much amounts to calling his own reality into question: if the story he has just told is no more than a paraphrase of fragmented texts from a destroyed collection, then anything or anyone inside the story, including the narrator, has no extratextual existence unless supported by some independent evidence. And the higher order narrator, the author of the preface, only further obscures the matters. The text he claims to have translated, a nineteenth century version by a certain abbot Vallet, Le manuscript de Dom Adson de Melk, traduit en français d'après l'édition de Dom J. Mabillon, is accidentally taken away by his companion as she hastily leaves him. The bibliographical references of the lost book prove false - it seems as if it has never existed - and the narrator begins to doubt the reliability of his Italian version. He only decides to publish it when in a Buenos Aires bookstore he comes across ample fragments of Adso's story quoted in another book - an almost equally obscure one:
. . . la versione castigliana di un libretto di Milo Temesvar, Dell'uso degli specchi nel gioco degli schacchi . . . traduzione dell'ormai introvabile originale in lingua georgiana (Tibilisi, 1934)
(. . . the Spanish version of a booklet by Milo Temesvar, The Use of Mirrors in Chess . . . translation of an original, no longer to be found, in the Georgian language (Tibilisi, 1934)) (NR: 13)
This proliferation of bibliography (invented, the reader suspects), the excess of elusive sources apparently corroborating one another, in fact raises doubts about the existential status of both the narrators (Eco's persona in the preface and Adso in the manuscript) and the events they claim to relate as real. As the preface writer admits:
A ben riflettare, assai scarse erano le ragioni che potessero inclinarmi a dare alle stampe la mia versione italiana di una oscura versione neogotica francese di una edizione latina secentesca di un'opera scritta in latino da un monaco tedesco sul finire del trecento.
(Thinking about it, scarce were the reasons that led me to publish my Italian version of an obscure neogothic version of a seventeenth century Latin version of a work written in Latin by a German monk towards the end of the fourteenth century.) (NR: 13-14)
Young Adso's experience, which he relates as an aging man, no longer sure he actually lived it, is then at least three more times re-related in the course of centuries. An episode from his real life - real inside the possible world of his own narrative, as opposed to the "frammenti" saved from the fire, whose contents do not belong to the narrated reality - is taken over and processed by literature until it finally dissolves in the continuum of textuality. Or rather peoples the endless shelves of the world's libraries.
The same happens to the second order narrator, the preface writer, identified with Eco himself by means of the reference to a book by Eco, Apocalittici e integrati (McGrady 1987: 789). He recounts an episode of his life connected with the manuscript and this becomes a part of the novel and is interpreted as fiction. And it happens in part because of what the real Eco does, saturating the preface with intertextual allusions, between others to Borges's "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" or giving it the weird-sounding title "Naturalmente, un manuscritto" thus admitting that the novel and the preface have other texts as their source rather than any real events (McGrady 1987: 788-796). Real-life experience is textualized, but it also proves to have sprung from text in the first place.
The British Museum features Wilde's witticism that "life imitates art" for an epigraph, and life as represented in this book, as well as in The Name of the Rose, certainly does follow patterns derived from other books, and neither Eco nor Lodge try to conceal it.
The Holmesian William of Baskerville and his disciple "Adso (Adson, Watson)" (Nadin, 1987: 117) are involved in an intrigue closely parallel to that in "La muerte y la brújula" (a story from Ficciones) (McGrady: 797-803). If Adso is right in thinking that all he has told is nothing more than a re-elaboration of what was already written and hidden in the monastic Library, then Sherlock Holmes and Lönnrot from the story by Borges, or a version of them, must have been present there as well. Borges would probably agree; in fact that's what he does mentioning Leucippus, Aristotle etc. as the original authors of his "Library of Babel".
Adam has a similar insight: if only the file cards with text he had extracted from the library could somehow be put in the correct order, his dissertation would write itself (BM: 160). He is especially attracted to stationery shop displays:
He coveted the files, punches, staplers, erasers, coloured inks and gadgets whose functions remained a teasing mystery, thinking that if only he could afford to equip himself with all this apparatus his thesis would [again] write itself: he would be automated. (BM: 70)
Adam's thesis seems, from these two mentions, just on the verge of (coming to) existence. It is already there, one of the possible orderings of pre-existent words, of ready made (long) sentences, of thought-before ideas; just like The Name of the Rose is already present in the books of the library that appears on its pages. Just like Adams's life, and Adso's and William's, centered around the Library - around the British Museum or around the Edifice - have already been lived, already written about.