This Guest post comes from Laurie Anderson. Laurie is a publicity assistant for a large Southern university.
A Performance Comparison, Not a Literary Critique
Umberto Eco gave three free lectures at Emory University in Atlanta October 5 through 7, and also did a reading and signing. All three lectures will be released in print form sometime next year; I’m not sure through what publisher. Although I have yet to read any of his work (except for a very short children’s picture book he wrote many years ago, The Bomb and the General), I attended his final lecture Tuesday afternoon, then the reading/signing that night. The lecture, titled “On the Advantages of Fiction for Life & Death”, was full of wit, but also full of phrases like “otorhinological legitimacy” and “epistemological proof” and was difficult for me to follow. (I’d say “was difficult for everyone to follow,” but the audience of approximately 400 people applauded loudly at the end, so maybe everyone else in the auditorium understood what he was talking about). The gist of it seemed to be that since a fictional story is complete and fixed, unlike history (from which facts and the complete picture are always missing), fiction serves the useful purpose of (a) helping humans put order in their world, and (b) confronting death with a framework of meaning (that is borrowed from stories, including the Bible, that people are most familiar with). I could be wrong; it’s just a guess that that’s what he was saying. For what it’s worth, some of the simpler quotes from his lecture:
One of the main functions of literature is to clarify our notions of the truth… It is unquestionably true that Superman is Clark Kent. That Hitler died in a particular bunker can be cast in doubt… If fictional characters are not real, why do we cry over them?… I know Leopold Bloom better than my father. History creates ghosts; fiction creates characters of flesh and blood… [A survey conducted in England awhile ago indicated that] 25 percent of Britons believe that Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby are real people… When we cry over fictional characters we cry for peculiar but real persons… These fictional characters exist as a form of cultural habit, as real as the Holy Ghost was for Christians… Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of our world is as unrealistic as that of the fictional characters. The fictional characters cannot know their fate… Stories that we cannot change — because Superman will be Clark Kent forever — also tell us how to die.
The reading (from Foucault’s Pendulum) was more enjoyable. Eco was understandable despite a thick Italian accent, and read with verve. He chose a lengthy section about a young boy who volunteers to play for a partisan funeral in a small Italian town. (“It really happened to me,” he told the audience. Like the boy in the story, Eco said that as a youth he and his family escaped the bombing of their city during WWII by running to a small Italian town in the mountains, where he joined a music band organized by the local priest. Unfortunately, Eco was obliged to play “the boomba-doo” (the tuba?) when he really wanted to impress the girls by playing the trumpet. The boy in Foucault’s Pendulum cares nothing for patriotism, only the romance he hopes his playing will inspire.) Eco has a slightly gravelly voice, enunciates consonants crisply (“clutched” becomes “kalucht”) and knows the wise use of pauses and tonal variance. If you were a kid, you would want this guy to read you a bedtime story.
Eco’s lecture and reading came to mind when NPR recently broadcast (mp3) an interview with Junot Díaz. Díaz spoke about his life and writing, and read a section of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao involving the characters Oscar, Oscar’s sister Lola and their mother Beli. It’s a terrific book; a virtuoso mix of bilingual/bicultural puns and acid observations that use obscure Dominican Spanglish slang and geek culture references (comic books, science fiction) with whirlwind dialogue and narrative that can leave the reader breathless. You can’t help but want to hear the characters speak aloud, or hear the author speak for them. Díaz’s thoughts on literature were clear and interesting (not opaque and academic like Eco’s), but when it came time to read an excerpt from his novel describing an emotional reunion, full of screaming and crying, Díaz conveyed it in a deadpan monotone. The novel’s language and emotion are complex and visceral; hearing it read so simplistically was like hearing Beethoven’s Fifth symphony performed with a kazoo. (Penguin Audio hired actors Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell to read for the unabridged cd version, thank goodness.)
Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two writers this way. Eco was expected to deliver a scholarly lecture. If he had been interviewed about his life and work like Díaz, he may have seemed more accessible. Maybe Díaz would have seemed opaque, too, had he given lectures; maybe no one can make academic literary analysis easy to comprehend (Eco tried; his talk was full of references to pop literature). Reading out loud however, Eco beats Diaz all to hell.
What does all this mean? Author presentations are a crapshoot. Go for interviews and Q&A sessions; be wary of lectures and readings unless you’re prepared for the worst, or the writer is a humorist.