Umberto Eco, Italian semiotician and author of works such as Theory of Semiotics and The Name of the Rose, has died at 84. His most famous work, The Name of the Rose, was adapted in a film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. Reflect on his life by revisiting Hillary Kelly’s review of Confessions of a Young Novelist.
Is there anything Umberto Eco cannot do? It has been said before and certainly will be said again—Umberto Eco is a true Renaissance man. His contributions to the literary world are as varied as the knotty and layered Theory of Semiotics, and as delightful and nostalgic as The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. His novels are no easy reading, with long raptures on, say, Dulcinian heresy as considered among the Bendictines of the fourteenth century, but his erudition is never for the sake of mere difficulty. Now, with the publication of Confessions of a Young Novelist, he offers readers an effective primer on both his oeuvre and the contemporary field of semiotics.
Confessions of a Young Novelist is a compact but meandering little book—in fact, it was first conceived in 2008 as a lecture series at Emory University, which explains its chatty, unpretentious tone. Akin to a Paris Review interview turned essay, Confessions is both polemic and intensely personal, infused with Eco’s trademark fastidiousness and also bursting with bombasticity. No matter the subject, Eco appears both grandiose and also dedicated to the minutiae. For a public figure and academic, he is delightfully unguarded and frank.
But a man of such wit and linguistic ability does not trap himself so easily as to offer a full confession of literary sins. The term confession, religiously charged as it is, seems particularly apt for a writer so entranced by the constraints of spirituality and religiosity. However, readers hoping to discover the dark underbelly of Italian academia have come to the wrong person and place. Eco’s confessions remain of the amusing variety, far more venial than mortal. Their triviality, however, does not detract from their edification. The fruits of Eco’s semiotic detective work (though perhaps a bit shopworn) are presented so clearly as to become Confessions’s most fascinating revelations.
Confessions is divided into four parts, each of the first three dedicated to a question of literary theory: “Writing from Left to Right,” “Author, Text, and Interpreters,” and “Some Remarks on Fictional Characters”. Although at times erudite, the essays are gloriously uncomplicated—rather uncustomarily, they seek to solve puzzles, not create them. More importantly, Eco appears less like he is presenting a particular theory of reading than presenting a set of common truths. His style is so common-sensical and well-tuned that one cannot help but be swayed by his logic.
“Writing from Left to Right” is a brisk read presented mostly as a rejoinder to the commonly asked question, “How do you write your novels?” In this first essay Eco delves into his personal routines and writing preferences, liberally sprinkling the text with his modus operandi (“In order to enable the story to proceed, the writer must impose some constraints.”) It is entertaining, but light reading. It is in “Author, Text, and Interpreters” that Eco first gives his readers something more meaty to gnaw on. Through a series of anecdotes, all relating to interpretation and misinterpretation of his novels, Eco relays some fundamental truths about how, and why, one interprets a text. The basis of his theory, (which he has outlined many times before and which I also feel verboten to give away) is thought-provoking, but it is his style of relay that most transfixes his reader.
Through “Author, Text, and Interpreters” into “Some Remarks on Fictional Characters” Eco’s observations are astute (“A text is a lazy machine that wants it readers to do part of its job.”) judicious (“It seems that fictional worlds are parasitic on the real world.”) and at times downright funny (“It is always possible to tell when a given interpretation is blatantly wrong, crazy, farfetched.”) It is also in this third essay that Eco’s theories most resonate with a core group of his readers—true bibliophiles. He remarks, “It can happen that, when we enter a very absorbing and captivating narrative world, a textual strategy can provoke something similar to a mystical raptus or a hallucination, and we simply forget we have entered a world that is merely possible.” For a bibliophile the idea of a fictional world being real, and in many senses truer than any community in the physical world, is a cornerstone of their dedication to the craft, but also a source of tension between those “true bibliophiles” and more middlebrow, book club-subscribing common readers. The battle over what we should (and if we should) feel while reading is not one that is likely to be quelled by such a dainty book of essays. But Eco answers the question: why do readers look to fiction for solace? And he does so without resorting to the cheap tricks of self-improvement or positive psychology literature.
The last essay of Confessions, a seeming list of lists called, uninspiringly “My Lists”, seems out of place and unnecessary, as Eco recently published a magnificently rendered text with Rizzoli entitled The Infinity of Lists. In fact, whole sections of his list chapter were lifted straight from The Infinity of Lists (or vice versa). He seems to have included it purely for the delightful, complex language it displays—noble in theory, but unwieldy in practicality. Although “My Lists” encompasses about a third of Confessions, it can be skipped or left for a separate reading.
Infusing all of Confessions of a Young Novelist is an unwarranted but appreciated sense of modesty about his own career. To read Eco’s thoughts is a refreshing break from the often ego-motivated world of the literati. He admits to reading critical analyses of his own works, and unabashedly describes instances in which those analyses prove him errant. He also divulges lapses of his literary memory—Eco just plain forgot about Middlemarch’s Casaubon when creating his own same-named character. And Eco never pretends to rise above the grasping tentacles of jealousy—”Since I became a novelist I have discovered that I am biased. Either I think a new novel is worse than mine and I don’t like it, or I suspect it is better than my novels and I don’t like it.” Also abundant is Eco’s obvious desire for hope and growth in his own writing and the minds of those who critically read it. To that end, he posits in his very first paragraph that he is indeed a young novelist. We know this to be untrue, Eco is currently nearing eighty. But this, his first confession, that despite all his fame and honorifics he feels like an amateur, is what imbues all the pages beyond with such vibrancy and hunger—Eco is just another reader, trying to understand.