Umberto Eco’s glimpse into the art of the novel

The iconic author's latest book offers a fascinating look at his own writing process

Topics: Nonfiction, Books,

Umberto Eco's glimpse into the art of the novel

The title of “Confessions of a Young Novelist,” Umberto Eco’s new book , is characteristically sly. Eco is not exactly wet behind the ears — he will turn 80 next year — but as he reminds the reader on the first page, he did not publish his first novel, “The Name of the Rose,” until 1980. “Thus,” he explains, “I consider myself a very young novelist, who has so far published only five novels and will publish many more in the next fifty years.” That seems unlikely, but you wouldn’t want to bet against Eco. After all, “The Name of the Rose” — a debut novel by a middle-aged academic, packed with medieval history and intricate literary allusions — wouldn’t have been anyone’s pick to become a bestseller. In fact, Eco writes, “the first critics who reviewed [it] said it had been written under the influence of a luminous inspiration, but that, because of its conceptual and linguistic difficulties, it was only for the happy few. When the book met with remarkable success, selling millions of copies, the same critics wrote that in order to concoct such a popular and entertaining bestseller, I had no doubt mechanically followed a secret recipe.”

Barnes & Noble Review In this short book, based on his Richard Ellmann Lectures of 2008, Eco offers a more flattering metaphor for his own writing process. “To narrate something,” he explains, “you start as a sort of demiurge who creates a world — a world that must be as precise as possible, so that you can move around in it with total confidence.” From the monastic murder-mystery of “The Name of the Rose” to the kabbalistic conspiracy theory of “Foucault’s Pendulum” to the Grail-quest of “Baudolino,” all of Eco’s novels invite the reader into this kind of fantastic, meticulously detailed world. This explains both Eco’s popularity and the sometimes obsessive devotion of his readers. A couple of students once showed the novelist “a photo album in which they had reconstructed the entire route” of a nighttime walk through Paris taken by a character in “Foucault’s Pendulum.” Their fanatical pursuit of detail was a nice homage to the author’s own, since Eco explains that he himself walked the same route many times while writing that passage. On some occasions, he has even had trouble persuading readers that a certain locale or character in his novels was invented.



As a literary theorist who is fascinated by the ways readers interpret texts, Eco enjoys his firsthand experience of how a novel escapes from its creator’s control. “As an Empirical Author,” he writes, “I had to surrender in the face of a reader who was sticking to the intention of my text.” In the later part of the book, Eco moves from such autobiographical anecdotes to a more abstract consideration of what makes fiction seem real — in particular, why we invest so much emotion in the fates of characters who are nothing more than strings of words on paper. “What does it mean when people are only slightly disturbed by the death from starvation of millions of real individuals … but they feel great personal anguish at the death of Anna Karenina?” he asks. Eco does not pursue such questions too far in “Confessions”; rather than a treatise on narrative theory, he offers a charming glimpse into the demiurge’s private workshop.

Adam Kirsch is a writer living in New York.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>