Confessions of a Young Novelist: The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature

Christoph Bode gets a backstage pass to the creation of a scholar's fiction and his academic work

May 19, 2011

This comparatively slim volume is entertaining and, at times, amusing, but it is not original or highly innovative. In four chapters of greatly varying length, Umberto Eco reflects on his double role as novelist and scholar and - causeur that he is - he does it lightheartedly and without demanding too much of his readers.

The first chapter, "Writing from left to right", is mainly about the differences between creative and scientific writing. It gives us a backstage pass to the creation of Eco's novels Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, Baudolino, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and, most notably, The Name of the Rose, although much of the blueprint of that best-seller had already been divulged in Eco's Reflections on The Name of the Rose. What he has to say here is largely anecdotal, but Eco fans will love it. The passages on space and length of dialogue are particularly illuminating.

Chapter two, "Author, text and interpreters", is about the meaning of a literary text and how we can tell an acceptable interpretation from an untenable one. Nothing here is really new. Relying on what he has said on the matter in a number of his scholarly works, to which he refers time and again if he doesn't quote from them directly, Eco's aim is to reassert the rights of the text against usurpations by readers who merely use it for their own idiosyncratic purposes.

But if it makes sense to regard a text as a machine conceived to elicit interpretations (as Eco does), then it is not as easy as he claims to tell legitimate from illegitimate readings. In ruling out the intentions of the author as not binding (and more often than not simply unattainable), what Eco calls "the intention of the text" can never be construed without interpretive moves on the part of the reader, so that his/her readerly activities have an inbuilt self-confirming tendency, even though, all the while, readers believe they are merely reconstructing the "intention of the text". Invariably, it is always the others who are wrong, whereas the text confirms us.

Most of the cases of ridiculous over-interpretation that Eco cites are trivial and therefore not really helpful. It is the non-trivial cases that we should look at when pondering the question of what makes an interpretation acceptable or unacceptable. "Between the unattainable intention of the author and the arguable intention of the reader, there is the transparent intention of the text, which refuses untenable interpretations." Transparent? I'm not so sure. And I'm afraid the refutation of ludicrous misreadings is a job that will still have to be done by us, and by us alone.

"Some remarks on fictional characters" is the book's most theoretically ambitious chapter. But after convincingly identifying fictional characters as "absolutely intensional objects" we are not one inch closer to answering Eco's starting question of why we should weep for Anna Karenina (whose name, Vladimir Nabokov never failed to point out, should be Anna Karenin in translation).

If chapter one highlights Eco's novels and chapters two and three make copious use of his scholarly books, then the final chapter, "My lists", is a cross of the two. The ground is familiar from Eco's last big monograph, The Infinity of Lists (2009), but much of the content consists of enumerations from his own novels (some of these quotations run to four, five or six pages), "comparing them with some of the greatest catalogues in the history of world literature" - from Homer to Pliny, from Rabelais to James Joyce: what a list! (Laurence Sterne, however, is conspicuously absent.)

For Eco, as for many others, lists hold a great fascination, no matter whether they are open or finite, poetic or practical. Only sometimes needlessly apodictic ("The only true purpose of a good list is to convey the idea of infinity and the vertigo of the etcetera"), he has wise things to say about the phases of cultural history that show a strong weakness for lists, averse as they are to "essences" and hierarchies. The reproduction of Diogenes Laertius' list of all the books written by Theophrastus alone justifies this whole chapter.

Why Confessions of a Young Novelist? Eco explains that he published his first novel in 1980, "which means that I started my career as a novelist a mere twenty-eight years ago". Sadly, like this coquettish attempt at a joke, the book never quite comes off. It seems that Eco, now in his late seventies, is running on empty, recycling old material. But given the quality of that material, I guess that's all right.

Confessions of a Young Novelist: The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature

By Umberto Eco

Harvard University Press 240pp, £14.95

ISBN 9780674058699

Published 28 April 2011

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