No one expected The Name of the Rose to become an internationally acclaimed best seller, least of all its author, Eco. A respected Italian scholar, Eco built his literary reputation on specialized academic writing about semiotics: the study of how cultures communicate through signs. Not only was The Name of the Rose Eco's first novel, it was also a complex creation, long on philosophy and short on sex--definitely not blockbuster material, especially not in Italy where the market for books is small.
Some experts attribute the novel's success to the rising interest in fantasy literature. On one level The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery in which a number of Catholic monks are inexplicably killed. The setting is an ancient monastery in northern Italy, the year is 1327, and the air is rife with evil. Dissension among rival factions of the Franciscan order threatens to tear the church apart, and each side is preparing for a fight. On one side stand the Spiritualists and the emperor Louis IV who endorse evangelical poverty; on the other stand the corrupt Pope John XXII and the monks who believe that the vow of poverty will rob the church of earthly wealth and power. In an effort to avoid a confrontation, both sides agree to meet at the monastery--a Benedictine abbey that is considered neutral ground. To this meeting come William of Baskerville, an English Franciscan empowered to represent the emperor, and Adso, William's disciple and scribe. Before the council can convene, however, the body of a young monk is discovered at the bottom of a cliff, and William, a master logician in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, is recruited to solve the crime, assisted by Adso, in Watson's role.
Nowhere is the importance of decoding symbols more apparent than in the library--an intricate labyrinth that houses all types of books, including volumes on pagan rituals and black magic. The secret of the maze is known to only a few, among them the master librarian whose job it is to safeguard the collection and supervise the circulation of appropriate volumes. William suspects that the murder relates to a forbidden book--a rare work with "the power of a thousand scorpions"--that some of the more curious monks have been trying to obtain. "What the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks," William explains to Adso. "Why should they not have risked death to satisfy a curiosity of their minds, or have killed to prevent someone from appropriating a jealously guarded secret of their own?"
If William speaks for reason, Adso--the young novice who, in his old age, will relate the story--represents the voice of faith. Another way The Name of the Rose can be interpreted is as a parable of modern life. The vehement struggle between church and state mirrors much of recent Italian history with its "debates over the role of the left and the accompanying explosion of terrorist violence," wrote Sari Gilbert in the Washington Post. Eco acknowledges the influence that former Italian premier Aldo Moro's 1978 kidnapping and death had on his story, telling Gilbert that it "gave us all a sense of impotence," but he also warned that the book was not simply a roman à clef.
As with his first novel, Eco's second novel was an international best seller. Published in 1989 in English as Foucault's Pendulum, the book is similar to The Name of the Rose in that it is a semiotic murder mystery wrapped in several layers of meaning. The plot revolves around Casaubon, the narrator, and two Milan editors who break up the monotony of reviewing manuscripts on the occult by combining information from all of them into one computer program called the Plan. Initially conceived as a joke, the Plan connects the Knights Templar--a medieval papal order that fought in the Crusades--with other occult groups throughout history. The program produces a map indicating the geographical point at which the powers of the earth can be controlled. That point is in Paris, France, at Foucault's Pendulum. When occult groups, including Satanists, get wind of the Plan, they go so far as to kill one of the editors in their quest to gain control of the earth. Beyond the basic plot, readers will also encounter William Shakespeare, Rene Descartes, Tom and Jerry, Karl Marx, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara, Sam Spade, and Frederick the Great of Prussia, as well as assorted Nazis, Rosicrucians, and Jesuits. Eco orchestrates all of these and other diverse characters and groups into his multilayered semiotic story.
Some of the interpretations of Foucault's Pendulum critics have suggested include reading it as nothing more than an elaborate joke, as an exploration of the ambiguity between text as reality and reality as text, and as a warning that harm comes to those who seek knowledge through bad logic and faulty reasoning. Given this range of interpretation and Eco's interest in semiotics, Foucault's Pendulum is probably best described as a book about many things, including the act of interpretation itself.
Foucault's Pendulum generated a broad range of commentary. Some critics faulted it for digressing too often into scholarly minutia, and others felt Eco had only mixed success in relating the different levels of his tale. Several reviewers, however, praised Foucault's Pendulum. Comparing the work to his first novel, Herbert Mitgang, for example, said in the New York Times that the book "is a quest novel that is deeper and richer than The Name of the Rose. It's a brilliant piece of research and writing--experimental and funny, literary and philosophical--that bravely ignores the conventional expectations of the reader."
Eco's third novel, The Island of the Day Before, takes place during the early seventeenth century and tells the story of an Italian castaway, Roberto della Griva, who is marooned on an otherwise deserted ship in the South Pacific. The Island of the Day Before "is dazzling in its range," Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Marina Warner declared, "its linguistic fireworks ('Babelizing' as Eco calls it) and sheer learning."
In Baudolino, Eco draws readers back into the early thirteenth century to tell the life story of a man involved in most major events of the period, including the search for the Holy Grail and the fourth Crusade. An admitted liar, Baudolino tells his story to Byzantine scribe Niketas Choniates, a member of the court of Frederick Barbarossa, while all around the two men the city of Constantinople is undergoing destruction.
"The implicit contrast between the refined civilization of Byzantium and the barbarity of the Crusaders who willfully put it to the torch is as forceful now as ever," noted Ingrid D. Rowland in a review for the New Republic; "the destruction of Constantinople in Baudolino, like the destruction of the library in The Name of the Rose, threatens to slay civility itself." Noting that the novel leaves the reader puzzling over what is fact and what is fiction--Niketas Choniates was an actual person, whereas Baudolino is not--Seattle Times contributor Terry Tazioli wrote that the novel "becomes so fun, so fanciful and so intricate that Eco must be chuckling all the way to the corner trattoria, simply anticipating his readers' befuddlement and fun." Calling Baudolino both "beguiling and exasperating," Time reviewer Richard Lacayo maintained that through his novel Eco once again illustrates that "the thing we call knowledge--of ourselves, one another, the world at large--... [is] mostly a matter of which illusions we choose to believe."
With The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: An Illustrated Novel, Eco once again proves that he is an accomplished novelist who infuses his fiction with big ideas that leave readers feeling as if their brains have been stretched in a unique and pleasurable manner. The story begins with a classic plot device that, in the wrong hands, can be considered to be both boring and clichéd. A man wakes having been in a coma, and is unable to remember who he is. Giambattista "Yambo" Bodon is an incredibly well-read antiquarian bookseller, and although he has no memory of his wife or of his daughters--their faces drawing a complete blank in his mind--he is mysteriously able to recall everything he has ever read, be it a novel or a work of nonfiction or a poem. Nor is he particularly curious about his wife of thirty years or his previously beloved daughters. Instead, he is fascinated with the written word, as he no doubt was prior to his memory loss. Books appear to remain his only motivator. He sets out to spend time in the ancestral home of his family in Solara, located outside Milan, where he has been recovering. His plan is to attempt to spark his memory by going through all of the papers and books stored at the house, in the hopes that something about his childhood surroundings will prove to be memorable or curative in some way. The collection of material is extensive, and Eco shares it with the reader even as Yambo himself delves into it. Many of the works that Yambo looks through are reproduced in the novel, complete with illustrations. Through the collection of reading material that Yambo reviews, Eco ultimately reveals to readers the sum total of popular culture and intellectual knowledge for the readers of an entire generation, one that is made up of people who became adults during the first half of the twentieth century. Eco includes many items that are part of his own collection of childhood memories and diversions, and the materials Yambo reads include everything from Flash Gordon comics to Strand magazines to memorabilia for Mussolini to stamps and songs. There are illustrations, including some too risqué for younger readers, and numerous literary quotations that make references to fog--appropriate, given the veil covering Yambo's memories.
As with his first novel, The Name of the Rose, Eco has written a book that is, above all things, a book for book lovers. Whereas the literary references in The Name of the Rose were frequently obscure and archaic, given the subject matter and the setting of that novel, the works referenced in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana are far more diverse and accessible, primarily modern and often easily discerned by the avid reader or book lover. Eco includes allusions to or outright quotes from authors ranging from Carl Sandberg to Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens to Herman Melville, and Augustine to Sherlock Holmes, but also far less illustrious figures, including the likes of Mandrake the Magician. Ultimately, the reader only learns how the diverse collection of materials and Yambo's memories of them are linked once he finally regains his memory, a task that takes a second coma to achieve. Michael Hardy, writing for the Houston Chronicle, took issue with the way that Eco mined his own childhood for the substance at the center of the novel, calling the book "a valuable resource for Eco biographers and scholars of mid-century Italian pop culture but an interminable bore for any reader harboring the notion that a novel should have a narrative."
However, Jonathan Derbyshire, in a review for the Financial Times, observed: "Eco is an inveterate player of metafictional games. It is hard to shake off the thought here that he is putting in Yambo's mouth a definition of first-person narration in fiction. ... It wouldn't be too fanciful to read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana in its entirety as an argument about the autobiographicalvmode, in which the Augustinian tendency is contrasted with one that treats the unity of the self as an illusion." Brad Quinn, in a review for the Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, opined: "In an age when both high culture and pop culture are rapidly disappearing into the digital/downloadable realm, Eco has written a book in celebration of the artifact. As an object, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is nothing short of a pop art masterpiece."
Eco brings late-nineteenth-century Europe to life in his sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery. Here the author creates a "detestable" character, according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, in the person of Simone Simonini, a mysterious participant in the many secret and turbulent events of the day. Simonini makes his way throughout Europe in 1897, full of rancor and prejudice, eager to blame any ethnic group for the problems of the day, but saving special bile for Jews. The Kirkus Reviews contributor further described the mysterious Simonini as a "forger, a master of disguise, a secret agent and double agent, a shadowy presence who's up to more than we'll ever know." And in Eco's novel, it is this shadowy figure who is behind many of the major events of the period, from the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to production of the bogus Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called The Prague Cemetery an "overstuffed, intriguing, hilarious, and frustrating glimpse into the turbulent power struggles of late 19th-century Europe." Similarly, the Kirkus Reviews writer called this novel a "perplexing, multilayered, attention-holding mystery." Booklist contributor Brendan Driscoll also had praise for the work, noting that this "dark tale is delightfully embellished with sophisticated and playful commentary on, among other things, Freud, metafiction, and the challenges of historiography."
Apart from his novels, Eco has been a prolific contributor to Italian letters, and many of his works have been translated into English. The Search for the Perfect Language is a history of the attempts to reconstruct a "natural" original language. Eco pursues his search as a semiotician, because he believes language is the most common human symbol. However, as The Search for the Perfect Language reveals, more often than not the thinkers only reveal their own linguistic prejudices in their conclusions.
Eco's Apocalypse Postponed: Essays is a collection of essays on culture written between the 1960s and the 1980s. The book discusses a variety of topics, including cartoons, literacy, Federico Fellini, and the counterculture movement, and reflects the alarm of many intellectuals at the proliferation of pop culture during the period. It is divided into four parts, which reflect the topics of mass culture, mass media, countercultures, and Italian intellectualism. Serendipities: Language and Lunacy is in many ways a follow-up to The Search for the Perfect Language.
In Kant and the Platypus, Eco considers questions of meaning: how do we identify and classify something that is totally new to us? The book revisits and revises ideas of semiotics that Eco previously discussed in A Theory of Semiotics and Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer called Kant and the Platypus "valuable and pleasurable for anyone seeking a gallant introduction to the philosophy of language."
In Five Moral Pieces, Eco presents five essays on ethical principles in postmodern culture. The essays originated as lectures and were each prompted by a social crisis--such as the Gulf War, the trial of a Nazi criminal, or the rise of extreme conservatives in Europe--or by an invitation for Eco to contribute his thoughts on a topic. In Library Journal, Ulrich Baer wrote that the collection "cogently argues and periodically sparkles with ... wit and insight."
Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism is a collection of essays that address several subjects that have Eco concerned for the future of the planet. His first issue is the way in which humanity appears to be leafing backward through history, reversing much of the progress that has been made over the past several decades. Beyond that, though in some ways linked, is his concern regarding modern warfare, and what and who is fanning the flames that lead to these seemingly unending skirmishes--an argument in which the United States figures all too frequently as the body at fault. His final point is regarding populism and the ways in which it appears to have redefined both popular culture on the whole and the population of Italy as a result in a way that strongly resembles a television program, showing a decided lack of adherence to reality.
Reviewers found that Eco shows mixed strengths over the course of the essays, with his work addressing the ravages of modern popular culture particularly successful. John Lloyd, writing for the Financial Times, remarked that "Eco's essays are sharp and witty. He has sought to give these diverse columns (examples of his journalism over the years) coherence by arguing that each, in its way, describes a return to an old world."
In his work On Literature, Eco presents a personal journey through literature with a collection of essays written throughout his career and either presented at conferences or published in periodicals. Here the author deals with topics from Dante's Paradise to Marx's Communist Manifesto and the works of Jorge Luis Borges. A central theme throughout is the manner in which literature creates a sense of community by helping to create language.
Writing in the Guardian Online, Nicholas Lezard felt that the collection of eighteen essays demonstrates that Eco's "fierce love is for literature." Lezard added: "On Literature may not be the most gripping title, but that second word contains the universe for him, and pity for those excluded from it." Independent Online reviewer Brian Dillon similarly observed: "On Literature is all about speed and slowness: the sudden spark of an interpretative intuition and the protracted pleasures of its proof."
Eco provides historical perspective on beauty and ugliness in a pair of books, On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea and On Ugliness. In the former title he culls writing from over the centuries that speak to the idea of what beauty is. The book takes a broad view of the term, not focusing on art alone but on a wide variety of images, from a beautiful loaf of bread to a stack of bricks that have been lovingly laid, to a movie star with fine features. "Images and textual selections work together to show that there is no absolute concept of beauty in things or men but criteria shaped by different eras and places," noted a contributor to Contemporary Review. London Guardian Online reviewer Mike Phillips described the book as an "an encyclopedia of images and ideas about beauty ranging from ancient Greece to the present day." Independent Online writer John Armstrong, on the other hand, felt that while "there is an attractive idea behind this book," the writing's "lack of passion, wit, sensitivity and intellectual grace" does not live up to the promise.
On Ugliness takes the same approach; it is heavily illustrated and offers a sampling of writing from authors and poets such as Baudelaire, Don De Lillo, and Hermann Broch. On Ugliness contends that the concept of what is ugly has changed over time and is usually defined as a negative: the opposite of what is beautiful. The book is "visually dazzling and intellectually provocative," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Writing in the New York Times Book Review Online, Amy Finnerty noted: "Selecting stark visual images of gore, deformity, moral turpitude and malice, and quotations from sources ranging from Plato to radical feminists, Eco unfurls a taxonomy of ugliness. As gross-out contests go, it's both absorbing and highbrow." Josh Hanagarne, writing in the online World's Strongest Librarian, called On Ugliness a "wonderful (and beautiful) book."
In Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation, Eco collects a series of lectures on the art of translation. The central thesis of the work is that translation is ultimately a form of negotiation between the translator, the author of the text, and the reader. Eco uses himself, among others, as a case study in such negotiations, for his novels and philosophical works have been translated into numerous languages. Writing in the Guardian Online, translator Michael Hofmann noted: "Eco is an amiable enough marshal of his (nobly unawkward) squad of translators in all sorts of languages." Compulsive Reader contributor Magdalena Ball had higher praise for the work, noting: "The ultimate message of Mouse or Rat? is that translation is so much more than the conversion of one language into another, but rather, a subtle negotiation between texts--so that the meaning of one reflects the meaning of another. If that sounds trite, believe me, this book is anything but." Similarly, Observer Online reviewer Joanna Kavenna termed the work "a vibrant and strenuous treatment of a fascinating subject."
In 2009, Eco was asked to organize a series of conferences, readings, and concerts at the Louvre on a subject of his choice. This invitation became the inspiration for his book Infinity of Lists, "a work less of theory than of taxonomy," according to Gilbert Adair, writing in the Spectator Online. Here, "flaunting his extraordinary erudition," as Adair noted, Eco compiles lists of places, collections, incoherencies, excesses, and a many other topics. In doing so, he provides an overview of the idea of catalogues and how these have changed over the centuries. Levi Forster, writing on the Euphony Journal Web site, described Eco's book as a "work of nonfiction about lists in literature and art from Homer to Dali." Michael Dirda, writing in the Washington Post Online, noted: "Eco sticks to poets, novelists and painters, seeking to interpret the implications of lists and inventories, to reflect on the clearly finite and the sometimes apparently infinite." A contributor to the Scotsman Online dubbed it a "lavish, curious catalogue about catalogues," while Guardian Online contributor Mary Beard termed Infinity of Lists "a characteristic product of this extraordinary writer and polymath: learned, sparkling, insightful, provocative, packed full of intriguing and arcane information."
Eco engages in a dialogue about aspects of the book with the French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere in This Is Not the End of the Book. The two cover topics from the fate of the book in the digital age to the state of poetry in France during the eighteenth century and to the seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher, "an early embodiment of the Internet," according to Maclean's reviewer Brian Bethune, who further noted: "The two old men sound like visitors from an already dead civilization, and it is a pleasure, both pointless and delightful, to listen to them." A reviewer for the Scotsman Online, however, was less impressed with this work, calling it a "singularly bad piece of book-making," as well as a "hapless farrago."
Eco turns memoirist in his 2011 work, Confessions of a Young Novelist, a collection of lectures he delivered at Harvard. Here he examines his own ascent as a young novelist--in the sense of young to his craft--as well as an investigation of what creative writing is. Pairing personal reminiscences with references to writers from Homer to James Joyce, Eco creates "clever and thoughtful ... musings [that] will delight devotees and enlighten newcomers alike," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Booklist contributor Brendan Driscoll declared that "the wisdom of this 'young' novelist abounds" in this collection. Similarly, Library Journal writer David Keymer concluded: "As always, Eco is diverting to read."
In The Book of Legendary Lands, Eco provides an illustrated scrapbook of imaginary places. The comprehensive guide to fictional, mythical, and legendary locations is comprised of an introduction, fifteen chapters, and several appendixes. Each chapter features its own introduction, followed by an essay, text excerpts, and illustrations of imagined places. Among the locations that Eco presents in his guide are the ruins of Glastonbury, Sherlock Holmes's apartment, Madame Bovary's home, and Dublin as seen by Ulysses protagonist Leopold Bloom. Eco seems to indicate that the most compelling examples of legendary locations combine the real and the unreal, and he posits that this speaks to the nature of human imagination.
Several reviewers felt that the book's strength lies in its illustrations, and London Independent correspondent Christopher Hirst remarked: "It is quite likely ... that most purchasers of Eco's compendium will get no further than the dazzling illustrations. A chapter on the medieval belief in the flat earth includes a view of the earth from 11th century Paris that is as stylised as the London Tube Map." Seconding this sentiment in his London Telegraph assessment, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst noted: "In some ways it is a better book to look at than to read. Although Eco includes a thoughtful final chapter pointing out that 'the possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely sure about something', he does not attempt to disguise the fact that the book is more of a cultural scrapbook than an argument." As John Gray pointed out in the New Statesman: "These legendary places are made more vivid by many well-chosen illustrations and historic texts. Yet this is far from being another coffee table book, however beautiful. As in much of his work, Eco's theme is the slippage from fiction to illusion in the human mind. Rightly he sees this as a perennial tendency but it is one that has gathered momentum in modern times." Gray went on to state that "the human impulse to dream up imaginary places and then believe them to be real, which Eco explores in this enchanting book, is as strong as it has ever been." Andrew Martino, writing in World Literature Today, also praised the compendium, commenting: "Our attachment to literature and its imaginary places can form our lives in fundamental ways. ... Eco's book is a celebration of those imaginary lands of legend that have become essential to our lives."
In From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation, Eco offers essays about knowledge, art, and critical theory. A Kirkus Reviews contributor suggested that the volume contained "lush, comprehensive scholarship aimed at a very limited academic readership." "The prose is lucid, the translation superb; but the volume is not for the faint of heart," asserted a reviewer in Choice.
Numero Zero is the last novel Eco published before his death on February 19, 2016. The book is set in the early 1990s in Italy, and its protagonist is a writer named Colonna. Simei, an editor in Milan, hires Colonna to ghostwrite a book for him and to help him with a private newspaper. Meanwhile, Colonna falls in love with another writer named Maia and forges a friendship with a conspiracy theorist named Bragadaccio. Library Journal writer Sally Bissell noted that the author "uses biting humor, a dollop of romance, and a hint of mystery to address the timely, thought-provoking prospect of an increasingly uninformed public." Donna Seaman, a contributor to Booklist, described the volume as "a satisfyingly scathing indictment brightened by resolute love." A Kirkus Reviews critic called it "not quite as substantial as The Name of the Rose but a smart puzzle and a delight all the same." "While romance and humor have never been his forte, they are both credible here," remarked a reviewer in Publishers Weekly.
Pape Satàn Aleppe: Cronache di una società liquida was released in Italian not long after Eco's death. The volume includes essays that were previously published in Italian magazines. The essays discuss contemporary culture, including Italian politics, social media, literary festivals, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. Tim Parks, a contributor to the London Guardian Web site, commented: "Eco's irony is disarming, his cleverness dazzling. Yet from time to time an underlying unpleasantness emerges."
From: "Umberto Eco." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2017.