BORN: 1932, Alessandria, Italy
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
The Name of the Rose (1980)
Foucault's Pendulum (1989)
The Island of the Day Before (1995)
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004)
The long list of Umberto Eco's books and publications contains only a handful of novels, with the first two, The Name of the Rose (1980) and Foucault's Pendulum (1989), being his best known. Despite Eco's relatively
scarce output, these novels' remarkable international success has made him the most famous Italian novelist writing today. Before the appearance of his first novel, Eco, a man of encyclopedic learning, was already well known for his contributions to the discipline of semiotics, or the study of how meaning is communicated, as a prolific author of books and essays on a wide range of scholarly subjects, and as a gifted writer on politics and popular culture. His novels and other writings have been translated into many languages, and he has lectured and taught at universities all over the world.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Background in Aesthetics, Semiotics, and Architecture Umberto Eco was born at Alessandria, in Piemonte, Italy, on January 5, 1932. During World War II, he and his mother retreated to the mountainside area of Piedmontese. Originally an accountant at a firm that manufactured bathtubs, Eco's father served in three wars for the Italian army. Eco's early education was Salesian, a school of thought based on a Roman Catholic religious order established in the nineteenth century. Ultimately, Eco renounced Catholicism later in life after experiencing ambivalence about his faith. The first in his family to attend a university, Eco studied at the University of
Turin, graduating in 1954 with a degree in philosophy. At Turin he came under the lasting influence of the philosopher Luigi Pareyson, under whose guidance he wrote his thesis, which became his first published book, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1956).
In 1961, Eco received his Libera Docenza (a degree that is roughly equivalent to a doctor of philosophy) in aesthetics, and from that year until 1964 he held the position of lecturer in aesthetics at both the University of Turin and the Politecnico in Milan. He was appointed professor of visual communication at the University of Florence in 1966, and in 1969 he returned to the Politecnico as a professor of semiotics. Although one might be tempted to associate Eco with the conventional notion of “arts and letters,” during his years at Florence and the Politecnico he was in fact a member of the faculty of architecture. The Absent Structure: Introduction to the Study of Semiotics (1968) contains an extended treatment of architecture as a medium of communication, a subject to which he has returned throughout his career.
Success as a Novelist: Fame and Fortune While pursuing his highly successful university career, Eco was not confined by his academic roles. By the end of the 1970s Eco was well known as a critic, a journalist, and a politically involved intellectual. No one, however, could have predicted the great leap in his fame—and fortune— that would follow the appearance of The Name of the Rose in 1980. Set in a northern Italian monastery of the fourteenth century, the novel is replete with literary, philosophical, theological, and historical arcana, and is punctuated by many passages in Latin and other languages. The book sold more than 1 million copies in Italy, where it won several prizes, among them the highly regarded Premio Strega. Translated into French in 1982, it became a best seller in France, winning the Prix Medicis. The Name of the Rose was translated into English in 1983, and in the United States, the hardcover edition remained on the best-seller list for forty weeks, ultimately selling more than one million copies. The paperback rights brought $550,000, reputed to be the largest sum of money ever paid for a paperback translation, and sales of the paperback edition exceeded eight hundred thousand copies within the first three months after its appearance. The Name of the Rose has been translated into more than thirty-six languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Turkish, and Arabic. A motion picture version directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud was released in 1986. Within a few years after the publication of his first novel, Umberto Eco had become one of the most well-known writers in the world.
Success as a Catalyst to Creative Output Maintaining the momentum he gathered during his success in the 1980s, Eco has continued to publish novels, philosophical texts, and children's books, in addition to his scholarly publications. His recent literary works include The Island of the Day Before (1995), Baudolino (2001), and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), and On Ugliness (2007).
Success as a Catalyst to Scholarship The success of his novels and the steady progress of his scholarly work brought Eco the highest academic and public distinctions. All the while, Eco remained fully involved in the academic pursuits to which he was devoted before he became famous. His scholarly and theoretical writing continues unabated, as does his commitment to the progress of semiotics. He remains the editor of Versus and continues to serve on the editorial boards of other journals. At the same time, the enormous success of his novels has greatly intensified academic interest in his work. His fame as a novelist has led to an exponential increase in invitations to lecture and teach at institutions all over the world. He currently holds over thirty honorary doctorate degrees from prestigious universities around the world.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Eco's famous contemporaries include:
Italo Calvino (1923–1985): Nobel Prize–winning Italian writer and folklorist, Calvino is the most translated Italian writer of the twentieth century. His early work has been classified as magic realism; his later work is perhaps better described as postmodern.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–): French anthropologist, his theory of structuralism is an attempt to describe and understand human society. Lévi-Strauss's thoughts have been widely adopted by both philosophers and post-modern authors.
Ian Fleming (1908–1964): Author of the James Bond canon of spy novels, as well as the children's book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Fleming was himself an intelligence operative during the Second World War.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986): Perhaps the best known of the Latin American “boom” authors of the mid-twentieth century, Borges was a fiction writer, thinker, historian, anthropologist, and critic.
Works in Literary Context
As a semiotician, novelist, medieval scholar, journalist, and parodist, Eco has produced an amazingly diverse and influential body of work since the 1950s, and he is certainly one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the world. Authors of notable influence on Eco include James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Pierce, Immanuel Kant, and Aristotle.
Factual Fiction One trait found throughout Eco's fictional works is an abundance of factual information related to the many fields that interest the author, from history to architecture to language. In his 1990 article “Pendulum Diary,” William Weaver, who had translated all three of Eco's novels into English, remarks on the tremendous amount of “sheer information” that Eco puts into his fiction, noting that Foucault's Pendulum, like its predecessor, is marked by elaborate and abstruse references, extravagant linguistic play, and a formidable number of quotations.
The Battle Between Tradition and Modernism Set in a Benedictine abbey in northern Italy in the year 1327, Eco's first novel, The Name of the Rose, is both an elaborately detailed medieval detective drama and a semiotic novel of ideas. When several monks are murdered in a sequence echoing the biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse, Brother William of Baskerville is summoned to apply his enlightened deductive powers to solve the mystery. From this central scenario, Eco creates a conflict between the modern values of rationality and humor, represented by William, and the superstition and severity of the Middle Ages, as embodied by Jorge de Burgos, the blind and aged guardian of the abbey's labyrinthine library. A maze of literal and metaphoric possibilities and obstacles, the library conceals the key to the mystery—a collection of heretical texts considered so incendiary that their discovery prompts several murders.
William's search for truth is confounded by stubborn authorities, including officials of the Inquisition, and this conflict reflects differences between modern humanism and absolute submission to the Church.
Imagined Conspiracies While The Name of the Rose moves forward from the Middle Ages to the intellectual issues of the twentieth century, Foucault's Pendulum moves backward, confronting the reader with an avalanche of arcane learning about such subjects as the Knights Templar, the Cabala, and the Rosicrucians. In Foucault's Pendulum, Eco extends the scope of his metaphysical study to include many of the historical and religious mysteries of the last two millennia. Although the novel revolves around a seedy publishing house in contemporary Milan, it examines mystical phenomena from Stonehenge to the Crusaders' Jerusalem to exotic rituals in modern Brazil. Three editors involved in publishing texts dealing with occultism and esoteric practices are supplied a manuscript by a man they believe is a charlatan. With the aid of a computer and some quixotic analogies, they create a six-hundred-year web of arcane correlations linking the Templars' secret to the motives of such historical figures as the Benedictines, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Adolf Hitler. As they reinterpret most of human history to fit their theoretical matrix, the three editors begin to believe their own fabrication and, as ardent occultists learn of the secret, this eventually results in murder and human sacrifice. While the novel follows the myriad twists of the editors' inner trains of thought, it finally condemns their illogical folly.
In the years since his success in the 1980s there has been an explosion in the number of doctoral dissertations written on Eco's work, with the novels being their principal concern. While his influence on the most recent generation of intellectuals, philosophers, and artists remains to be seen in full, there can be little doubt that he occupies a central place in the geography of contemporary Italian letters.
Works in Critical Context
The success of his novels and the steady progress of his scholarly work throughout the 1980s brought Eco the highest academic and public distinctions. In 1983 the Rotary Club of Florence honored him with its Columbus Award, and in 1985 he was made a commander of France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In the same year he also received the Marshall McLuhan Award from UNESCO Canada and Teleglobe. Since 1985 universities throughout the world have awarded him twenty-four honorary degrees. Critics, however, have offered varying responses to two of his major works.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Eco is hardly the only author to center his tales on deep, arcane conspiracies. Other notable works to touch upon such a theme include:
The Book of the SubGenius (1983), a book by J. R. “Bob” Dobbs. This work is a compilation of bizarre, humorous, and sometimes disturbing ramblings of the Church of the Sub Genius, a surrealist collective, which takes on conspiracy theories, New Age gurus, American arcana, and other sacred cows.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), novels by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. This postmodern trilogy of novels simultaneously satirizes and celebrates the topsy-turvy world of modern conspiracy theories. Many of the trilogy's ideas have since become canonical among conspiracy theorists, an idea Eco would revisit in Foucault's Pendulum.
The Da Vinci Code (2003), a novel by Dan Brown. One of the best-selling books of all time, Brown's conspiracy-detective novel covers similar ground to Foucault's Pendulum.
The Name of the Rose Critics lauded Eco's ingenious plot and challenging intellectual discourse. Franco Ferrucci observed: “The narrative impulse that commands the story is irresistible. That is no mean feat for a book in which many pages describe ecclesiastical councils or
theological debates…. Yet Mr. Eco's delight in his narrative does not fail to touch the reader.” Despite its occasionally cerebral tone and frequent Latin quotations, The Name of the Rose achieved widespread international popularity and was adapted for film in 1983.
Foucault's Pendulum Reviewers offered widely divergent interpretations of the novel. Some critics denounced Eco's allusive style as laborious, encyclopedic, and inappropriate for the novelistic form. Author Salman Rushdie remarked: “[Foucault's Pendulum] is humourless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.” Other reviewers, however, extolled Eco's metaphysical inquiry. Joseph Coates commented: “[Eco's] plot can be read as a metaphor for modern science or for the whole manipulative arrogance of Western thought (as opposed to the message of Eastern religions) according to which man must master and exploit nature—and ultimately destroy it. With this book, Eco puts himself in the grand and acerbic tradition of Petronius, François Rabelais, Jonathan Swift and Voltaire.”
Responses to Literature
- Identify the most striking conventions of the detective story. What do readers expect to find when they read a mystery? How does Eco meet or subvert these expectations in The Name of the Rose?
- Construct a time line of the major historical events in Western Europe in the fourteenth century. How do these events play a role in The Name of the Rose? How does having knowledge of medieval history affect your reading of The Name of the Rose?
- Foucault's Pendulum features an invented conspiracy that turns out to be real. As an exercise, invent a conspiracy of your own; choose a selection of individuals and organizations that do not seem to be connected to each other to act as puppets of your conspiracy. What goal does your conspiracy work toward? How does it use its puppets to further its aims?
- Compare the film version of The Name of the Rose to the book. Do Eco's themes come across in the movie? What elements of the book are minimized or left out of the film?
Bondanella, Peter E. Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Capozzi, Rocco, ed. Reading Eco: An Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Inge, Thomas M., ed. Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco's “The Name of the Rose.” Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
“The Name of the Rose.” Novels for Students. Vol. 22. Eds. Ira Mark Milne and Sara Constantakis. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Tanner, William E., Anne Gervasi, and Kay Mizell, eds. Out of Chaos: Semiotics; A Festschrift in Honor of Umberto Eco. Arlington, Tex: Liberal Arts Press, 1991.
Umberto Eco (born 1932) is a best-selling author of mystery novels that reflect his many intellectual interests and wide-ranging knowledge of philosophy, literature, medieval history, religion, and politics. His academic work in semiotics, the science of signs by which individuals and cultures communicate, has made important contributions to studies of popular culture as well as to communication science and information theory.
Umberto Eco was born in a small town in northwest Italy, the only son of an accountant. When World War II broke out, his family fled to the country to escape the bombing. There he observed conflicts between the Fascists and the partisans and experienced wartime deprivations that would later become a part of his second novel, Foucault's Pendulum. After the war, he entered the University of Turin to study law, but soon switched to medieval philosophy and literature. Partly as a result of his involvement with Italy's national organization for Catholic youth, he wrote a dissertation on St. Thomas Aquinas and in 1954 was awarded a doctorate of philosophy.
After graduation, Eco worked for Italian state television as "Editor for Cultural Programs," which gave him an opportunity to observe modern culture as a journalist. He published his first book, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, in 1956 and began lecturing at the University of Turin. Following a brief period of military service, when he pursued further studies in medieval philosophy and aesthetics, he published a second book, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, which established him as a leading medieval scholar. After losing his job, Eco became an editor for Casa Editrice Bompiani, a prominent publisher in Milan, and began writing a monthly column of parodies for an avant-garde magazine. In 1962 he published The Open Work, which outlined his developing view that because modern art is ambiguous and open to many interpretations, the reader's responses and interpretations are an essential part of any text.
Throughout the 1960s, Eco's academic work began to focus on semiotics, a discipline which holds that all intellectual and cultural activity can be interpreted as systems of signs. He also continued to write for a wide variety of scholarly and popular publications and taught at universities in Florence and Milan while broadening his interests to include the semiotic analysis of non-literary forms such as architecture, movies, and comic books. In 1971 he became the first professor of semiotics at Europe's oldest university, the University of Bologna, and in 1974 he organized the first congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. At this meeting he summarized his view that semiotics was a "scientific attitude" that he had begun to use in examining subjects as diverse as James Bond, the literature of James Joyce, and revolutionary comic books from China. In 1976 he published a systematic examination of his views in A Theory of Semiotics.
In 1978, however, Eco's career took a dramatic new turn. At a friend's invitation, he decided to write a detective story. He also decided to make it a demonstration of his own literary theories of an "open text" that would provide the reader with almost infinite possibilities for interpretation in the signs and clues the protagonist must decode in order to solve a mystery. Set in a fourteenth-century monastery, The Name of the Rose is the story of a monk who tries to solve several murders while struggling to defend his quest for the truth against church officials. A main theme of the novel is Eco's own love of books, and the solution to the murders ultimately lies in coded manuscripts and secret clues in the abbey's library. Dense with learned references and untranslated Latin, it is both an exhaustively detailed murder mystery and Eco's semiotic metaphor for the reader's own quest to derive meaning on many levels from the signs in a work of art. Its publishers expected to sell no more than 30,000 copies, but the novel became an international bestseller. In 1986 it was made into a film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.
Eco's second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, is an even more ambitious attempt to incorporate Eco's ideas of the limits of interpretation into a mystery story. Three editors who work for a seedy publisher in contemporary Milan concoct a fake conspiracy theory that the medieval Knights Templar had devised a plan for harnessing all the energy in the universe. With the aid of a computer, they invent an elaborate web of links between the Templars and numerous other figures and events, gradually reinterpreting all of history. Eventually, the editors begin to believe their own fabrications, in the end becoming the victims of their own imagined conspiracy. Published in 1988, this book also became a bestseller, although critical reception was mixed. Clyde Haberman, writing in the New York Times, called it "a kitchen sink of scholarship," while Salmon Rushdie in The Observer called it "mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts." The Vatican's official newspaper denounced it for its "vulgarities," and the Pope condemned Eco as "the mystifier deluxe."
In 1994 Eco published The Island of the Day Before, which pays homage to Robinson Crusoe. It is the story of a seventeenth-century Italian castaway, marooned on a ship in the South Pacific, who recalls fragments of his past as he explores the deserted vessel. That same year he also published The Search for the Perfect Language, an account of historical attempts to reconstruct a primal language, and Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, in which he describes the "model reader" as "one who plays your game" and accepts the challenge of interpreting complex ideas. In an interview with the Washington Post, Eco declared that he considered it a compliment for his work to be described as difficult: "Only publishers and television people believe that people crave easy experiences."
In recent years Eco has become increasingly involved in debates of how electronic media and computer technologies will affect culture and society. At the International Center for Semiotic and Cognitive Science in San Marino in 1994, he organized a seminar on the future of the book that attracted hypermedia experts from around the world. His own observations on the Internet, virtual reality, and hypertext have appeared in Encyclomedia, a CD-ROM history of philosophy that he helped to develop. Recently he has become involved with the Multimedia Arcade, a complex in Bologna offering Internet access, a computer training center, and a public multimedia library.
Eco believes that although the Internet and CD-ROMs will change the way we read and write, the fundamental problem posed by the new media is the sheer volume of unfiltered information. Broadcasting live over the Internet at Columbia University in 1996, he outlined a hope that computer technology will make possible hypertexts which are unlimited and infinite. "We are marching toward a more liberated society in which free creativity will co-exist with textual interpretation," he said, but we will need a "new form of critical competence … "a new kind of educational training, a new wisdom" to cope with the sheer quantity of information.
In spite of advances in hypertext and other means of recombining information electronically, he is optimistic that books as we know them will remain the fundamental currency of language. Writing in The Nation, he asserted that "books still represent the most economical, flexible, wash-and-wear way to transport information at very low cost." Books will remain essential not only for literature but for "any circumstance in which one needs to read carefully, not only to receive information but also to speculate and reflect about it." In his opinion, a device which allows us to invent new texts has nothing to do with our ability to interpret pre-existing texts.
Eco is an avid book collector who has apartments in Milan, Bologna, and Paris, as well as a summer home near Rimini. In addition to running the Program for Communication Sciences at the University of Bologna, he travels frequently to speak and teach. He continues to publish scholarly treatises, which number almost two dozen, and to contribute to several foreign and Italian newspapers. He also edits a weekly column for the magazine L'Espresso.
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