Umberto Eco: You’re Still A Young Man—Bay—bee

15 Nov

Copyright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

Almost all of the attention recently bestowed upon Umberto Eco is due the publication of his sixth novel, a runaway train of erudition and arcania, The Prague Cemetery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Lost in the shuffle or at least overshadowed is a slender tome entitled Confessions of a Young Novelist (Harvard University Press) As Eco told me recently when we spoke, this is an unintended opus— in giving the four Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University he was unaware that Harvard University Press had an arrangement to publish them. Feeling the lectures made up a very slender book he added Eco added an 80 page chapter on lists. He explains:

I had a Catholic education and thus became used to reciting and listening to litanies…Litanies like phone books and catalogues are a type of list. They are cases of enumeration. Perhaps at the beginning of my career as a narrator of fiction, I did not realize how fond I was of lists. Now after five novels and some other literary attempts, I am in a position to draw up a complete list of my lists> But such a venture would take up too much time so I’ll limit myself to quoting some of my enumerations, and——as proof of my humility—comparing them with some of the greatest catalogues in the history of world literature.

You can be assured that Umberto Eco’s attention to lists and list making are not the shallow contrivances that pass for journalism today. In fact as an indication of how seriously Don Umberto takes this subject one should note an exhibition, The Infinity of Lists he curated at the Louvre.

Employing all the faculties that make him a lighthearted and jocular novelist, medievalist, philosopher, scholar of modern literature, semiotician and theorist Confessions is a useful and illuminating work— frankly I find Eco as a novelist fatiguing—his ventures into fiction are seemingly all at one pitch, one volume, delivered at one staccato tempo. In The Prague Cemetery I found myself, at page 180, sated with what I had read and felt no reason to delve further into the story.

Currently reading Best American Short Stories edited by Geraldine Brooks (Houghton MIfflin Harcourt)

2 Responses to “Umberto Eco: You’re Still A Young Man—Bay—bee”

  1. carl quinlan November 16, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    The world would be a grayer place without the colorful work of Mr. Eco. He has long been one of my favorite authors.

    I don’t understand all the typos in what you quoted:

    “a typo of list. THey are cases oif enumeration. … Now after five novels and som either literary attempts”

    Is the conversation you had with Mr. Eco available anywhere online? Was it a formal interview like others you’ve posted on identitytheory? If so, I look forward to reading it.

    • robertbirnbaum November 16, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

      What’s to understand, the typos are mine—to quote the great Billy Wilder, “Nobody’s perfect.”?

      The full transcript will be available sometime in 2012 if I am not buried in landslide of unread books. And given that IU can understand the recording to be able to transcribe it.

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