On Literature

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2005, 12:00am

On Literature

by Umberto Eco

Translated by Martin McLaughlin

Secker & Warburg $279

'How did you write your novel?' interviewers often ask Umberto Eco, the undisputed master of semiotics and author of such fiction as The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum and Baudolino.

His reply: 'From left to right.'

There's nothing wrong with the question. It's simply that the answer would take too long, 'because a novel is not just a linguistic phenomenon'.

On Literature, a collection of 'occasional writings' by Eco stretching from the early 1990s to the publication of Baudolino in 2002, is a look inside the mind and through the eyes of one of the world's great thinkers, whose personal library numbers 40,000 books, scattered across several homes.

Eco's first attempt at a novel, The Name of the Rose (1983), followed - or, perhaps more correctly, was the result of - more than 30 years of essay writing, about which he has not a single regret. 'I felt totally fulfilled doing what I was doing, and what's more, I looked with a touch of Platonic disdain at poets, prisoners of their own lies, imitators of imitations, unable to attain that vision of the hypercelestial Idea with which I - as a philosopher - believed I had chaste, peaceful, and daily intercourse.'

Then he admits that what he was really doing was 'satisfying my passion for narrative, without noticing it'.

Eco says he likes to begin his novels at the end and work backwards, and the above comments come from the last chapter of On Literature, 'How I Write'. To properly understand all the processes involved in committing words to paper, the 17 chapters that precede his closing explanation are instructive, though by no means compulsory, reading.

The essays, speeches and lectures gathered together and rewritten for this book, seamlessly translated from the Italian by Michael McLaughlin, all consider the problem of literature, from the perspective of theorist and practising writer.

The first chapter, 'On Some Functions of Literature', sets up the thesis that, by helping to create language, literature 'creates a sense of identity and community'. Eco talks about Dante and the role of The Divine Comedy in creating a single Italian language, and how certain characters become part of the collective imagination because of our emotional investment in them.

There's certainly a classical edge to the discourse, but the reader unfamiliar with Dante's Paradiso is not excluded - just left with a feeling that something truly grand has been missed - as Eco explains that true poetry, be it words or music, 'makes us cry'. And he promises the SMS generation that it will find ecstasy in the third cantica, a promise discos don't always keep.

On Literature brims with ideas. There is the semiotics, for sure - the technical explanations of the mechanics of writing. Eco explains the enjoyment obtained by understanding how writing gives pleasure, in much the same way understanding music heightens the enjoyment of Bach. Tables and charts show how narrative and plot and combinations of words work to create responses in the reader.

Far lighter is the chapter on Oscar Wilde and what constitutes aphorism, as amusing a discussion as the semiotics is challenging. And his elevation of the Communist Manifesto to the level of oration is startling, as is his recommendation of it as a handbook for the advertising industry.

For influences on his own writing, Eco credits many, but particularly the fantasist Jorge Luis Borges, the inspiration for the library labyrinth of The Name of the Rose, a multilayered story originally conceived as Delitti all' abbazia (Murders at the Abbey).

As well, there are fascinating chapters on language, style and the decay of symbolism - 'the diamond that flashes in the dark ... has become a neon strip that pervades the texture of every discourse' - and flawed writing.

On Literature is probably best taken as the mood dictates. There's much passion here from a writer devoted to his readers, who understand that a 'library is not just a place to keep books one has already read, but primarily a deposit for books to be read at some future date, when one feels the need to read them'.