Ben Naparstek finds a recently retired Umberto Eco as formidable an intellectual as he ever was
Umberto Eco has grown wiser with age, and it shows no better than when he discusses stupidity. Rolling forward on a low couch in the dimly lit lounge bar of his New York hotel, the oval-shaped Eco says the best way to face mortality is to realise how little there is to miss. At 75, the recently retired semiotics professor from Bologna harbours no false expectations of his fellow mortals. When another writer's work displeases him, he just sighs philosophically and thinks: 'If he were intelligent, he would be the professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna.'
With 34 honorary doctorates (and almost as many declined), Eco has a rare erudition. His agile intellect, as adept at descanting on Superman as Shakespeare, once prompted novelist and composer Anthony Burgess to declare enviously: 'No man should know so much.'
Eco pioneered the academic study of popular culture in the 1960s before it fell into vogue, at a time when, he says, 'Many academics read detective stories and comic strips at night but didn't talk about
it because it was considered like masturbation'.
He then defied the conventional wisdom of publishing, that abstruse ideas cannot turn a profit, when his 1980 debut novel, The Name of the Rose, shifted 50 million copies. Superficially a mystery set in a 14th-century abbey, the novel brimmed with such arcana as passages of untranslated Latin and a love scene stitched from the words of religious mystics. 'Readers are not as stupid as publishers believe,' Eco says animatedly.
The name 'Eco' carries similar clout in publishing to 'Armani' in fashion. His latest book, On Ugliness, tours the history of unsightliness in western art - an assemblage of images with a commentary too thin for any art connoisseur but bearing a name to guarantee the book a place on coffee tables worldwide.
A selection of Eco's occasional pieces was recently published as Turning Back the Clock, but could just as easily have been entitled On Stupidity because it charts the decline of public life in the age of media populism.
If ugliness, like beauty, is in the beholder's eye, can absolute ugliness exist? 'Those forms of ugliness that provoke disgust seem universal. The corpse should be disgusting for more or less everybody, if corrupted. If fresh, I don't know, because there's still cannibalism,' he says. 'Then the idea that ugliness is a lack of completeness, of integrity - that a man should have two eyes, two arms - seems a universal attitude.'
Aesthetically, Eco is owlish rather than ugly. Suited and bearded, with a paunch he likens to the late Luciano Pavarotti's, he has the congenial manner of someone who delights in holding court. He is no longer a smoker but his gravelly voice bears the strain of his former 60-a-day habit and he sucks an unlit cigarillo throughout our meeting.
His name (Italian for 'echo') is fitting for an exponent of semiotics, concerned with the limits of language. 'Semiotics is a confederation of competing approaches to the problem of communication, of signification,' he says. 'Confidentially, there is only one approach which is good, which is mine.'
Eco's fellow semioticians, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan, were wilfully elitist and obscure, but he gave his field an approachable face with raffish newspaper pieces and jargon-free monographs on topics ranging from medieval aesthetics to mass media.
He accepts the label 'postmodern' to describe his novels, whose plots often hinge on the ambiguities of language and pay homage to writers, philosophers and theologians from throughout the ages. 'Postmodernism is a form of narrativity that takes for granted that everything has already been said before. If I love a girl I cannot say 'I love you desperately', because I know that Barbara Cartland has already said it. But I can say, 'As Barbara Cartland would say, I love you desperately.''
His 1997 philosophical study Kant and the Platypus described the platypus as a postmodern animal, after considering the debates of 18th-century scientists about whether to classify the duck-beaked, beaver-tailed creature a mammal, a bird, or a reptile. 'Postmodern texts quote other texts; the platypus quotes other animals,' Eco says. 'Borges said that the platypus is an animal made up of the pieces of other animals, but since the platypus appeared very early in evolution, there are probably other animals made with pieces of platypus.'
As unclassifiable as a platypus, Eco made his fictional debut at 48 when a publisher commissioned him to contribute to an anthology of detective tales written by academics. Instead, he turned in the 500-page The Name of the Rose. Italian literature lacks a tradition of detective fiction, which Eco traces to Renaissance Italy's abandonment of Aristotle's Poetics. 'The Poetics is the theory of pure narrativity. The Italian tradition was more interested in language than plot.'
Asked about his late impulse to write a novel, Eco waves away the question: 'It's like you feel the need to piss, so you go and you piss.' Pressed, he says he turned to fiction after his two children had grown up: 'I didn't have anybody to tell stories to any more, so I started writing.'
After The Name of the Rose was made into a garden-variety adventure flick in 1986, Eco refused all further approaches by filmmakers. He illustrates his decision by way of an anecdote - perhaps apocryphal - about a girl who walked into a bookshop and remarked of The Name of the Rose: 'Oh, they've already adapted the film into a book.' But after Stanley Kubrick died, he regretted rebuffing the director's interest in filming his second novel, Foucault's Pendulum.
The novel, published in 1988, follows three jaded editors at a Milan publisher connecting all the major conspiracy theories in history into an overarching 'plan', only to find the hoax unravelling out of control. Eco amassed 1,500 occult books, gathered from 10 cities, to research the novel, which anticipated the Da Vinci Code juggernaut with remarkable prescience. 'I invented Dan Brown,' he says. 'He's one of the grotesque characters in my novel who take a lot of trash occult material seriously. He used a lot of material that I myself quoted.'
Brickbats flew with Foucault's Pendulum, in which critics found Eco's delectation for scholarly exotica difficult to absorb in the absence of its predecessor's thriller plot. Salman Rushdie, with a fatwa recently proclaimed on his head, found sufficient peace of mind to read it and slate it in The Observer as 'humourless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts. Reader: I hated it.'
Emotion rarely surfaces in Eco's novels, which anti-populist critics sometimes try to dismiss as cerebral game-playing masquerading as fiction. Eco subscribes to T.S. Eliot's notion of literature as an escape from emotion. 'You can only write a real love poem when you're not in love any more and you can look at your previous emotion without being a victim of your passions.'
His 2005 novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, was uncharacteristically sentimental. Containing barely disguised autobiographical traces of Eco's boyhood in Piedmontese Italy, it follows an amnesiac book dealer whose memory gradually returns on a visit to his childhood home. His identity re-emerges as he re-encounters the old record covers, books, magazines and stamps from Mussolini's Italy, reproduced as illustrations - for 'illiterate people', Eco jokes - throughout the text. But he has no plans to write memoirs of his adult life, fearing that 'many ladies could be compromised'.
Eco was raised in Alessandria in a lower middle-class family. His parents were apathetic about the fascist regime but Eco began his literary career, aged 10, by winning an essay-writing competition for 'young Italian fascists' on the topic 'Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?'
Eco consolidated his interest in medieval symbols by writing a doctoral dissertation on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas before spending several years producing cultural programmes for Italy's nascent national television network. He also co-founded the Gruppo 63 - modelled on Gunter Grass' Gruppe 47 in Germany - calling for an overhaul of traditional literary techniques. But scholarship remained his lifeblood.
After The Name of the Rose, Eco could have retired to a private island, but he continued to teach, considering writing secondary to academia. Even in retirement he regularly holds seminars in Bologna, where he likes to live because he blends in. 'They know me, so I can go through the streets and nobody cares. I'm a part of the landscape.'
In Anglophone countries, academics engaged in public affairs are often sniffed at by their peers, which Eco attributes to the campus environments of their universities. 'Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, are outside of the city, so it separates the university from the political world. In Italy, Germany, France and Spain, the university is at the centre of the city.'
Turning Back the Clock traces the disintegration of Italian democracy under the government of Silvio Berlusconi, who exploited his monopoly on media to maintain popular support. 'The Italians who voted for him thought he would not steal public money, without considering that to become rich he stole money from somewhere,' Eco says. 'Secondly, they thought, 'Because he's rich, he will help us become rich,' which is absolutely false. It's only because you are poor that I am rich.'
The new government of Romano Prodi (Eco's friend and a fellow academic) hasn't made him more sanguine. 'In order to win, Prodi was obliged to put together people who couldn't stay together. They are always fighting. This is the tragedy by which Berlusconi will win the next election if things don't change.'
Whereas his 1964 monograph Apocalypse Postponed inveighed against the demonisation of the mass media by Marxist theorists such as Theodor Adorno, Eco now holds a pessimistic view of the media. He says in the 1950s, when many Italians spoke only local dialects, TV played an important role in unifying the Italian language.
There was just one television channel, which broadcast in the evenings, so programming was very selective, he says. 'Now in Italy we have the possibility of looking at 100 channels all day, so quality is low.'
Italian newspapers are now almost twice the length they were, which means 'you invent news, or repeat the same story 10 times, or imagine plots and false explanations'.
Eco describes himself as a pacifist and thinks war should be made a universal taboo. That wouldn't stop him defending his family, but it means military invasion wasn't the answer to the Iraq question. He says, deadpan: 'If Bush were intelligent, he would be the professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna.'
Genres Fiction, philosophy, art history
Latest books On Ugliness; Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism
Family Wife, Renate, an architecture academic, and two children, Stefano and Carlotta
Lives Bologna, Milan and Monte Cerignone, Italy
Other non-fiction books include A Theory of Semiotics (1975), The Role of the Reader (1979), Serendipities : Language and Lunacy (1998), On Literature (2004), On Beauty (2004)
Novels include The Name of the Rose (1983), Foucault's Pendulum (1989), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005)
Other jobs Academic, columnist, political commentator, book editor, television producer
Next project A collection of essays on the history of the philosophy of language
What the critics say: 'An ageing scholar's discourse on a lifetime of reading [is a considerable pleasure].' - The Village Voice review of On Ugliness
Sylvie by Gerard de Nerval
'One of the masterpieces of French romanticism.'
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
'The story of a nobleman who lives all his life in the trees. It's a good representation of the ... intellectual, staying in the trees in order to have a critical attitude.'
Meaning and Experience by Patrizia Violi
'A former student of mine. She thinks like me!'
Andrea Camilleri's novels
'He ... conjugates the style of the Anglo-Saxon detective novel and the spirit of Sicily.'
Woody Allen's short stories
'If I were able to summarise why ... I would have written those stories.'