By Fernanda Eberstadt
Vogue, November, 1995
boulevard at the Italian seaside resort of Rimini is crowded
on a Friday night in August, a frenzy of mini golf courses and
aquariums as glitzy as discotheques. Umberto Eco -- professor
of semiotics, historian of medieval theology, and author, most
famously of The Name of the Rose -- swoops down upon a
newsstand. "Here," he crows, showing off a fistful
of comic books. "This is my current reading matter!"
a night and a day's conversation, prompted by the American publication
of his third novel, The Island of the Day Before (Harcourt
Brace), Eco's specialty of semiotics has begun to seem like an
excuse for a greedy mind for rifle the toy store of universal
knowledge. Topics have swung from Saint Augustine's hermeneutics
and the Asiatic origins of Celts to the corruptness of medieval
Latin ("a kind of pidgin English, like reading Shakespeare
in messages sent from Malaysia to Canton") to why there
are five words for owl in Italian but only one in English, and
religious paradigms for computer programming (Macintosh, according
to Eco, represents the Catholic Church, IBM Protestantism, and
Window the Anglicans).
the intervals, Eco has performed Renaissance melodies on his
flute, sung "The Girl from Ipanema" in Genoese dialect,
and taken his visitor to drink vino giovane (new wine)
with he mayor of the village where he spends his summers. Now
Eco is hungry for relaxation. He is, after all, on vacation.
and his wife, Renate, and arts educator, have a huge summerhouse
-- he describes as "Alcatraz" -- in the remote and
craggy hills inland from Rimini. The seventeenth-century manor
was used as a barracks for German soldiers in the Second World
War, and more recently as a Jesuit-run summer camp for kids from
the village. When Eco bought it 20 years ago, "every room
had 40 beds!" Now the rooms contain the surplus from Eco's
30,000-volume library in his home base in Milan, and the chapel
has become his workroom. Collecting books, he explains, "is
a sport I practice." Renate, a beautiful German with wide
black eyes and a guilelessly clear diction, complains that her
husband reads even at the dinner table, which was not very "normal"
for the now-grown son and daughter.
about his omnivorous scholarship, Eco takes a contrary stance,
insisting that genuine learning demands a "stubborn incuriosity.
Galileo appeared curious, but there were many subject matters
he had simply cut away. According to Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
knew everything about chemistry, but he still believed the sun
turned around the earth. In order to be so perceptive about the
meaning of a spot on someone's shoe, you have to ignore the solar
system. As for my own incuriosities, I am so uninterested in
them that I do not even know they exist."
63, Eco looks like a koala bear with a grizzled beard. He shouts
when he talks, smokes Philip Morris cigarettes, loves whiskey
and company, and prefers to stay up working till 3:00 or 4:00
A.M. "I am what the anthropologists call a polychronic personality.
If I don't have many things to do, I am lost. Every day I do
the less urgent task -- this gives me a sense of adultery."
He teaches at the University of Bologna, where he runs its Program
for Communication Sciences, and -- especially since the sale
of nine million copies worldwide of The Name of the Rose
-- spends most of his life "in transit" to conferences,
lectures, and seminars.
were flumoxed by the success of Rose, which appeared in
1980, but Eco, who has published 22 books, mostly on semiotics,
had long been famous in Italy for a weekly magazine column that
brings to bear a formidable historical perspective and a talent
for deflation on such phenomena as terrorism, millennial cults,
theme parks, and blue jeans. His second novel, Foucault's
Pendulum (1988), combined cabala, mathematical equations,
and Mickey Mouse in densely allusive prose, and proved an equally
Island of the Day Before portrays the misadventures of Roberto
della Griva, a young seventeenth-century nobleman who, dispatched
by Cardinal Mazarin on a spy mission to pin down the still hazy
art of longitude, finds himself shipwrecked in the South Seas
-- not on and island but on another deserted boat. Marooned,
Roberto teaches himself how to swim, indulges in semiheretical
theology, and relives his experiences during the Thirty Years'
War. Of its setting, Eco explains, "I realized I had written
two novels about books, erudition, culture. How about writing
about pure nature?"
Island does indeed offer hallucinogenically baroque descriptions
of coral reefs and tropical birds -- when he feels like it, Eco
can muster up a heady prose -- but it also contains many themes
his fans will recognize. Most particular is the opposition between
hoarders of knowledge -- in this case Mazarin, who believes that
cornering the market in longitude will make the French masters
of the world -- and the more generous empiricists, wedded to
experimentation, speculation, and the indeterminacy of truth.
Gazing at the stars, Roberto imagines an infinite succession
of crucifixions taking place around the universe in parallel
time, and God "lost in the remaking of Himself from too
Eco -- a lapsed "militant Catholic" -- about the notion
of an absent deity that haunts his writing. Laughing, he offers
only the mischievous retort "God hides because He doesn't
want to appear in Vogue!"
under a lime tree in his garden, Eco describes his upbringing
in the northwestern province of Piedmont -- a region that, both
as setting and as prevailing temperament, animates most of his
fiction. "The Piedmontese," he explains, "are
the least Italian of the Italians -- not passionate, not excited,
no fire. There is a strong French influence, a mountain culture.
Remember that Piedmont is the only part of Italy that remained
independent for the last 1,000 years. Certain elements remain
as the as the basis of my world vision: a skepticism and an aversion
to rhetoric. Never to exaggerate, never to make bombastic assertions."
In Foucault's Pendulum this attitude is summed up in the
Piedmontese dialect expression "Ma gavte la nata,"
roughly, "Take the cork out of your ass."
was born in 1932 in Allesandria, a provincial "company town,"
famous for manufacturing Borsalino hats. His grandparents had
thirteen children, and Eco attributes his sense of the absurd
to his grandmother: "Having no time to beat all her children,
she had to govern them by humor." In part, it is the toughness
of this background that has given Eco and ironic detachment from
politics and social movements. "My father fought in three
wars, and it was enough. May parents had so many problems just
to survive that their fundamental idea was a wise person shouldn't
get mixed up in politics."
the Second World War, Eco and his mother moved to a small Piedmontese
mountain village from which he watched the partisans and the
Fascists shooting it out "like a small Western. Those hills
in my memory are the theater of military operations that I witnessed
directly, aged twelve, thirteen." His novels and essays
are dogged by the sense of belatedness, of having been too young
to join the fray. "I frequently ask myself what I would
have done has I been eighteen of 20. It's a kind of 'If Napoleon
were female. . . .' Maybe my luck was to have been born a little
late, and to have escaped this difficult decision, to regard
the whole story as a fascinated spectator."
is late afternoon, the mountains are still abuzz with heat, and
we dawdle over an alfresco lunch of pasta and grilled meat and
wine. Eco, Renate and his Venetian publisher are discussing the
evening's plans. The Eco's daughter is arriving in Rimini on
a midnight train. Should we eat fish by the sea before picking
her up; should we get tickets to comic Roberto Benigni's one-man
show; or should we visit another friend's spectacular nightclub?
In the end we skip Benigni, skip the disco, and go off to the
local village to consult its mayor about the best fish restaurant
Eco returns to the subject of fiction, including his own. "People
always ask me, 'How is it that your novel, which are so difficult,
have a certain success?' I am offended by the question. It's
as if they asked a woman, 'How can it be that men are interested
in you?' Because I am beautiful, of course!" he roars. "To
ask such a question insinuates that you are very ugly.
myself like easy books that put me to sleep immediately. But
the normal reader who does not spend his day fighting with Kant
or Hegel feels respected if there is a jujitsu with a novel,
a resistance, a seduction. If the book says yes immediately,
it is a whore. There is no challenge in seducing a whore."
Only as energetic a bibliophile as Eco, it occurs to me, would
regard it as the reader's job to seduce the book.
he has been accused of treating literature as a manic proliferation
of word games, Eco is, in fact, quite pugnacious about the all-importance
of a catchy yarn. "We are narrative animals. Le Discours
de la Methode, by Descartes, is a page-turner. (The difference,
of course, is in the speed at which you turn the pages.) There
is suspense, too -- foreseeable suspense -- in Gauss' Theorem.
Today there is a tendency to see a narrative core in every human
activity, narrativity not as an output of language, perceptivity,
understanding, but as the basic input." Story structure,
with its satisfying interplay of repetition and variation, might
even be seen, he suggests, as a physiological imperative. "The
circulation of blood is a story. Blood makes always the same
turn; the pumping of the heart is pretty repetitious -- happily
repetitious. If it starts to change," he adds, "well,
then the story becomes tragedy."
The Island, however, he confessed mock-plaintively, "there
is not story. There is no crime, no butler to be discovered.
If anything, it is a story of concepts. I was very conscious
that I was frustrating expectation."
dusk descends, Eco remarks upon the narrative continuities, the
happy repetitions, in his own life. After years of avoiding his
hometown while he was making a name for himself in the capitals
of the world, "I am returning to my roots," he reports,
reclaiming childhood friends and high school teachers. One of
the great pleasure of his success is that "the characters
of my fiction reenter my life." Recently he has rediscovered
the real-life girl whom the hero of Foucault's Pendulum
unrequitedly adored at the age of twelve. "She is now the
mayor of the village where I lived during the war, and although
then she ignored my existence, now she imagines we were all along
on the banks of the river and wait for the corpse of your enemy
to come by. Obviously, in the meantime you have to think of something
else -- that's what I mean by polychronic personality. Wait on
the banks of the river, but in the meantime you read Plato, you
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