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Umberto Eco's On Literature

Professor Eco Takes Us to School

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In a publishing career spanning nearly 50 years, there doesn't seem to be any area in which Italian writer Umberto Eco isn't comfortable. His few novels are frightening in length and breadth, his nonfiction densely packed and somewhat arcane. Eco's prose--fiction and nonfiction alike--is marked by an astonishing scope of knowledge. He's a professor of semiotics (a somewhat arcane pursuit in itself) at the University of Bologna. With prose that is heavy without being pretentious, grand but not purple, Eco writes with astute competence about everything from travel to aesthetics to medieval scholars to cinema to pop culture.

Eco's latest foray into nonfiction is On Literature, a subject surely close to the author's heart. On Literature is a collection of essays and speeches from various points in Eco's career as an academic, polemicist and elder literary statesman. All relate to literature but cannot be taken as a thematic whole, unless loosely so. There are essays about literary style and the style of selected works (The Communist Manifesto, Finnegans Wake, Eco's fictional works); the style of specific authors (Borges, Proust and Dante), literary devices (aphorisms, constructs of language), literary complexities (conscious and unconscious reference and influence) as well as narrow analyses of specific works, including Eco's own.

There is no over-arching theme that ties On Literature together--that is, no general argument toward which Eco builds. Themes and ideas recur from essay to essay, as themes and ideas about literature no doubt resounded with the author as he approached each subject as itself, in its time.

All of this means that On Literature is an interesting, baffling and uneven work. Each essay requires a serious, self-contained literary evaluation, not a light review. This, outside of an academic setting (and, I suspect, within as well), would be a very involved and ultimately boring thing to do. So the real question is this: is On Literature any fun to read?

The short answer: Yes. Anyone who enjoys the intricacies of language and literature will find something to linger over in On Literature. Yet a piecemeal approach is probably best, because Eco's individual pieces are so varied and singular that few readers will find each one engaging or even comprehensible. Readers who are unfamiliar with Sylvie will garner little from "The Mists of the Valois." Ditto Dante's Divine Comedy for "A Reading of the Paradiso," Joyce for "Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor," Cervantes and Borges for "Between La Mancha and Babel," Eco himself for "Borges and My Anxiety of Influence" and "Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading" and Aristotle for "The Poetics and Us." (This list is by no means exhaustive.)

Authored by a professor of semiotics, it's no surprise that On Literature returns often to concepts of symbols, language and meaning. Eco extols the rigidity of literary form while allowing for an almost infinite variation within it. "Between La Mancha and Babel" contains a provoking discussion of "perfect language" that would hit any linguist's hot-button yet still manages to intrigue even nonbelievers. The discussion of cultural and authorial debt in "Between La Mancha and Babel" is an incisive dissection of how writers write. Eco focuses on his own fiction writing in the final essay, "How I Write," and for his fans, this glimpse into the process is supremely illuminating.

Even dealing with theses that are out of one's depth, On Literature is a pleasure to read. One of the most interesting constants in Eco's writings is that they are possessed of a great serenity--not specifically in content, but in style. He seems to suffer no self-doubt, no second-guessing; he asserts what he asserts with utter assuredness. This confidence is intoxicating as one reads, even when one suspects Eco is blowing complicated, nearly imperceptible smoke.

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