I am so glad that there are still authors as intense and convoluted as Umberto Eco. And I am doubly content that they continue to get published. His novels are works for which you have to work. He is such a relief from the facile. Here is an interview with him plus an excerpt of his new novel.
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Umberto Eco in Milan, Italy, in February, 2011. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
A conversation with Umberto Eco, whose new novel imagines one of the most anti-Semitic characters in fiction
Shorn of his black beard, and having laid his black fedora on the table, the novelist Umberto Eco still carries himself like the heir to a rabbinical dynasty, alternating passages of sly conversation with careful, learned explication and Talmudic pilpul. A creator of characters and stories so original and compelling that they appeal at once to academics and to a global audience of millions of weary Kindle-toting travelers, he takes equal delight in the sleights of hand that make his novels such fun to read and in the scholarly literature that frequently inspires his intricate and fiendishly clever plots.
To say that Eco is as much a historian of ideas as a novelist isn’t a cute way of denigrating the literary quality of his novels, which sometimes sparkle with genius. Rather, it is a way of underlining the scholarly impulse that so frequently animates his compulsive need to entertain. The Name of the Rose was one of the better mysteries of the past 50 years, but it could also profitably be used—and has been used—as a textbook on the scholastic method and medieval hermeneutics. Conversely, the clever meta-fictional devices that Eco enjoys are married to a 19th-century novelist’s open delight in grand flourishes—poisoned books, exploding sewers, and other comic-book-like narrative devices that return the often-tiresome suspension of disbelief fiction requires to the realm of pure childhood pleasure.
Nowhere are Eco’s deep scholarly seriousness and his childlike sense of play more in evidence than in The Prague Cemetery, his sixth novel. A global best-seller that was published in Italian in October 2010 and is now being published in English, it is a weird combination of elements that make sense together only in the universe of Eco: It is a deeply serious narrative argument about the origins of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the birth of modern anti-Semitism interspersed with lavish recipes and menus from the best restaurants in 19th-century Paris (he met with a smile my suggestion that he spin off an anti-Semites cookbook), and it is also a perverse and entertaining attempt to write a 21st-century version of a 19th-century French novel along the lines of Alexandre Dumas Père’s Joseph Balsamo, which Eco believes inadvertently provided the literary model for the Protocols forgery.
I met Umberto Eco at Peacock Alley, a wildly expensive restaurant in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. With its high vaulted ceilings, the lobby of the Waldorf looks like a train station and has similarly bad acoustics. Eco was tired and suffering from a slight cold, on the 11th day of a 14-day book tour that had him in a different city almost every night. Still, he was gracious and warm, looking askance at me only once, when he ordered a gin and tonic before lunch and I ordered orange juice.