Eco at the Folger
18 October 2002
Umberto Eco took the stage at D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library, in a theatre built as a replica of the Bard's Globe, promptly at 8pm. He was seated across from Professor Deborah Tannen, who prompted him with questions in the manner of an informal talk rather than a lecture. Eco revealed a great amount of information, and although much of it has recently appeared in magazine and newspaper interviews over the past few weeks, the present report (from my notes and recollections) may interest the dedicated Eco enthusiast, should a verbatim transcript of the evening never surface.
Eco began by discussing the distinction between novels that make use of history -- for instance, the "cloak and dagger" novels of Dumas (which Eco loves greatly) -- and strictly "historical novels." The Three Musketeers may use historical backdrops and figures such as King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, but the story of d'Artagnan could take place in the next century with only some minor alterations. A historical novel, on the other hand, is anchored to the history it represents, and could not simply be transposed by changing a king or cardinal.
Eco is currently working on a book about translation. He set forth the notion that one not need to be completely fluent in other languages, but "to be competent in many languages means to have many souls." His vision of our linguistic future is that a Frenchman will speak French to a Russian man, who will answer him in Russian, yet they will both understand the language of the other.
At one point, Dr. Tannen asked Eco to read a passage from Baudolino in the original Italian. He seemed surprised by this, adding that for the American audience it would be like listening to Pavarotti without understanding a word. The comparison was apt, for a tremendous change took place in the novelist as he read in his native tongue, choosing the passage where Baudolino describes the wonders of the West to an envoy of Prester John. Eco read the sentences in a dramatically hushed monotone, sonorous and breathless as one imagines a monk, perhaps from The Name of the Rose, transformed by the Word when reciting a sacred liturgical text. It was met with tremendous applause.
The conversation was brought to a close by Dr. Tannen questioning Eco's views of war. Although in previous essays, he's expressed disagreement with war of all kinds, Eco added that Baudolino's pacifism, though perhaps influenced by his creator's views, is primarily a literary device. Citing the Pax Romana, he pointed out that great periods of peace always follow war.
A few questions from the audience followed. The first was along the lines of the all-too typical, "Where do your ideas come from?" Eco replied that inspiration comes from everywhere, and that a writer must be a sponge, soaking up everything around him. The next question, from the balcony, asked Eco to comment on the hyperreality of the evening's venue, which was, after all, a replica of the Globe. Although a somewhat clever question, Eco refused to accept the implication that the theater was somehow deligitimized. Considering that the Folger Library housed many of the only remaining First Folios in existence, Eco pointed out that there were few more legitimate Shakespearean locations on Earth.
Eco finished The Name of the Rose on his birthday, January 5th, and for his next two novels he insisted, out of superstition, on repeating the ritual. If the novel was not finished by his birthday, he would stuff it in a drawer and wait until the next year. With Baudolino, however, he took six years to write the book's first half, then completed the novel within a few months. He finished the book on a day not January 5th, but received a call that very night that a grandchild had been born to him, Emanuele, to whom Baudolino is dedicated (in the Italian edition; the U.S. edition curiously omits this).
After the talk, I indulged in wine and cheese at the reception while waiting in line to meet Professor Eco. I must confess, I was annoyed that many had brought more than one book for Eco to sign...some were hoisting as many as ten! It seemed markedly disrespectful, yet Eco signed them all without complaint. Knowing that Eco is a great fan of comic books, I asked him, as he signed my copy of Baudolino, what comics he's been reading these days. He mentioned an Argentine publisher called Dago as being particularly good.
For more photographs, click here.