By Ed Voves
Philadelphia Daily News, January 3, 1997
a recent visit to Philadelphia, Umberto Eco sat in the lobby
of the Four Seasons Hotel discussing modern literature, Batman,
opera, American detective novels, political correctness, growing
up in Mussolini's Italy, 17th-century philosophy and Mickey Mouse.
is an extraordinary range of topics for an hour's conversation,
but Eco is no ordinary man.
energetic 64-year-old author teaches semiotics, the study of
symbols, at the University of Bologna in northern Italy. In 1980,
he gained international acclaim with his novel The Name of
the Rose. A murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery,
it combined themes, insights and humor from a wide range of human
experience -- exactly like one of Eco's conversations.
Name of the Rose was first published in the U.S., the
editor at Harcourt Brace, Helen Wolff, thought a mystery which
takes place in medieval times would not sell more than 2,000
copies," Eco recalled. ''It sold over a million and was
popular in the Midwest and mountain states, where it was not
expected to do well."
is not tooting his own horn as much as commenting on his belief
that popular culture and ''higher" culture are converging
to form a new world view.
you look at the Batman of the l950s, which was an unsophisticated
cartoon, and compare it with today's Batman movies, you will
see a great change. The Batman of the '90s has a style full of
quotations from literature, art, and even a syntax or feel that
a boy, Eco loved American comic-book heroes like the Phantom
and Superman. His familiarity with American culture was also
nurtured by his work as a translator, producing Italian versions
of Woody Allen's book Without Feathers, Jules Feiffer's
political cartoons and the ''Peanuts" comic strip, among
I translated a book, especially hard-boiled detective novels,
like those by Mickey Spillane, from English into Italian, I often
had to do a parody of Italian detective novels to get the right
could not do a literal translation of slang like 'Mr. Big,' or
have the detective say to a cab driver, 'Take me downtown.' Italian
readers would think that the American city was built like Florence,
partly on a hill, with an upper and lower town.
the 1960s, people would comment on my familiarity with American
culture and language by saying, 'You must visit the U.S. a lot.'
Actually, I had never been to America."
is a frequent visitor to the United States nowadays, and his
trip to Philadelphia embodied his dedication to bridging the
gulf between pop art and fine art.
was here Nov. 18 to take part in the Free Library's ''Rebuilding
the Future" lecture series, a forum for contemporary authors
and their work.
is also promoting the paperback edition of his latest novel,
The Island of the Day Before.
in the 1600s, it tells the story of a ship-wrecked philosopher
in the Robinson Crusoe tradition. It is also an evocation of
a turbulent time, which Eco believes was the era when our own
age of uncertainty was born.
Name of the Rose, Island of the Day Before will
have readers doing a lot of deep thinking. That does not disturb
Umberto Eco in the least.
duty of a novelist," Eco said, ''is to make you understand
that life is not so simple."
Philadelphia Online -- Philadelphia
Daily News -- Features Copyright Friday, January 3, 1997
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