Scholar-Novelist Umberto Eco Takes Readers to Another Era

By John Sutherland

Seattle Times, December 5, 1996

Though he has written three novels jam-packed with history, philosophy and all manner of intellectual games -- novels that are notoriously difficult yet have managed to attract a huge international audience -- Umberto Eco still considers himself a beginner as a fiction writer.
After all, he had a distinguished career at the University of Bologna as a professor of semiotics -- a branch of linguistics analyzing the nature and relationship of signs and symbols -- long before his first novel, "The Name of the Rose," was published in this country in 1983.
"I do not think of it as a double career because I consider myself to be a very young novelist," said the 64-year-old professor, who gave a reading last night from the new paperback edition of his most recent novel, 1995's "The Island of the Day Before" (Penguin, $13.95), to an appreciative audience of several hundred fans at the First United Methodist Church downtown.
"I only started 15 years ago," said the bearish, engaging professor during a conversation yesterday at his Seattle hotel. "(And while) my novels have some scholarly content, I would say in reverse that my scholarly works have always had narrative."
Most of his fans will never find out. Those groundbreaking scholarly works from the 1970s ("A Theory of Semiotics" and "The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts") are addressed to specialistsin an arcane field, not the fiction readers who inspired Hollywood to take a chance in 1986 with "The Name of the Rose," an erudite mystery set in a 14th-century monastery. The film, which starred Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham and Christian Slater, was a huge hit in Europe but had only a mediocre response in the United States.
Eco's second novel, "Foucault's Pendulum" (1989), was an even more intense intellectual challenge that left many American readers scratching their heads or dropping out early on. More accessible was last year's "The Island of the Day Before," in which a sailor is unwittingly caught up in political intrigue in 17th-century Europe and finds himself shipwrecked in the South Pacific.
Eco acknowledged that "Foucault's Pendulum" was too daunting for many readers -- yet it remains close to his heart.
"Since The Name of the Rose was successful -- even though there were historical, theological and scriptural Latin quotations -- I felt free (and) was encouraged to try a structure that was more complex," he explained.
He feels "Foucault" investigates contemporary problems without obscuring them behind the veil of history -- yet he also asks for the reader's patience.
"I started Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus three times; I didn't get through it till the last time," Eco admitted. "People have told me the same thing about Foucault's Pendulum. There are some books that demand more goodwill from the reader. I love (it) because of its complexity. It wasn't as easy as The Name of the Rose, which came out quite naturally."
While his academic works are the product of hours in the library, Eco's fiction benefits from life on the street.
"I remember when I was in Paris to work in the National Library and realized that Paris is probably the only city in the world in which you can decide to take certain streets, and live only in the Middle Ages," said Eco. "If you shift the streets a little bit, you can live only in the 17th century."
That's exactly what he did, writing "The Island of the Day Before."
"I established my route through Paris, going only to bookstores, only to theaters that were connected to that time," said Eco.
"And it's beautiful, too. The problem is to give the reader the same pleasure, because it is a pleasure to live this way."

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