RIP Umberto Eco, 1932-2016

th“The real hero is always a hero by mistake. He dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”

“I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of.”

“Italy is not an intellectual country. On the subway in Tokyo, everybody reads. In Italy, they don’t. Don’t evaluate Italy from the fact that it produced Raphael and Michelangelo.

“Those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate.”

“At a certain age, say 15 or 16, poetry is like masturbation. But later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it. Thankfully, I gave up rather quickly.”

“Writing is an act of love. You write in order to give something to someone else.”

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And so the legendary semiotician/literary critic/philosopher/novelist passes into the great unknown.

When Eco was in his mid-forties, a friend told him she wanted to publish a series of short detective novels written by amateurs. Eco went home and made a list of fictional medieval monks and visualized one of them lying dead from poisoning. Soon afterwards, he emerged with the manuscript of what later became The Name of the Rose. So much for short mysteries. The Name of the Rose is a 500-page epic, a medieval shaggy-dog story, an homage to Borges and Sherlock Holmes, which has sold over 10 million copies and been translated into dozens of languages.

Umberto Eco was a one-off. A well-known scholar of medieval history and semiotics (the study of signs), he said he wrote fiction only at the weekend. He published half a dozen novels, but dozens of academic books and papers and considered himself first and foremost an academic.

Despite his reputation as an intellectual, he wasn’t above jokes and eccentricities. While doing research for his thesis at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, he decided to live as if in the Middle Ages. “If you reduce the map of Paris, selecting only certain streets, you can really live in the Middle Ages,” he said. He smoked sixty cigarettes a day well into his seventies, but claimed, in a Clinton-ian aside, that he “didn’t inhale much.”

He owned around fifty thousand books, including ancient manuscripts, and once said, “I collect books that lie, albeit unwittingly. I have Ptolemy, not Galileo, because Galileo told the truth. I prefer lunatic science.” He also professed to read little contemporary fiction because, “Either I think a new novel is worse than mine and I don’t like it, or I suspect it is better than my novels and I don’t like it.”

The only book he wished he’d written? A theory of comedy. He said we are the only animals that know we must die, and comedy is the quintessential reaction to the fear of death. But “what really happened with my desire to write a book on comedy is that I wrote The Name of the Rose instead.”

 

 

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