Farewell, phenomenal Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco top of NYT home page (1)

[ late addition below ]

A yellowing copy of ‘The Novel as Status Symbol,’ a 1989 book review by Alexander Stille not available on the net, happened to be lying on this desk when the divine imp Umberto Eco died on Friday. For several weeks, we had smiled every time we came across it, hunting for other pieces of paper. It made finding him honoured with an obituary portrait at the top of the home page of The New York Times a sad pleasure: he deserved no less.

What Stille recounted of the great semiotician-novelist’s fiction writing philosophy was quite wicked enough a quarter-century ago, when marketing chieftains in publishing companies were well on their way to wresting supreme veto power from editor-tsars. In our new age of scribes, book-promoters and whole literary communities bowing low to likey/no-likey social media, it is not impossible to envisage someone like Eco being burned at the stake for heresy, some day.

Some extracts from the most enthralling sketch we have ever read of the author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum:

Last June, Eco — a medieval scholar and a professor of semiotics at Italy’s University of Bologna — stood on the dais of the cavernous ballroom in the Washington Hilton before a crowd of more than a thousand American booksellers.

In open defiance of the usual laws of marketing, Eco told the booksellers, he had written his first novel for about a thousand readers and decided to write the second for five hundred. ‘With my first book I was criticized for putting in too many quotations in Latin, so I started my new book with a long quotation in Hebrew. That’s my challenge.’ But Eco is not a naïve professor who was catapulted to stardom by an unlikely turn of fate. As a professor of semiotics (the theory of signs), a former publishing executive, a journalist, and the author of some twenty books, Eco is an expert on mass media and the machinery of popular fiction. ‘The world of media is full of free gifts, wash-and-wear philosophy, and instant ecstasy,’ he explained to the booksellers. ‘Readers want a little more; they want to be discouraged in order to be respected.’

… Since its publication in Italy last fall Foucault’s Pendulum has provided several new twists to what has come to be known as the Eco phenomenon. The novel has sold more quickly than any book in Italian publishing history, while becoming the center of a fierce national controversy.

Rumors than Eco was working on the book were eagerly picked up by the Italian press as early as two years before the book appeared … Anticipation built up to such an extent that when the book finally appeared, 500,000 copies were sold before the first buyers had a chance to grapple with it and tell their friends what they thought.

But within several weeks the Eco phenomenon boomeranged. Readers who had bought the book for faddish reasons gave up when confronted with the labyrinthine complexities of a novel that explores the mysteries of the Jewish cabala, hermetic philosophy, and a thousand years of esoteric thought. Eco was accused of having shrewdly manipulated the press in a plot to push sales. ‘Eco is a genius of our culture,’ one critic wrote, ‘a genius of self-promotion.’ To his dismay, Eco has become a kind of literary Midas: everything he does makes news and sells copies. Even his decision not to appear on television was perceived as another clever maneuver to attract attention. But the attacks, predictably, only had the effect of selling more copies …

Harper’s, November 1989

But, as we discovered not long after we posted those Stille quotations, Eco hardly spared the editor-tsars. We had long wondered how any editor, no matter how skilled and revered, could have had any idea of how to edit his novels — known whether to add or substract as much as a comma — which could define idiosyncratic. What did Eco think of their role? On the site of The New York Review of Books, there was his concise answer to that question, in 1994: ‘Case for Textual Harrassment’. Skim-read it at your peril: after we stopped to re-read it with closer attention, we were shaking so excessively that we had to lie down for a minute-and-a-half. Unless you know Philip Larkin’s and T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems, you will not understand. (The ‘rites of vegetation,’ William Weaver’s translation of whatever Eco wrote in the Italian original, is a master-stroke. Oh, you poor lilacs …)

The miniature essay begins:

These days, especially in the United States, implacable copy editors demand of authors not only stylistic revisions but even changes in plot, new endings, whatever commercial necessity dictates. But … can we honestly say that they ordered things so differently in the past?

Take the usually overlooked fact that the first version of a well-known poem by Philip Larkin originally went: “They do you harm, your father and mother.” It was only the insistence of Larkin’s editor that inspired the now famous variant. And the first draft of Eliot’s Waste Land opened: “April is the cruelest month. And March isn’t all that great, either.” Weakened in its impact by this peevish insistence on climactic details, the earlier text denied April any implied link with the rites of vegetation. As everyone knows, Ariosto at first submitted to his publisher a very brief poem that went: “Of women and knights, arms, loves, courtly rituals, and bold ventures I have nothing to say.” And that was that. “How about developing it a bit?” the editor suggested. And Master Ludovico, who was having enough trouble as civil governor of a remote Tuscan province, said, “What’s the use? There are dozens of epics of chivalry already. Leave it. I want to urge poets to try new genres.” And the editor replied, “Yes, of course, I understand, and, personally, I agree with you. But why not try approaching the form from another angle? With irony, for instance. Anyway, we can’t sell a onepage book, particularly one with only two verses on the page. It looks like imitation Mallarmé. It would have to be a limited, numbered edition. So unless we can get Philip Morris to sponsor it, we’re screwed.” …