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.” …

 

 

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Sorry, Schumpeter, part 2 … John Gardner could have explained why writers cannot be turned into ‘authorpreneurs’

 

Imagine a writer straining to stay immersed in a narrative unfolding in her mind, set in the Milanese mid-winter -- because she has to keep showing up on social media to tweet about spring -- photograph by MIL22

Imagine a writer straining hard to stay immersed in a narrative unfolding in her mind — a scene set in the Milanese autumn — because she has to keep showing up on social media to tweet about spring
— Statue of the Italian Unification leader Garibaldi on horseback: photograph by MIL22

[ part 1 is here ]

Not at home, yet not exactly travelling, post-Gutenberg offers in this week’s entry a few more reasons for deep bafflement by the sanguine acceptance, in some surprising places, of the idea that writers who are retiring, introverted moles — a large proportion, if not most members of the breed — must transform themselves into booming glad-handers and performers on social networks and lecture podiums, or face failure and inevitable extinction. Quoting The Economist’s Schumpeter column again:

… Last month Simon & Schuster, a publisher, announced it would sell online video courses led by some of its authors. Things are more difficult for fiction writers: the organisers of conferences and other events pay good speaking fees to non-fiction writers with a bit of name recognition, but not to the average novelist.

The 20th-century American novelist John Gardner thought more comprehendingly and revealingly about the essence of what makes a writer, and how writers work, than almost anyone else who has pronounced on this subject. Read these two sets of extracts from his wise, beautiful paragraphs on ‘The Writer’s Nature’ and do, please, post a comment here if you can work out how any of the qualities he describes fit the conformist — anything-for-a-‘like’ — thinking and harmony on social platforms:

I

… As for the quality of strangeness, it is hard to know what can be said. There can be no great art, according to the poet Coleridge, without a certain strangeness. Most readers will recognize at once that he’s right. There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected … One has to be a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time.

… If I could explain what I mean here, I could probably do what I think no one has ever done successfully: reveal the roots of the creative process. The mystery is that even when one has experienced these moments, one finds, as mystics so often do, one cannot say, or even clearly remember, what happened. In some apparently inexplicable way the mind opens up; one steps out of the world. One knows one was away because of the words one finds on the page when one comes back, a scene or a few lines more vivid and curious than anything one is capable of writing – though there they stand. … All writing requires at least some measure of trancelike state: the writer must summon out of nonexistence some character, some scene, and he must focus that trancelike state in his mind …

II

… After verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, and a measure of the special intelligence of the storyteller, what the writer probably needs most is an almost demonic compulsiveness. No novelist is hurt (at least as an artist) by a natural inclination to go to extremes, driving himself too hard, dissatisfied with himself and the world around him and driven to improve on both if he can.

… By the nature of the work it is important that one way or another the novelist learn to depend primarily on himself, not others, that he love without too much need or dependency, and look inward (or toward some private standard) for approval and support. Often one finds novelists are people who learned in childhood to turn, in times of distress, to their own fantasies or to fiction, the voice of some comforting writer, not to human beings near at hand. This is not to deny that it also helps a novelist finds himself with one or more loved ones who believe in his gift and work.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, 1983

Sorry, Schumpeter, Ivan Doig could not have been a great literary mage and an ‘authorpreneur’

 

for Ivan Doig -- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

for Ivan, who as a small boy tagged along after his father to ‘hire on haying crews’ in saloons
— postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

The Economist should have credited the Australian author Hazel Edwards for her neologism, ‘authorpreneurship,’ in her book published three years ago advising mere scribblers on the importance of turning themselves into scribbler-salesmen to save their skins in the post-Gutenberg transition. In its Schumpeter column on 14 February, the magazine made exactly the same point:

Publishers are increasingly focusing their efforts on a few titles they think will make a splash, neglecting less well-known authors and less popular themes …

Authors must court an expanding variety of “influencers”—people whose opinions can determine a book’s success. … a host of bloggers and social-media pundits …

The trouble with many budding writers is that they are not cut out for this new world. They are often introverts, preferring solitude to salesmanship …

Three years ago, this blog made the identical observation about the mismatch between temperament and the shallow new conventional wisdom about requiring writers to start leading an intensely social existence on digital media. Not, however, about ‘budding’ scribes, but some of the greatest of the great, including Beckett, Wittgenstein and Kafka — at any stage of their careers.

It is surely not beyond the wit of Schumpeter at The Economist and clever-clogs elsewhere, handing out the same prescription — that inwardly-oriented writers must hurry up and turn themselves inside-out — to devise alternatives to it. Alternatives that use the flexibility of digital technology and the net to let the mountain come to Mohammed. That is, adapt the medium for the idiosyncrasies of this category of user.

People leave footballers to be as dim as they wish, never mind how great a leap it would be for humanity if — for instance — David Beckham himself, and not a team of Japanese mechanical engineering experts, had been able to tell us that when he kicks the ball, he is ‘carry[ing] out a multi-variable physics calculation in his head to compute the exact kick trajectory required, and then execute it perfectly,’ or that his brain ‘must be computing some very detailed trajectory calculations in a few seconds purely from instinct and practice’.

Why shouldn’t writers be allowed the incapacities that, for so many, come with doing what they can do?

In its affectionate obituary ten days ago, the Great Falls Tribune — a Montana newspaper of record roughly a hundred miles from his birthplace in White Sulphur Springs, in ranch country — quoted an acquaintance of the literary mage Ivan Doig explaining that he ‘preferred “old school” technology over the instantaneous communications of the Internet age.’

It is impossible to imagine this sublimely modest man, who described himself as an introvert reared among the ‘lariat proletariat,’ writing as he did between tweets and Facebook updates. When not actually writing, in the years that shaped his unique style, he spent hours and days talking to his father and grandmother in variants of a Scots dialect that crossed the Atlantic with their ancestors — conversations that were crucial to bringing richly alive on the page the extraordinary existence they had led together, in his childhood.

What delighted him in 1977, when his breakout book earned him the critical acclaim he deserved, was not the flattering adjectives it collected but what should matter most to a writer — reviewers paying closest attention to his poetic, clear-eyed, all-seeing prose in reviews dominated by ‘long, miraculous patches of pure quotation from This House of Sky’.

This is how that book opens:

Soon after daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.

The remembering begins out of that new silence. Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s telling and around the urgings which would have me face and forget, to feel into these oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all.

It starts, early in the mountain summer, far back among the high spilling slopes of the Bridger Range of southwestern Montana. The single sound is hidden water — the south fork of Sixteenmile Creek diving down its willow-masked gulch. The stream flees north through this secret and peopleless land until, under the fir-dark flanks of Hatfield Mountain, a bow of meadow makes the riffled water curl wide to the west. At this interruption, a low rumple of the mountain knolls itself up watchfully, and atop it, like a sentry box over the frontier beneath the sly creek and the prodding meadow, perches our single-room herding cabin.

Alone here on our abrupt tiny shelf, the three of us eased through May and the first twenty-six days of June secure as hawks with wind under our wings. Once a week, the camptender from the home ranch would come the dozen miles of trail to us. The blaze-faced sorrel he rode and the packhorse haltered behind would plod in from the shadows which pooled in our valley under the shouldering slopes, until at last the rider stepped off from his stirrups into the cabin clearing and unknotted from the packsaddle the provision boxes, dark-weathered in their coverings of rawhide, which carried our groceries and mail …

… This post originally stopped at the end of the extract. Then this blog’s most essential reader complained, understandably, about feeling abruptly abandoned by the blogger. But who would interrupt magic, unfolding? Slipping away on tip-toe seemed right …