Umberto Eco has made a name – and fortune – for himself in the role of thinking man to the masses. Not that we understand what he is going on about most of the time. Nigel Farndale asks him to explain himself
‘Mooo! Mooo!’ Umberto Eco says by way of opening when I meet him in his high-ceilinged apartment overlooking the piazza Castello in Milan.
‘I’m supposed to do this exercise for my throat,’ the 73-year-old Italian philosopher and novelist explains. ‘Mooo! Mooo! I had an operation on my vocal chords and am still recovering.’ I tell him I will understand if he needs to rest his voice during our interview, or indeed if he needs to moo from time to time.
Though he has a paunch and unexpectedly small, geisha-like feet, Eco has an energetic stride – as I discover when he leads the way along a winding corridor and I try to keep up with him. We pass through a labyrinthine library containing 30,000 books – he has a further 20,000 at his 17th-century palazzo near Urbino – and into a drawing-room full of curiosities: a glass cabinet containing seashells, rare comics and illustrated children’s books, a classical sculpture of a nude man with his arms missing, a jar containing a pair of dog’s testicles, a lute, a banjo, a collection of recorders, and a collage of paintbrushes by his friend the Pop artist Arman.
Although Eco is still best known for his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), a medieval murder mystery that sold ten million copies, it is as an academic that he would like to be remembered. He has been a professor at Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, for more than 30 years. He has also lectured at Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and numerous other famous universities and, to fill in the rest of his time, writes cerebral essays on uncerebral subjects ranging from football to pornography and coffee pots.
He is one of the fathers of postmodern literary criticism – the general gist of his approach being that it doesn’t matter what an author intends to say, readers are entitled to interpret works of literature in any way they choose. He was also a pioneer of semiotics, the study of culture as a web of signs and messages to be decoded for hidden meaning.
Doesn’t it drive him mad, always seeing meaning where others just see things?
‘It does become a habit, but you are not obliged to be on duty at every moment,’ he says in his heavy Italian accent. ‘If I drink a glass of scotch I am thinking only of the scotch; I am not thinking about what the brand of scotch I am drinking says about my personality. I know what you mean, though, and I suppose the answer is that I am driven no more mad than a pianist who always has melodies in his head.’
He strokes his beard as he says this, and I notice he wears his watch over his shirt cuff, with the face on the inside of his wrist. Is this meaningful?
‘There are two practical reasons for it – one is that in my job I am obliged to attend a lot of symposia, which are frequently very boring. If I do this to check the time [he bends his arm], everybody notices. If I do it this way [he looks down at his watch without moving his wrist], I can check surreptitiously without showing it.
‘As for the sleeve, that is because my watch-strap gives me eczema. So,’ he says with a laugh, ‘there is a meaning there, but not a terribly interesting one.’
I see he is also chewing on a dummy cigarette. ‘Yes, I gave up smoking five months ago. I find it helps to have something in my mouth. I like nicotine because it excites my brain and helps me work. In the first two months after quitting I couldn’t work. I felt lazy. Then I tried nicotine patches.’ He has, he says, smoked 60 a day for most of his adult life. Hasn’t he left it a little late to start worrying about his health? ‘Perhaps I am not as wise as I like to think I am.’
His second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, took eight years to write. It was about three editors at a Milan publishing house trying to link every conspiracy theory in history, including that now famous one about the medieval Knights Templar and the secret of the Holy Grail.
‘I know, I know,’ he says with a laugh. ‘My book included the plot for The Da Vinci Code. But I was not being a prophet. It was old occult material. It was already all there. I treated it in a more sceptical way than Dan Brown did. He had the excellent idea of treating it as if it were true. Millions of people believed him. They took it seriously, but it was all a hoax.’
The Da Vinci Code is one of the few novels to have sold more than The Name of the Rose, I point out. Must be quite galling, that. He shrugs. Has he read it? ‘Yes.’ Did he like it? He shrugs again. ‘It’s a page-turner.’
The Vatican was not keen on Foucault’s Pendulum, by all accounts. Its official newspaper described it as being full of ‘profanations, blas-phemies, buffooneries and filth, held together by the mortar of arrogance and cynicism’. Even the late Pope condemned Eco personally as, ‘the mystifier deluxe’. Is it true he was all but excommunicated?
‘No. The whole affair was nothing but an invention of the newspapers that needed to have an Italian Salman Rushdie.’
Salman Rushdie, interestingly enough, described Foucault’s Pendulum as ‘humourless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts’. Other writers, academics and critics, perhaps envious of the success of Eco’s first novel, also put the boot in, accusing the author of wearing his learning too heavily. Was it all just professional jealousy, does he think?
‘When I went from being an academic to being a member of the community of writers some of my former colleagues did look on me with a certain resentment. But not all, and it is only after my work as a novelist that I received 33 honorary degrees from universities around the world.’
Many academics, I suggest, seem to have felt that Eco’s main intellectual interest was in showing off. Is that fair? Is he an exhibitionist?
‘I think every professor and writer is in some way an exhibitionist because his or her normal activity is a theatrical one. When you give a lesson the situation is the same as writing a book. You have to capture the attention, the complicity of your audience.’
Even though Eco makes subjects such as metaphysics and semiotics relatively accessible through his playful prose, he must suspect that many of his ideas go over the heads of his millions of readers. I mean, if a clever chap like Salman Rushdie struggles with it, what hope do the rest of us have? He shrugs again. ‘I write what I write.’
Does he worry, though, that some people buy his books in order to impress their friends, but never actually read them?
‘If some people are so weak that they buy my books because they are piled high in bookshops, and then do not understand them, that is not my fault. If people buy my books for vanity, I consider it a tax on idiocy.’
Is he a vain man himself – intellectually, I mean? ‘Obviously there is a pleasure in teaching because it is a way to keep you young. But I think a poet or philosopher writing a paper who doesn’t hope that his work will last for 1,000 years is a fool. Anyway, intellectual vanity does not exclude humility. If you write a poem, you hope to be as good as Shakespeare, but you accept you probably won’t be and that you will have much to learn.
‘I would describe myself as an insecure optimist who is sensitive to criticism. I always fear to be wrong. Those who are always certain of their own work risk being idiots. Insecurity is a great force, apropos of teaching. The moment I start a new class I feel panic. If you don’t feel panic, you cannot succeed.’
It seems remarkable, given his success as a novelist, that he still teaches. ‘My success obliged me to seek greater privacy, but that is the only real difference it has made to my life. It is difficult going to [film] premières, for example, because people want to interview me or hand me their manuscript. I continued with my life as a scholar, publishing academic books. There was a continual osmosis between my academic research and my novels.’
His latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, is about a rare-book dealer who loses his ‘autobiographical’ memory – he doesn’t know his own name or recognise his wife – but still has his ‘semantic’ memory and so is able to quote from every book he has ever read. The hero is the same age as Eco and has had similar life experiences. There is, then, I presume, much of his own autobiography in this book.
‘It is difficult for me to recognise it as autobiography because it is more the biography of a generation. But it is obvious I gave to the character a lot of my personal memories. The “historic” or “public” memories are from my private collection of memorabilia, from the Flash Gordon or Mickey Mouse cartoons of my youth. The illustrations I use in the book are all from my own collection, as displayed in that cabinet back there.’ He directs a thumb over his shoulder. ‘The character lived his childhood through books and cartoons, as did I. They dominated my life.’
So cartoons are to him what the madeleine was to Proust, a trigger to memory? ‘No. I had to fight against Proust in this book. If you write a novel about memory, you have to. So I did the contrary of the great Proust. He went inside himself to retrieve senses, smells and memories. My hero does the opposite because he is only confronted with the external memories, public memories which a whole generation shared.’
At one point in the book the hero remembers fighting with the Resistance during the war. Although he was only a teenager, Eco did something akin to this, having first been a committed Fascist.
‘In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles – a compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists, that is for every young Italian. I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject, “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.’ He recalls being proud of his Fascist youth uniform. ‘I spent the following two years among the Germans – Fascists and partisans shooting at one another – and I learnt how to dodge a bullet. It was good exercise.’
Can he recall exactly when he became disillusioned with Mussolini? He gives the question a contemplative nod before answering.
‘There were two letters I wrote nine months apart. I found them when I was doing research for this book. In the first, which I wrote when I was ten, I was, rhetorically at least, a fanatical Fascist. You see, as a child I was exposed every day to the propaganda. It was like a religion. Saying I didn’t believe in Mussolini would have been as shocking as saying
I didn’t believe in God. I was born under him – I never knew anything else. I loved him. It would have been perverse if I hadn’t. In the second letter nine months later I had become sceptical and disillusioned. I tried to work out what had happened in between. It might have been that
I was no longer optimistic about the outcome of the war, but more likely it was to do with the radio and with reading American cartoon books.
I did research and remembered that at the same time as we were hearing official Fascist songs on Italian radio we also began listening to silly humorous songs on Radio Free London – we were learning about everyday life elsewhere. I began to fall in love with the idea of Englishness. I began to read about Jeeves and Bertie.’
Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria, a medieval fortress city in the Po valley in northern Italy. His grandfather was a typographer and a committed socialist who organised strikes. His father was an office clerk for a manufacturer of iron bathtubs. He describes his family as being ‘petit bourgeois’.
Did his father have aspirations to be an intellectual? ‘He never had the chance. He was the first child of a family of 13. They were poor. My father left school early and went to work. But he was a voracious reader and went to the book kiosks and read books there so he didn’t have to pay for them. When they chased him off he would simply go to another kiosk.’
His father died of a heart attack in 1962, and his mother died ten years later. ‘My father didn’t want me to be a philosopher, he wanted me to be a lawyer,’ Eco says. ‘But he accepted my decision when I enrolled at Turin university. It was important for me to show him it could be a fruitful experience, and I think he was pleased when I became a lecturer at 24. I think he was proud, too, when I published my doctoral dissertation on medieval aesthetics. I know he secretly read it entirely, even though he couldn’t understand all the Latin in it.’
Eco clears his throat. He does another ‘Mooo!’ Clearly, after an hour and a half of talking, his vocal chords are feeling the strain. Promising that this will be my last question, I ask whether the success he had with The Name of the Rose was diminished because his father was not around to see it.
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘absolutely. I was 50. As a consequence, the pleasure of that success for me was diminished. To this day, every day, I silently tell my father about what I am doing. He could be sceptical, and every time I was too enthusiastic he was there to provide me with a cold shower.
‘We are always children, I think, even when we are old. We always need parental approval. I never needed it as much from my mother, though, because I knew she was convinced I was a genius from the age of five! With my own children I tried to strike more of a balance between my mother’s approach and my father’s.’
He married his German-born wife, Renate, the year his father died. She too is an academic, teaching architecture at Milan university. The couple have two grown-up children: Stefano, a television producer, and Carlotta, an architect.
‘I honed my storytelling skills by telling my children complicated bedtime stories,’ Eco recalls. ‘When they left home I didn’t have anyone to tell the stories to, so I began to write.’
Now he has grandchildren to tell stories to, when his voice is strong enough. They reward him by painting portraits of him. One, pinned to the wall, is by a four-year-old. It shows a round, jolly face with glasses, a scruffy beard and a big grin. Oddly enough, the likeness is uncanny. •