The prodigious and playful professor gives a fascinating interview to the Paris Review. On everything from Jorges Luis Borges to James Bond. And all over calzone and scotch…
“I think that at a certain age, say fifteen or sixteen, 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.”
The first time I called Umberto Eco, he was sitting at his desk in his seventeenth-century manor in the hills outside Urbino, near the Adriatic coast of Italy. He sang the virtues of hisbellissima swimming pool, but suspected I might have trouble negotiating the region’s tortuous mountain passes. So we agreed instead to meet at his apartment in Milan. I arrived there last August on ferragosto, the high point of summer and the day the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Milan’s gray buildings gleamed with heat, and a thin layer of dust had settled on the pavement. Hardly an engine could be heard. As I stepped into Eco’s building, I took a turn-of-the-century lift and heard the creaking of a door on the top floor. Eco’s imposing figure appeared behind the lift’s wrought-iron grating. “Ahhh,” he said with a slight scowl.
The apartment is a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings—thirty thousand volumes, said Eco, with another twenty thousand at his manor. I saw scientific treatises by Ptolemy and novels by Calvino, critical studies of Saussure and Joyce, entire sections devoted to medieval history and arcane manuscripts. The library feels alive, as many of the books seem worn from heavy use; Eco reads at great speed and has a prodigious memory. In his study, a maze of shelves contains Eco’s own complete works in all their translations (Arabic, Finnish, Japanese . . . I lost count after more than thirty languages). Eco pointed at his books with amorous precision, attracting my attention to volume after volume, from his early landmark work of critical theory, The Open Work, to his most recent opus, On Ugliness.
Eco began his career as a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics. Then, in 1980, at the age of forty-eight, he published a novel, The Name of the Rose. It became an international publishing sensation, selling more than ten million copies. The professor metamorphosed into a literary star. Chased by journalists, courted for his cultural commentaries, revered for his expansive erudition, Eco came to be considered the most important Italian writer alive. In the years since, he has continued to write fanciful essays, scholarly works, and four more best-selling novels, including Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004).
With Eco’s paunch leading the way, his feet shuffling along the floor, we walked into his living room. Through the windows, a medieval castle cut a gigantic silhouette against the Milanese sky. I had expected tapestries and Italian antiques, but instead found modern furnishings, several glass cases displaying seashells and rare comics, a lute, a collection of recorders, a collage of paintbrushes. “This one, you see, by Arman, is dedicated especially to me . . .”
I sat on a large white couch; Eco sank into a low armchair, cigar in hand. He used to smoke up to sixty cigarettes a day, he told me, but now he has only his unlit cigar. As I asked my first questions, Eco’s eyes narrowed to dark slits, suddenly opening up when his turn came to speak. “I developed a passion for the Middle Ages,” he said, “the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts.” In Italy, he is well known for his battute, his comedic sallies, which he drops at nearly every twist of his snaking sentences. His voice seemed to grow louder the longer he spoke. Soon he was outlining a series of points, as if speaking to a rapt classroom: “Number one: when I wrote The Name of the Rose I didn’t know, of course, since no one knows, what was written in the lost volume of Aristotle’sPoetics, the famous volume on comedy. But somehow, in the process of writing my novel, I discovered it. Number two: the detective novel asks the central question of philosophy—who dunnit?” When he deemed his interlocutor clever enough, he was quick to extend professorial appreciations: “Yes, good. But I would also add that . . .”
After our initial two-hour interview session, Mario Andreose, the literary director of Bompiani, Eco’s Italian publisher, arrived to take us to dinner. Renate Ramge, Eco’s wife of forty-five years, sat up front with Andreose, and Eco and I took the backseat. Eco, who just minutes before had brimmed with wit and vitality, now appeared sullen and aloof. But his mood lightened soon after we entered the restaurant and a plate of bread was placed before us. He glanced at the menu, dithered, and as the waiter arrived, hastily ordered a calzone and a glass of Scotch. “Yes, yes, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t . . .” A beaming reader approached the table, “Are you Umberto Eco?” The professore lifted an eyebrow, grinned, and shook hands. Then, at last, the conversation resumed, as Eco launched into excited riffs about Pope Benedict XVI, the fall of the Persian Empire, and the latest James Bond movie. “Did you know,” he said while planting a fork in his calzone, “that I once published a structural analysis of the archetypal Ian Fleming plot?”
Where were you born?
In the town of Alessandria. It is known for its Borsalino hats.
What kind of family did you come from?
My father was an accountant and his father was a typographer. My father was the eldest of thirteen children. I am the first son. My son is my first child. And his first child is a son. So if by chance someone discovers that the Eco family is descended from the emperor of Byzantium, my grandson is the dauphin!
My grandfather had a particularly important influence on my life, even though I didn’t visit him often, since he lived about three miles out of town and he died when I was six. He was remarkably curious about the world, and he read lots of books. The marvelous thing was that when he retired, he started to bind books. So he had a lot of unbound books lying here and there around his apartment—old, beautifully illustrated editions of popular nineteenth-century novels by Gautier and Dumas. Those were the first books I ever saw. When he died in 1938, many of the owners of the unbound books did not ask for them to be returned, and the family put them all in a big box. Quite by accident, this box landed in my parents’ cellar. I would be sent to the cellar from time to time, to pick up some coal or a bottle of wine, and one day I opened this box and found a treasure trove of books. From then on I visited the cellar rather frequently. It turned out my grandfather also collected a fabulous magazine, Giornale illustrato dei viaggi e delle avventure di terra e di mare—the illustrated journal of travels and adventures by land and by sea—devoted to strange and cruel stories set in exotic countries. It was my first great foray into the land of stories. Unfortunately, I lost all of these books and magazines, but over the decades I have gradually recovered copies of them from old bookstores and flea markets.