Obituary: Umberto Eco
Professor of semiotics and literary star who wrote intriguing bestsellers such as 'The Name of the Rose'
Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30
Umberto Eco, who died last Friday aged 84, became Italy's "best known literary export" when his medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1980) became a surprise international bestseller; he so boosted his country's literary reputation that publishers described his influence on sales as "l'Effetto Eco".
Eco was 48 when he wrote the book, an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit spiced up with arcane medieval lore, after a publisher asked him to contribute to a series of short thrillers by prominent Italians who had never written fiction. He eventually agreed because "I felt like poisoning a monk", but insisted the book would be set in the middle ages and be more than 500 pages long.
Eco thought the initial print-run of 30,000 overambitious, but the book sold two million copies in Italy and went on to sell 10 million copies in 30 languages. In 1986 it was made into a film by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starring Sean Connery.
Eco's day job was as a professor of an abstruse branch of literary theory known as semiotics, developed by the postmodernist French theorist Roland Barthes, which sees all culture as a web of signs - messages to be decoded for hidden meanings. Critics complain that it accords world-historical significance to trivia. Certainly there was nothing so ephemeral that Eco disdained to subject it to semiotic deconstruction. As a result he was able to position himself as a sort of portmanteau intellectual, giving his views on everything from how to eat peas with a plastic fork to changing concepts of beauty.
Before Eco became an international literary superstar, he had castigated Ian Fleming and other thriller writers for cynically devising entertainments for a reading public both "popular and serious". Yet The Name of the Rose appealed to exactly the same readership, and some accused Eco of - equally cynically - using his knowledge of the formula for bestsellers to manufacture one himself.
Eco's subsequent novels continued to sell well. In Foucault's Pendulum (1988), three editors at a Milan publishing house try to link every conspiracy theory in history, from the Knights Templar to the Nazis, into a hidden plan that would give control of the Earth. The Island of the Day Before (1994), was a metaphysical conundrum about time and space centred around a 17th-century shipwrecked sailor. In his fourth novel, Baudolino (2000), Eco returned to the middle ages with a protagonist, a "little liar who could concoct bigger lies".
As time went on, however, the suspicion arose, supported by newspaper "polls", that, like Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, Eco's novels were more bought than read. His novels received mixed reviews and their author was often accused of being too "clever" by half. "I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult," Eco reflected in later life. "Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004), and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists."
That certainly seemed to apply to his sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, published in English in 2011. The plot concerned the creators of the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a document which emerged in Russia in the early 1900s, purporting to describe a meeting at which Jewish leaders discussed their plans for world domination, but later proved to be fraud), but critics were troubled by the full-throated diatribes against Jews uttered by Eco's characters.
Umberto Eco was born on January 5, 1932, at Alessandria, a small industrial town in the Piedmont region where his father was chief accountant at the local iron works. His early life, he recalled later, had been shaped by Mussolini. He recalled being proud of his fascist uniform but during the German occupation of northern Italy he experienced starvation and recalled dodging bullets traded by the SS, fascists, and partisans.
Aged 14, he joined the Catholic youth organisation, of which by the age of 22 he had become a national leader, but from which he resigned in 1954 and subsequently abandoned Catholicism.
Eco's passion for medieval thought began as a student at Turin University, where his doctoral thesis (published in 1956) was on St Thomas Aquinas. After leaving university, he made cultural programmes for the television network RAI and, following military service in 1958, joined the Milan publishers Bompiani, from 1959 to 1975.
From 1956, Eco lectured in aesthetics, architecture, visual communications and semiotics at universities in Turin, Florence, Milan and Bologna, where he became Professor of Semiotics in 1975. In 1959, he began a monthly column full of literary spoofs and pastiches in Il Verri, an organ of the "neo-avant-garde", some of which were later published in English in Misreadings (1993) and How to Travel With a Salmon (1994).
In the 1960s he became a founder-member of Gruppo 63, a radical and disputatious avant-garde group of young Italian writers opposed to what they called the "neo-capitalistic" language of traditional literary and poetic texts, who developed a line in meaningless ("non-significanza") verses and promoted the idea of "art as a plaything in itself".
As his contribution to the cause, Eco wrote Open Work, one of the first texts to advocate "the active role of the interpreter [the reader] in the reading of texts" - in other words the reader's right to interpret a book how they choose, regardless of authorial "intentions" - a "postmodern" idea which, to the regret of many, has infected university English and History departments. It was at about this time, too, that he began defying the taboo against serious analysis of popular culture, finding a unifying theme in the theory of semiotics which he set out in books such as A Theory of Semiotics (1976) - written in English - and The Role of the Reader (1979). In addition he wrote several works on language and the use of words.
Throughout his career as a novelist, Eco continued to teach semiotics at Turin University. In addition to novels and academic books, from 1985 he had a regular column in L'Espresso magazine and later wrote for the Guardian. His final novel, Numero Zero, a satire on the popular press, was published in 2015.
Eco was an important left-wing voice in debates on abortion, the mafia and corruption. He was a prominent critic of former Italian president Sylvio Berlusconi, whom he once compared to Hitler. Short, plump, bearded and bespectacled, Eco was an amusing and energetic raconteur with that sort of studied nonchalance which Italians call sprezzatura. Though his novels made him rich and famous, he disdained his writing of them as a "hobby". He married, in 1962, the German-born Renate Ramge, a graphic designer, with whom he had a son and a daughter.