Umberto Eco’s ‘Confessions of a Young Novelist’ Explores What It Means to Read and Feel Literature

Despite his advanced age, Umberto Eco stills sees himself as a young novelist. His first novel was published when he was 48. By his logic this means that, although he is now 79-years-old, he is only a 31-year-old novelist, still growing and maturing as a writer.

His five novels, which, include the blockbuster The Name of the Rose, the diabolically conspiratorial Foucault’s Pendulum, and the winking, historical fiction of Baudolino, are intellectual mysteries that draw on Eco’s long career as a semiotician and medieval scholar, but have the tight plotting and compelling narrative of an Agatha Christie potboiler. Eco walks the narrow line that separates high-minded literary fiction from guilty-pleasure genre fiction. Readers can enjoy his work even if they don’t pick up every reference to Borges or know who Hypatia of Alexandria was. Those who do can marvel at how the author masterfully weaves such cerebral treats into his stories so effortlessly, and without descending into mindless pretention.

Confessions of a Young Novelist offers a brief glimpse into the mind and process of one of the most important writers of the last 30 years. The book’s content was originally delivered as part of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University, a series which has also featured notables such as Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. In it, Eco talks about how he approaches his own writing, with illuminating examples that fans of his novels will find very exciting, and how he perceives the relationship between himself as an author, his creations, and the audience. He also spends time deconstructing the nature of the reality of his favorite fictional characters, and examines why readers are able to feel emotions for people who do not “exist” in the strictest sense of the word. The book’s final section is a long and, at times, strained distillation of his non-fiction The Infinity of Lists, which was published in 2009, a year after this lecture took place.

In the first section, Eco relates his initial reticence to enter the world of fiction. As a successful academic, he existed, he believed, in the pure world of facts, and saw no reason to engage in fanciful imagination. It was a belief, he admits, was largely borne of insecurity. Still, the narrative urge of fiction lurked beneath even his scholarly work. “When I presented my doctoral dissertation on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas,” he writes, “one of my examiners… said I told the story of my research as if it were a detective novel.”

He moves onto what he describes as the “cosmological affair of narrative”, the power authors have that allows them to create whole universes in which their creations can exist. It is essential that a well-appointed stage be crafted on which characters and events can unfold in a logical, meaningful way. Eco slaves over the details, be they the names of medieval monks, the arrangement of stairs between two adjoining buildings, or the proper interior layout of a drifting frigate. Only by having a clear, fully rendered idea of the boundaries of this fictional universe, he contends, can an author move about it freely and with confidence. They also ensure that they don’t present readers with a random, unfathomable world whose lack of structure makes it difficult to immerse oneself in.

“Literature,” writes Eco, “is not intended solely for entertaining and consoling people. It also aims at provoking and inspiring people to read the same text twice, maybe even several times, because they want to understand it better.” To him, a good story is one that engages the reader, and rewards them for their efforts. Like a good meal, it is nourishing and pleasurable.

“When a text is sent out into the world like a message in a bottle,” he writes, “the author knows that he or she will be interpreted not according to his or her intentions, but according to a complex strategy of interactions…” Interpretation is a major concern for Eco. The second chapter, “Author, Text, and Interpretation” is a whirlwind crash course on literary theory that distinguishes between the meanings intended by the author and inferred by the reader, and considers whether the text itself can have intent apart from them. It’s a deep, thought-provoking essay lightened by Eco’s zest for language and wry sense of humor. The subsequent chapter, in which he examines the emotional potency and semiotic significance of Anna Karenina’s existence, delves further into what it means to read and feel literature.

Eco is a jocular and insightful writer (and speaker), and his ability to present the complex as if it were comprehensible makes Confessions of a Young Novelist a pleasant, albeit brief, read. It’s only in his final chapter, an examination of listmaking that consumes almost a third of the book, where he begins to lose his magic and the reader finds themselves in a disorienting morass of information. While it may be a chore to read, “My Lists” is a glimpse into the raw materials of Eco’s process, the vast amassing of knowledge that he earlier mentions as essential to his producing a novel. It’s rare to be invited into a great writer’s intimate space, an opportunity that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

RATING 6 / 10