On Literature by Umberto Eco, translated by Martin McLaughlin (Vintage, £8.99)
Umberto Eco demonstrates a fierce love of writing in his collection of essays, On Literature
#1 This’ll keep you busy. For a start, the title is a little misleading. It’s about more than just literature – although there’s plenty of that, which I’ll get back to. Here are 18 essays, which cover subjects from the influence of Aristotle’s Poetics, to Dante’s Paradiso, to a history of Italian anti-Americanism, to “How I Write”. Even if your knowledge of Eco’s works stopped (and began) with The Name of the Rose, that last chapter should hold your interest. But what, you may wonder, is the appeal of a piece about the Paradiso, which, I strongly suspect, you have not got around to finishing? (Neither have I.) “To strike the imagination of young readers,” Eco concludes his “A Reading of the Paradiso”, “or of those who are not particularly interested in God or intelligence” (a nice swipe, that) “Dante’s Paradiso is the apotheosis of the virtual world, of nonmaterial things, of pure software … [it] is more than modern; it can become, for the reader who has forgotten history, a tremendously real element of the future. It represents the triumph of pure energy, which the labyrinth of the web promises but will never be able to give us …” and so on, at too great a length to quote here in full, but an exciting, ecstatic work of criticism that may even get you (or me) to read it.
Not having read de Nerval, I will not be able to say how good his essay on him is (Eco advises us to be familiar with the work), but Eco, who is nothing if not cultured, writes elsewhere about things that should not be unfamiliar to the reasonably cultured Brit. There is plenty on Borges, as you might imagine, and also on Joyce, to whom he is devoted; there is also a chapter on Wilde, whom he suspects of being overvalued – “to be true to his own principles he should have been sent to prison not for having loved Lord Alfred Douglas but for having sent him letters with lines like this: ‘It is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should have been made no less for music of song than for madness of kisses [sic].’” You have to admit he has a point.
“The Power of Falsehood” is an extra-literary piece. It examines the influence lies and forgeries have had on history, whether the forgeries be the Donation of Constantine, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Rosicrucians, Prester John, or the lunatic scientific theories beloved by Hitler – such as the Hollow Earth theory, still adhered to by some lunatics (please don’t write in): “it is even said that some shots with the V-1s missed their targets precisely because they calculated their trajectory on the hypothesis of a concave, not a convex, earth’s surface.” I can hardly believe that, but then, as Eco slyly asks, “why did the story of the Donation of Constantine have to be disproved? … All of [these false stories] have created something.”
But his fierce love is for literature. On Literature may not be the most gripping title, but that second word contains the universe for him, and pity for those excluded from it. “The wretches who roam around aimlessly in gangs and kill people by throwing stones from a highway bridge or setting fire to a child – whoever those people are – turn out this way not because they have been corrupted by computer ‘new-speak’ … but rather because they are excluded from the universe of literature and from those places where, through education and discussion, they might be reached by a glimmer from the world of values that stems from and sends us back again to books.” This begs an awful number of questions – but they are probably, ultimately, rather pettifogging ones. Besides, for every ringing declaration like the above there are a dozen closely read and argued examples to back him up.
My only real gripe is the absence of an index. In a collection of essays that looks at times as if it’s approaching a unity, or at least a web of cross-connections, where a thought or reference in one is picked up, or adjusted, in another one, this is almost a scandal. The publishers would probably say that an index would have driven up the cost of the book, but really, another quid wouldn’t have hurt. There are so many thoughts here that no one’s going to complain of bad value.
Saturday December 24, 2005, The Guardian