Amid the acres of coverage regarding the death of Harper Lee, the death of a much more significant novelist (as well as many other things) went almost unnoticed.
The death of the Italian writer Umberto Eco at the age of 84 may not sadden some. The British novelist Will Self condemned The Name of the Rose, Eco’s most successful book, a thriller set set in the middle ages, as a “loathsome confidence trick”.
The book – which sold more than 10 million copies in 30 languages – also came in for attack from the Vatican, which described it as a “narrative calamity that deforms, desecrates and offends the meaning of faith”. Eco’s writings – not just his novels – were infused by a sense of intellectual playfulness.
Salman Rushdie was irritated by Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, calling it a “fiction about the creation of a piece of junk fiction that then turns knowingly into that piece of junk fiction…Reader: I hated it.”
His grandfather was a typographer; his novels all contain characters named after typographical fonts – Baskerville, Garamond, Bodoni, Palatino, Colonna…
Eco grew up in the shadow of Mussolini’s fascism. As a child he was proud of his fascist uniform, and at 10 won first prize in a writing competition for young Italian fascists.
But during the German occupation of northern Italy he was close to starvation; occasionally he was caught in the cross-fire between the SS, and Italian fascists and partisans.
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, a neo-avant-garde publication. In the 1960s he became a founder-member of Gruppo 63, a radical group of young Italian writers who espoused “art as a plaything in itself.”
An intellectual leader of Italy’s left-wing, Eco loathed the former Italian president Sylvio Berlusconi, comparing him to Hitler. Berlusconi’s monopoly of Italian television was, said Eco, a “tragedy for a democratic country”.
His novels brought him wealth, but he referred to them as his “hobby”; he said that his fame meant he had “lost the freedom of not having an opinion.”
Picture source: Università Reggio Calabria via Wikimedia Commons