March 2011

Caroline Hagood

nonfiction

Confessions of a Young Novelist by Umberto Eco

The complications in Umberto Eco’s Confessions of a Young Novelist begin with the title. In his writings Eco often employs “double coding,” a term thought up by architectural theorist Charles Jencks to describe the ability of a work of art to contain at least two meanings simultaneously. In addition to being a semiologist and medievalist, Eco is a novelist; but at 76, he is no longer young. He suggests that his title refers to his relative youth as a fiction writer, but there also seems to be a wistful glance back at a younger self in the turn of phrase. His title is also reminiscent of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. That the potential for multiple readings and winks at other texts comes into play as early as the title shows us that we are in the hands of a literary trickster; that this trickster can be a maddening one we will discover as we progress through his hodgepodge text.

Eco’s irksome quality kicks in when he overstays his welcome in the realms of self-indulgence, sacrificing cohesion along the way. To be fair, the inconsistency in tone and focus is not entirely his fault, as the text is culled from a series of lectures he gave at Emory University; but let’s just say that one would have to be famous to get this book published. Granted, when you’re Umberto Eco, and can put semiotics, literary theory, and a stupendous knowledge of ancient things into a pot and come out with the bestselling The Name of the Rose, you certainly get a generous disjointedness quota; the trouble is that he exceeds his here. He would have done better to decide if the book were a writing memoir, literary criticism, or a series of lists (actually, let’s just nix the list idea).

If the intent of the book is to provide a peek into the elusive process of the writer, then only the first section, “Writing From Left to Right,” can fully be said to do that. Eco starts out with a bang, but the following three parts veer off into spells of the dry kind of literary criticism, finally spinning off into oblivion in the final chapter, “My Lists.” Early in the book, Eco writes, “I do not belong to that gang of bad writers who say that they write only for themselves. The only things that writers write for themselves are shopping lists, which help them remember what to buy, and then can be thrown away.”

Perhaps his list chapter should have met the same fate. The final section is exactly what it sounds like: a compilation of his thoughts on literary lists and examples of such lists that have appeared in his own novels. While this should be a quirky glimpse into the very personal place where Eco’s fictional magic happens, instead, we see him retreat into the distance, his dynamic ideas becoming a static laundry list.

On the other hand, when Eco communicates in a basic, direct mode about the writing process, we can feel him there, gleefully chattering away on a subject he clearly loves. His most luminous literary moment comes when he writes about the slippage between reality and fiction in the minds of even the most intelligent readers. He begins this line of thought by asking, “But are we sure that fictional characters do not have some kind of existence?” When we realize that the answer is “no,” it is a thrilling moment, indeed.  

Eco is at his best when discussing the how-to and wherefore of writing; he’s at his worst when pontificating in a lit–theory-101-esque manner, at the expense of getting to the heart of his love of word and idea play. Like his text and its title, Eco struggles under the weight of his own different meanings: his identity as a popular novelist and that of a philosopher “with a touch of Platonic arrogance.” Philosophy, Eco’s first love, is a place of catalogues of ideas and contradictions that are contained and balanced; but these qualities are not at home here in this skinny text that perhaps doesn’t provide Eco with enough space to connect the dots.

Confessions of a Young Novelist by Umberto Eco
Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0674058690
240 Pages