Umberto Eco’s Confessions of a Young Novelist

Like most of Eco’s non-fiction work (and, now that I think of it, like most of his fiction as well) these essays are a difficult-to-categorize and spell-binding collection of illuminating insights, esoteric observations, literary references, and fascinating hypotheses.  This intriguing book is ironically and humorously entitled Confessions of a Young Novelist (ironic and humorous given Eco’s age).  It is a collection of the four Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature that Eco delivered at Harvard University.

There’s a great deal of literary theory in this book.  I found much of this enlightening, though a lot of it was technical and simply beyond me.  However, I suspect that any layman reading this book would appreciate Eco’s insights, even though the more easily grasped insights are sometimes buried in a sea of verbiage that, for me anyway, was not terribly accessible.  Let me quickly add, though, that if you intend to read anything Eco has written you’ll need to get accustomed to this.  Without fail, the insights are worth the wading it takes to get to them, and the wading is not without its own profit.

I did appreciate Eco’s pushback on the more radical fringes of postmodern literary theory.  He tellingly voices his suspicion that the “rights of the interpreter” have likely been overstressed today.  I have no doubt that’s the case.  It certainly is the case in the realm of biblical interpretation.  It was refreshing to see Eco push back against the idea of the utter meaninglessness of texts, even while his view is nuanced and complex.

His discussion of fiction and non-fiction was very interesting indeed.  I was struck by his noting the effect that fiction can have on the people who read it.  This can be extreme, as in the case of “the Werther effect,” or humorous, as in the examples of people writing Eco who do not seem to understand that his fiction is actually fiction.

The last essay was devoted to lists.  Eco has written an entire book on lists and their function within writing and literature.  Among the many uses of lists, the most interesting that he mentions are lists created in an effort to express the inexpressible, that is lists written with an eye toward created a sense of transcendence.  The chapter is filled (note: filled) with fascinating lists, many created by Eco himself and from his own works.  I suppose it is a mark of Eco’s genius that he could make a subject like lists interesting and thought-provoking, which he does here.

This is an eclectic little book, that, like his co-authored work, This is Not the End of the Book, will fascinate, occasionally befuddle, and frequently challenge the reader.

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