Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Late Great Umberto Eco

Scholar and novelist Umberto Eco died on February 19 2016 at the age of 84. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Umberto Eco was born on January 5 1932 in Alessandria, Piedmont, Italy. Mr. Eco developed a love for literature while still young. His grandfather had a diverse collection of books, including works by Charles Darwin, Marco Polo, and Jules Verne. He was educated by the Salesians of Don Bosco. Following World War II he became a national leader of a Catholic youth organisation. He left his position in 1954 during protests against Pope Pius XII's rather conservative policies. He received a Laurea degree from the University of Turin in 1954. His 1956 doctoral thesis was on  St. Thomas Aquinas.

For a time Umberto Eco worked as cultural editor for Radiotelevisione Italiana. He lectured at the University of Turin and went onto teach philosophy and later semiotics at the University of Bologna. He wrote columns on both pop culture and politics for Italian weekly news magazine L’Espresso.  Mr. Eco wrote over 20 nonfiction books, starting with his doctoral thesis Il problema estetico in San Tommaso in 1956.  As a semiotician Umberto Eco's subjects dealt with a wide range of subjects. His 1965 book Le poetiche di Joyce dealt with the works of James Joyce. His 2004 book Storia della bellezza dealt with the meaning and nature of beauty in Western Civilisation.  His 2013 book Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari dealt with legendary lands from the works of Homer to the works of Tolkien.

It was in 1980 that Umberto Eco's first work of fiction was published, the novel Il nome della rosa. It was published in 1983 in English as The Name of the Rose. The novel was a mystery set in the 14th Century in which a  Franciscan friar must solve a murder at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy. The novel proved to be an international sensation, ultimately being translated into 30 different languages and selling 10 million copies. A film adaptation was released in 1986. Umberto Eco would write six more novels following the success of The Name of the Rose. His 1988 novel Il pendolo di Foucault (Foucault's Pendulum) dealt with a conspiracy theory invented by three unemployed editors that takes on a life of its own. His 1994 book L'isola del giorno prima (The Island of the Day Before) dealt with a man in the 17th Century who was marooned on a ship. Baudolino, from 2000, centred on the travels of the title character, a young Italian peasant in the 12th Century.

Umbero Eco's 2004 novel, La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana) dealt with an antiquarian book dealer who lost his episodic memory due to a stroke and his efforts to regain those memory. 2010's Il cimitero di Praga  (The Prague Cemetery) dealt with the rise of modern day anti-Semitism. His final novel, published last year, was Numero Zero. It centred on a hack journalist.

 As a scholar Umberto Eco was remarkable. He managed to do what many have never tried or tried and failed. Quite simply, he made the field of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and how they are used) and made it accessible to the average person. What is more, he did not limit his studies to such highbrow subjects as Homer or Shakespeare, but extended them to pop culture as well. While he certainly did not place the works of Disney on the same level as the works of Homer, but he did deem popular subjects worthy of study. As far as I am concerned this gave him more academic clout than many scholars who tend to look down their nose at anything emerging from popular culture.

What is more, Umberto Eco infused his novels with his academic interests, from semiotics to philosophy. Teh Name of the Rose dealt a good deal with Christian theology in the Middle Ages. Foucault’s Pendulum dealt a good deal with semiotics. And while Umberto Eco's books could be challenging for readers, at the same time they were very accessible. Umberto Eco managed something that very few authors can, balancing a good story with discussions of some very deep, scholarly topics.

Beyond infusing his novels with subjects most people might not encounter outside of a text book, Umberto Eco was also able to create worlds with a good deal of depth in his novels. Many who have read The Name of the Rose feel almost as if they have actually visited a 14th Century Benedictine monastery. In Baudolino the fantastic lands the characters encounter in Asia seem no less real than such historical places as the court of Emperor Frederick. Umberto Eco was able to create three dimensional characters whose worlds always seemed have they could actually exist, even when historically they did not. Umberto Eco was unique in being able to combine academic subjects with well-told stories set in realistic places with three-dimensional character. There had never been an author like him before and it seems doubtful there ever will be again.

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