It was with great sadness that we learnt of the death of Umberto Eco on February 19th, 2016 at the age of 84. We remember him with huge admiration. He was a magnificent intellectual and a great Italian who made Italians proud of being Italian all over the world. We wish to celebrate him with this interview, which we made together in July 2004:
Umberto Eco, many people know where you are, but you prefer not to disclose the location. How will you spend your summer?
Here in my country house as usual, where last year I was finishing writing The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. All of my books were started and finished in the countryside. Foucault’s Pendulum took eight years. I wrote it on holiday, at Christmas, at Easter, and in the summer. Let me repeat something I’ve said many times. I finished In the Name of the Rose on 5 January, which is my birthday. So, out of superstition, I decided that I needed to finish the second book on 5 January. Actually I was finishing up around 2 January but then I let things drag out a bit and was able to finish on 5 January. The third book went the same way, though the fourth book, Baudolino, was finished at the end of July, and I thought to myself, “Something is not right.” It is known that novels go on autopilot toward the end, and therefore it’s a truly unstoppable process. Honestly, I eventually put my mind at ease because my grandson Emanuele was born a few days later. I finished Loana, my latest book, between the end of August and the beginning of September. This year, my calendar is open in August, and this perhaps worries me a bit. Of course, I have to prepare for some conferences, and in the mornings I go into town with the pharmacist to have an aperitif before lunch.
So what type of August will it be?
Carefree, leisurely reading things that aren’t obligatory. Perhaps it will be more productive for this exact reason. Perhaps I will reread – who knows – some great philosophical work.
What is your favourite kind of reading material?
I am not methodical. For quite a few decades now, I have had a sort of “moral impediment” in the sense that I only read fiction at night before going to sleep. Reading during the day would be like taking time away from more important works. Sure, there have been exceptions. Two years ago, for example, I was ill for a week, and I reread Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in the afternoon. Years ago I had pneumonia, and I ended up in the hospital where I reread War and Peace. I have to be ill to read fiction in daylight.
Does that mean that fiction is only entertainment for you?
No. It is that I am a philosopher and a semiotician by profession.
But don’t you also consider yourself a novelist?
That doesn’t mean anything because even when I translate Nerval or write an essay on Joyce, I work day and night. During the day when I read a book, I can’t stop myself from letting some little word force me to get up and go consult another book. If you do this with fiction, it is less of a pleasure and you are less likely to let yourself go with the narrative flow without interrupting it. You can only do this in bed. You can’t even do this on the beach because there will always be someone to disturb you. To read fiction well one needs solitude, night, a bedside lamp, and continuity.
Do you have a proper library in the countryside, like you do in Milan?
Not like in Milan, but because I send all of the double copies and a lot of other things to the country, I have 20,000 books that cover me for emergencies. If I receive two Moravia books or two Hemingway books, I always send the second copy to the countryside.
What do you do in your library?
Walk from one shelf to another… In my library, it’s not necessary to look for a specific book knowing exactly what you want as is, unfortunately, the case in our libraries where one needs to meticulously fill out forms to take out two books maximum. I think about the American libraries where the reader has direct access to the books. Someone looks at A and then goes to B and C and the D that he had overlooked or forgotten. And that’s where the grand adventure begins.
Discovering books, the relationship with books. If you have 20,000 books, adventure isn’t guaranteed but if, as in my case in Milan, you have 30,000 books, the adventure is inevitably there.
And so one ends up wasting time – even if in a useful way – in a library?
It is not a waste of time because then there is a result. One wastes time, for example, playing golf. Bernard Shaw is purported to have said, “It isn’t necessary to be stupid to play golf, but it helps.” In the library, I would say that it’s not necessary to be intelligent, but it helps.
You have had many obsessions, for example, far-off seas, Sherlock Holmes, Dumas, Joyce, St. Thomas the Apostle… What is your obsession now?
The best obsessions are the ones that return. Unless one decides to go looking for the philosopher’s stone the day after tomorrow. The obsessions stopped in adolescence. In actuality, life is about pleasing your father even after he is dead. Realising as an adult the things you dreamed about doing.
And what did your father want you to do?
He wanted me to become a lawyer. We lived in a small town and so that was the profession that stood out the most. But when I was young, he watched me very carefully as I wrote novellas or drew comic strips. He was a clerical worker, but he was proud when my first book came out, and I know he read the whole thing at night.
Was your father able to enjoy your success?
No, but he saw that my second book was reviewed by Montale in the Corriere della Sera, and he was pleased. A great poet reviewing me in a great newspaper.
Do your children have the same relationship with you that you had with your father? Do they also come to the country?
All generations are different from one another. Yes, of course, the family comes and then mid-month, friends arrive. And then the night-time concerts and all kinds of madness start.
What kinds of madness?
For example, wonderful theatrical improvisations. Unfortunately we had to stop when the greatest comedian among us – Emilio Tadini – died.
Well, what do you do?
We make up dialogues between drunkards from Milan or we make fake radio shows. The friends are always the same.
Is this all part of your latest book?
Certainly, because they sang songs from the 1930s and 1940s, so I knew them all by heart.
Is one always a product of his own generation?
I would say so. Luciano Berio was always with us, but he didn’t make experimental music. He would bang away at the piano, playing Genovese songs from his childhood.
Is it nice to go through life like a young man?
I take it as a compliment when they tell me I’m like a goliard [editor’s note: a wandering student in medieval Europe given to writing ribald, satirical Latin verse]. In any case, I’ve taken inspiration from the greatest goliards, from Rabelais to Joyce…
Would you also like to write a humorous novel?
I believe I’ve already written one without realising it. One of my foreign editors always says she laughs like crazy when she reads my books, even when everyone dies.
Laughter is very important to you, isn’t it?
Not split-your-sides laughter but a smile. Not taking yourself too seriously and not taking others too seriously. This has already been written in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Would you call yourself a sentimentalist?
What made you ask that question? Did Marzullo put you up to it?
No. Your own words.
Real sentimentalists act like cynics.
15th July, 2004