Winter 2009: Of Note
The Truth about Fiction
A Mild-Mannered Medievalist Confesses All
By Mary J. Loftus
Only the Italian scholar Umberto Eco could fit 720 permutations of the true name of God, the touristy bars of a Bavarian borough, the medieval Knights Templar, and Mickey Mouse’s sweetheart, Minnie, into just one of his cerebral thrillers—Foucault’s Pendulum.
Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, literary critic, and author of such widely acclaimed novels as The Name of the Rose, gave three lectures and a public reading to the Emory community this October as the Richard Ellmann Lecturer in Modern Literature.
Known for mixing medieval history with tidbits of popular culture in his rich intellectual thrillers, Eco, with tongue only slightly in cheek, called the series of lectures “Confessions of a Young Novelist.”
“While I am racing toward my seventy-seventh year, I wrote my first novel in 1980, just twenty-eight years ago. So I consider myself a very young and certainly promising novelist and will publish many more books in the next fifty years,” he said wryly, smiling at the laughter of the crowd. “I am only an amateur—a university professor who has found a nice way to spend his weekends.”
Goodrich C. White Professor of English Ronald Schuchard is founder of the prestigious Ellmann series. “You couldn’t have had a better guest or more appreciative audiences,” he said of this year’s twentieth anniversary lecture. Schuchard is retiring as director and will be passing the torch to Joseph Skibell, associate professor of English.
The biennial series, named for Emory’s first Robert W. Woodruff Professor, Richard Ellmann, has hosted such notable writers and literary critics as Seamus Heaney, Henry Louis Gates Jr., A. S. Byatt, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Salman Rushdie.
Schuchard designed the lectures to create “a sense of celebration of intellectual life.” The aim, he says, is to select “well-spoken writers who can step outside their creative writing, address a topic of major concern in their own or modern writing, and attract and appeal to a large community of readers . . . [as well as] read from their own works.” The line of fans waiting for Eco to sign their books after the public reading stretched for hours, as it has in years past.
Eco was clearly up for such engagement: while in Atlanta, he visited the fourth-year Italian classes of Judy Raggi Moore and Simona Muratore, mingled at receptions, danced to jazz at a barbeque hosted by the Wagners at Lullwater, and brunched at the home of Angela Della Costanza Turner, former honorary consul of Italy for the State of Georgia and Ted Turner’s daughter-in-law. Eco also sat with Della Costanza Turner for an Italian television interview, as well as an interview with Vice President and Secretary of the University Rosemary Magee, which can be heard on iTunes U (itunes.emory.edu).
In addition to his five novels, which often include literary puzzles, cryptograms, mathematical riddles, and elaborate maps, Eco has written literary and cultural critiques and nonfiction works, such as his collections of essays, Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism and Kant and the Platypus.
When he researches a novel, Eco said, he experiences years of “literary pregnancy,” visiting locales, sketching faces of characters, touring ships, drawing maps, deciding on the precise color of coral in a reef. “I’m always capturing ideas, images, words,” he says. “I record all my experiences in my notebook or my mind. I spend days walking in settings where a scene is going to take place, dictating street names and intersections into a pocket recorder so as not to get them wrong.”
He favors mingling truth and falsehoods, history and metaphysics, all in a realistic context with an internal consistency that is “verifiable within its fabrication”—like the best conspiracy theories. “You must create a world as precisely as possible so you can move around in it with total confidence,” he says of writing a novel.
An author, Eco said, should be in “silent complicity” with the smart reader. “You want to provoke people to read the same text twice, respecting the brightness and good will of the reader. The plot, if there is one, should be a luminous secret.”
In the same way that fiction helps to “clarify our notion of truth,” said Eco, the best fictional characters acquire a patina of realism as we lift them out of their stories.
“They live outside of their original scores, independent of the text where they were born,” he said of Madame Bovary, Ebenezer Scrooge, Gregor Samsa, Hamlet, Leopold Bloom—even Clark Kent / Superman. “They are circulating among us. We cry when they suffer, we choose them as role models for our lives. Our collective imagination makes emotional investments in them.”