Umberto Eco,
On Literature
(Harcourt, 2004)
originally published
as Sulla Letteratura
(RCS Libri, 2002)

On Literature is a collection of 18 essays from Italian writer Umberto Eco and translated by Martin McLaughlin. While Eco is known for novels such as The Name of the Rose and Foucalt's Pendulum, these 18 essays cover a broad range of literary interests. Some are culled from speeches he gave at various conferences. He covers writers who influenced him and deals with his own writing techniques. Much of the interest in this book will lie in how much a reader is already familiar with literature.

For me, the reflections on James Joyce and Oscar Wilde were of particular interest. These two writers have intrigued me for a couple of decades. Joyce is one of the most difficult writers to understand; Eco concerns himself largely with the early development of Joyce's literary techniques. He tries to understand how the young man eventually evolves into a writer and artist. The Wilde essay deals with paradox and aphorism in Wilde's writing. Wilde was a paradoxical figure so this is a good, strong overview of his writing.

I also greatly enjoyed his essay on "The American Myth." These were pieces of writing that covered personal interests. "The American Myth in Three Anti American Generations" reveals a lot of how Italian intellectuals and writers viewed America. Eco himself seems to take a generally positive view toward America. This essay covers the way American culture and cinema has impacted the rest of the world. He writes on the way writers of the past century have responded to that impact. It includes a pretty fair view on both the positive and negative aspects of the American myth.

Some of the essays revolve around Italian literature. Eco contrasts different Italian writers and their specific aims. The drawback for me is that I am unfamiliar with a lot of the writers and poets he covers. I do know Eugenio Montale but there are many writers referenced that I have never even heard of. This makes it harder to really appreciate the scope of what Eco is writing. His writing is strong enough that it has made me add some Italian writers to my "to be read" list.

His essays on how he writes his own novels also posed one problem. I have not read the novels to which he refers. He is explaining how he created the setting for his novels and how the characters and plotlines evolved. This is very interesting because some of the techniques could be helpful to a developing writer. I do think that greater appreciation would be likely for a person familiar with Eco's novels. (I included Eco's own novels when making additions to my "to be read" list.)

Overall, I found this to be a very intriguing read. There were some obvious problems with not getting all the references made. It was good in covering a few literary issues that I have wrestled with myself over the years. He also covered a few writers that I am interested in. The writing is strong and usually accessible. I will likely re-read this book in a couple years. Greater familiarity with Italian literature of the 20th century will probably greatly increase my appreciation for this book.

- Rambles
written by George Schaefer
published 16 April 2005

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