Collections of essays are, even at their best, mixed bags, even when written by someone like Umberto Eco, respected in the fields of semiotics, medieval studies, literary and cultural criticism, and fiction writing, to name a few. On Literature is an eclectic collection. Its “occasional writings” include five lectures, six conference papers, one closing address, two short newspaper articles, one preface, one afterword, one essay, and an indeterminate other, for which the explanatory endnote was omitted. All were delivered or published between 1980 and 2000 (and all but one after 1990), then revised. The publisher is inaccurate in claiming that the eighteen pieces cover “the course of his illustrious career,” which began two decades before the publication of Eco's first novel, the improbable international best-seller Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983). The publisher is also remiss in making it seem that the essays have not appeared in English before; some have, albeit in different form.
On Literature is clearly intended for American readers—or, more accurately, the American market. Although as a critic and semiotician, Eco has shown scant interest in literature's economic side—from which he has profited handsomely—the publication of this miscellany in 2004 cannot be separated from Harcourt's publication of the paperback edition of Eco's fourth novel, Baudolino, in 2003 and the impending publication of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the English translation of his fifth novel, La Misteriosa fiamma della Regina Loana(2004), in 2005.
In his theory of the “Model Reader,” Eco puts crude economic matters aside, for the Model Reader is not the actual reader (least of all the one with $26) but that purely hypothetical being—or beings—created by the text itself. The semantic Model Reader only wants to know how the story turns out, and the semiotic or aesthetic Model Reader “asks himself what kind of reader that particular story was asking him to become, and wants to know how the Model Author who is instructing him step by step will proceed.” Although he applies it only to narrative texts (especially novels), Eco's theory of model readers proves useful in trying to figure out exactly what kind of mixed bag On Literature is, as it takes on Dante's La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei(1848; The Communist Manifesto, 1850), Gerard de Nerval's “Sylvie” (1853; English translation, 1922), Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; English translation, 1612-1620), Aristotle's De poetica, (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Piero Camporesi's Il sugo della vita (1988; Juice of Life, 1995), and Oscar Wilde's aphorisms, as well as literature in general, paranoid symbolism, style, intertextuality, the representation of space in words, the power of falsehoods, and Eco's own fiction-writing habits in particular.
What the book's eighteen pieces have in common is Eco's having been invited to write or deliver them—for a book, a conference, an anniversary, a convocation, and the like. The Model Reader being constructed by the collection as a whole is quite different than the Model Reader being constructed by any one of its parts (an address at a conference of Italian semioticians, for example, or the readers of an Italian newspaper). However varied the actual audiences and the Model Readers of the individual essays undoubtedly were, and are, On Literature's Model Reader is not someone who has an interest in one or more of these specific topics. Rather, he or she is someone who delights in the play of Eco's well-stocked mind in these eighteen walks in the narrative woods (to borrow the title of one of Eco's earlier books) and who delights equally in the sound of Eco's voice, as rendered on the page. Martin McLaughlin's translation is so wonderfully consistent and remarkably transparent that the reader cannot doubt that this is exactly how Eco sounds—in English.
Always the affable guide, Eco invites the reader to ramble with him, dotting the journey with bits of his distinctive brand of intelligent, gently mocking as well as self-deprecating humor: “I remember the shivers I experienced as a young man, feeling as marginalized as a young homosexual in Victorian society, when I discovered that the Anglo-Saxon tradition had continued to take Aristotle's poetics seriously, and without interruption.”
Eco's sentences are often miniature versions of his overall method of labyrinthine twists and turns: “[Philosopher and historian Paul] Ricoeur (quoting [Jacques] Derrida on this topic, who says that in Aristotle the defined is implicated in the person who defines) observes that, in order to explain metaphor, Aristotle created a metaphor, borrowing it from...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)