Confessions of a Young Novelist

Overview

Umberto Eco published his first novel, The Name of the Rose, in 1980, when he was nearly fifty. In these ?confessions,? the author, now in his late seventies, looks back on his long career as a theorist and his more recent work as a novelist, and explores their fruitful conjunction.

He begins by exploring the boundary between fiction and nonfiction?playfully, seriously, brilliantly roaming across this frontier. Good nonfiction, he believes, is crafted like a whodunnit, and a ...

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Overview

Umberto Eco published his first novel, The Name of the Rose, in 1980, when he was nearly fifty. In these “confessions,” the author, now in his late seventies, looks back on his long career as a theorist and his more recent work as a novelist, and explores their fruitful conjunction.

He begins by exploring the boundary between fiction and nonfiction—playfully, seriously, brilliantly roaming across this frontier. Good nonfiction, he believes, is crafted like a whodunnit, and a skilled novelist builds precisely detailed worlds through observation and research. Taking us on a tour of his own creative method, Eco recalls how he designed his fictional realms. He began with specific images, made choices of period, location, and voice, composed stories that would appeal to both sophisticated and popular readers. The blending of the real and the fictive extends to the inhabitants of such invented worlds. Why are we moved to tears by a character’s plight? In what sense do Anna Karenina, Gregor Samsa, and Leopold Bloom “exist”?

At once a medievalist, philosopher, and scholar of modern literature, Eco astonishes above all when he considers the pleasures of enumeration. He shows that the humble list, the potentially endless series, enables us to glimpse the infinite and approach the ineffable. This “young novelist” is a master who has wise things to impart about the art of fiction and the power of words.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

Refined by a lifetime of reading, studying, and creating texts across languages, genres, and centuries, the wisdom of this "young" novelist abounds.
— Brendan Driscoll

PopMatters

Confessions of a Young Novelist offers a brief glimpse into the mind and process of one of the most important writers of the last 30 years...Eco is a jocular and insightful writer (and speaker), and his ability to present the complex as if it were comprehensible makes Confessions of a Young Novelist a pleasant, albeit brief, read...It's rare to be invited into a great writer's intimate space, an opportunity that shouldn't be taken for granted.
— Michael Patrick Brady

The Millions

Is there anything Umberto Eco cannot do? It has been said before and certainly will be said again—Umberto Eco is a true Renaissance man...Now, with the publication of Confessions of a Young Novelist, he offers readers an effective primer on both his oeuvre and the contemporary field of semiotics...Akin to a Paris Review interview turned essay, Confessions is both polemic and intensely personal, infused with Eco's trademark fastidiousness and also bursting with bombasticity. No matter the subject, Eco appears both grandiose and also dedicated to the minutiae. For a public figure and academic, he is delightfully unguarded and frank...The fruits of Eco's semiotic detective work...are presented so clearly as to become Confessions's most fascinating revelations...He posits in his very first paragraph that he is indeed a young novelist. We know this to be untrue, Eco is currently nearing eighty. But this, his first confession, that despite all his fame and honorifics he feels like an amateur, is what imbues all the pages beyond with such vibrancy and hunger—Eco is just another reader, trying to understand.
— Hillary Kelly

The Guardian

Engaging, brilliant...[A] playful book.
— Janet Todd

Los Angeles Times

Umberto Eco wrote his first novel, The Name of the Rose, in 1980. It was the first of only five novels, and it was a runaway bestseller. The Name of the Rose was so popular that critics accused Eco, a semiotics professor, of programming a computer with a secret formula for a successful novel. Eco was, of course, offended and fired back a series of sarcastic modest proposals that pretty much flattened his critics. There may not be a formula, or a recipe, but there are ingredients for a successful novel, and now, decades later, Eco has decided to tell us what he believes they are.
— Susan Salter Reynolds

Toronto Star

For good book chat it's hard to beat Umberto Eco. The mega-selling Italian novelist, essayist, semiologist, scholar and critic has long been one of our best informed and entertaining commentators on literary matters, and in [this] new book he proves he's still near the top of his game.
— Alex Good

Barnes and Noble Review

[Eco] offers a charming glimpse into the demiurge's private workshop.
— Adam Kirsch

Business Standard
After a lapse of 30 years since his venture into fiction, [Eco] has come up with a meandering little book that offers his readers an effective primer on both his oeuvre and the contemporary field of semiotics...Laced with Eco's fastidiousness but delightfully unguarded and frank, Confessions is divided into four parts with the idea of providing a peek into the elusive process of a writer or what could be described as literary theory.
Wlad Godzich
This book is a complex little gem: light and entertaining reading with an underlying thrust that is serious and sparkling with insights. Eco promises delight and instruction and delivers both.
Booklist - Brendan Driscoll
Refined by a lifetime of reading, studying, and creating texts across languages, genres, and centuries, the wisdom of this "young" novelist abounds.
PopMatters - Michael Patrick Brady
Confessions of a Young Novelist offers a brief glimpse into the mind and process of one of the most important writers of the last 30 years...Eco is a jocular and insightful writer (and speaker), and his ability to present the complex as if it were comprehensible makes Confessions of a Young Novelist a pleasant, albeit brief, read...It's rare to be invited into a great writer's intimate space, an opportunity that shouldn't be taken for granted.
The Millions - Hillary Kelly
Is there anything Umberto Eco cannot do? It has been said before and certainly will be said again--Umberto Eco is a true Renaissance man...Now, with the publication of Confessions of a Young Novelist, he offers readers an effective primer on both his oeuvre and the contemporary field of semiotics...Akin to a Paris Review interview turned essay, Confessions is both polemic and intensely personal, infused with Eco's trademark fastidiousness and also bursting with bombasticity. No matter the subject, Eco appears both grandiose and also dedicated to the minutiae. For a public figure and academic, he is delightfully unguarded and frank...The fruits of Eco's semiotic detective work...are presented so clearly as to become Confessions's most fascinating revelations...He posits in his very first paragraph that he is indeed a young novelist. We know this to be untrue, Eco is currently nearing eighty. But this, his first confession, that despite all his fame and honorifics he feels like an amateur, is what imbues all the pages beyond with such vibrancy and hunger--Eco is just another reader, trying to understand.
The Guardian - Janet Todd
Engaging, brilliant...[A] playful book.
Barnes and Noble Review - Adam Kirsch
[Eco] offers a charming glimpse into the demiurge's private workshop.
Los Angeles Times - Susan Salter Reynolds
Umberto Eco wrote his first novel, The Name of the Rose, in 1980. It was the first of only five novels, and it was a runaway bestseller. The Name of the Rose was so popular that critics accused Eco, a semiotics professor, of programming a computer with a secret formula for a successful novel. Eco was, of course, offended and fired back a series of sarcastic modest proposals that pretty much flattened his critics. There may not be a formula, or a recipe, but there are ingredients for a successful novel, and now, decades later, Eco has decided to tell us what he believes they are.
Toronto Star - Alex Good
For good book chat it's hard to beat Umberto Eco. The mega-selling Italian novelist, essayist, semiologist, scholar and critic has long been one of our best informed and entertaining commentators on literary matters, and in [this] new book he proves he's still near the top of his game.
Library Journal
Eco (semiotics, Univ. of Bologna; Foucault's Pendulum) delivered Emory University's Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature in 2008; his talks were written and presented in English, like much of his writing, and are almost a pun, for Eco didn't publish his first novel, The Name of the Rose, until he was 48. In the first three essays/lectures here, Eco addresses interesting questions: what is the boundary between fiction and nonfiction? How do novelists put together books? Why do we care about wholly fictional characters like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary? His answer to the second question—on constructing a novel—is that he builds his novels by scrupulous attention to physical detail. The fourth essay, "My Lists," original to this collection, was not a lecture. It seems a throwaway but reflects Eco's pleasure in the detailed, serial listing of names as attempts to exhaust the plenitude of qualities and quiddities potentially attributable to any single object, as Eco fans may remember from his recent The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay, with Alastair McEwen. VERDICT As always, Eco is diverting to read. Recommended as a valuable introduction to how an important writer produces his fiction.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
The Barnes & Noble Review

The title of Confessions of a Young Novelist, Umberto Eco's new book, is characteristically sly. Eco is not exactly wet behind the ears--he will turn 80 next year--but as he reminds the reader on the first page, he did not publish his first novel, The Name of the Rose, until 1980. "Thus," he explains, "I consider myself a very young novelist, who has so far published only five novels and will publish many more in the next fifty years." That seems unlikely, but you wouldn't want to bet against Eco. After all, The Name of the Rose--a debut novel by a middle-aged academic, packed with medieval history and intricate literary allusions--wouldn't have been anyone's pick to become a bestseller. In fact, Eco writes, "the first critics who reviewed [it] said it had been written under the influence of a luminous inspiration, but that, because of its conceptual and linguistic difficulties, it was only for the happy few. When the book met with remarkable success, selling millions of copies, the same critics wrote that in order to concoct such a popular and entertaining bestseller, I had no doubt mechanically followed a secret recipe."

In this short book, based on his Richard Ellmann Lectures of 2008, Eco offers a more flattering metaphor for his own writing process. "To narrate something," he explains, "you start as a sort of demiurge who creates a world--a world that must be as precise as possible, so that you can move around in it with total confidence." From the monastic murder-mystery of The Name of the Rose to the kabbalistic conspiracy theory of Foucault's Pendulum to the Grail-quest of Baudolino, all of Eco's novels invite the reader into this kind of fantastic, meticulously detailed world. This explains both Eco's popularity and the sometimes obsessive devotion of his readers. A couple of students once showed the novelist "a photo album in which they had reconstructed the entire route" of a nighttime walk through Paris taken by a character in Foucault's Pendulum. Their fanatical pursuit of detail was a nice homage to the author's own, since Eco explains that he himself walked the same route many times while writing that passage. On some occasions, he has even had trouble persuading readers that a certain locale or character in his novels was invented.

As a literary theorist who is fascinated by the ways readers interpret texts, Eco enjoys his first-hand experience of how a novel escapes from its creator's control. "As an Empirical Author," he writes, "I had to surrender in the face of a reader who was sticking to the intention of my text." In the later part of the book, Eco moves from such autobiographical anecdotes to a more abstract consideration of what makes fiction seem real--in particular, why we invest so much emotion in the fates of characters who are nothing more than strings of words on paper. "What does it mean when people are only slightly disturbed by the death from starvation of millions of real individuals...but they feel great personal anguish at the death of Anna Karenina?" he asks. Eco does not pursue such questions too far in Confessions; rather than a treatise on narrative theory, he offers a charming glimpse into the demiurge's private workshop.

--Adam Kirsch




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Product Details

Meet the Author

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bologna and is the author of many books, including Foucault's Pendulum.

Biography

Back in the 1970s, long before the cyberpunk era or the Internet boom, an Italian academic was dissecting the elements of codes, information exchange and mass communication. Umberto Eco, chair of semiotics at the University of Bologna, developed a widely influential theory that continues to inform studies in linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory.

Most readers, however, had never heard of him before the 1980 publication of The Name of the Rose, a mystery novel set in medieval Italy. Dense with historical and literary allusions, the book was a surprise international hit, selling millions of copies in dozens of languages. Its popularity got an additional boost when it was made into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco followed his first bestseller with another, Foucault's Pendulum, an intellectual thriller that interweaves semiotic theory with a twisty tale of occult texts and world conspiracy.

Since then, Eco has shifted topics and genres with protean agility, producing fiction, academic texts, criticism, humor columns and children's books. As a culture critic, his interests encompass everything from comic books to computer operating systems, and he punctures avant-garde elitism and mass-media vacuity with equal glee.

More recently, Eco has ventured into a new field: ethics. Belief or Nonbelief? is a thoughtful exchange of letters on religion and ethics between Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan; Five Moral Pieces is a timely exploration of the concept of justice in an increasingly borderless world.

Eco also continues to write books on language, literature and semiotics for both popular and academic audiences. His efforts have netted him a pile of honorary degrees, the French Legion of Honor, and a place among the most widely read and discussed thinkers of our time.

Good To Know

Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, though in 2002 he was at Oxford University as a visiting lecturer. He has also taught at several top universities in the U.S., including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern.

Pressured by his father to become a lawyer, Eco studied law at the University of Turn before abandoning that course (against his father's wishes) and pursuing medieval philosophy and literature.

His studies led naturally to the setting of The Name of the Rose in the medieval period. The original tentative title was Murder in the Abbey.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bologna, Italy
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 5, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Alessandria, Italy
    1. Education:
      Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

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