BOOK REVIEW / It's no joke being a literary parodist: 'Misreadings' - Umberto Eco trs William Weaver: Cape, 19.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
OF ALL the European intellectual stars to have once written a humorous column, Umberto Eco is surely the least surprising candidate. Indeed, for many readers, it's perhaps more surprising now to be reminded of his pre-Name of the Rose reputation as a literary theorist, Joycean scholar and semiotician who then, so surprisingly, turned bestseller. Admittedly, this column was written for an Italian literary monthly, and his subjects mostly fit the forum. But the short pieces collected in Misreadings are among Eco's earliest publications (dating from 1959) and evidence that he didn't suddenly lighten up in mid-life.

Some of them are really quite light. There's the discovery of America, reported live as if it were the moon landing ('A small step for a sailor, a giant leap for His Catholic Majesty'); or imaginary publishers' reports, very brisk and pragmatic, on classics of world lit. These are skits which, a few learned touches apart, might have been written by many people. There are also straight parodies (Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet). But Eco comes into his own with more elaborate alienation effects: we find a death-of-modern-

culture critique - but written in the persona of a cultural critic living in Classical Athens (just a smack at Adorno and co). In another piece, an extra-terrestrial scholar is raking over the fragmented literary remains of a devastated earth, and resorting to the sort of sober recklessness that besets any historian who has little to go on and compensates with 'imagination'. He's found an important corpus of earth poetry, Great Hit Songs of Today and Yesterday, including this fragment, 'apparently from a propitiatory or fertility hymn to nature: 'I'm singing in the rain . . . it's a glorious feeling . . .' It is easy to imagine this sung by a chorus of young girls.'

The editorial conditions are propitious. Eco is able to pursue a conceit in depth and at length without obligation to instant pay-offs, which is a rare thing nowadays; equally rare to find intellectual satire done in a pure form, without falling into obvious jokes about (those constant standbys) pretentiousness, egotism or venality.

One may say this goes too far, that the humour is 'donnish', that Eco delights too much in the academic languages he purports to guy. And of course, he is a native speaker.

But then, whether he's overtly joking or not, Eco always speaks with some sort of curl to his mouth. He is, for example, quite conscious that semiotics is inherently a comic language, slightly absurd in its reductivism, even while he is a professor of it. And in an essay here called 'The Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno' (a rough English translation would be 'The Phenomenology of Bob Monkhouse') one feels not so much, as one might with Barthes, that this is an amazingly smart put-down, but rather that the one-dimensional personality of the television quiz-master is the perfect subject for this one-dimensional form of analysis.

The interest of Eco as a 'parodist' is that he doesn't recognise clear demarcations. The last piece is, if you like, a joke (the idea is borrowed from Borges): Eco does a critical analysis of Manzoni's The Betrothed, not as the classic Italian 19th-century novel but as if it were an opus postumus of James Joyce, just turned up. And he discovers in it, half-plausibly, a wealth of Joycean themes, puns, symbolic structures, etc. The joke could go various ways, but as Eco points out in his introduction to this edition, it has now come true: 'Today I recognise that many exercises in 'deconstructive reading' read as if inspired by my parody. This is a parody's mission. It must never be afraid to go too far. If its aim is true, it simply heralds what others will later produce, unblushing. . .' The phenomenon is well known to parodists. But not many would be quite so sanguine about it.

Comments