On Literature, by Umberto Eco

Speed, slowness and the lure of language
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The Independent Culture

As an ambitious young academic in the 1950s, Umberto Eco determined to get the edge on his colleagues by accelerating his daily routine. He quickened his pace, bolted his food, shaved with lethal rapidity: all to allow for long slow hours in the library.

As an ambitious young academic in the 1950s, Umberto Eco determined to get the edge on his colleagues by accelerating his daily routine. He quickened his pace, bolted his food, shaved with lethal rapidity: all to allow for long slow hours in the library.

He shows little sign of having altered his habits. On Literature arrives only months after On Beauty. That neither is exactly his critical masterpiece is unsurprising; actually, in terms of heavyweight theoretical intervention, Eco had already relaxed 20 years ago. But there's still a good deal of intellectual athleticism on display.

The long-term fate of the celebrated critic is too often to squander early ideas in a weakly polemical, vaguely humanist (and always nostalgic) defence of literature itself. The reputation is still tenured, the insights decidedly emeritus. "Late Eco" appears, happily, to have declined the crude authority of a Harold Bloom or George Steiner. So it's disappointing to read him, in the first of these occasional pieces, deploying some crusty clichés about the end of the book and the advent of a digitally hypnotised public, untethered from tradition. Long ago, Eco made one great pronouncement about information technology: that Macs are Catholic, PCs Protestant. He ought to have stopped there.

But if his efforts to accommodate the speed of the digital age are awkward, the questions they raise are, in other contexts, deftly treated. On Literature is all about speed and slowness: the sudden spark of an interpretative intuition and the protracted pleasures of its proof. Eco delights in unlikely historical affinities. Dante's Paradiso (often left unread, as the boringly blithe obverse of the Inferno) is, he writes, a kind of medieval cinema, seduced by a universe of alluring light. Finnegans Wake is the written twin to the graphic madness of the Book of Kells.

This last link was made during a lecture on Joyce's education in 1991. During it, I recall, Eco's then-fashionable quote-mark gestures hung either side of him throughout each lengthy citation, like a sort of comic benediction. The other side of Eco's agility is his commitment to textual criticism as an almost holy rite. In the "life-or-death battle between those who love texts and those who are simply in a hurry", there is no substitute for laborious engagement with the word.

Which means that the best of these essays - on Nerval's Sylvie, on the logical convolutions of a svelte Wildean aphorism, on Borges' influence on his own fiction - are the least occasional or polemical, and the most clearly wedded to a rather old-fashioned sort of semiotic analysis. Eco is a scintillating lecturer, and an elegant journalist. Even those of us allergic to his clunky fiction would have to admit that he talks about his own novels with some panache. But he's still at his most mercurial when simultaneously slowed by the pace of long study.

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