Profile: Umberto Eco: The brain with a label

Andy Beckett on the Armani of academe, whose books are bestsellers
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The Independent Online
WHEN UMBERTO ECO started out as a scholar, at the University of Turin in the early Fifties, he decided to maximise his study time by living his non-academic life a third quicker than everyone else. He taught himself to walk faster, eat faster, shave faster. Forty years and 30 books later friends pant along behind Eco on the pavements of his hometown Milan, but he is still not satisfied with his efficiency: "I could work in the shower if I had plastic paper."

Despite his failure to solve the shower problem, Eco is now probably the most famous intellectual in the world. With Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault dead, his beard and glasses and beady, mocking eyes have become the international symbol for professorial explanation and connection. Eco teaches at the University of Bologna, lectures at Harvard, conferences anywhere with an airport, comments anywhere with an interesting audience, and - unusually - sells his ideas in vast quantities. His dense philosophical novel, The Name Of The Rose, sold 10 million; his Harvard lectures - part of a guest series previously given by TS Eliot and Stravinsky - went straight into best-selling print in Italy. He has so boosted his country's modest literary reputation that Italian publishers have a phrase to describe how he benefits their other authors: Effetto Eco.

Eco's books arrive in clumps - three in the last 18 months, including, next week, a fat novel called The Island Of The Day Before - because he simultaneously pursues several different careers, writing and publishing from each. At his driest he is a pioneer of semiotics, the study of culture as a web of signs, writing precise essays with diagrams. More accessibly, he considers the production and consumption of modern mass culture, with the odd joke about Mickey Mouse. For the merely educated, he writes novels and a column about politics, literature, modern manners and - occasionally, sceptically - football for the Italian paper L'Espresso.

"He has a special kind of status," says Robert Lumley, the director of Italian Studies at University College London. Eco, who has an academic wife, two children and multiple houses, "combines success as a scholar with - and this is especially important in Italy - monetary success." In Britain, his last novel, Foucault's Pendulum, was previewed in the Guardian, a year before publication, at greater length than most of the paper's reviews. Not for the first time, the piece compared Eco to another Northern Italian name prestigiously exported to the world's haute bourgeoisie: Armani.

The success of the Eco brand has its disadvantages, however. Many customers just want the intellectual label; few novels have been so often flaunted and so rarely read as Foucault's Pendulum. Others just can't get enough Eco: "I have lost the freedom of not having an opinion," he has said, complaining that it is impossible to go to the theatre without being buttonholed about every aspect of the performance and its cultural implications.

More seriously, the effervescent Eco of interviews and instant analysis of the World Cup, James Bond, the return of the Middle Ages, and, sometimes, anything at all, does over-stretch himself. A collection of light, humorous columns called How To Travel With A Salmon was dismissed as ponderous and unfunny by English critics last year. Eco's insistence on telling his readers how to grapple with the modern world was patronising, with its unsubtle implication that the author, well, knew everything.

The book's reception crystallized a feeling, in England at least, that Eco's main intellectual interest was showing off. Foucault's Pendulum too had attracted criticism for its non-stop erudition and vast, arcane digressions. Now The Island Of The Day Before appears, with its 500-page rumination on life and love by a shipwrecked sailor and provocative interjections by Eco: "Why, the reader may ask, have I been speaking, for a hundred pages at least... I have made nothing happen."

UMBERTO Eco was born in 1932 in Alessandria, a medieval fortress city in the Po Valley in northern Italy. His father was an office clerk for a manufacturer of iron bathtubs. As a boy Eco saw Fascists fight partisans and Germans fight Americans, and was shot at himself, but was mostly just bored. In a memoir he describes endless, flat spaces, the "milky greyness" of winter fog, and a long, lusting bicycle search for "a cheap paperback edition... translated from the French".

He enrolled as a philosophy student at Turin. His speciality was medieval aesthetics, a subject he became a lecturer in at 24, but Eco also kept an eye on the modern world by joining the nascent state television network RAI as a part-time producer. Thus he gathered raw material for three of the main preoccupations of his writing: wartime confusions awakened him to the labyrinth of Italian politics; the tribulations of RAI taught him about the mass media; and his study of medieval symbols became an interest in symbols per se, or semiotics.

At the end of the Fifties Eco made an important discovery. Reading Barthes' Mythologies, he realised that he could never rival the French semiotician for pure innovation, so he chose instead to liberate the discipline with informal, playful prose. This desire for accessibility - "the good of a book lies in its being read" as The Name Of The Rose puts it - also led him to focus his writing beyond semiotics. He wrote an early polemic for the reader's right to interpret a book how they chose (now a literary critical commonplace); he argued for the new American-imported popular culture against Italian intellectual disdain; and he criticised the Red Brigade terrorists for their "19th-century" tactics.

For three decades books and columns and articles poured out of Eco. He walked quickly and established himself as the cheeky figurehead of Italy's over-reverent intellectual life. Sent to South America by L'Espresso in the Seventies, he wrote about flirting with one of the female guerilla leaders.

Then an Italian fiction publisher called him with an idea for a detective anthology written by academics. Would he like to contribute a story? Eco's first reaction was: "I can't write dialogue." Then he thought about it, and told her that, yes, he would write one - but it would be set in the Middle Ages and 500 pages long. For two years he examined treatises about monasteries, monks, and poison; he visited catacombs and made plans of abbeys; finally, he started writing.

For a 50-year-old professor with 20 specialist books behind him, The Name Of The Rose was rather readable, sending a church investigator and his apprentice to seek out a murderer in an isolated abbey, letting them fumble as the bodies mount, then stumble upon the solution at the centre of a hidden, labyrinthine library. Eco used Sherlock Holmes sleuthing, sudden deaths like Agatha Christie's, even a Scooby Doo-style ending - all devices of the popular fiction he'd been examining in an academic context for years. These in turn carried along a weight of medieval detail and post-modern symbolism - the library as the unknowable sum of all knowledge; the search for the murderer as the search for truth - at a brisk enough pace for the uninterested reader to skip along to the denouement.

Eco's publisher risked printing 30,000 copies in Italian. It sold 2 million. "In Italy for centuries the writer has written for the critics," says Gianni Riotta, an Italian writer. "Eco cut through that because he was a post-television writer. He is read by semioticians and doormen." The Name Of The Rose became a film - starring Sean Connery, as if to emphasise how far Eco had moved into the cultural mainstream. Its author could never quite go back to plain semiotician.

TYPICALLY, Eco wrote a book about the book, Reflections On The Name Of The Rose. Then he got to work on a follow-up; this time he decided to be more daring. While his first novel had self-critically suggested that too many books were bad for you - the monks in the library went blind or were poisoned by book ink - Foucault's Pendulum went further. It set three Milanese publishers on a marathon intellectual bender, trying to link every conspiracy theory in history, from the Knights Templar to the Nazis, into a hidden Plan that would give control of the Earth. They read, they argued, they raced after clues, and discovered an empty fraud, "hair oil". Then they went mad - rather like anyone attempting to link all Eco's writings into one coherent theory.

The book sold in millions. It was perceptive enough about postwar Italy, with its plots and cells and over-educated, under-achieving protagonists, to rile the Vatican, and surprisingly lyrical about the country's landscape - Eco the bookish medievalist had remembered to watch his own society all along.

With his new novel, this lesson may finally have eluded him. The Island Of The Day Before has clever game-playing and historical swashbuckling galore, but apparently little to say, however obliquely, about Italy's current convulsions. Eco has written elsewhere about corruption, enraging Berlusconi's supporters, but here, tucked away in his 17th-century chapel with his Bach and 60 cigarettes a day, he has produced his most ethereal, potentially least sellable novel.

In interviews, Eco boasts of his rooms of manuscripts and, in rare moments of repose, his fondness for bobbing around in the shallows near his Rimini retreat, like a well-rounded "floating corpse". Perhaps he should go to the beach more.