Who was Umberto Eco?

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was an Italian writer, philosopher, literary critic, author and essayist.

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco

Born in a small Italian town in 1932, Eco is perhaps best known for his 1980 mystery novel The Name of the Rose. The novel is set in a monastery in the 14th century. It became an international bestseller, launching his career as an author. The Name of the Rose was made into a film in 1989 starring Scottish actor Sean Connery.

umberto eco
The Name of the Rose

Eco was the 1992-1993 Norton professor at Harvard and taught semiotics at Bologna University. He didn’t publish his first novel until he was 48, when a friend suggested he write a detective story. Before that, his focus was medieval studies and semiotics.

Speaking on writing novels, he said

“I am a philosopher; I write novels only on the weekends.”

Here’s how Eco described his transition into fiction in an interview with The Paris Review:

“I have long thought that what most philosophical books are really doing at the core is telling the story of their research, just as scientists will explain how they came to make their major discoveries. So I feel that I was telling stories all along, just in a slightly different style.”

Discussing his approach to writing, Eco said: “I don’t know what the reader expects.”

Further, Eco explained:

“I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”

Speaking about his novels, he once said that several of his novels like Foucault’s Pendulum and Numero Zero focused on characters that he affectionately termed “losers” — because “they are more interesting than the winners.”

“And then in the world, there are more losers than winners, and so my readers can identify themselves with the characters.”

Eco’s works tend to be challenging and laden with obscure references. But as he once told The New York Times, he considered “challenging” a compliment: “Only publishers and television people believe that people crave easy experiences.”

According to the Times, Eco had already decided in 1995 what he wanted carved on his tombstone. And, it was from a book by the Renaissance philosopher Tommaso Campanella, where a character says, ‘Wait, wait,’ and another man responds, ‘I cannot.’

Chased by journalists, courted for his cultural commentaries, revered for his expansive erudition, Eco came to be considered the most important Italian writer alive. In the years since, he has continued to write fanciful essays, scholarly works, and four more best-selling novels, including Foucault’s Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Eco will be remembered as a great writer and philosopher who successfully produced the kind of reader he wanted for each story.


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