Friday, February 07, 2014

Book: Confessions of a Young Novelist by Umberto Eco

Confessions of a Novelist is a peculiar book that covers a random selection of topics relating to fiction and writing, all from the author's personal perspective. I feel it is one for fans of Umberto Eco, an author who comes across very much as a writer’s writer, and so I cannot give it a fair hearing. Nevertheless.

My favourite chapter discusses the role of lists in literature. Here, Eco distinguishes between the practical and the aesthetic list, describing the latter as open and presupposing a final et cetera: “The only true purpose of a good list is to convey the idea of infinity and the vertigo of the etcetera.” This clearly need not always be the case but it is interesting to read a respected author’s view on something this reader doesn’t pays much attention to, but may do in future. Oddly, or perhaps appropriately, Eco provides page after page of lists that have been used in literature, my favourite being the highly odd list of animals in the Chinese Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, by Jorge Louis Borges (another author whose work is mostly above my head). Most of the others lists, however, are just tedious.

The chapter where Eco gives his thoughts on fictional characters was also enlightening. He notes that fictional characters, locations, and sometimes even artifacts, are often believed by readers to exist or have existed in reality. And, when when we know the character is a fiction, we might shed a tear for a sadness shared, as we are brought into their world and are able to identify with them. In contrast, we would be most unlikely to break down and weep if we learned of the same sadness from a friend relating their personal story. In the extreme, Eco observes that a fiction may even drive a person to suicide (cites the effect of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther).

Eco also makes the interesting observation that with fictional characters, you are given all you need to know and no more. In contrast, we might ask what Napoleon ate before a battle and was he affected by it? We may not be sure of what was and was not important to a true historical figure, and their existence continues to fluctuate over time as we learn more and change our emphasis on what we know. It is all quite engaging but then Eco moves on to talk about semiotics and such like - it all became so painful to my little grey cells that I ended up skipping a fair chunk and was turned off reading any of the author’s work forever!


An example of the type of stuff that turned me off this author:
“... If in contrast, we can define fictional characters as purely intensional objects, we mean sets of properties that have no physical referent in the real world. The expression “Anna Karenina” has no physical referent at all, and we cannot find in this world anything of which one could say, “This is Anna Karenina.”

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