On Literature


Read 30/01/2022-12/02/2022

Rating 4 stars

I’ve had a library detour and a work detour, but I’m back on my European literary tour, crossing the border from Joseph Roth’s Austria to Umberto Eco’s Italy.

I’ve read five of Eco’s seven novels, from The Name of the Rose through to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and one of his non-fiction books, Travels in Hyperreality.

I could have chosen The Prague Cemetery for this stop on my tour, but its subject matter felt a little heavy, so I plumped for another of his non-fiction works, On Literature.

Eco was born in Piedmont, studied in Turin and lived and worked in Milan for most of his life. I haven’t been to any of these places, but I’ve always fancied visiting Milan.


Image Credit: The.Anonymous.EU (Montages), CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikipedia

As Mediolanum, Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 286-402. In the 14th century, it became the capital of the Duchy of Milan, ruled by the Visconti and then the Sforza families. One of the Dukes of Milan, Francesco Sforza, built a castle in the city in the 15th century. The building was expanded in the 19th century and is now home to art galleries and museums, including the Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, home to masterpieces by Canaletto, Titian and Tintoretto; the Museum of Musical Instruments; an archaeological museum containing the city’s prehistoric collections; and the Museum of the Rondanini Pietà, home to Michelangelo’s last sculpture.


Image Credit: Jakub Hałun, CC BY-SA 4.0

Today, the city is Italy’s financial capital and one of the world’s four fashion capitals, location of the semi-annual Milan Fashion Week. I’m no fashionista, so I’ll avoid visiting when those shows are on. Instead, I’m going to take a look at a different aspect of design – architecture.

The city’s landscape has been influenced by female architects in more recent years. I’ve chosen three places I’d like to see. Close to Sforza Castle is Piazzale Cadorna that sits in front of the Cadorna train station and was modernised in the 1990s by Gae Aulenti. She introduced fountains and a colourful sculpture representing the intersection of the overground train lines with the city’s metro.


Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid designed buildings for the CityLife area of Milan, including the twisting Generali skyscraper, the CityLife shopping district, and the CityLife Milano Residences, a group of apartment blocks that combine Hadid’s organic aesthetic with the clean lines of art deco.


Image Caption: Zaha Hadid Architects, CityLife Residential Complex

© Riccardo Bianchini / Inexhibit

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, founders of Grafton Architects in Dublin, designed a new faculty building for the Luigi Bocconi University, which won the inaugural World Building of the Year Award in 2008 and the Pritzke Prize in 2020. It looks to me like a fresh take on brutalism, but using the local ceppo di grè stone instead of concrete.


Image Credit: Drew Kenney

While I’m at Bocconi University, I’ll also take a look at the textile-like structures of the student campus designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA. The curved lines and external cladding of these buildings is like the folds in hanging fabric.

As well as architecture, I’m always interested in local delicacies, and luckily for me the official Milan tourism website has a tour of five historic eateries, so I can pair my architectural exploration with food, from the 1915 art nouveau surrounds of Camparino at Piazza Duomo, home of Campari and soda, to the Trattoria alla Pesa, which used to be a goods taxation office, and the pastry shop Pasticceria Cova, established in 1817 and purveyors of cakes, pasties, chocolates, coffee and TEA, which surprised me. I thought Italy was fuelled by coffee. Perhaps tea was still fashionable in 1817. The website is a delight and the late 18th century neoclassical building is beautiful.


Image Credit: Cova Garden © Cova

Enough! I’m going to feed my mind with Umberto Eco’s collection of what he described in the introduction as occasional writings, all “concerned with the problem of literature”. They range from lectures given on literary occasions to essays in magazines and introductions to books.

Eco was a clever chap, a medievalist, philosopher, semiotician, novelist, cultural critic and political and social commentator. I enjoyed Travels in Hyperreality very much when I read it 30-some years ago. Eco isn’t averse to injecting humour into his theorising, nor did he shy away from examining pop culture. His essay ‘Lumbar Thought’ considers whether wearing jeans constrains the ability to think. His was a male view, ending with the line “A garment that squeezes the testicles makes a man think differently.” I could easily digress here, but I’ll stay focused and say that I chose On Literature because I wanted to see how Eco saw the place of literature in culture.

There are eighteen essays and lecture papers in the collection. In them, Eco considers writers from Dante to Wilde to Joyce to Borges, via Narval, Marx, Cervantes and plenty of others in between. Familiarity with writers gave added joy to the new perspectives Eco gave me, while unfamiliar authors gained extra appeal through the affection he shows for their writing. I’m not going to forensically examine all of the essays, you’ll be relieved to know. In fact, some of them I skimmed because they were detailed examinations of books I haven’t read, with Eco on one occasion going so far as to encourage reading of the book before the essay.

I am going to share the thoughts I had while reading the opening essay, though, because my brain needed to shift gears after the last book, and the first essay was both concise and rambling enough to help me to do that. It also has themes that cross the entire collection, so is well chosen as an opener.

‘On Some Functions of Literature’ was a lecture given at the 2000 Mantua Literature Festival. In it, Eco positions literature as an intangible power, something that exists “for its own sake, for humanity’s own enjoyment”, a form of entertainment that also edifies and broadens knowledge. Literature, Eco tells us, is a conduit for language, keeping it alive, preventing it from ossifying. Although a living language goes its own way, changing with use, literature helps to standardise the changes. For Eco, this standardisation through the written word also fosters a sense of identity and community. In parallel, the standardisation of language through literature affords space where individual language can also live. Eco was writing at the time text language was developing, when character limits encouraged abbreviations that now sit within the lexicon. This was his immediate focus in thinking about individual language, but his analysis applies equally to dialect or vernacular.

So far, so sensible. He lost me slightly with his assertion that “the wretches who roam around aimlessly in gangs and kill people by throwing stones from a bridge or setting fire to a child” (was this something that happened a lot in Italy at the time Eco wrote the essay?) only behave this way “because they are excluded from the universe of literature and from those places where, through education and discussion, they might be reached by a glimmer from the world of values that stems from and sends us back again to books.” There’s a naivety about this take that made me want to pat Eco on the hand. I think books are great and literature does provide us with ways of seeing the world differently, from other people’s perspectives, but the reasons a person might join a gang or become a murderer are more complicated than not reading books. Gaining a sense of community involves more than a shared language and literature. I wondered who the audience at the festival might be, whether Eco presumed his audience shared his perspective on society. As he continues his thoughts around how literature and its interpretation helps us navigate real life, I also considered whether Eco assumed that his audience were bookish types for whom reading is a very easy place to occupy.

He regained my focused attention with his discussion of how characters in novels, although seemingly fixed by the text, can live on differently in the minds of different readers, depending on how each reader interprets elements of the text that are less explicitly fixed. For Eco, the fluctuations of character and plot are symbolic of the ability to hold two apparently contradictory beliefs or opinions simultaneously, something that I thought about while reading Vilnius Poker, earlier in my literary tour of Europe. He also considers how some literary characters become more ‘true’ in the collective imagination “because over the course of centuries we have made emotional investments in them”. This interested me because the handful of characters Eco focuses on are from novels considered to be classics, taught over and again to successive generations. But who chose these books as touchstones for western literature, and why not others? Why can’t we have new ones, particularly if we are concerned, as Eco says he is, about the effects of not having a direct relationship with literature? Why not have new classics with differently relatable characters to those written 150 years ago? (My main bugbear here was Eco’s selection of Emma Bovary as a character in whom there is collective emotional investment – the only emotion I can invest in her is disdain, as I find her a despicable, unsympathetic character. But that’s my hang up.)

Eco goes in a different direction. Rather than developing an emotional relationship with new classic characters, he proposes using the new technological opportunities offered by the internet to remix the existing classics with contemporary and pop culture. It’s as though he’s predicting fan fiction. He turns it back around, though, to say that the classics are ultimately unchangeable because they tell us our own story. This is why we love them.

For all that it was rambling and, as a lecture for what was ultimately a social occasion, didn’t do more than scratch the surface of Eco’s ideas, this first essay was a good easing in to the collection.

Eco’s reference points in his literary waxings remind me that, as much as I try to read widely, there will always be books and authors I haven’t read. Stendhal, Nerval and Dante are three examples. One of Eco’s theories is that our engagement with literature depends on our teachers. An outstanding teacher will open doors we might otherwise not pass through. I gave up English literature after O Level, but my A Level General Studies programme allowed for some literature to remain on my learning horizon. The teacher who took the literature classes introduced me to 20th century female writers like Atwood, Brookner and Spark, bolstering the recommendations I gleaned from my older sister’s bookshelf and the novels my mum brought home from the library. This wasn’t an education in the classics, but an introduction to how women write the world in a way that felt deeply personal to me. At university, my two closest friends were on different degree courses to me. One did a module on Hispanic literature, the other an American Studies module, and so my literary horizons expanded in other directions again. Eco’s gender, age and educational path mean that he had different literary encounters to me at school and beyond, but the ideas he shares about literature are applicable across a range of books. You don’t have to have read the classics he examines in order to understand the points he makes. I enjoyed being transported to a mediaeval world centred on colour and light, on the premise that Dante’s Paradiso is an unfairly neglected part of The Divine Comedy, without having read the Paradiso. Eco has been a teacher for me, too. Having come to his fiction through a film, his fiction then led me to Borges. Borges is a touchstone across many of the essays here, and I loved the lecture paper that entwines Borges with Cervantes through the libraries these writers conjured into existence. It gave me a yearning to read Labyrinths again.

As well as writers I’m unlikely to get to, Eco challenged me with an essay about the Communist Manifesto. I studied Economic and Social History. I work in the city that partly inspired the writing of Marx and Engels’s masterpiece. I’m a socialist. I have the Communist Manifesto on my Kindle. And yet, I still haven’t read it. Eco’s literary take on what I think of as political polemic rather than literature intrigued me. He provides contemporaneous pop culture context to how Marx and Engels put together their tract, and depicts it as a play. Maybe I’ll make room for it this year.

Similarly, the lecture paper about James Joyce and his search, through his writing, for a universal language and the perfect way to describe the imperfect universe we exist in, set against the context of the Book of Kells and the mediaeval quest for a return to pre-Babel commonality of language, made me think I should read more Joyce. So far my toe has dipped into Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, both of which I enjoyed, neither of which is fully Joycean. I’m a little afraid of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Perhaps having started chronologically, I should continue and give Ulysses a try. This year is the centenary of its publication, after all, and I read the essay on Joyce’s birthday.

Another writer I’ve only read two works by is Oscar Wilde. I enjoyed the fizzing wit and daftness of The Importance of Being Earnest, but I was bored by The Picture of Dorian Gray. I got the feeling that the novella was closer to Wilde’s personality than the play. I relished Eco’s examination in On Literature of aphorism and paradox as tools in Wilde’s armoury. His summation of the writer rang true for me, even though Eco feels more kindly towards Wilde than I.

… this is a fatuous author, a dandy who does not distinguish between aphorisms, reversible aphorisms, and paradoxes, so long as he manages to épater les bourgeois. What is more, he has the nerve to present as aphorisms witty statements that, aside from the wit, turn out to be wretched commonplaces …

I learnt from this essay that The Picture of Dorian Gray, if not outright plagiarism, was a reworking and combining of ideas from books by Balzac, Huysmans and Baudelaire and hardly original.

In this essay, Eco has more time for the writers Karl Kraus and Stanislaw J Lec, whose aphorisms offer more in the way of unconventional truth than Wilde’s witticisms. I highlighted a few, which spoke to me in the context of a mendacious, power hungry imperialist using lies and smears to deflect from the criminal activity he’s participated in while Prime Minister.

The scandal starts when the police put an end to it. (Kraus, Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths)

Punishment serves to frighten those who do not want to commit sins. (Kraus)

I dreamed of reality: what a relief to wake up! (Lec, Uncombed Thoughts)

If you knock down monuments, spare the pedestals: they can always be used again. (Lec)

He covered his head in ashes: those of his victims. (Lec)

He had a clean conscience: he had never used it. (Lec)

Eco goes on to say that it might be unfair to judge Wilde on the quality of his aphorisms, when he may never have intended them as aphorisms at all, but instead as examples of how ridiculous his characters are. Wilde is a satirist, in other words. His character Lord Wotton was a struggle for me when I read The Picture of Dorian Gray. Eco’s suggestion that he is a caricature of banality made flesh gave me pause. I’m not going to re-read Dorian Gray to see if Eco has changed my mind about the book, however. Life’s too short. The list Eco compiles of Wotton’s pronouncements, though, also made me think of a certain mendacious, vainglorious Prime Minister.

Elsewhere, there are focuses on symbolism and on style as elements of semiotics that were enlightening, even if I didn’t always have the vocabulary to hand to follow Eco’s theories without resort to the dictionary. As well as making me think about writers having different styles, and what style has meant at different times, in relation to how I read and whether I’m consciously aware of such a thing as style, Eco’s discussion includes Proust’s take on the matter, reminding me that I have his epic In Search of Lost Time on my Kindle. I have such good intentions when I download things.

I found delight in Eco’s writings, because they showed the workings of another reader in considering how literature has meaning for them, as well as revealing the application of a discipline that I’m not formally trained or well versed in – literary criticism. Remembering how my schoolmates studying English literature would grumble about how the analysis they were forced to do ruined certain books for them, I’ve always thought of literary criticism as a dour pursuit. Eco’s approach is lightness itself, punctuated by explosions of bad temper about sloppily romantic thinking, or jokes about the intersection of pop culture and our response to literature. In the essay on style, he also makes the point that discussing literary works is different to literary criticism. This might be blindingly obvious to some, but I found his separation of discussion, in the form of reviews and histories of literature aimed at recommending works to others, and criticism, in the form of textual analysis that leads to an understanding of how a text is made, why it works and what its potential is, helpful. It certainly made me aware that literary criticism is important if you are a writer, in order to truly understand your craft, whereas if you are a reader, it’s perhaps more of a supplemental pursuit. It made me think that, although I write, I’m not a writer. Writing is a leisure pursuit for me, instinctive rather than crafted, sometimes a form of therapy. It’s not a job. It also made me think about my friend who is studying for her Creative Writing MA, and how fascinating I’m finding it, seeing her transform from a reader into a writer.

In another essay, discussing intertextual irony in his own works, Eco elucidates on the difference between semantic reading, where plot is everything and discovering how the story ends the goal, and semiotic reading, in which a text is read and re-read in order to understand how it has been put together and why it works. In order to do the second, you have to be good at the first, Eco says, but you can do the first without ever progressing to the second. I enjoyed this essay, because in discussing books of his that I enjoyed when I read them, he opened up for me his process as a writer, and also discussed other semiotic critics’ opinions on the intertextuality of his work.

One of the essays at the end of the collection is a timely one. Although, the way Eco positions things, you could say it was ever thus. In ‘The Power of Falsehood’, he posits that “In the course of history it has been the case that credit has been given to beliefs and assertions that today’s encyclopaedia says are factually false”. He then asks, “If that is so, how can we not assert that the power of falsehood exists?” His examples mostly concern the sort of falsehoods that were once considered to be facts but have since been disproved by science: the belief that the earth is flat; that the sun orbits the earth; that species on the planet today did not evolve from earlier ones.

However, he also captures the kind of falsehoods we see promulgated today in the political sphere in this statement, “falsehood and its power, in its secular boldness, only concerns cases where a dogmatic thought has refused to accept the light of truth.” Conspiracy theorists hate facts, experts, science, preferring the obfuscation of pseudoscience and populist dogma. They harness the echo chambers of social media to propagate lies and play on people’s fears and suspicions. It baffles me, this choosing of spurious thinking over evidenced fact. It horrifies me that educated people use it to gain and retain political power.

Indeed, Eco goes on to plot the course of the biggest conspiracy theory embraced by the far right, that Jews run the world, tracing it from the invention of the Rosicrucians to the Freemasons and legends of the Templars and ultimately to the Wandering Jew and the Grand Rabbi, demonstrating that fiction has been taken as fact across time, and false non-fiction narratives developed that present fables as facts. Propagandists have taken these fictional narratives and made slight alterations so that the lies they peddle fit their specific purposes, so that something that in its origins made no reference to Jewish people ended up as an antisemitic, fascist ideology. Eco suggests that it is the construction of a convincing narrative that makes the lies seem plausible to those who don’t like evidenced, factual truths, either because they don’t understand the facts, or because those facts contradict something they feel to be true but can’t prove. “False stories,” he says, “are above all stories, and stories, like myths, are always persuasive.” We see it all around us in the beliefs of extremist groups, and in the rise of citizen groups who prefer to take the law into their own hands than abide by the rule of law established over centuries. In the UK, these groups typically return to Magna Carta, a document that protected the rights of the establishment and not the general population and was watered down by successive renewals in the English Parliament from the 13th to the 17th century, before being entirely repealed, bar three clauses, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Those in power currently seek to encourage the conspiracy theorists, as this helps to destabilise democracy and bolster their trajectory towards autocracy. Writing in 1994, Eco says that “it is no use saying that the [conspiracy] sites (and the books they publicise) have been created by some cunning old foxes counting on a public of idiots and/or devotees of New Age ideas. The social and cultural problem is not the cunning foxes, but the idiots, who are clearly still legion.”

I am excessively depressed by the state of affairs in the UK at present. It is ludicrous, bewildering, unbelievable that a Prime Minister proven to have lied, to have broken his own government’s regulations and the Ministerial Code, is still in office and there is apparently nothing anyone can do about it. Already the members of his political party are putting out the message that, if the police investigation into his latest performance of considering himself above the law concludes that he is a law breaker, it’s nothing that warrants him resigning. Who can sack him? Why are people so beguiled by him, when he demonstrates nothing but contempt for the citizens he is tasked with serving?

I didn’t expect to end up having such thoughts triggered by a book on literature. For me, this collection was interesting and stimulating, particularly the final essay that explores Eco’s approach to writing, but I recognise that it’s a book that will only appeal to those who are intrigued by Eco’s writing, interested in theories of literature, and of the belief that everything, even the entertainment of fiction, is political.

My head needs a rest, though. Fortunately, the novel I’ve chosen for my virtual trip to France is a satirical crime novel, which should be pure escapism.

11 thoughts on “On Literature

  1. I’ve got a copy of the ‘Travels in Hyperreality’ collection which I regret to say I’ve yet to read, along with rereads of ‘Rose’ and ‘Foucault’ and a couple of other fiction works. Every year I think I must get stuck into Eco, and every year … he slips past my consideration. This year, hopefully! Maybe the essays, even if some (as you suggest) may prove exasperating.

    We’ve only been to Milan once, when we had a brief few hours between train connections en route to Rome. I hadn’t realised the extent women architects had contributed to the townscape, so it was helpful to get that insight, thanks! Another city on my notional bucket list…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Foucault’s Pendulum is my favourite of his. One day I will re-read it. Up to Baudolino, I pretty much read all the novels as they came out in paperback, I was so taken with his world building. I lost momentum after that. I’m pleased that this collection was so enjoyable, like seeing an old friend after a long absence and talking about familiar things. It was interesting to read some of his thinking in these essays that prefigures the plot of The Prague Cemetery, and I feel more encouraged to pick that novel up soon.

      I would love to visit Italy. We’ve never made it a priority, though, when choosing holiday destinations. Milan has always appealed, and knowing there’s so much female designed architecture makes me want to visit even more.

      I hope you find time for Travels in Hyperreality, Chris. It’s a fun and clever look at different aspects of popular culture.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Why are people so beguiled by him, when he demonstrates nothing but contempt for the citizens he is tasked with serving?” Since some Americans are still beguiled by our ex, I’d have to agree.

    If you haven’t read them, George Orwell’s essays are very well written (some are dated, others, surprisingly not), and Down and out in Paris and London is an eye-opener (autobiographical in origin, I understand). I will add Eco’s non-fiction to the TBR on your recommendation – I’ve only read The Name of the Rose.

    Your post encourages reading many of these. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, your ex is something of a model for our beau, I think. It’s as though some have forgotten that politics is a serious business, and are backing those who are ‘entertaining’ and perceived as pulling a fast one on The Man, without understanding that society in this instance is The Man, and the entertainer is doing very well out of his grift at our expense.

      I think you would get a lot out of the essays in On Literature, Alicia. I hope that you do, anyway, if you read it.

      Orwell is a writer I know I should explore. I’ve read Animal Farm, which I liked, and started The Road to Wigan Pier about 15 years ago but couldn’t get past the feeling that he was a middle class tourist in a working class world, put the book down and didn’t pick up another book by him. Not even 1984, a book so embedded in my generation’s pop culture that I feel as though I have read it. I was a very condemnatory reader 15 years ago! Sue who blogs at Whispering Gums mentioned Orwell’s essay ‘Bookshop memories’ in her recent Six Degrees post, and I read that online recently. It amused me, and gave me a missed context for Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller, which now seems like an homage to Orwell’s essay, but it also reinforced my impression that Orwell was a frightful snob. I’m more forgiving of writers’ foibles these days, though, and have now added Down and Out in Paris and London to my library wishlist. Thank you for the recommendation!


      1. I think of Orwell as a man of his time, ignore some of the stuff he wrote, and enjoyed the rest. His essay Shooting an elephant strikes me as encompassing so many of the reasons for the ‘Empire on which the sun never set’ mentality.

        He was there, writing about then.

        I know what you mean about books we feel as if we must have read, but either didn’t, or have forgotten. SO many on the list. If I didn’t have writing to do, I’d track down so many of them!

        About our ‘entertainers’: I know grift was part of ours, I didn’t know it was also part of yours. Personally, or simply by maintaining the system his cronies depend on? Ours was personally – but on a massive attempted scale, including his offspring’s access to things and people they were vastly underqualified for.

        I’ll leave that topic – we could talk for hours!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, what a post! So much to think about. I’ve only read The Name of the Rose, but some of the themes here remind me of The 7th Function of Language (in which Eco was a character) and I recently read Franzen’s translation of Kraus. And of course, we are having our own conspiracy theory-laden populist uprising here in Canada so this all seems rather relevant.

    PS I love your writing, I think you are indeed a writer!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a kind thing to say, Laura, thank you!

      Is the Franzen translation published as The Kraus Project? There’s a copy at the library – would you recommend it? I hadn’t heard of Kraus until I read Eco’s essay and I’m interested in reading more.

      The 7th Function of Language sounds right up my street and has gone onto my library wishlist.

      I was reading yesterday about Canada’s populist uprising, particularly the Ottawa Freedom Convoy and the Canada Unity group. There are links to the right wing civil disobedience groups in the UK and those in Canada, with shared training in disruption tactics. It does feel as though we’re approaching a global crisis point. The tensions between Poland and Belarus, and Russia and Ukraine that have been building for more than a decade feel like part of it too. As though politicians on the right are all talking to each other about how they can destabilise the world and make money out of it. And now I sound like a conspiracy theorist!

      I’m going to go and look at some art today. I feel like I need to cleanse my brain!


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