Umberto Eco, an Italian novelist and intellectual of worldwide renown who imbued his work with humor and scholarship and whose novel “The Name of the Rose” became a global phenomenon, has died, his American publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt confirmed late Friday afternoon. He was 84.
Eco was a portly, bearded university professor whose midlife turn toward novel writing made him a sudden sensation in the early 1980s. “Nome della Rossa” — “The Name of the Rose” — was published in English in 1983 and was made into a movie starring Sean Connery in 1986.
A public intellectual whose gifts of recall were prodigious, he was reported to own more than 50,000 books and wove semiotics, history and religion into his best-selling novels.
His early work was pure, academic-style literary theory but held glimmers of what was to come. He took on high and low culture — television and James Joyce — and earned a reputation as a major critic in Italy, publishing such fare as “A Theory of Semiotics” in 1976.
He began writing his first novel, “The Name of the Rose,” at age 48. It hadn’t occurred to him to try until a friend asked him to write a detective story for a collection by amateurs. He replied he couldn’t possibly, but if he did it would have to be 500 pages and about medieval monks — and his mind started spinning. He used a typewriter and carbons and scissors and glue, and two years later it was done.
When it was published in Italy in 1980, “The Name of the Rose” became a surprise blockbuster. The murder-mystery featuring a Franciscan friar, his Benedictine novice and the priceless library they lose to tragedy, might have been expected to catch on with Italian readers. But no one could have predicted its waves of worldwide success; it eventually was published in more than 20 languages, selling more than 10 million copies.
The book’s setting is an ancient monastery in northern Italy in 1327, a period of political crisis. The body of a monk is found at the bottom of a cliff, and the book’s protagonists, Brother William of Baskerville, and his assistant Adso, seek to solve the murder. One critic called the pair “a prior-day Sherlock Holmes and Watson.”
But Eco’s scholarship set this mystery apart. The story revolves on a series of intellectual riddles and a forbidden book that may hold the key to the murder. The novel has been called a parable of modern life that explores broader tensions between secular power and faith — especially in Italy.
When the book’s English translation was released, a Los Angeles Times critic enthused it “is a kind of novel that changes our mind, replaces our reality with its own. We live in a new reality after we’ve read it.”
Eco’s readers’ long wait for a second novel was rewarded in 1988 when “Foucault’s Pendulum” was published in Italian and translated to English a year later. The fervor that ensued was dubbed “Ecomania” in his homeland.
“Foucault’s Pendulum” also is a murder mystery that intersects with semiotics. More than 600 pages long, a Times critic marveled that ranged in subject matter “over what at times seems like the whole of Western culture, from Jewish cabala, the medieval Knights Templars, Shakespeare and Celtic legend to Karl Marx, Afro-Brazilian voodoo, computer theory and Mickey Mouse.”
Discussing the legacy of “The Name of the Rose,” Eco told the Guardian in 2011, “I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and rereading it. I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,’ and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”
“Every author has two dreams,” Eco told a Times writer in 1989. “One is to sell a lot of copies. The other is to have written such an important book that it is difficult to read. But to have both— ”
Eco seemed to revel in his transformation from a bookish Joyce scholar to star novelist though not in every aspect. Though he said he preferred not to discuss why, he was displeased by the movie version of “The Name of the Rose” and said he was reluctant to sell the rights to subsequent novels to moviemakers.
Eco was born in Alessandra, Italy, Jan. 5, 1932, to Giulio and Giovanna “Biso” Eco. He was known among scholars as a semiotician — one who studies communication through signs — philosopher and essayist.
His father was an accountant; he credited his mother, who left school in fifth grade, with teaching him to love language. He came to know books via his grandfather, according to a story he told the Paris Review in 2008. In retirement, his grandfather took up bookbinding, and when he died the fruits of his unfinished projects wound up in Eco’s family’s basement. There, Eco, as a boy, came to know books — many old and beautiful — as deconstructed objects.
For a period during World War II, he and his mother moved to Monferrato in the countryside for safety. “It was a strange time. Mussolini was very charismatic, and like every Italian schoolchild at that time, I was enrolled in the Fascist youth movement,” he told the Paris Review. “When it all ended in 1943, with the first collapse of Fascism, I discovered in the democratic newspapers the existence of different political parties and views.”
In high school, he created his own comic books (too elaborate to finish) and poetry (too terrible to publish). “My poetry had the same functional origin and the same formal configuration as teenage acne,” he later wrote.
Shortly after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Turin in 1954, he went to work for Italian state television; it was the earliest days of the medium. “On the one hand, I was interested in the most advanced functions of language in experimental literature and art. On the other hand, I relished television, comic books and detective stories. Naturally I asked myself, is it possible that my interests are really so distinct?” He told the Paris Review. “I turned to semiotics because I wanted to unify the different levels of culture. I came to understand that anything produced by the mass media could also be an object of cultural analysis.”
During the 1960s he taught at the University of Torino, the University of Milan and New York University. In subsequent decades his home institution remained the University of Bologna, but he traveled, teaching at Yale, Columbia, the University of California, San Diego, Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard. Even after fame and fortune, he continued to produce scholarly treatises. Works titled “On Beauty” (2004) and “On Ugliness” (2007) still poured out of him, between book tours and interviews.
In addition to “The Name of the Rose” and “Foucault’s Pendulum,” his novels include “Prague Cemetery,” “Baudolino” and “Numero Zero,” a murder-mystery and satire of contemporary Italian political life published in 2015.
“I don’t believe one writes for oneself,” he told the Paris Review. “I think that writing is an act of love — you write in order to give something to someone else.”
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