Eco On Literature

Umberto Eco’s latest collection of essays, On Literature, reviewed in the Scotsman, appears to function as a kind of literary biography of the author. In the book, Eco reflects on the European and South American authors whose work helped shape his fiction, people like Dante, Cervantes, Wilde, Proust, Borges, and others.

What emerges from these encounters with other writers is a clear sense that literature matters to Eco because it brings with it the power to transform the reader, and the society of which he or she is a part. “Bad literature brings no redemption,” one of his characters complained in Foucault’s Pendulum; and this new book speaks loudly and persuasively of the redemptive properties of good writing. Literature, Eco argues, can console and seduce us with its promise of a “world of values”. Tolstoy is worth reading because he sees more clearly than other 19th-century novelists that God is unknowable and mysterious. James Joyce warns us, through the alphabet soup of Finnegans Wake, that the godless modern world is so chaotic it is almost impossible to extract consistent meanings from it. A work of literature, in Eco’s terms, is partly a reflection of the historical moment which produced it; but a novel is also “a machine for generating interpretations”. Ambiguity and difficulty (which he calls “openness”) are the chief qualities that he values.