Confessions of a Young Novelist and This Is Not the End of the Book

By Umberto Eco
By Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière

For good book chat it’s hard to beat Umberto Eco. The mega-selling novelist, essayist, scholar and critic has long been one of our best informed and entertaining commenters on literary matters, and in these two new books he proves he’s still near the top of his game.

In both cases what we have are, quite literally, chats. Confessions of a Young Novelist (Eco, who is seventy-nine, considers himself a “young novelist” because he only published his first, most famous novel, The Name of the Rose, in 1980) is based on a series of lectures given at Emory University. This Is Not the End of the Book takes the form of a “conversation” (translated form the French) between Eco and the screenwriter/playwright Jean-Claude Carrière, “curated” by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac.

The lectures are, obviously, a more formal sort of chat, and some of the discussion, especially when dealing with issues in semiotics, gets a little technical (there are even diagrams). But since great critics all have great imaginations Eco shows he can be whimsical too, as when he starts to riff on the mysterious connections between inner and outer, real and fictional worlds. This is a subject that, as author and critic, he is particularly well placed to comment on, even if wearing two hats sometimes leads him into self-indulgently quoting, at length, from his own work a bit too often.

Self-indulgence is an occupational hazard when it comes to monologues. This Is Not the End of the Book opens things up a bit by giving Eco somebody to chat with. Not a sparring partner – Jean-Claude Carrière is very much a kindred spirit – but rather someone to exchange anecdotes and opinions with in bookish camaraderie.

In an attempt to be topical the dustjacket announces their conversation as being a discussion of the fate of the book in our “digital future.” In fact, talk of e-books and the Internet is just an ice breaker. Both Carrière and Eco think books will always be with us: they are a perfect invention and “once perfection has been achieved, it cannot be improved.” Case closed, and you have the feeling they think the whole argument is getting stale now anyway.

Instead, what these two bibliophiles really want to talk about is surrealism, Italian cinema, the history of early Christianity, whether France actually produced a baroque architecture, and most of all the books they love and that they love to collect. This results in quite a bit of intellectual one-upmanship and high-brow name-dropping, but also a nice mix of bon mots and wry observations: religion is the cocaine and not the opium of the masses; “a large part of what we know of the past, which has usually come to us in books, is the work of halfwits, fools or people with a grudge”; “every great atheist had a religious education”; “How many Hemingways were born in Paraguay?”; “when the state is too powerful, poetry stagnates”; the present is “gradually shrinking, gradually being stolen away” by retro creep; “culture is sometimes the last resort of the technologically frustrated”; a library is “a bit like a wine cellar”: not made up of books that we’ve read or even that we will eventually read, but books that we can or may read, even if we never do (Eco astonishingly confesses to having only read about one-third of the Bible).

It’s a delightful collection of table talk, but carries with it a bittersweet irony. This Is Not the End of the Book is, in fact, a vision of the end of the book: a pair of erudite, elderly gentlemen, learned in dead languages and with a sentimental attachment to the printed word, talking about their collections of incunabula and other rarities. Describing Jean-Philippe de Tonnac as the “curator” of the conversation only deepens the effect of making the whole exercise sound like a museum piece, this “tribute to the book” a memorial. Things even wind up on a melancholy note, with the final topic of discussion being “What will happen to your book collections when you die?”

Still, there’s no reason to feel sad just because we’re witnessing the end. There could be many worse fates for the book than its gentle passing among such good company.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 7, 2011.

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