09 October 2008

How Eco Writes

Umberto Eco's first lecture in the Ellmann series was entitled: "How I Write."

Stately, plump Umberto Eco strode onto the stage in a slightly frumpy navy suit, chewing (like a former smoker) on a fountain pen top. Behind thick glasses and a small mustache, he read his lecture from a typescript, often holding a single sheet of paper up in the air as he stared at it through the bottom lens of his bifocals. Often, he would look up from his prepared remarks and detour for a delightful, wry, personal aside. For example, he had to shave his trademark beard for some research he had been doing in Fiji, he said. It turns out he had trouble keeping suction on his scuba mask. (Of course, if he'd asked me I would have recommended petroleum jelly to fix such annoying leaks.).

Eco warned the audience that his essays and lectures (as did his dissertation) often suffer from a "narrative fallacy." That is to say, they do not proceed from a thesis statement which is supported by a series of proofs and is then contrasted with opposing points of view. Rather, they accumulate meaning, exploring, building, rising to a climax, and concluding. He takes as his model Plato's Parmenides, which, he claimed, was comprised of nine successive hypotheses each of which contradicts the preceeding one and, at the end, you never find out "who did it."

Eco's novels always start with an image, he says. He wanted, he said, to pursue the image of the slow poisoning of a monk reading some sort of illuminated text or to kill off Cardinal Richelieu. His readers will recognize instantly the texts these particular images spawned. The goal of the writer, then, is summarized in the rhetorical term "ekphrasis" where the clarity of the image is replicated in the mind of the writer by the sharpness and accuracy of the descriptive language.

Eco's approach to writing fiction struck me as Nabokovian. To achieve this ekphrasis, he draws maps, lays out architectural plans, sketches faces, constructs models, paints flowers, etc. He calculates time down to the last second and space down to the last millimeter. For research, he visits sites while dictating his thoughts into a tape recorder. He also keeps notebooks of his impressions. For The Name of the Rose, for instance, he visited a number of Romanesque and Gothic monasteries. He timed his walks through these abbeys and then timed the length of his dialogues that took place as his characters walked these same routes. Verisimilitude.

The key point in this approach is that, in the novel, events (or reality) dictate the words in the narrative. It is quite the opposite in poetry, where the words determine the meaning and the reality. The novelist is like the demiurge; he creates and moves about in the world with utmost confidence. Once the writer has clearly detailed the world, the language of the point of view flows from it.

Eco stressed the importance of various sorts of constraints that operate on the writer in his quest to delineate the text's universe and its language. He also pointed to two "post-modern" techniques he relied on in his writing: intertextual irony (and its subspecies "double coding") and metanarrative in which the author directly addresses the reader.

Eco told the audience it only took him two years to write his first novel, The Name of the Rose. It took him between six and eight years for each of his subsequent novels. The reason? He is a medievalist by profession and before Name he had done practically all the research he needed. With the others, much more research was required.

The audience this evening was filled with a lot of scholarly-looking types. The Schwartz center auditorium was filed to the rafters. I wondered, as a writer of fiction myself, how this lecture went over with them.

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