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Confessions of a Young Novelist (The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature) Hardcover – 5 Apr 2011
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Eco addresses interesting questions: what is the boundary between fiction and nonfiction? How do novelists put together books? Why do we care about wholly fictional characters like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary?...As always, Eco is diverting to read. Recommended as a valuable introduction to how an important writer produces his fiction.--David Keymer"Library Journal" (02/01/2011)
Refined by a lifetime of reading, studying, and creating texts across languages, genres, and centuries, the wisdom of this "young" novelist abounds.--Brendan Driscoll"Booklist" (03/15/2011)
"Confessions of a Young Novelist" offers a brief glimpse into the mind and process of one of the most important writers of the last 30 years...Eco is a jocular and insightful writer (and speaker), and his ability to present the complex as if it were comprehensible makes "Confessions of a Young Novelist" a pleasant, albeit brief, read...It's rare to be invited into a great writer's intimate space, an opportunity that shouldn't be taken for granted.--Michael Patrick Brady"PopMatters" (04/15/2011)
Engaging, brilliant...[A] playful book.--Janet Todd"The Guardian" (03/12/2011)
Umberto Eco wrote his first novel, "The Name of the Rose", in 1980. It was the first of only five novels, and it was a runaway bestseller. "The Name of the Rose" was so popular that critics accused Eco, a semiotics professor, of programming a computer with a secret formula for a successful novel. Eco was, of course, offended and fired back a series of sarcastic modest proposals that pretty much flattened his critics. There may not be a formula, or a recipe, but there are ingredients for a successful novel, and now, decades later, Eco has decided to tell us what he believes they are.--Susan Salter Reynolds"Los Angeles Times" (06/02/2011)
[Eco] offers a charming glimpse into the demiurge's private workshop.--Adam Kirsch"Barnes and Noble Review" (05/31/2011)
For good book chat it's hard to beat Umberto Eco. The mega-selling Italian novelist, essayist, semiologist, scholar and critic has long been one of our best informed and entertaining commentators on literary matters, and in [this] new book he proves he's still near the top of his game.--Alex Good"Toronto Star" (07/30/2011)
Is there anything Umberto Eco cannot do? It has been said before and certainly will be said again--Umberto Eco is a true Renaissance man...Now, with the publication of "Confessions of a Young Novelist", he offers readers an effective primer on both his oeuvre and the contemporary field of semiotics...Akin to a "Paris Review" interview turned essay, "Confessions" is both polemic and intensely personal, infused with Eco's trademark fastidiousness and also bursting with bombasticity. No matter the subject, Eco appears both grandiose and also dedicated to the minutiae. For a public figure and academic, he is delightfully unguarded and frank...The fruits of Eco's semiotic detective work...are presented so clearly as to become "Confessions"'s most fascinating revelations...He posits in his very first paragraph that he is indeed a young novelist. We know this to be untrue, Eco is currently nearing eighty. But this, his first confession, that despite all his fame and honorifics he feels like an amateur, is what imbues all the pages beyond with such vibrancy and hunger--Eco is just another reader, trying to understand.--Hillary Kelly"The Millions" (05/04/2011)
This book is a complex little gem: light and entertaining reading with an underlying thrust that is serious and sparkling with insights. Eco promises delight and instruction and delivers both.--Wlad Godzich, University Of California, Santa Cruz
About the Author
Umberto Eco Professor Emeritus at the University of Bologna and is the author of many books, including Foucault's Pendulum and Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.
Top customer reviews
In the ensuing I shall comment briefly on the author, and the nature and merit of the book.
Umberto Eco is professor-now emeritus-of Semiotics at the University of Bologna, medievalist, and theorist but also novelist;his first novel 'The Name of the Rose' published around 1980 catapulted him into fame.
The book under review was the result of a series of lectures delivered by the author at Emory University in the context of 'The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature' relating to his experiences as a novelist.
The book is witty and entertaining but importantly insightful and conceptually rich. I wish to clarify that the witty remarks in the book are not an aim in themselves but serve a twofold objective:they lighten the narrative and render it lively and entertaining but also serve to bring the points raised by the author in the text into a sharp focus.
The author identifies two defining elements in his novels:the first is that his starting point is a seminal idea or image and the second is the construction of the narrative which determines the novel's style.
In the case of 'The Name of the Rose' the seminal idea was 'the poisoning of a monk.'
In narrative, it is the universe the author has built, and the events that occur in it, that dictate rhythm, style and even word choice. Narrative is governed by the Latin rule, 'Rem tene, verba sequentur'-'Stick with the subject and the words will follow'-whereas in poetry we should change this to, 'Stick with the words and the subject will follow.' Narrative is first and foremost, a cosmological affair. To narrate something, you start as a sort of demiurge who creates a world-a world that must be as precise as possible, so that you can move around it with total confidence.
The author acknowledges that his novels contain typical postmodern features:one is intertextual irony:direct quotations from other famous texts. The second is metanarrative:reflections that the text makes on its own nature, when the author speaks directly to the reader. Finally the author employs 'Double coding' which is the concurrent use of intertextual irony and an implicit metanarrative appeal.
The final of the four chapter book titled 'My Lists' is delightful. The author has a lasting fascination for enumeration and lists. In fact many of his books such as 'The Name of the Rose', 'Foucault's Pendulum', and Baudolino, contain lists. But his passion for lists explodes in his book appropriately titled 'The Infinity of Lists.'
This little gem of a book will both delight and instuct the reader.
The first two chapters are fab: they focus on Eco's own writing, and he discusses in entertaining detail how he came to tell stories (lots of practice telling bedtime tales to his children), how he began to write properly (a detective story for a dare) and how his novels came about (lots of walking the Parisian streets at night, as it turns out). I found all this material very gripping and delightful. I found particularly interesting the stories of the books in his own library, his research for his very detailed novels and his discussion of the use by authors of true-life circumstances in their books. If you love the Name of the Rose, there's a special treat in store in terms of sources which I won't spoil.
Eco is SUCH a clever man and yet so capable of explaining things simply that all this section is done with great charm.
However, the third and fourth chapters of this book are much more theoretical, concerning the nature of fictional characters and why we care for them ( he starts by saying he doesn't care about the answer to this question at all, then devotes about 80 pages to answering it; and a final digression on the subject of literary lists which had huge chunks (really excerpts) from his own books, which I didn't enjoy.
Such a shame (for my money anyway) that he didn't stick to the interesting philosophical questions raised in the first half - the relationship, for example, between the rights of a reader to invest in interpreting a text, and the rights of the author to say what a text is intended to mean, is discussed with just delightful skill and lightness of touch. And there's lots about the construction of fictional worlds that is extremely interesting and rather intriguing to consider in relationship to Eco's non-realist tendencies. Very frustrating. I enjoyed the first half almost as much as it's possible to like a book!
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
This book consists of 4 key chapters in which Professor Eco offers the following insights to readers on his unique knowledge and experience in novel writing and interpretation:-
1. Novel writing requires more perspiration than inspiration (P.9). It took 2 years for Professor Eco to write "The Name of the Rose" because he had undertaken intensive research on medieval aesthetics and piled up huge medieval files for decades. However, it was relatively time consuming for him to write "Foucault's Pendulum" (8 years) and "Baudolino" (6 years) (P.11) because he had to collect information and visited different sites before starting the first chapter. Coming up with a title fully formed with puckish inspiration does not suffice to start writing.
2. Novelists should have seminal ideas and images and impose some constraints (P.25) to construct the narrative world which determines the novel's style (P.23). Novel is different with poetry because it is the narrative world the novelist has built that dictates rhythm, style, and word choice ("Remtene, verba sequentur") (P.14) whereas in poetry words can determine the subject. Taking the writing of "Foucault's Pendulum" as an example, the design of passageway between two publishing houses and the precise layout of the publishing house offices can affect how the story went.
3. Novel is creative writing and its key purpose is to elicit conjectures and interpretations so that novelists should never provide interpretations of their own work or eliminate the ambiguity to readers. According to Professor Eco, interpretations can include the intention of the novelist, the intention of the reader, and the intention of the text (P.35). Empirical readers may not understand unfathomable private life of empirical authors (P.68) and their every creative process that have grown out of unconscious mechanisms (P.64).
4. A lot of readers have emotional illusions and are used not to able to distinguish between fiction and reality (P.71) and take fictional characters as "physical existing objects" (PhEO). Every object can endow with certain properties but according to Professor Eco, existence is not an indispensable property (P.100) because from semiotic perspective, it concerns more the plane of expression (signified) instead of plane of content (signifier). In novel, assertions of fictional characters are due to "internal empirical legitimacy" (fictional truth) instead of "external empirical legitimacy" (encyclopedia truth).
5. It takes time for novelists to draw up a complete list of their lists for enumeration rhetoric purpose. What distinguishes a practical (i.e. guest list for a party and library catalogue) from a poetic list is that the former is necessarily (P.157) finite and the latter is open, "topo of ineffability" (P.141) or "etcetera" (P.122).
This book is highly recommended to readers who are interested in having full understanding of novel writing and interpretation. Moreover, students and scholars from modern literature are immensely benefited from this book which contains Eco's views on semiotics.
The relatively brief first three chapters of the book provide good insights into Prof. Eco's methods of conceiving and building up a story line and of selecting key characters. His specialty at the University of Bologna were semiotics [study of signs and symbols] and medieval history; thus his novels usually play out in medieval times and they use many symbols and heavy symbolism. Those three chapters expound the importance of the novelist being very familiar with the venues of the story down to the minute details and the point is made by him how critical it is for the writer to thoroughly understand the characters and their thinking. Of course, this is something what normally discussed in any course on writing. Prof. Eco's contribution here to the general knowledge is that he cites many examples from his own three earlier novels, giving a very good appreciation of his technique.
The fourth chapter of the book, My Lists, however is a tedious recitation of several lists from Prof. Eco and from other, equally good writers: Homer, Rabelais, Shekespeare, James Joyce, etc [!]. Prof. Eco quotes a multitude of long lists, pages after pages, which contain random listings from many sources, enumerating objects, nouns, names, fragments, mostly quite out of context. After a few pages of this one feels like reading the telephone book. I wonder how the audience of the lecture managed to stay awake, since this chapter is as long, as the other three chapters together. Perhaps this lecture was originally no longer than any one of the other three, but for the printed version the book had to be at least 200 pages long, so this last chapter had to be expanded. Well, authors are usually paid by the word-count.
This book I bought for my budding novelist granddaughter in New York. She will learn a lot from the first three chapters, I am sure. The last 100 pages however may never be read.
I have not read it yet, so am not able to give any input except that I know several people that have read this book and recommended it.
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