Name of novelist
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 made into a movie starring Sean Connery in 1986.
FOR THE RECORD: In the Feb. 20 California section, the obituary of author Umberto Eco gave the Italian title of “The Name of the Rose, ” his first blockbuster novel, as “Nome della Rossa.” It is “Il Nome della Rosa.”
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 bestselling novels.
His early work was pure, academic-style literary theory, but it held glimmers or what was to come. He took on took on both 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 that 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 carbon paper 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 worldwide success; it was eventually 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 Times critic enthused that 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 into English a year later. The fervor that ensued was dubbed “Ecomania” in his homeland.
“Foucault’s Pendulum” is also a murder mystery that intersects with semiotics. It is more than 600 pages long, and a Times critic marveled that it ranged in subject matter “over what at times seems like the whole of Western culture, from Jewish cabala, the medieval Knights Templar, Shakespeare and Celtic legend to Karl Marx, Afro-Brazilian voodoo, computer theory and Mickey Mouse.”