A tumble of memories.
The meeting thirty years ago with our publisher, Jean-Claude Fasquelle: I find Eco zany, brilliant, mischievous, and independent-minded, a Zelig of absolute knowledge, always ready with a witty remark, irrepressible.
Another meeting some time before on the Rue de Bizerte, this one shorter, with Gilles Deleuze, who cannot get over the bottomless well of knowledge, the nearly infinite reserve of intelligence that is Umberto: He questions him as one would an Olympic champion, rhapsodizes about his erudition as one might about a circus strong man or bearded lady. What about Leibniz? he asks in a hoarse and teasing voice. And the smell of gasoline that reminded Kafka, in Prague, of his happy days in Paris? And the comparative influences of Ibsen, Svevo, and Irishman James Clarence Mangan in shaping Joyce’s poetics? And the telephone number of Stanislas Breton? Does Eco really know by heart the phone numbers of every Parisian specialist on Plotin, Plato, and Greek philosophy in general?
Or that colloquium in Milan in the late 1970s: Sciascia, Moravia, and maybe Barthes are there. Umberto has not yet published The Name of the Rose and so is not yet the great popular novelist (inspired by Arsène Lupin, Sherlock Holmes, and the legend of d’Artagnan) that he will soon become, but his elders–why I know not–are already snubbing him a bit. Is it his volubility, his relaxed tone and appearance, his way of raising his glass at dinner to « the art of the false » while reciting passages from Nerval’s « Sylvie, » subtly and systematically transformed in a way that mystifies us?
I see him with my friend Valerio Riva, a marvelous and enigmatic character whom he seems to have known well from Gruppo 63 and his avant-garde youth: Valerio is a writer without a body of work who is running the literary pages of L’Espresso, but Umberto spends the lunch mischievously trying to make him admit that he is a Russian agent, a Castro-ite conspirator, or the holder of the last secrets of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the red billionaire who killed himself while trying to blow up a power-line pylon near Milan.
Going a little farther back, to the mid-1970s and a university lecture hall in Rome, I see him facing a full house, livid at those known then as the Autonomists: He is teaching in Bologna at the time but, like me, is in Rome at the invitation of the far-left daily Lotta Continua to try to explain to a crowd of restless, rootless young people that « armed struggle » is a monstrosity, a rehash of fascism, madness. Outside, on a wall, a student has painted « Eco, Lévy, we’re going to put a bullet in your mouth. »
Later, on the Rue des Saints-Pères in Paris, a conversation with Lucien Bodard, whom he recommended to Jean-Jacques Annaud for the movie version of The Name of the Rose: They resemble two equally entangled albatrosses, one of which appears to be sulking while the other, Umberto, is stunning us with his thoughts on the ancient Greeks’ methods of manufacturing the equivalent of cyanide from peach pits.
A meeting at the Elysée Palace with François Mitterrand, who has just made Umberto and Elie Wiesel responsible for a new universal academy of cultures: He explains that day that he lost his faith while reading Saint Thomas Aquinas, that Napoleon was poisoned by the wallpaper in his room at Longwood, that nothing resembles a reclusive writer more than one who is in the limelight too often, that he no longer reads anything but dictionaries, and that, even if he doesn’t believe in « academies » or in the « world » or, for that matter, in « culture, » he is willing to go along with the project.
Later, in Paris again, at a writers’ conference that I organized with Arte at Trocadéro, where Umberto is giving the closing speech: Europe? Yes, of course, Europe! As in spaghetti westerns, Sophocles, a taste for translation, writing in the fog, the art of love, and love of the endless sentence.
New York. He doesn’t have much longer to live, and we’re waiting in the green room of the Charlie Rose show for Charlie to interview us one after the other: I find him thicker, a bit sad, but as soon as the camera finds him he recovers his verve and explains, with mock contrition, that the Italy of Berlusconi has become, for the second time, the world’s political laboratory. Soon enough we will have Donald Trump …
And then in his library near Milan, where the visit to the great writer took on the form of a visit to a great library: labyrinth, rhizome, and inspired chaos, in the midst of which Umberto stood, his eyes closed, real life, fittingly, living in the books.
I write these recollections as they come to me, in no particular order, a modest contribution to the monument that his grateful country, Europe, has already begun to build to his memory.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy