The culture that is German, with reference to Umberto Eco

by on February 20, 2016 at 2:20 pm in Books, History | Permalink

Or should that be “was Germany”?

Reviewing Mr. Eco’s fourth novel, “Baudolino” (2000), in The New York Times, Richard Bernstein wrote that it “will make you wonder how a storyteller as crafty as Mr. Eco ended up producing a novel so formulaic and cluttered as this one.”

Set amid the religious disputes and wars of the 12th century, “Baudolino” became the best-selling hardcover novel of all time in Germany and a commercial success elsewhere in the world.

That is from his NYT Jonathan Kandell obituaryThe Name of the Rose remains my favorite, with Foucault’s Pendulum being the other one I enjoyed very much.

1 Gary February 20, 2016 at 3:05 pm

This comments section has had a long, slow decline over the past ten years. I remember when the comments were half the reason to read this blog. Now I regret clicking on the comments here as much as anywhere else.

2 Donald Pretari February 20, 2016 at 6:14 pm

Could you be more specific?

3 Ray Lopez February 20, 2016 at 10:13 pm

@Gary – you’re being nostalgic. I read the posts from a decade ago and it was just fewer people than now, so you’ll not get as many trolls (or as many brilliant people). I was not posting here then; your loss.

4 Tom February 21, 2016 at 5:27 am

My compliments for making this the first comment.

5 Bully Bob February 20, 2016 at 3:24 pm

Hey Mr. Cowen,

Would love to hear some more of your insight on Bitcoin. The price is increasing at an insane rate right now!

6 Werwohlf February 20, 2016 at 3:27 pm

>“Baudolino” became the best-selling hardcover novel of all time in Germany

I would like to see the source of this information. As far as I can see it “Baudolino” didn’t even come close to it. According to Wikipedia it was only “almost” as successful as “The Name of the Rose” (which most probably isn’t the best-selling hardcover novel of all time in Germany neither).

7 Brian Donohue February 20, 2016 at 3:29 pm

I just read The Name of The Rose, finally. Extraordinary.

Focault’s Pendulum made me feel dumb at times. I think he did it on purpose.

8 yenwoda February 20, 2016 at 7:48 pm

The Name of the Rose is indeed remarkable.

9 prior_test1 February 21, 2016 at 1:31 am

Though it is Focault’s Pendulum (assuming my memory is correct) that has the brilliantly cutting observation of the culture that is German, with a travelling German woman seeking enlightenment in a South American rain forest, but unable to find it because she simply could not let herself be swept along in the ceremony, seemingly frustrated by not having an instruction manual to follow to achieve her goal.

10 tokarev February 20, 2016 at 4:16 pm

I loved Foucault’s Pendulum but I started feeling mentally unstable by the time I finished it. I think it was triggering my latent paranoid/schizoid tendencies.

11 drtomcor February 20, 2016 at 4:21 pm

A great writer huh?

Well he baffled me more than once, and as a “great” academician who writes, he got himself parodied. I liked this:

12 Barkley Rosser February 20, 2016 at 4:48 pm

It did not do as well as some of his others, but I think highly of his 2011 The Prague Cemetary.
Bully Bob, Ethereum doing better than bitcoin, and looks to have longer legs over time.

13 Donald Pretari February 20, 2016 at 6:55 pm

I read The Name of the Rose, and didn’t enjoy it. I’ve avoided his fiction since then, but there might be time enough to try it again someday. I thought I might try it in Italian, but I’m not up to it. However, I am a great fan of his non-fiction, and own over a dozen books.

Here’s a link from Sean Carroll on Facebook about the pleasures of owning books by Eco…

Here he is walking through his house…

Finally, most of my e-books have been purchased from Kindle. However, I drifted over to Google Play one day just to check it out. I searched for a few books that I wanted to purchase that I couldn’t find on Kindle, and the first one I came to was A Theory of Semiotics. The discovery that Google Play seems to have more academic press books than Amazon was not a discovery my credit card has been able to resist. I’m not sure finding that Eco title on Google Play was all that beneficial for me.

14 yo February 20, 2016 at 7:43 pm

The Bertelsmann Club heavily pushed his novels for years (printed at the in-house publishing house) and sold them massively on the cheap (or as free giveaways for new members signing up on the streets). However, the Club closed its doors last year, after years of losses. I always thought of it as a very odd department of German pop culture. The books it promoted were very low brow on average, yet millions of Germans, certainly more than those who identify in surveys as reading novels regularly, were members. Its unsung story of millions of people being (s)talked into a literature subscription they’ll pay for decades but never actually use, by young attractive people on the street, is quite fascinating.

15 Ray Lopez February 20, 2016 at 10:10 pm

I never read him, no time, but was it Eco or Thomas Mann who wrote about a medieval craft that took decades to perfect, served no immediate purpose, and yet was extremely popular? Reminds me of chess (maybe that’s what Mann had in mind).

16 Clark February 20, 2016 at 10:29 pm

Foucault’s Pendulum and Name of the Rose are among my favorite books of all time. The former is probably in my top 10 of all time. However Baudolino was very poorly done, even knowing the point is an untrustworthy narrator. Nothing sense has been good at all IMO.

That said Eco’s real strength weren’t his novels but his essays and books on semiotics. He introduced me to C. S. Peirce’s theory of signs and completely transformed my way of thinking about philosophy. In hindsight his semiotic books aren’t quite as good as I remembered, but he was still a towering figure. My favorite non-fiction book of his is still The Search for the Perfect Language. It covers in a more historical and philosophical form some of the themes in Foucault’s Pendulum.

17 Ray Lopez February 21, 2016 at 12:10 am

Whew! Foucault’s Pendulum, just speed read it here:'s_Pendulum

It’s a lot of nothing going on, and the ‘unreliable narrator’ is a turn off (kind of like the end of a story saying “…and all of the above was just a dream”).

If you liked that book, a book you might like is John Fowles “The Magus”, or, if you don’t like books, try the M. Douglas movie loosely based on this book, “The Game”.

18 prior_test1 February 21, 2016 at 1:35 am

No mention of Eco’s non-fiction writing concerning an area which always touched his fiction? Must be too early for all the commenters who speak multiple languages.

Mouse or Rat?: Translation as Negotiation – ‘Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.’

19 Michael Tinkler February 21, 2016 at 9:25 am

I barely made it through Baudolino, and I’m a medievalist (art historian). It wasn’t one of those books that annoy me with errors (after all, Eco was a fine medievalist) or even with anachronistic views (modern ideas in medieval mouths – Eco really understood the thinking of the period). I just didn’t think it was much of a story. Likewise, I really didn’t like The Prague Cemetery – but Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before I really liked. The first two I’ve read at least 3 times each (and even taught the Name of the Rose once).

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