On interviewing Umberto Eco, 'the most erudite person on earth,' by Glen David Gold

When Umberto Eco was touring for the English edition of "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana" the Los Angeles Public Library asked me to interview him on stage for its ALOUD reading series in 2005. I was maybe the 47th person they asked. The first 46 rightly thought it would be overwhelming to prepare for interviewing the most erudite person on earth.

"Queen Loana" was, as were all of his books, a daunting melange of enthusiasms and obscure references that required the reader's full attention. What writer wants to admit it when things go over his head? Me, apparently. I started reading.

Eco was about the abundance of ideas. He had by then published more than 30 books on philosophy, morality, linguistics, politics and aesthetics — and he was an authority on James Bond. He coined a popular metaphor comparing the religious orientations of Apple and Windows operating systems, played the recorder, and I'm fairly sure he scored the winning goal in the 1982 World Cup semi-finals, beating Argentina 2-1. In other words, he would have every right to walk onto that stage, fold his arms and crush his audience with a quip that had meanings in English, Latin and possibly Coptic. 

But no. He would be a very different guest on stage, as his writing suggested.  “How to Travel with a Salmon,” his essay about storing said fish in a hotel minibar fridge, was a delight to read. By removing the cold drinks to fit the salmon inside, he triggers automatic charges on his credit card that the hotel seems unable to reverse, and his musings on this weren't peeved but utterly humane. He seemed to feel that elevating his audience by sharing what he knew and what he suspected and what he didn't know might be the best kind of civil discourse.

There's a species of novel that we call around my house “Big Boy Books,” written by the young geniuses whom publishing is required to discover every five seasons or so. The novels might be too long and their authors might never have met a woman, but they garner attention and reviews because they are so smart. The dispatches launched over the walls of their mighty intellect, mean you, reader, are excluded. I call this the “Literature of Insecurity.”

Eco, from the moment I saw him, was so at ease being the smartest man in the room that he forgave us all for having doubted him. He was a one-man force for the Literature of Security. And dude was hella sexy. Unlike those anxious young geniuses, Eco happily explored the erotic ménage a trois among writer, reader and the bed of palimpsest they lie upon.

Before the show, backstage, he was swamped by dozens of Italians who lived in the area, all of them with stories to tell, kinship to recall. I believe a dispatch from the Embassy was there. Everyone wanted photographs, and inscriptions that were complicated. I watched him pose in the center of groups of people who were beaming to be anywhere near him. A 73-year old guy in the middle of a multi-continent book tour, speaking to people in multiple languages, about to talk on stage for an hour, and here he was, unfazed, charmingly flirtatious, in a way so self-contained it made you glad to be a man, woman, plant, bird, dog, whatever in his presence. 

When it was quiet, I asked him how he dealt with book tours like this.

"I — SURRENDER," he said, and he laughed.

We had fun on stage. It had just come out that Tom Stoppard had been asked to do rewrites on "Return of the Sith," and I asked him if Adam Sandler had ever told a studio, "Damnit, get me Eco!" Turns out — and here's a scoop — Stanley Kubrick had optioned "Foucault's Pendulum" and they'd worked on that for a while.

He shared stories of his travels, he offered quick explanations of his philosophies and he tendered opinions on world events. In doing so, he performed a trick I've (badly) tried to use by including a kind of nugget, an anecdote or an aphorism, in every answer. It turns out that giving the audience something they can remember and laugh about tends to make them feel well taken care of.

It's a great lesson: To write is to educate and to entertain. Never to exclude. You wouldn't think that would even be an issue, but it takes the most secure man in the room, in any room, to make it seem so obvious.

I can't claim any fictive kinship here — I only met him for a couple hours. But I think often of that sliver of time being a relaunch of myself as a thinking person. Ironically, the novel I was writing at the time, "Sunnyside," could have gone the Big Boy route, but after meeting Eco, I realized that treating readers as co-conspirators was a much more bountiful strategy than trying to prove I had a giant brain.

Eco was funny and smart and he made all of us feel funnier and smarter just by reading him. That's a trait, a sharing of the wealth, we authors should aspire to. An abundance of ideas, after all, means there's enough of them for everyone.

Glen David Gold is the author of the novels "Carter Beats the Devil" and "Sunnyside." A podcast of his conversation with Umberto Eco is available from ALOUD.

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