Umberto Eco, "an Italian scholar in the arcane field of semiotics who became the author of bestselling novels," as the New York Timesput it, died February 19. He was 84. Eco "sought to interpret cultures through their signs and symbols... and published more than 20 nonfiction books on these subjects while teaching at the University of Bologna, Europe's oldest university. But rather than segregate his academic life from his popular fiction, Mr. Eco infused his seven novels with many of his scholarly preoccupations."
The most successful of these was The Name of the Rose, which sold more than 10 million copies in about 30 languages. His other books include Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, The Prague Cemetery, History of Beauty, Baudolino,Serendipities: Language & Lunacy, The Book of Legendary Lands and, most recently, Numero Zero. Eco was honored with Italy's highest literary award, the Premio Strega; was named a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government; and was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Guardian reported that Italy's prime minister, Matteo Renzi, praised Eco as "an extraordinary example of a European intellectual, combining unique intelligence of the past with a limitless capacity to anticipate the future. It's an enormous loss for culture, which will miss his writing and voice, his sharp and lively thought, and his humanity."
In the Telegraph, novelist Allan Massie paid tribute to Eco, noting that "intellectual though he was, with a personal library of some 50,000 books, Eco didn't immure himself in the proverbial Ivory Tower. A whisky-drinker with, for most of his life, a 60-cigarettes-a-day habit, he was an accomplished journalist and early media don, who adored popular culture, starting with the comic books of his childhood. 'I suspect,' he said, 'that there is no serious scholar who doesn't like to watch television.' "
But Stephen Moss observed in the Guardian that the "key, in taking stock of his 60-year career, will be putting the fictions in context. Do not trust obituaries that emphasize 'the author of The Name of the Rose' to the exclusion of his other personae. His novels were a relatively small part of his output, and his contributions as critic, editor, literary theorist and all-round provocateur should not be forgotten. He was fascinated by--and wanted to look afresh at--everything. Nothing was sacrosanct. The society in which he had grown up had been torn apart by the second world war, and he sought to understand why. That was the key to his leftwing politics and to his restless intellectual wanderings. Perhaps the Anglo-Saxon literary and intellectual world is safer and more self-contained because it did not suffer that mid-century catastrophe."