A Personal Dictionary

literature: n; 5.

We measure a great book by the quality of its shade. Terrible literature hurts our eyes precisely because of a lack of shade.

from A Personal Dictionary


Umberto's Speculum

Foucault's Pendulum
by Umberto Eco (tr. by William Weaver)

649 p
1989 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
ISBN 0151327563

"in effect, a long, erudite joke"
(Anthony Burgess, New York Times, Oct 15, 1989)

   Has a novel ever been retracted? Is such a question even meaningful?  In science a published work can be retracted if it can be demonstrated that the research in question was done fraudulently, or with a degree of carelessness which renders the results impossible to replicate (see Retraction Watch for examples). In the first case the intent is to mislead; in the second case the issue is incompetence. Nevertheless, both situations merit a retraction of the work from the published record. 

   If one was to retract a novel, could any of these two cases apply? Certainly plagiarism is a conscious intention to mislead and literature is no stranger to plagiarism. But what about the second category, what about incompetence? A poorly written, poorly researched, poorly constructed novel is simply a bad book. I would argue that such things have a right to exist if only to serve as examples of how not to write and what not to strive for. But what if the incompetence is such that the book becomes incoherent, so incoherent that it becomes another book, an absurd anti-book that the author neither intended nor is aware of. Do such books even exist?

   Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was "
an Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor. He was the founder of the Department of media studies at the University of the Republic of San Marino, president of the Graduate School for the Study of the Humanities at the University of Bologna, member of the Accademia dei Lincei, and an honorary fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford" (Wikipedia). One could say that Umberto was a fairly competent man in many regards. His novel Foucault's Pendulum is a satirical mystery drowned in kabbalistic, alchemical, and other esoteric references. Numerology also plays a key role in establishing the premise for the entire novel, the key element being that the major event towards which all action in the novel is directed will occur in the year 2000. The reason for this is detailed early in the novel and specifically on page 138:

   Highlighting the key passage:

error: n; 2. Not admitting an error was an error is a far greater assault on truth than the error itself for the reason that the possibility of truth is denied and is overcome by a leap of faith. (A Personal Dictionary)

   It could be argued that this is an example of an honest mistake. Yet, this mistake concerns the basis for the plot. 1344 is an important date and 666 is the number of the beast... these things were considered and reconsidered throughout the book. An honest mistake that is repeated endlessly is the definition of incompetence. But then again, this is a novel. We don't really care. If everything was supposed to happen in 2010 but everyone in the novel is scurrying towards a presumed climax in the year 2000, the novel becomes a parody of itself. It becomes another book, one that was neither foreseen nor intended by the author. And as such, and to answer the question I began with, this book deserves to exist as much as any other. Whether it merits being read is another issue.

   It should be noted that Eco received the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement in 2005. Apparently literary achievements do not include grade school level mathematical competence.  

   It should also not be forgotten that the translator is not innocent in this affair. In fact it seems quite something that a writer who could not add also found a translator who could not add. Or, perhaps, sadly this is not so surprising. William Weaver (1923-2013) was the translator for Umberto Eco into English. Amongst numerous other Italian writers he also translated all of Italo Calvino into English. Italo Calvino could add, that I know for certain. Therefore, it seems this venerable translator must share some of the blame.

   I suppose that what I am writing here could be considered as an expression of concern
   Unlike science, politics, journalism, and other activities where the respect for truth is necessary for the integrity and continuation of the activity in question, the writing of fiction should remain a domain where truth can be put into play. Apart from plagiarism, which should not be condoned and which should lead to retractions, gross instances of incompetence should be allowed to remain as manifestations of, if nothing else, unintentional and curious monuments to humility. 

laziness: n; 2. Laziness is a more popular guide than curiosity. – W. Benjamin. (A Personal Dictionary)

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