Literature with Added Fibre

The frequently cryptic Umberto Eco, in Confessions of a Young Novelist, explains that, ‘whatever postmodernism might be, I use at least two typical postmodern techniques.’ On occasion he employs ‘double coding’ (a term coined by architect Charles Jencks), which ‘is the concurrent use of intertextual irony and an implicit metanarrative appeal.’ The example Eco provides is from The Name of the Rose:

[The novel] begins by telling how the author came across an ancient medieval text. It is a blatant case of intertextual irony, since the topos (that is, the literary commonplace) of the rediscovered manuscript has a venerable pedigree. The irony is double, and is also a metanarrative suggestion, since the text claims that the manuscript was available through a nineteenth-century translation of the original manuscript-a remark that justifies some elements of the neo-Gothic novel which are present in the story. Naive or popular readers cannot enjoy the narrative that follows unless they are aware of this game of Chinese boxes, this regression of sources, which gives the story an aura of ambiguity.

Eco elucidates other effects used to give a wink to ‘sophisticated readers’, and concludes:

I admit that by employing this double-coding technique, the author establishes a sort of silent complicity with the sophisticated reader, and that some popular readers, when they do not get cultural allusion, may feel that something is escaping them. But literature, I believe, is not intended solely for entertaining people. It also aims at provoking and inspiring people to read the same text twice, maybe even several times, because they want to understand it better. Thus, I think that double coding is not an aristocratic tic, but a way of showing respect for the intelligence and goodwill of the reader.

The first three sections of Confessions of a Young Novelist provide a compelling, personal insight into Eco’s writing practice and an idiosyncratic dissection of the nature of fiction. Questions like this provide sufficient substance for me to debate until sunrise: ‘If we know that Anna Karenina is a fictional character who does not exist in the real world, why do we weep over her plight, or at any rate why are we deeply moved by her misfortunes?’

The fourth section, a condensed essay on lists, was disappointing and, I assume, added to extend these Richard Ellmann lecturesto book length.

2 thoughts on “Literature with Added Fibre

  1. >Love the question and while I do not presume to know the answer, I have often suspected that we are sometimes more in touch with our humanity when we deal with that which is not real or of grave importance personally. We may cry for a fictional character as an expression of our own fears for ourselves that might be too awkward or painful to face directly. To connect to a broad humanistic expression brings one closer to one's self without the boldness of self-scrutiny.

  2. >It is one of the great attractions to fiction, this ability to consider situations and our response at one remove.You would find much to enjoy in this little book, Frances. The highlight is the lecture on how and why readers find many fictional characters so 'real'. There is also a good section on readers discovering content and themes that were unintended or unknown to the writer.

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