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Peter Bondanella, Umberto Eco and the Open Text, Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0 521 44200 1 (hardback). Price: £30.00 (US$44.95)[Notice]

  • Bill Freind

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  • Bill Freind
    University of Washington

In Umberto Eco and the open text, Semiotics, fiction, popular culture, Peter Bondanella attempts "to provide a reliable, thought provoking, but necessarily brief account of Umberto Eco's intellectual development and major theoretical contributions during the past four decades" (p. xii). That's an ambitious project on its own: as semiotician, novelist, parodist, medieval scholar, journalist, and public intellectual, Umberto Eco has produced an amazingly diverse body of work. With bibliography and index, Umberto Eco and the Open Text runs to 218 pages, which is an extraordinarily limited space in which to cover so complex a career. What further complicates that project is Bondanella's intention of writing for both academics and educated non-academics interested in contemporary culture and literature. Since Eco's thought draws on everything from the scholastics to semiotics and other postmodern theories, that's a tall order to fill. Despite some problems, which may result from those self-imposed restrictions, Bondanella offers an overview which will be helpful to those unfamiliar with Eco's work. Bondanella's account of Eco's intellectual development is particularly useful, and suggests that from the beginning of his career his thought was surprisingly wide ranging. While his doctoral thesis was nominally on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Eco also used it to mount a challenge to the Crocean aesthetics which dominated postwar Italy. After completing his doctorate, Eco turned from Scholastic aesthetics to television, landing a position in a Milan studio. Characteristically, his experiences there ran from "high" to "low" culture. He collaborated on an Italian version of the American program "You Are There," which offered recreations of historical events, and also met the composer Luciano Berio, whose music would influence the theories developed in The Open Work (p. 6). Drawing on structuralism, the fiction of James Joyce, and communications theory, The Open Work initially attracted hostile reviews. Eugenio Montale turned to outright mockery, while Claude Levi-Strauss stated that Eco's text Equally disturbing to some was Eco's willingness to discuss television with the same seriousness he brought to his analyses of serial music. That impulse would later underlie his turn to semiotics, the theoretical position with which he is perhaps most commonly associated. Searching for a general theory that could encompass Charles Schulz, Dante, and Steve Canyon, Eco turned to the work of Charles S. Peirce. In a discussion that is concise and lucid, Bondanella notes that Peirce's concept of unlimited semiosis was also useful since it supported Eco's theories of textual openness. Bondanella also does an admirable service in tracing the relation of Eco's parodies and journalism to his more traditionally academic work. Inverting the standard notion that Eco's column in the Italian newsweekly L'Espresso represents a dumbing-down of his theoretical writing, Bondanella suggests that Eco's journalism has "helped to create precisely the kind of ironic, self-reflexive, and well-informed readership that both his fiction and his theoretical essays require" (p. 46). Bondanella's discussion of Eco's parodies is both instructive and entertaining. While still a student, Eco wrote La diacqua commedia (The Divine Water Comedy), which narrated events in his own family while imitating the voice of Dante (p. 1). Later he would parody Robbe-Grillet, as well as Nabokov's Lolita in a work entitled "Nonita," the story of a man attracted not to young girls but to old women (the English translation is "Granita"). Part of the humor of "Nonita" comes at Eco's expense, since the Italian translation of Nabokov's character Humbert Humbert is Umberto (pp. 35-6). Bondanella also notes that for a time Eco alternated a scholarly work with a parody or pastiche of that subject matter. In fact, Eco's long affiliation with the Italian publishing house Bompiani …

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