Thursday, 2 April 2015

Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière: A case of binge reading

Full title: This Is Not the End of the Book
Author: Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière; conversations curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac; translated from the French by Polly McLean
Genre: Interview
Attributes: 320 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Harvill Secker (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The destiny of the book is, as Jacques Derrida said at one point, to be always a book-to-come. There’s no such thing as the end of it, no farewell, no famous last words, no goodbyes, no funeral orations. If that is hard to believe, it might be a good idea to read This Is Not the End of the Book. A work that doesn’t quite promise a luminous future but one that reflects on a glorious past, this volume of conversations between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière makes apparent the continuity that Derrida spoke about.
Readers in the old, solid, encyclopedic sense of the word, Eco and Carrière perform incredible feats of recollection. The reader is in for some serious delight, pleased to see that the way they treat the topic is not the snobbish, look-how-much-I-know type of chit-chat. They know a lot because they’ve read a lot. And they’ve read a lot precisely with the intention to create private networks of references; networks joined into a single archipelago of erudition.
Umberto Eco, semiotician, aesthetician, philosopher, has been using in his novels a lot of the stuff that books are made of. Read The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before etc. to see what that means. The same goes with Carrière, screenwriter and actor, writer of scripts for equally encyclopedic films such as Danton, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Cyrano de Bergerac, Goya’s Ghosts, not to mention the ambitious adaptation, along with Peter Brook, of the Indian epic, Mahabharata.
There are too many titles to mention in relation to each of the two protagonists of this conversational feat. Citing them, alone, would dwarf the reader no end. As is, perhaps, the case of the curator of the conversations, Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. He may be playing the game of the attentive journalist, who disappears behind the curtain to let the show go on by itself, but his interventions are so brief and so scattered through the book, the general impression is that he is like the cleaner apologizing for having disturbed an after-hours conversation at the office. Of course, de Tonnac has a great merit in all this, as well as in the other similar conversations he has curated. But seriously, the deluge of erudition launched by Eco and Carrière is sometimes impossible to stop.

Jean-Claude Carrière (standing) and Umberto Eco. Source: L'Express
When put together, Eco and Carrière make an impressive body of oral work. It’s obvious from the outset that they know books inside out. Having collected them and having used them massively for research purposes, they take the word bibliophile in its most etymological sense. It’s such a pity Carrière hasn’t been translated into English as much as he should have. The span of his erudition goes well beyond cinematography. The Secret Language of Film, Violence and Compassion (a book-length interview with the Dalai Lama), Dictionary of Stupidity, to mention only three of his numerous titles, launch into discussions that transgress the limits of simple disciplines.
As a general method of distribution of knowledge, a lot of anecdotes get ping-ponged between the collocutors, while the readers stare in awe. They must love this kind of cultural prestidigitation, where ideas, quotes, and rich references pop out at every page like white rabbits from tall hats in a magic show.
The pendulum of erudition is very well balanced. When Carrière says, for instance,
“We can see that all the great civilizations asked themselves the same question: what to do with a culture under threat? How to save it? And what to save?”
... Eco intervenes in a hopeful tone, to explain that books are perhaps the object of choice in the development of any honest cultural eschatology:
“[W]hen people do have time to carry the emblems of their civilization to safety, it is easier to save scrolls, codices, incunabula and books than sculptures or paintings.”
There’s a feeling throughout that the object called book is about to be built up, piece by piece, right here and right now. A kind of return before the departure. But this return is not the nostalgic one you normally get from the snobs who praise the smell of old books or the tactile orgasm they get at contact with an old page. No, the two conversationists know better. They know, for instance, that reading cannot be thought of in absolute terms. As Eco recalls a debate he had with Pierre Bayard, the author of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, one needs to be honest about all this business:
“We are deeply influenced by books that we haven’t read, that we haven’t had the time to read. Who has actually read Finnegans Wake – I mean from beginning to end? Who has read the Bible properly, from Genesis to the Apocalypse? If I were to combine all the sections I’ve read, I could boast of about one-third. But no more.”
Says Eco, who also admits that he’s never read the Mahabharata, in spite of owning “three editions, in three different languages” (!), and who also confesses that he’s read War and Peace when he was 40. Carrière backs him up with a thought that might cause pain in some readers when he speaks of
“The terrible grief of the dying as they realize their last hour is upon them and they still haven’t read Proust.”
So it’s not only the beauty of the smooth conversations that stands out in the volume. There is humour too (jokes and anecdotes abound), the sense of disarming honesty, and the ability to reflect on minute things as well as on gigantic cultural topoi. All of the above gives the conversational adventure an air of dialogue well done, a symposium, a feast of the erudites, a culture binge.