The Interview by Christopher Silvester

In our times, the interview has assumed a special significance. We get all the information about our contemporaries through the interview. It has become a part of journalistic practice. But the celebrities despise being interviewed. They consider it an intrusion into the privacy of their lives. They feel it diminishes them in some way. Some of the well-known writers even refused to be interviewed. In spite of this, celebrities have been interviewed. Some of them were interviewed repeatedly.

This is an excerpt of an interview with Umberto Eco. The interviewer is Mukund Padmanabhan of The Hindu.


Part – I –Christopher Silvester

The interview was invented about 130 years ago. Since then, many celebrities have been interviewed. Some of them were interviewed repeatedly.

Some people praise the practice. Others, especially the celebrities, despise its functions and methods. Those who praise it say the interview is a source of truth. Its practice is an art. In our times, we get all the information about our contemporaries through the interview. But the celebrities despise interviews because they think it is an intrusion into their lives. Some think it diminishes them somehow.

Lewis Carroll, the celebrated writer of Alice in wonderland, condemned the interview and never consented to be interviewed. Rudyard Kipling considered the interview as an assault on him. H. G. wells referred to the interview as an ordeal. Saul Bellow described interviews as thumbprints on his windpipe.

Though some of the celebrities despised the interview, they themselves interviewed other celebrities. H. G. Wells interviewed Joseph Stalin. Rudyard Kipling interviewed Mark Twain. Despite the advantages and disadvantages of the interview, its practice has become commonplace in journalism. The interviewer holds a position of power and influence.

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Part – II –Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco’s interview by Mukund Padmanabhan Umberto Eco is a university professor. He has published over 40 academic works. He has written five novels also. His novel ‘The Name of the Rose’ got huge success. Mukund Padmanabhan of The Hindu interviewed Eco.

Padmanabhan began by reminding Eco what David Lodge once said about him. He had remarked, ‘I can’t understand how Eco can do all the things he does’. He wanted to know how he (Eco) could do so many things at a time. Eco replied he seemed to do several things but he did the same thing. He explained that he had some philosophical interests. He pursued them through his academic works as well as his novels.

Then Eco revealed his secret. He said that there are a lot of empty spaces in everybody’s life. He called them interstices. He worked in those interstices. Suppose a visitor was coming to him. Before the visitor reached from the elevator to his room, he would have written an article. Padmanabhan is amazed.

Padmanabhan said that the writing style of his academic works had a playful and personal quality about it. It was distinctively different from the regular academic style which was dry, boring and impersonalized. Umberto Eco told him that when he had presented his first doctoral dissertation, he told the story of his research, including his trials and errors. One of the professors highly praised it. At the age of 22, Eco had learnt that scholarly books should be written in a narrative way. His essays had a narrative style. He started writing novels at the age of 50. But it was the continuation of his narrative style. Novels satisfied his taste for narration.

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Mukund told him that his novel “The Name of the Rose’ made him a famous novelist from an academician. Though he had written only five novels against 40 scholarly works, people knew him only as a novelist. Mukund wanted to know if it hurt him.

Eco replied that it hurt him because he considered himself an academician. He had identified himself with the academic community. He participated in academic conferences but never went to the writers’ meetings. But most people had read his novels. He had reached a far larger audience through novels than his works on semiotics. But he could not expect a million people to read such a scholarly work as semiotics.

Mukund said that The Name of the Rose is a serious novel. It has a detective story but it also deals with metaphysics, theology and mediaeval history.But the novel enjoyed huge success. Mukund wanted to know if he was puzzled by its popularity.

Eco replied that publishers and journalists were puzzled because they falsely believed that people like only trash.

But some people like a difficult reading experience too. There are six billion people in this world. The Name of the Rose sold only 10 to 15 million copies. That was a very small percentage of readers.

Then Mukund put him the final question. He wanted to know if the novel had huge success because it dealt with a period of medieval history. Eco replied it would have been one of the reasons. Many books had been written about medieval history before this novel. His publisher felt that it would not sell more than 3000 copies because in their country nobody had seen a cathedral or studied Latin but two to three million copies were sold in the US.

Eco felt nobody could predict the success of a novel. Had he written the novel ten years earlier, or ten years later, things might have been different. Perhaps the time of its writing was favourable to its popularity.

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