The French don’t have cafes just because they like coffee. They love conversation, philosophical and political arguments, any kind of spirited talk about writing, ideas, culture. For many years, “Apostrophes” — in which noted authors discussed their work for an hour on Friday evenings — was the must-see program on French television. Very much in this Gallic tradition, “This Is Not the End of the Book” allows the American reader a chance to listen in as two smart and well-read men of letters chat about reading, the Internet, book collecting and odd byways of literary and cinematic history. The resulting discussion makes for quick-paced and absorbing intellectual entertainment.
Umberto Eco isn’t, of course, French, but he seems to know the language as well as his native Italian. Not only is he the author of world-renowned novels, starting with “The Name of the Rose,” but he is also a specialist in semiotics, a sometime newspaper columnist and one of the great private collectors of incunabula, that is, the books printed before the 16th century.
In contrast, Jean-Claude Carriere is an eminent cinephile, a former head of the French film school and a frequent script collaborator with movie and stage directors, having worked with Luis Bunuel on “Belle de Jour” and Peter Brook on “The Mahabharata.” He, too, collects very old books and shares with Eco an interest in works about mankind’s follies, delusions and superstitions.
From the beginning of the discussion, and periodically throughout, Eco insists that “the book is like the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be bettered.” No Luddite, however, he confesses that if his house were on fire, he’d save his computer’s hard drive before any of his books because it holds all his writing of the past 30 years. Nonetheless, he insists that we cannot spend all our time reading on a screen — our eyes just won’t take it. I’m not so sure of that, but Eco certainly seems right in noting that the digital revolution has led to more widespread literacy: Just when we thought, in the wake of Marshall McLuhan, that we were becoming “a purely visual civilisation,” the computer returned us “to Gutenberg’s galaxy; from now on, everyone has to read.”
As the conversation ranges on, both men worry about the unreliability of online data: “What the Internet provides,” notes Carriere, “is gross information, with almost no sense of order or hierarchy, and with the sources unchecked. So each of us needs not only to check facts, but also to create meaning.” Eco stresses that we have to learn how “to handle information whose authenticity we can no longer trust.” For Carriere “this tool — which is supposed to be comforting in its delivery of everything and anything — actually plunges us into great confusion.” Moreover, adds Eco, “discussions between people can only take place on the basis of a shared encyclopedia. . . . We expected globalisation to make everyone start thinking alike. What has actually happened is precisely the opposite: globalisation has led to the parcelling up of common experience into different camps.” The scholar-novelist further emphasizes the ephemeral, transient quality of online reading: “As soon as you click onto the next page you forget what you’ve just read, the very thing that has brought you to the page now on your screen.”
Even though these conversations are more than three years old, Carriere does seem to have foreseen the rise of widespread tweeting: “One day soon we will all be informants. Willing informants of a more or less qualified, more or less biased nature, who will also, by the same process, have become inventors, creators of news, every day imagining the world anew. It may come to that: describing the world according to our desires, which we will by then take for reality.”
While Eco usually makes the more profound remarks, Carriere likes to provoke with odd factoids and assertions: “Every great French author from Rabelais to Apollinaire has written at least one pornographic text.” “During the 120 or 130 years between Racine’s Phedre and the Romantics, not a single poem was written in France. Versifiers did of course churn out and publish thousands, if not millions, of lines of verse, but you won’t find a French person today who can quote a single one.” Why was this? Because the 18th century was a neoclassical age: “When you do nothing but apply a set of rules, the elements of surprise, brilliance and inspiration all evaporate.”
Eco then reminds us that a work of art only gradually becomes great. “A masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece until it is well known and has absorbed all the interpretations to which it has given rise, which in turn make it what it is. An unknown masterpiece hasn’t had enough readers, or readings, or interpretations. In that sense, one could say that it was the Talmud that gave rise to the Bible.”
While some of the speculations about the digital age now seem familiar, the conversation itself always conveys that easygoing learnedness so characteristic of the European intellectual. Carriere alludes to the aphoristic witticisms of a Bavarian comic named Karl Valentin: “In the past, even the future was better” and “Everything has been said already, but not yet by everyone.” When Eco mentions that he is constantly learning new things as a defense against Alzheimer’s, Carriere suggests that this preventive may not always work. Eco wryly answers: “In that case I’ll stop learning poems by heart, and start drinking two bottles of whiskey a day. Thanks for giving me hope.” When the pair discuss vanity presses and self-publishing, Eco recalls one Giulio Ser Giacomi “who published his correspondence with Einstein and Pius XII in a huge 1,500-page tome; the book, however, contains only the letters he wrote to both men, because of course neither of them ever replied.”
Taking up the theme of stupidity and superstition, Eco reminisces about a great Italian literary critic widely thought to possess the evil eye and whose company brought bad luck. (Perhaps to ward off the latter, he doesn’t name the critic, almost certainly Mario Praz, author of “The Romantic Agony.”)
Carriere mentions that a film he worked on with Bunuel — “That Obscure Object of Desire” — includes a “direct-action group called the ‘Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus.’ ” Eco shakes his head over an online survey that “proclaimed Quentin Tarantino the greatest director of all time. The people they asked must never have seen Eisenstein, Ford, Welles, Capra, etc.”
Near the close of “This Is Not the End of the Book,” Carriere asks Eco, “Do you really think it’s important to be well educated?” The Italian answers, without shilly-shallying, “I think it’s fundamental.” Knowledge of the past, he reminds us, forms “the basis of every civilisation.” Enough said.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/
THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE BOOK
By Jean-Claude Carriere and Umberto Eco
A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
Translated from the French by Polly McLean
Northwestern University. 336 pp. Paperback, $24.95