Umberto Eco, the acclaimed Italian intellectual, semiotician, and writer, died in Italy on Friday at the age of 84. He wrote over 20 nonfiction books examining and extrapolating signs and symbols, interpreting cultures through their words, clothes, cartoons, music, and art. He was most famous for his fiction, which found success despite the writer’s dense style. Eco amalgamated arcane theological discourse with familiar thriller conventions. (Imagine Slavoj Žižek reading the screenplay of Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
Eco’s two best-known novels, The Name of the Rose, which sold 10 million copies in 20 languages, and Foucault’s Pendulum, are elaborate, postmodern, post-meditative jaunts into western philosophy and art, told with sentences so serpentine, so rife with obscure references, it’s a wonder anyone was able to navigate Eco before the dawn of Wikipedia. (Foucault’s Pendulum contains a multi-language joke Eco calls “demoniacal litany, a parody of a Semitic language,” whose intended audience is anyone’s guess.) Eco divided the intelligentsia and mainstream critics for his mingling of scholarship and pop-culture, but eschewed such criticisms, telling the Guardian in 2011, “It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.” Eco’s acerbic sense of humor, one of his defining qualities (scholars are not known for being very funny fellows) often went unnoticed in reviews. When asked in a 1995 Vogue interview what he reads, he replied with typical wryness, “I myself like easy books that put me to sleep immediately.”
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly listed the title of Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.