Since its invention a little over 130 years ago, the interview
has become a commonplace of journalism. Today, almost
everybody who is literate will have read an interview at
some point in their lives, while from the other point of
view, several thousand celebrities have been interviewed
over the years, some of them repeatedly.
So it is hardly
surprising that opinions of the interview — of its functions,
methods and merits — vary considerably. Some might make
quite extravagant claims for it as being, in its highest form,
a source of truth, and, in its practice, an art. Others,
usually celebrities who see themselves as its victims, might
despise the interview as an unwarranted intrusion into
their lives, or feel that it somehow diminishes them, just
as in some primitive cultures it is believed that if one
takes a photographic portrait of somebody then one is
stealing that person’s soul.
V. S. Naipaul ‘feels that some
people are wounded by interviews and lose a part of
themselves,’ Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice in
Wonderland, was said to have had ‘a just horror of the
interviewer’ and he never consented to be interviewed — It
was his horror of being lionized which made him thus repel
would be acquaintances, interviewers, and the persistent
petitioners for his autograph and he would afterwards
relate the stories of his success in silencing all such people
with much satisfaction and amusement.
expressed an even more condemnatory attitude towards
the interviewer. His wife, Caroline, writes in her diary for
14 October 1892 that their day was ‘wrecked by two reporters
from Boston’. She reports her husband as saying to the
reporters, “Why do I refuse to be interviewed? Because it
is immoral! It is a crime, just as much of a crime as an
offence against my person, as an assault, and just as much
merits punishment. It is cowardly and vile. No respectable
man would ask it, much less give it,” Yet Kipling had
himself perpetrated such an ‘assault’ on Mark Twain only
a few years before.
H. G. Wells in an interview in 1894
referred to ‘the interviewing
ordeal’, but was a fairly frequent
interviewee and forty years later
found himself interviewing
Joseph Stalin. Saul Bellow, who
has consented to be interviewed
on several occasions, nevertheless
once described interviews as
being like thumbprints on his
windpipe. Yet despite the
drawbacks of the interview, it is
a supremely serviceable medium
of communication. “These days,
more than at any other time,
our most vivid impressions of
our contemporaries are through
interviews,” Denis Brian has written. “Almost everything
of moment reaches us through one man asking questions
of another. Because of this, the interviewer holds a position
of unprecedented power and influence.”
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Mukund: The English novelist and academic David Lodge
once remarked, “I can’t understand how one man
can do all the things he [Eco] does.”
Umberto Eco: Maybe I give the impression of doing many
things. But in the end, I am convinced I am always
doing the same thing.
Mukund: Which is?
Umberto Eco: Aah, now that is more difficult to explain.
I have some philosophical interests and I pursue
them through my academic work and my novels.
Even my books for children are about non-violence
and peace...you see, the same bunch of ethical,
And then I have a secret. Did you know what will
happen if you eliminate the empty spaces from the
universe, eliminate the empty spaces in all the
atoms? The universe will become as big as my fist.
Similarly, we have a lot of empty spaces in our
lives. I call them interstices. Say you are coming
over to my place. You are in an elevator and while
you are coming up, I am waiting for you. This is an
interstice, an empty space. I work in empty spaces.
While waiting for your elevator to come up from
the first to the third floor, I have already written
an article! (Laughs).
Mukund: Not everyone can do that of course. Your
non-fictional writing, your scholarly work has a
certain playful and personal quality about it. It is
a marked departure from a regular academic
style — which is invariably depersonalised and
often dry and boring. Have you consciously adopted
an informal approach or is it something that just
came naturally to you?
Umberto Eco: When I presented my first Doctoral
dissertation in Italy, one of the Professors said,
“Scholars learn a lot of a certain subject, then they
make a lot of false hypotheses, then they correct them
and at the end, they put the conclusions. You, on the
contrary, told the story of your research. Even including
your trials and errors.” At the same time, he recognised
I was right and went on to publish my dissertation as
a book, which meant he appreciated it.
At that point, at the age of 22, I understood
scholarly books should be written the way I had
done — by telling the story of the research. This is
why my essays always have a narrative aspect.
And this is why probably I started writing narratives
[novels] so late — at the age of 50, more or less.
I remember that my dear friend Roland Barthes
was always frustrated that he was an essayist and
not a novelist. He wanted to do creative writing
one day or another but he died before he could do
so. I never felt this kind of frustration. I started
writing novels by accident. I had nothing to do one
day and so I started. Novels probably satisfied my
taste for narration.
Mukund: Talking about novels, from being a famous
academic you went on to becoming spectacularly
famous after the publication of The Name of the
Rose. You’ve written five novels against many more
scholarly works of non-fiction, at least more than
20 of them...
Umberto Eco: Over 40.
Mukund: Over 40! Among them a seminal piece of work
on semiotics. But ask most people about Umberto
Eco and they will say, “Oh, he’s the novelist.” Does
that bother you?
Umberto Eco: Yes. Because I consider myself a
university professor who writes novels on Sundays.
It’s not a joke. I participate in academic conferences
and not meetings of Pen Clubs and writers. I
identify myself with the academic community.
But okay, if they [most people] have read only the
novels... (laughs and shrugs). I know that by writing
novels, I reach a larger audience. I cannot expect
to have one million readers with stuff on semiotics.
Mukund: Which brings me to my next question. The
Name of the Rose is a very serious novel. It’s a
detective yarn at one level but it also delves into
metaphysics, theology, and medieval history. Yet
it enjoyed a huge mass audience. Were you puzzled
at all by this?
Umberto Eco: No. Journalists are puzzled. And
sometimes publishers. And this is because
journalists and publishers believe that people like
trash and don’t like difficult reading experiences.
Consider there are six billion people on this planet.
The Name of the Rose sold between 10 and 15
million copies. So in a way I reached only a small
percentage of readers. But it is exactly these kinds
of readers who don’t want easy experiences. Or at
least don’t always want this. I myself, at 9 pm after
dinner, watch television and want to see either
‘Miami Vice’ or ‘Emergency Room’. I enjoy it and I
need it. But not all day.
Mukund: Could the huge success of the novel have
anything to do with the fact that it dealt with a
period of medieval history that...
Umberto Eco: That’s possible. But let me tell you
another story, because I often tell stories like a
Chinese wise man. My American publisher said
while she loved my book, she didn’t expect to sell
more than 3,000 copies in a country where nobody
has seen a cathedral or studies Latin. So I was
given an advance for 3,000 copies, but in the end
it sold two or three million in the U.S.
A lot of books have been written about the medieval
past far before mine. I think the success of the
book is a mystery. Nobody can predict it. I think if
I had written The Name of the Rose ten years earlier
or ten years later, it wouldn’t have been the same
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Online Lessons with Spoken text and correct pronounciation