In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

DisorientationJonathan Coe
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Island of the Day Before 
by Umberto Eco.
Secker, 513 pp., £16.99, October 1995, 0 436 20270 0
Show More
Show More

Umberto Eco began formulating his theories of the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ text in the late Fifties, and then more than twenty years later, with the publication of The Name of the Rose, he appeared to achieve the impossible, by proving that these two seemingly incompatible forms could in fact be reconciled. This was particularly good news for publishers, who suddenly found themselves dealing with a product which not only had solid highbrow credentials but was also able to shift units, as they say, in the international marketplace, and throughout the Eighties there was much talk of this fabulous hybrid called the ‘Euronovel’, of which the next memorable example was Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. The Last World, a short and cheerless fictionalisation of Ovid’s years in exile by the Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr, was a bestseller throughout most of Europe while doing poorly in this country, but any thoughts that this lucrative sub-genre might have played itself out have been dispelled recently by the extraordinary success of Jostein Gaardner’s Sophie’s World, which with its dexterous combination of narrative interest and philosophical coating is the very model of a Euronovel.

Umberto Eco’s role in creating a market for these books cannot be overestimated: in fact, as you would expect from this compulsive self-analyst, he has already discussed it himself. His concept of the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ text, articulated most clearly in The Role of the Reader (1979), is really a way of re-stating, in slightly less contentious terms, the old distinction between high and low culture. An open text he compared to ‘a maze of many issues’ where ‘what matters is not the various issues in themselves but the maze-like structure of the text’. Such a text presupposes its own ideal reader, who is ‘strictly defined by the lexical and the syntactical organisation’: and so the ideal reader of Finnegans Wake, for example, cannot be ‘a Greek reader of the second century BC or an illiterate man of Aran’. The closed text, meanwhile, is produced by authors who have in mind ‘an average addressee referred to a given social context’, and these texts ‘obsessively aim at arousing a precise response on the part of more or less precise empirical readers’. As an example of this kind of text, he cited the James Bond novels.

Eco’s approach to Ian Fleming in this book was welcome for its critical gusto and its sense that he had really enjoyed the novels (by a sweet irony, Sean Connery would later take the lead in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film of The Name of the Rose). But he maintained, nonetheless, a high-minded refusal to make exaggerated claims for them, dismissing the Bond canon, finally, as ‘a museum of déjà vu, a recital of overcoded literary commonplaces’. And The Name of the Rose was informed by this same combination – a relish for the tropes of popular fiction, but tempered by a more deep-rooted conviction that they were somehow undermourishing.

If the project Eco set himself in writing that novel was not entirely new (what was Dickens trying to do in his last novels, after all, if not to combine seriousness of purpose with mystery story conventions?), he certainly approached it with a new self-consciousness – with an academic critic’s awareness of the potential inconsistencies and pitfalls. One of the things Eco must have realised is that the market for such a book didn’t at present exist, and would have to be created. He went on to say as much in his Reflections on ‘The Name of the Rose’:

It there is a difference, it lies between the text that seeks to produce a new reader and the text that tries to fulfil the wishes of the readers already to be found in the street. In the latter case we have the book written, constructed, according to an effective, mass-production formula ... But when a writer plans something new, and conceives a different kind of reader, he wants to be, not a market analyst, cataloguing expressed demands, but, rather, a philosopher, who senses the patterns of the Zeitgeist. He wants to reveal to his public what it should want, even if it does not know it. He wants to reveal the reader to himself.

Eco took his soundings of the Zeitgeist, then, and decided that he knew what we wanted: intense theological arguments and a crash-course in the European humanist tradition, but at the same time, a certain amount of what he self-deprecatingly referred to as ‘old-fashioned rubbish made up of the living dead, nightmare abbeys and black penitents’. Above all, he was convinced that he could envisage, and create, a model reader who was ‘an accomplice ... one who would play my game. I wanted to become completely medieval and live in the Middle Ages as if that were my own period.’ Pulling this trick off – turning us all into readers who suddenly wanted nothing more than to become ‘completely medieval’ – required a peculiar stroke of formal genius: not only did he recreate the intellectual and physical climate of the Middle Ages in extensive detail, but he grafted onto it all the pleasures of the modern whodunnit, with its irresistible blend of the cosy and the lethal. All at once, examples of centuries-old theological hair-splitting were transformed into matters of life and death, and the daily rituals of a 14th-century Italian monastery felt as familiar and comforting to us as afternoon tea in an Agatha Christie vicarage.

A crucial part of the strategy behind The Name of the Rose was the creation of a reader who would feel at home in the Middle Ages (the period in which Eco had always specialised, after all, and for which he presumably felt a certain proselytising zeal). In his new novel, The Island of the Day Before, he sets out to do something similar for another historical period, the early 17th century, and once again he writes with a palpable self-conscious understanding of the difficulties involved. The closing sentences of the book, in fact, appear to satirise the very assumptions which he expects his readers to bring to it. The narrator imagines himself – as in The Name of the Rose – receiving a lengthy manuscript from the hands of a collector, who warns him that ‘as for the content, from the little I have seen, they are mannered exercises. You know how they wrote in that century ... People with no soul.’ This is the idée reçue that the novel sets out to refute: the reader envisaged by Eco, perhaps, brings to the period a set of assumptions predicated on Eliot’s theory of the dissociation of sensibility, the tired old notion that ‘something happened’ to the European mind early in the 17th century, and that consequently in the poetry of someone like Donne, ‘there is a manifest fissure between thought and sensibility.’ Eco’s hero, an Italian nobleman called Roberto della Griva, is very taken with Donne’s poetry, having had stanzas from ‘A Valediction: forbidding Mourning’ quoted to him in Paris at an impressionable age. Later he will repeat these lines to himself (it’s the famous simile of the lovers compared to a pair of compasses) in a newly charged and feverish context, as a measure of the emotional distance he has travelled – with the reader, in theory, as his companion, for Eco’s aim is to guide us beyond the apparent archness and complexity of the period’s codes of expression, and into the heart of the 17th-century soul.

Roberto’s predicament in this novel is intriguing, as are the circumstances which have brought him there. He is, in his own words, ‘the only man in human memory to have been shipwrecked and cast up upon a deserted ship’. The ship in question is called the Daphne, and is anchored just off an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean – too far from the shore for Roberto, who cannot swim. Though deserted, the Daphne is prodigiously supplied with food and drink, so there seems no limit to the time he can expect to survive on it. Between the ship and the island, Roberto eventually learns, lies not only an expanse of water but also the international dateline, so it pleases him to reflect that whenever he looks in that direction he is literally (as well as littorally) looking backwards into yesterday. Something that pleases him less, as the novel unfolds, is the growing suspicion that he does not have the Daphne to himself, and that somewhere below deck, in one of its many secret chambers, there lurks an Intruder.

Unlike the Daphne, however, the novel itself is not condemned entirely to stasis, because Eco interweaves these scenes with the story of Roberto’s early life on the European mainland. For someone who has never quite seen the appeal of the seafaring genre, and whose eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of poop decks and forecastles (which perhaps doesn’t make me such a model reader after all), these European episodes are the finest and most absorbing in the book. Eco writes a long, gripping account of the siege of Casale, where Roberto receives his brutal initiation into the secrets of warfare, and establishes a nice atmosphere of intellectual ardour mixed with foppish romanticism when writing about the young noblemen dancing attendance round the courts of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. Here, too, fans of The Name of the Rose will find the same mastery of historical detail, and the same enviable ability to give it narrative shape across a broad canvas: condemned to death for a crime he has never committed, Roberto is forced to accept employment as one of Mazarin’s spies, and thereby finds himself caught up in trade wars between the European powers. Specifically, he is hired to find out whether the British, or the Dutch, have overcome the great stumbling block which has so far defeated the French navigators and cartographers – the ability to calculate longitude.

There are further eggs to be thrown into this pudding. Roberto is also interested in a medical discovery known as the Powder of Sympathy, which can be used to treat wounds even at a great distance, when sprinkled on a sample of the injured man’s blood. Furthermore, he has a double – an evil brother called Ferrante – who stalks him across the globe, conspiring against his fate. As a learned friend of Roberto explains, the double is an essential component of romance literature, being, ‘A fine machination, whereby the reader identifies with the main character, sharing his fear of the Enemy Brother’. Ferrante’s own story becomes more important as the book progresses – it includes an extravagantly good passage in which he is rescued from prison by a grotesque army of beggar-cannibals – but it takes the form of a metafictional subplot: we are never quite sure whether he exists or not, since his adventures reach us in the form of ever more uncontrolled fantasies dreamed up by Roberto as he lives out the last days of his isolation.

It may be that the final disappointment of The Island of the Day Before lies in precisely this wilful blurring of fictional levels. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the reader’s dawning awareness that all the bizarre conspiracies encountered by the protagonists were, in fact, pure fantasy, acted as a heady metaphor for the vacuity, the disturbing lack of substance, behind our modern world of signs and ciphers. What made its conclusion so unexpected was the sense that Eco – Eco, of all people, probably Europe’s most culturally literate and up-to-date academic – might himself feel lost and bereft in this world, and nostalgic for a universe of values and certainties. Clearly he’s happy to have stepped back in time again (this shows in the writing, which has a new richness and sensuousness, especially in the passages where Roberto explores the coral reef). But while the case he makes out for the period’s authenticity of feeling is persuasive, it’s also oddly uninvolving: somewhere in the novel’s labyrinth of stories within stories, the reader gets lost. Disorientation is the theme of the book, of course, but I’m not convinced that the disorientation I felt was the same one Eco intended: this time, the knowledge that there will be no resolutions achieved, or destinations arrived at, is inscribed too emphatically and too early in the book, so that the reader succumbs, after a while, to a sort of inertia. The model reader is made to feel becalmed in this novel, whereas before in Eco’s work I’ve always found myself compelled by basic narrative curiosity. It’s curious to report such a sensation of lassitude, coming from a writer with whom I’ve previously felt such a strong temperamental – as well as anagrammatic – affinity.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.