Frank Kermode on the horse of the Baskervilles

  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
    Secker, 502 pp, £8.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 436 14089 6

Semiotics is a fashionable subject, but semioticians do not normally become international best-sellers, which is the fate that, in apparent violation of this familiar cultural assumption, has befallen the Professor of Semiotics at Bologna, Umberto Eco. Academic novelists aren’t rare, of course, but it’s hard to think of one who regards fiction as not only entertainment but material for the practice of a professional discipline. Eco’s novel is a very complicated instance of what he would call semiosis, of the production of signs and their vicissitudes in a network of codes. It also contains many disquisitions on semiotics and related subjects. If that were all, it might be expected to give keen pleasure to a rather small audience: but it seems to go down well with a very large one. That is because it is also, for the most part, as lively and interesting as it is weird and extravagant.

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