Personal Great Books · The Classics Club

Completed: The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose [Il nome della rosa]
Umberto Eco, 1980
William Weaver, translation, 1983
Everyman’s Library edition, 2006, with Introduction by David Lodge

The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb. (445)

Waaaaay back in April Caro of Reading Against the Clock hosted a readalong for The Name of the Rose, which prompted me to start the Italian mystery (in translation). I finally finished a few weeks ago, but I’ve had so much trouble writing a post for it. It seems that either my ability to string together a coherent series of thoughts has vamoosed, or perhaps I’ve just gotten lazy. Yeah, it’s probably that. It’s times like these I almost wish I had a standard format for my bookish posts. But that would bore me, so…

The Name of the Rose. A mystery, it is also a peak into the political and theological world of the early 14th century—specifically the action is in a Benedictine monastery in Italy, but the politics extend to the bounds of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. It is a world in turmoil: the papacy has moved to Avignon, supported by the French King and in opposition to the Holy Roman Emperor who in turn  supports the Franciscans who are in dispute with the pope over the issue of poverty. Into this turmoil is introduced murder and the specter of Revelation-inspired madness. Despite its length, its theological digressions, its obscure Catholic histories (not-so-obscure? my knowledge of Catholic history/theology is almost entirely limited to art history classes and the endnotes to my edition of Divine Comedy), The Name of the Rose is compulsively readable. Sure, sometimes I’d get bogged down by the pages of theological debate–not to mention the chapter describing the church portal actually put me to sleep*, but I attribute that to my own sleepiness: it’s an incredible description–but the instant it seemed too much, we had a dead body or a strange disappearance to liven things up.

All these threads, these aspects of the novel provide so much fodder for discussion. Do we focus on the plot? The history? The theological debates? The insertion of a 20th century mindset in the character of William of Baskerville (my single biggest pet peeve in this novel–I don’t like the anachronism)? Eco anticipates this–he knows his novel (okay, so he should). In the first Italian edition, translation quoted in Lodge’s introduction, he offers three ways to read it:

  1. For the plot. Hey, it’s a mystery!
  2. For the debates. Real, major issues, even if this specific event is imagined.
  3. For the textual references. Is that Borges I see?

In his introduction, David Lodge posits that it is impossible to completely separate the three one from another. As evidenced, of course, by my squeeing during the initial readalong weekend, “Sherlock!” even while focusing on the action. (Numbers 1 and 3.) And this interweaving is ultimately what I really like about The Name of the Rose. It is more than just a mystery, more interesting than just a treatise, more vivid than a history textbook. What I ultimately dislike–besides the intrusion of 20th century thought in the 14th century, although some of this did work–is all the Latin…not because it exists, but because I felt this close to understanding it, and ultimately not quite getting it. And when that’s the biggest complaint….

Something that really interests me about the novel is the notion of conflict. Conflict is a given in a book that is one part murder mystery, one part rehashing of centuries-old theological/political debates, but what I’m really intrigued by is the idea that Asdo, the Benedictine novice narrator, and William of Baskerville, his Franciscan “master,” are in a subtle conflict with each other, that of stability vs. change. With his decidedly humanist viewpoints, the older William represents the coming  changes of the Renaissance, while the younger, orthodox Adso stands for the continuation of things as they are. Apparently Eco chose the early 14th century for the novel, as he needed his “detective” to have been influenced by fellow Franciscans Roger Bacon and William of Ockham, that the detective might apply rational analysis to the mystery at hand. But the early 14th century is also the dawning of the Italian Renaissance. If I remember my history correctly, Europe at this time began to move away from the mysticism that characterized the Middle Ages, with the dominance of the Church and towards rationalism and eventually the Enlightenment of the 17th century (a great over-simplification, of course). Thus, The Name of the Rose is fascinating to me as a picture, albeit one from the 20th century, of a world on the precipice of great change. Understanding Adso and William as representative of the two sides of the divide helps me to better understand their characters and their motivations.

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. (322)

Many thanks to Caro for hosting the readalong back in April and inspiring me to finally pick this up! The Name of the Rose is my first title for Classics Club and also part of my I libiri italiani project list. It is also the book that pushed me over the edge to say, “I must read Borges,” as I am to understand that the works of Jorge Luis Borges were very influential on Eco’s novel. I seem to keep bumping into him this year; I have seen The Savage Detectives described as the novel Borges would have written.

* Eco’s description matches the portal at The Abbaye St-Pierre de Moissac. This site has many detailed pictures of the portal for those who are interested.

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14 thoughts on “Completed: The Name of the Rose

  1. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one getting lazy! Summer’s approaching after all 😉
    The portal description reminds me a lot of the beginning of Les Misérables, where the house of a priest is described for several dozen pages!

    I can’t remember why I didn’t take part in the radalong in April, this sounds like I would have liked the book a lot. Oh, and I completely share your frustration with Latin. I understand the words, but not their meaning 😉

    1. I suppose summer’s as good an excuse as any for getting lazy! And yes, that is exactly the problem with the Latin in this book. It doesn’t really affect understanding the story, but it’s annoying to be so close to getting it and not quite.

  2. I still need to finish this! I’ve been meaning to re-check it out from the library, but life/reading rut/etc. has resulted in a complete and utter failure to pick it up again. Perhaps I’ll finish it after the Victorian event.

    I do recall being struck by how much of the novel is applicable to contemporary society: knowledge, censorship, the secresy of politics, etc. I found Baskerville uttering my sentiments towards religion, though with Eco’s help he was far more eloquent about it than I would ever be!

    1. Yes, you must finish! We need to get you out of this rut!

      In the introduction to the edition I read, it’s mentioned that after The Name of the Rose was published, some Italians started to compare the book to then-current events and look at it as a mirror of those events. It’s really kind of amazing how applicable this one book can be.

  3. I have a love/hate relationship with Eco. I love him as a theorist but, as an author, I couldn’t even manage to watch the movie, let alone read the book. A friend of mine who studies Art History really loves – or let’s say adore – this book. One thing I appreciate though is the Baskerville reference, what an amazing read that is!

    1. I’m not familiar with Eco as a theorist, although I know he’s well regarded. I’ve started two of his novels before, but this is the first I’ve made past the page 50 mark. The references were wonderful, and I have a feeling if I were familiar with the work of Borges (soon!) I’d be even more excited about them.

  4. Interesting review! I have got my copy of The Name of The Rose, but after reading Baudolino (and failed to enjoy it), I haven’t got the mood to read another Eco. But after reading your review, I think I should give him a chance.. 🙂

    1. The Name of the Rose is the only Eco I’ve read to date, but I’ve heard that it’s the Eco that most people like best. The mystery aspect really helps push the story forward and hold the reader’s interest. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it!

  5. Man, it’s taken me forever to comment on this. I’m so sorry. Anyway, great review! I loved the mix of mystery, theology and philosophy too. And of course, the fact that Baskerville is basically a ‘Sherlock Holmes meets Monseigneur Bienvenu’ kind of character doesn’t hurt 😀

    1. Thanks! It was a wonderful mix, and it really worked here. Hmm…I’ve been blaming the TV series Sherlock on my recent interest in the original Holmes stories, but now that I’m reminded of this book, I think The Name of the Rose shares some of the blame! 🙂

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