Skip to main content
Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco

I think my brain is still fizzling from this very intense metaphysical drama/ murder mystery/ theological puzzle/ etc. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and was entrapped in the medieval period for a five days straight, but the fact that Eco wrote it as a novel putting flesh on a rumination of cosmological theories and ideals (which is not how I affirm fiction to act) soured his literary triumph (for me).

The body of the novel is posited as a translation of a manuscript written by a Benedictine monk in the fourteenth century, Adso of Melk. In the manuscript, Adso finally sets to rest what happened in his years as a novice, being the disciple of the famed English logician and monk, Brother William of Baskerville, who was called upon to investigate sinister happenings at a wealthy Italian Benedictine abbey. Brother William, having been an Inquisitor of the Roman Catholic Church (before the Spanish Inquisition, but nevertheless dealing very largely with heresy), comes from Oxford and is a disciple of Roger Bacon. If William is portrayed through his sharp observations and support of reason as the Sherlock Holmes of the ecclesiastical and monastic communities, Adso is his young Watson.

Eco's novel is relentlessly researched and believable. One can only imagine he'd lived such a life, being so thorough in presenting the world of a fourteenth century monk, the hours of prayer and work (Ora et labora) in the scriptorium, the detailed hierarchy of the order, the differences between the Franciscan and Cluniac communities, the political circles of power and corruption in the Holy Roman Empire, the schism between the pope in Avignon and the pope in Rome - but above all, Eco's medieval voice is authentic and consistent. His characters feel the desperation of living in the middle ages. They are learned, but feel the burden of knowledge, the possibility of blasphemy, the seductions of heresy, of pride and of power. In this claustrophobic circle, there is no room for the underprivileged, poverty is potentially heretical, and the Devil lurks everywhere in the guise of a Lilith-like woman.

Authority is absolute, sin requires penance, and heresy demands torture or death by fire. Salvation and illumination rests in literacy, and these Benedectines prize their learning, their precious vellum scrolls and manuscripts above all else. Beyond the schisms, the theological and philosophical banter, beyond the apocalyptic-style murders, the intrigue, and hidden vices of the monks, this novel is about the labyrinthine library at night.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…