Note: this is the first of a series of essays about _The Name of the Rose_ by Umberto Eco. My main purpose is to share some of the ideas and interpretations I have accumulated in regard to the novel, much of which goes beyond the basic background information found in _The Key to The Name of the Rose_. I'm not going to be providing spoiler alerts, but the essays will roughly follow the chronology of the novel.
Alexx set up a Patreon account for me and I'm hoping some readers will show their appreciation by helping to enable my book habit. Thanks! Kes
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Every bibliophile has one: that one particular book that obsesses you even beyond your general obsession with books. You've read it countless times. Its margins and any other white space has been densely forested by the vines and branches of your deep and profound, or at least, enthusiastic, comments. Because it tends to shed its dry and yellowed leaves like a tree in autumn, it’s often kept confined by a rubber band or, in more extreme cases, a plastic sandwich bag. Which is why you have a replacement copy. Or two. And perhaps a few more copies you keep in a closet to press upon friends. Because if they would only read and love this book like you do, they would comprehend your very soul. Which you know is kind of out there--you haven't completely lost touch with reality, after all. But still. You find yourself saying, "You have to read this book..."
For me, that book is _The Name of the Rose_ by Umberto Eco.
Now, I can hear some of you rolling your eyes and beginning to dismiss me as one of those literature snobs who only reads quote the classics unquote. Far from it: I believe that literary critics like Harold Bloom secretly hate books almost as much as they hate other people because what seems to give them the most pleasure is going around like some fascist book fairy dictating what other people should read and how they should interpret it.
At this point I need to confess that I have on one or two occasions referred to _The Name of the Rose_ as a "modern classic," but I felt really bad about it afterwards.
Because the real reason I love _The Name of the Rose_ is that, while Umberto Eco's alter ego is a dignified medieval scholar and semiotician, his secret superhero identity is that of a literary trickster who is really good at keeping a straight face while luring readers into entering the labyrinth (_Il Nome della Rosa_, the original Italian edition, even had a drawing of a labyrinth that twined around the front edge of the cover and onto the spine and back). And once you are inside, you will find NOTR is full of all sorts of tricks and turns, including uncanny chimeras, cartoonish monsters, a cursed McGuffin, historical hoaxes, bumbling chase scenes, fakes and forgeries, fraudulent monks, mixed-up language, smoke and mirrors (both literal and figurative), and even a hallucinatory drug trip.
Not to mention the most literary love scene ever right in the middle of the book.
However, as in the case of fairytales, folk ballads, and the oldest riddles, along with most systems of magic, the majority of the story has to do with the trick of naming things, and names are the main theme of the novel. It says so right there on the label.
And it all begins with the very first sentence: "Naturally, a manuscript."
Note that while literary professors and critics often refer to this part of the novel as the preface or prologue, it is not identified as such within the novel. A more accurate term, one employed by Eco himself, is "incipit," which comes from the Latin verb incipere ("to begin"), and refers to the opening words of a medieval text. As many medieval manuscripts were not given precise titles, the incipit often served in place of a title to identify a text. (See _Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms_ by Michelle P. Brown; many definitions from the book can be found online at the Glossary for the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.)
While it is easy enough to recognize the words "Naturally, a manuscript" as being a heading, floating like a small raft in a sea of white space as it does (well, perhaps in your edition...), it can still be confusing: what is the manuscript to which it refers? Is it a quotation?
Long before the film based on "found footage" there was the novel based upon the "found manuscript." The framing layer of the found object serves a similar purpose in each case: to lend the found document verisimilitude by presenting it as a record, a piece of evidence, proof that something really happened, while simultaneously rendering its origins murky and mysterious and, therefore, difficult to definitively disprove.
The most famous of the found manuscript novels in English literature is probably the gothic novel _The Castle of Otranto_ by Horace Walpole. To be precise, the full title of the novel is "The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by Willliam Marshal, Gentleman, From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto."
The preface went on to make the manuscript even murkier and more mysterious by placing its origins in the remote past, in a foreign land:
The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529. How much sooner it was written does not appear."
Thus, while Horace Walpole was an Englishman who claimed that his manuscript had been written by an Italian medieval monk, Eco is an Italian who claims that his manuscript tells the story of the English medieval monk, William of Baskerville.
Umberto Eco has provided further explanation for this heading:
But if you remember, the heading on the page which talks about the medieval source is "Naturally, a Manuscript." The word "Naturally" should have a particular effect on sophisticated readers, who now are bound to realize that they are dealing with a literary topos, and that the author is revealing his "anxiety of influence," since (at least for Italian readers) the intended reference is to the greatest Italian novelist of the nineteenth century, Alessandro Manzoni, who begins his book The Betrothed by claiming a seventeenth-century manuscript as his source. How many readers could grasp the ironic resonances of that "Naturally"? Not many, since a lot of them wrote to me asking if that manuscript really existed. But if they have not grasped the allusion, will they still be able to appreciate the rest of the story and get most of its flavor? I think they will. They have merely lost an additional wink.
(_Confessions of a Young Novelist_, p. 31)
Distinguishing between a topos and a trope can be confusing, and many sources such as the popular TV Tropes Web site do not always distinguish one from the other (see the TV Tropes page for _The Name of the Rose_ itself), so I'm including the following definitions:
Trope vs Topos: What's the difference?
As nouns the difference between trope and topos is that trope is (literature) something recurring across a genre or type of literature, such as the ‘mad scientist’ of horror movies or ‘once upon a time’ as an introduction to fairy tales similar to archetype and but not necessarily pejorative while topos is a literary theme or motif; a rhetorical convention or formula.
After the title heading, Eco begins to tell a convoluted tale of a rare book which he was once given, but then lost:
On August 16, 1968, I was handed a book written by a certain Abbé Vallet, Le Manuscrit de Dom Adson de Melk, traduit en français d'après l'édition de Dom J. Mabillon (Aux Presses de l'Abbaye de la Source, Paris, 1842).
Translation: Abbe Vallet, The Manuscript of Dom Adso of Melk, translated into French and based on the edition of J. Mabillon (The Presses of the Abbey of the Source, Paris, 1842). [Note: translations from the Latin and other foreign languages are taken from _The Key to the Name of the Rose_ by Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White (1999).]
As a medieval scholar, one of Eco's areas of expertise is philology. Wikipedia describes this branch of linguistics as "the study of literary texts and written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning.". Thus, given Eco's role as a philologist, we might assume that he was providing a true factual history of the text he is about to translate. Not a bit of it, but Eco's web of fake references are so well woven that it takes an expert--or the most raven lunatic of Ravenclaws--to pick it apart.
• The Abbé Vallet did exist, and wrote an obscure book which Eco used in his doctoral dissertation, although it emerged much later that the specific passage that Eco remembered so precisely as having inspired one of the cornerstone ideas of his thesis never existed. This only casts further doubt upon any claim that the book makes to "reproduce faithfully" the manuscript.
• Adso of Melk is a fictional Benedictine monk, Eco's protagonist, the narrator of the story we are about to read.
• Adso is also the French version of the name "Watson," as in the fictional character who, as the friend and amanuensis of Sherlock Holmes, wrote the record of Holmes's adventures which became the books.
• Melk Abbey is a Benedictine abbey which really exists and visitors can not only see its famous library, but see the very view of the Danube river and valley that Eco describes in NOTR.
• J[ean] Mabillon (1632-1707) was a real Benedictine monk and, considering his status as the founder of paleography, that is, "the practice of deciphering, reading, and dating of historical documents", being drafted into Eco's fake bibliography is a very definite nose-tweak to textual authority.
Eco continues with his story:
In a state of intellectual excitement, I read with fascination the terrible story of Adso of Melk, and I allowed myself to be so absorbed by it that, almost in a single burst of energy, I completed a translation, using some of those large notebooks from the Papeterie Joseph Gibert in which it is so pleasant to write if you use a felt-tip pen. And as I was writing, we reached the vicinity of Melk. [...] As the reader must have guessed, in the monastery library I found no trace of Adso's manuscript.
The specificity of Eco's description of writing his translation with the very modern and easy to use pen and notebooks contrasts starkly with Adso's later description of what hard work writing was for the fourteenth century monks. Writing was, quite literally, dirty work, and men of status, such as William, Abo, and Bernard Gui, had scribes to write down their words and actions.
Eco's frustrated pursuit of Adso's manuscript occurs on two levels: the first is Eco the Philologist's search, resembling a detective's search for clues, which will lead him to discover the original missing medieval manuscript; the second is Eco the Reader's desire to uncover the "true" meaning of the story told in the manuscript, to read Adso's story "in his own words."
This is where my obsession to discover the elusive meaning of Eco's NOTR intersects with Eco's obsessive pursuit of the true meaning of Adso's manuscript, and both of our bookish obsessions to chase down the elusive and ineffable are destined to be as successful as Adso's awaiting the unicorn's arrival in the wood.
"But why have they also put a book with the unicorn among the falsehoods?" I asked.
"Obviously the founders of the library had strange ideas. They must have believed that this book which speaks of fantastic animals and beasts living in distant lands was part of the catalogue of falsehoods spread by the infidels...."
"But is the unicorn a falsehood? It's the sweetest of animals and a noble symbol. It stands for Christ, and for chastity; it can be captured only by setting a virgin in the forest, so that the animal, catching her most chaste odor, will go and lay its head in her lap, offering itself as prey to the hunters' snares."
"So it is said, Adso. But many tend to believe that it's a fable, an invention of the pagans."
"What a disappointment," I said. "I would have liked to encounter one, crossing a wood. Otherwise what's the pleasure of crossing a wood?"
Labyrinths, woods, and libraries: are we ever to reach the terminus of this further up and further in?
Not if we're lucky.
A good solid search, especially for something you'll probably never find, drives the plot forward both on and off the page. The less you know, the more you want to know. ...
It is neither an accident nor a deficiency that none of these things are ever found, in a conventionally conclusive or rewarding sense, and that in some cases they may as well not even exist.... Quest is what remains when the McGuffin turns out to be in another city or in a different book or on some other plane of existence...it is the act of seeking that defines the characters.
--Daniel Levin Becker, _Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature_ (2012)
"Arrrgh!" I hear you scream. "You're leading me in circles! How can a book be like a unicorn?? You're trying to torture me with postmodern mind games, aren't you?"
Not at all. Because despite Eco's fancy sleight of hand, you've played this game before.
At least, you have if you've ever read _The Princess Bride_ by William Goldman.
Remember how the introduction begins? "THIS IS MY favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it."
And then he's off, telling a circumlocutive story of how he had a very bad case of pneumonia as a boy, how he spent weeks in bed recovering, and how one night his father, who was an immigrant barber, almost illiterate, and spoke in broken English, came into Billy's bedroom, opened a book, and began to read it aloud.
And the adult William Goldman proceeds to tell the reader of how that story transformed him into a reader, and, although there is no flowery poetic language, no elevated philosophy, no miracle that turns Billy into a super-genius or even anything approaching an above average student, this introduction remains one of the top three love letters to books. Ever.
And it's made of lies.
Every bit of it.
There are two kinds of readers in the world: those that find out the introduction to _The Princess Bride_ is a tissue of lies and start complaining about postmodern tricks, and those who laugh and think it is one of the best jokes ever.
Actually, I lied (it must be catching): there is a third kind of reader, the ones who follow Goldman's lead and enter into the spirit of the story.
Because Mr. Goldman himself has never admitted that anything he says in _The Princess Bride_ is untrue; the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition reads as follows:
IT'S STILL MY favorite book in all the world.
And more than ever, I wish I had written it. Sometimes I like to fantasize that I did, that I came up with Fezzik (my favorite character), that my imagination summoned the iocane sequence, the ensuing battle of wits to the death.
Alas, Morgenstern invented it all, and I must be contented with the fact that my abridgement (though killed by all Florinese experts back in '73--the reviews in the learned journals brutalized me; in my book-writing career, only Boys and Girls Together got a worse savaging) at least brought Morgenstern to a wider American audience.
Are you willing to enter the labyrinth?