I’m making a departure this week and writing about a novel rather than a poem. It is not a book review – for one thing, I’m making no effort to be either comprehensive or objective, rather focusing on a few things I found interesting and you may too. It’s more of a personal response, just as with the posts on poems… Well that’s enough prefacing, and here’s my revie- er, response, complete with wry subheadings:
Elementary my dear Adso
I started this novel with a furrowed brow. The main character is called Brother William of Baskerville. For a book – quite rightly – praised for its convincing depiction of twelfth century monastic life, the rather cumbersome homage to Arthur Conan Doyle is a bit of a mood-breaker. Way to remind us it’s only a story, Professor Eco! This aside, the historical setting and characters have a very authentic feel. I always worry, with historical fiction, that the next anachronism is just around the corner, with the next line of dialogue. And a book about monks, well – that had me particularly worried: we love to project our own ideas of religion onto monks – they must be either devout and mystical, or riddled with petty jealousy and perversion, but Eco creates a world of varied and interesting men in habits, and doesn’t rely too much on mysticism or perversion to explain their behaviour. The authentic feel is assisted by Eco’s novel way of dividing the book. Rather than chapters, the book is divided into seven days, themselves divided into the periods corresponding to the liturgical hours at which the monks must pray.
Howay the Franciscans!
There’s lots of interesting things about this book, but first, I have another bone to pick about this Baskerville business. Not only is it a bit of unwelcome intertextuality, but it rings the wrong bells geographically speaking, because Baskerville, in the Holmes adventure was in the West Country, out in the moors of Devon. William, on the other hand, is almost certainly (like myself) a Geordie.
‘Geordie’ might be pushing it, of course, as in the Twelfth Century there was no such word, but William is elsewhere described as having the appearance of someone born ‘between Northumbria and Hibernia’ – that is, between the North East of England (and the South East of Scotland) and Ireland. This would make William Cumbrian (or, on a wonky medieval map, Scottish or Welsh), but I guess that Eco rather meant someone from around the areas of Northumbria and Hibernia, as it is unlikely that the narrator – a German monk called Adso – is supposed to have had a clear idea of what a Cumbrian looked like. Eco, knowing his ecclesiastical history very well, is of course invoking the Christian heritage of Northumbria – the lands between the Tees and the Tweed, where Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. There are only two other English monks mentioned in the novel, and both are Northumbrians, one Hugh of Newcastle, who is described as having a similar accent as William, and (I think) a John of Alnwick. Forget ‘Baskerville’ then, and Sean Connery in the film version – William is a Northumbrian.
The Sorrows of Young Adso
Eco anyway has given him a dry, English sense of humour, while the narrator, his young German protégé is a little more earnest, at some points reminding us somewhat of a young, over-sensitive Goethe (or Werther), not least when he falls in love with a young peasant girl and indulges in a kind of free jazz version of Song of Songs. This sort of mild anachronism is forgivable – welcome, in fact – Eco uses his learning to amuse as well as to dazzle. I enjoyed too the conversation between William, and the Italian Abbot, Ubertino, like so many characters in the book, a historical character. They are debating how the beauty of God is manifest in the world. William shies away from the erotic connotations of some of Ubertino’s descriptions of the love between man and God, describing the beauty of nature that seems to reflect the sensibilities of English nature poetry, and particularly the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:
‘God perceived us as light, in the rays of the sun, the images of mirrors, the diffusion of colours over the parts of ordered matter, in the reflections of daylight on wet leaves…’
There is more than a hint of ‘Dappled Things’ and ‘God’s Glory’ in there, just as there is more than a trace of Juana de la Cruz in Ubertino’s imagery.
Monkey Business (sorry)
The story begins with the journey of William of Baskerville, and his assistant – and our narrator- the novice Adso, to an unnamed monastery in the north of Italy, famed for its great library, on serious diplomatic business. They quickly become embroiled in a murder mystery, however, following the nasty death of a young monk and then another. This detective story drives the plot from thereon in – and, as detective stories go, it’s not a bad one. For me, however, more interesting than the identity of the murderer are the background story and the various subplots and debate. None more so than the story of Fra Dolcino, a rebel monk, and a heretic, who – I was surprised to find when I Googled his name halfway through my reading- is a real historical character. Dolcino was a kind of guerrilla fighter whose group of rebels and hangers on lived licentious lives on the run, pillaging and murdering, living free of the rule of law or of any guilt for wrongdoing. It is Dolcino’s legacy that gives The Name of the Rose some of its most interesting characters, both those who were once Dolcino’s followers, and have escaped to the seclusion of the abbey – and the heretics’ terrifying nemesis, the inquisitor, Bernard Gui.
Fascinating stuff – as are the stories about the Avignon Pope, John XXII, and the asides about 12th Century herbalism and science, and about the rarer books of the monastery’s library. If there is one scare on the anachronism front, it is with William himself, who seems to me just a little too sceptic for a thirteenth century monk – almost a proto-enlightenment figure, though Eco makes this just about plausible with his references to Oxford, William of Ockham and Roger Bacon. He is still the most intriguing character in the novel, and Adso feeds us here and there tantalising snippets of information about his past.
I began to wonder, as I was finishing the book, whether the events portrayed in it, real or fictional, had any bearing on the modern world. Authors of historical novels like to tell us that their books should be read for what they are, and not as being some discreet comment on modern times. I remember Hilary Mantel saying something of the kind a few years ago, as she insisted that Wolf Hall was a novel about Thomas Cromwell and his time, and not about ours, and I believe her. And yet it’s not hard to see how Mantel, as a Baby Boomer, would be drawn to such a character – one of the new men of the court of Henry VIII, who rose through his own merits, above those with inherited privilege, before utterly revolutionising the mores of Tudor England – or utterly devastating its moral and spiritual heritage, depending on your point of view: the Baby Boomers’ favoured version of recent history is that they did something comparable in the sixties, replacing a world of inherited privilege and Anglican values, with something like the world we have today.
Eco is not a boomer – he was born between the wars, but he may also have had more recent cultural upheavals on his mind while writing The Name of the Rose. There are some interesting parallels between the ecclesiastical and heretical movements spoken of in The Name of the Rose -from the Franciscans with concern for the poor and distaste for worldly goods to the Dolcinians with their sexual licence and violence and the Bogomils with their denial of God and their (supposed) homosexuality – and with some of the manifestations of the Modern West’s cultural upheavals – the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, 1968, and ultimately communism. Although cultural change came to Italy relatively late, far left agitation in Italy was somewhat violent and extreme in Italy compared with other western countries. The Name of the Rose was written a little more than a decade after 1968, and the violence of the Red Brigades was still fresh in the memory. I am not suggesting that this book is somehow a ‘comment’ on those events, rather that the ructions of modern days may have had Eco thinking about what has inspired such fanaticism down the ages.
Anyway, this was an enjoyable and thought provoking read. More than just an above average episode of CSI Bergamo.