March 11, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "The Name of the Rose," by Umberto Eco

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose (1980)
By Umberto Eco
Book #7 of this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
In one of the more fascinating stories of how a novelist was first drawn to his profession, scholar Umberto Eco was actually an Italian history professor and Medieval expert for years before ever turning to creative writing; according to legend, it was his thrilling and exacting retelling of actual Dark Age stories that inspired his friends to keep urging him to write a novel based in those times, which he finally did in the late 1970s. As such, then, The Name of the Rose is a bizarre amalgam that you scarcely ever find in contemporary literature -- a genre actioner (murder mystery) with a lot of melodramatic elements at its core, but at the same time a detailed historical look at actual 1300s Europe, with a big part of the reason to read this book being so that one can be exposed to the meticulous detail of Eco's prose on the subject, from the period's clothing and architecture to its religious structures and philosophies. But on top of this, turns out that Eco is a postmodernist and accomplished semiotics expert as well, turning the book not just into a potboiler mystery and historical novel but indeed an entire thesis on the nature of language itself, on the meaning behind symbols, and on why human behavior repeats itself so often no matter which age you study, and no matter what the rationale behind such behavior during any given age.

Plotwise it's the story of a Franciscan monk named William of Baskerville, which is just the start of the sly references to Sherlock Holmes Eco deliberately inserts; turns out that William is also British, a champion of logic and deductive reasoning, and even has a clueless teenage assistant named Adso who stands in symbolically for the equally clueless audience. William is in Italy, helping a fellow monk investigate a mysterious death in the fortified abbey where the man leads; turns out, in fact, that this is one of the largest and most renowned of all the Christian Dark-Age monastery libraries, attracting an international team of egghead monks and a scholarly atmosphere more akin to modern universities. Both the novel and the investigation take place over seven days at this fortress/abbey, where William and Adso spend their time gathering clues, pontificating on all kinds of subjects that intellectuals in the 1300s pontificated on, and examining in detail such historical details as the church's then-ongoing debate over whether it's better to be rich or poor, as well as why the Benedictine monks and the Franciscan ones hated each other so intensely back then in the first place. This being a murder mystery, of course, the actual plot is something best left for the reader to discover on their own, although I'll warn you that the actual "whodunit" part isn't very suspenseful; as mentioned above, the real point of this being a murder mystery is for Eco to show just how similarly humans behaved back then as we do now, even as the times themselves inspire completely different motivations and excuses. (So in other words, a lot less "I love my baby's mamma" in the 1300s, a lot more "The devil made me do it.")

The argument for it being a classic:
Fans of this novel (and there are a whole lot of them; it's hard to dislike this book, frankly) argue that this book deserves the "classic" label more quickly than a lot of other contemporary novels do (after all, the book's only 27 years old at this point), precisely because it deals with issues from an age of classics; so in other words, because it's set in Medieval times, is written in Dark Age vernacular and includes historical details worthily accurate of the respected academe Eco is, fans claim that of course The Name of the Rose will eventually be a classic, such a foregone conclusion that we might as well declare it one now. Ah, but there's also a much stronger argument for this being considered a classic right now; as mentioned, many of those who study the esoteric academic field of semiotics claim that the novel is a perfect example of what they do, explained in layman's terms so that non-academes can finally get it. As such, then, these people claim that The Name of the Rose is not just an exciting DaVinci-Code-style historical thriller, but also a densely layered examination of stories about stories about stories, of symbols about symbols about symbols, of the meaning behind meaning behind meaning. Yeah, see what they mean when they say that semiotics is a hard thing to explain to the general public?

The argument against:
The main argument against this being a classic seems to be one brought up a lot with well-written yet contemporary books ("contemporary" in this case being any less than half a century old) -- that the book is simply too new to be able to reasonably judge whether it should rightly be called a timeless classic, one of those fabled "books you should read before you die." For just one example, when The Name of the Rose first came out in 1980, it was the first time anyone had ever tried setting a rational Holmesian-style mystery story within a Medieval monastery; in the years since, we've had all kinds of projects on the subject, including a popular weekly BBC/Masterpiece series. It's a great book, even its critics are quick to point out, even if somewhat on the dry side at points (ugh, all those debates about papal decrees); but who's to say if anyone's going to even remember this novel a hundred years from now, or the notoriously spotty career Eco has since had as a novelist. (Don't forget, Eco is mostly a scholar and historian; although considered a rockstar in the academic world, his reputation as a writer of fiction is much more contentious.)

My verdict:
So let's make it clear right off the bat -- that from a pure entertainment standpoint, The Name of the Rose is one of the most delightful novels I've read in years, years. It's funny, it's smart, it's insightful, it's thrilling, it's nerdy; Cheese And Rice, it's everything a lover of books could possibly ever want from a well-done one. But is it a classic? Well, unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to agree with the critics on this one; that although it could very well become a classic one day, one of those Catcher in the Rye style "one-hit wonders" that populate so many lists, I think it's simply too early to make such a call either in a positive or negative way, especially considering Eco's otherwise spotty career as a novelist. That's part of the point of "classics" lists existing, after all, and why those who care about such lists take them so seriously; because ultimately such a designation should reflect not only how good a book itself is, but how well it's stood the test of time, of how relevant it's continued to be to generation after generation, of how timeless the author's style and word-choice. One always has to be careful when adding newish books to such lists, especially novels less than 30 years old, because we have no idea at this point how such books are going to stand the test of time; load up your classics list with such titles, and your list suddenly becomes worthless fluff, as relevant and important as a whole evening of handing out freakin' Quill Awards. It's for this reason that I'm excluding The Name of the Rose from my own personal Canon, although still highly encourage all of you to actually read it, just from the standpoint of pure enjoyment.

Is it a classic? Not yet

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
In two Fridays: The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger
In three Fridays: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In four Fridays: Washington Square, by Henry James

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

P.S. No, you're not just imagining things -- there was indeed a big-budget movie version of this story made in 1986, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. I haven't seen it yet myself, but it's in my queue list; needless to say, I'll be writing up a small review of it as well for the CCLaP site, once it's been watched.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:34 PM, March 11, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |