Our book today is Umberto Eco's massive 1980 bestselling historical-fiction pot-boiler The Name of the Rose (to give it its English title from the 1983 William Weaver translation that sold like gangbusters for over a year in America). I read it back in the early 80s and liked it despite what I referred to at the time (in a published review, of course, since only NASA had blogs back then) as "its aggressive longueurs." The other day I found a 5 cent copy of the book and devoted a long, hot afternoon to re-reading it.
The book tells the story of young 14th century Benedictine Brother Adso of Melk, who comes under the tutelage of Eco's nod to Sherlock Holmes, the ascetic super-sleuth Brother William of Baskerville, just in time for the two of them to become embroiled in a series of mysterious and gruesome deaths at a French abbey. There's a colorful cast of clerics, naturally, and Eco throws in several library-trips full of research into things like architecture and medieval book-culture (indeed, the whole plot of the novel revolves around the mania created in certain religious minds by the very existence of a certain book - Erasmus would have loved that touch, although he'd have had quite a bit to say about some of the execrable Latin found in The Name of the Rose). I recalled being swept away by the sheer garrulous earnestness of the narrative, the first time I read it.
Likewise the second time (in both instances, I read it during the course of a very hot day, so some elements of my judgement will have to stand suspect): this is ultimately an absorbing book, and I was absorbed all over again, even though I recalled clearly how the plot advanced and what was behind each twist and turn.
But this second time around, I was much better able to see the book's flaws - and it's odd I didn't see them as clearly the first time, since they're virtually innumerable. Eco achieved a vast commercial and popular success with this book, and so he became a prime target for jealous, nit-picking academics, experts on 14th century minutiae who can't even get each other to listen to their own papers at their own conventions, much less command the attention of nearly 8 million people in 20 countries and five continents. The Name of the Rose was therefore nit-picked to a fare-thee-well in various literary and learned journals (there being no Internet at the time, although gawd knows you can find plenty of that same nit-picking carefully transcribed online, if you care to look). I knew all that the second time I was reading it.
It didn't matter, though, because the book's least avoidable failures don't have anything to do with how long exactly Savonarola's nose was. Mostly, this book is flawed by the fact that it won't shut up. Facts are piled on facts with the careless abandon of students flinging looted furniture onto a street barricade, and all of it's done with such frenzied abandon that it's little wonder so many readers simply surrendered themselves to the hypnotic pull of it all. What in Heaven's name can you do with passages like this:
I lay, how long I do not know, the girl at my side. With a light motion her hand continued to touch my body, now damp with sweat. I felt an inner exultation, which was not peace, but like the last subdued flicker of a fire taking time to die beneath the embers, when the flame is already dead. I would not hesitate to call blessed a man to whom it was granted to experience something similar in this life (I murmured as if in my sleep), even rarely (and, in fact, I experienced it only at that time), and very rapidly, for the space of a single moment. As if one no longer existed, not feeling one's identity at all, or feeling lowered, almost annihilated: if some mortal (I said to myself) could for a single moment and most rapidly enjoy what I have enjoyed, he would immediately look with a baleful eye at this perverse world, would be upset by the bane of daily life, would feel the weight of the body of death ... Was not not what I had been taught? That invitation of my whole spirit to lose all memory in bliss was surely (now I understood it) the radiance of the eternal sun; and the joy that it produces opens, extends, enlarges man, and the gaping chasm man bears within himself is no longer sealed so easily, for it is the wound cut by the blow of love's sword, nor is there anything else here below more sweet and terrible. But such is the right of the sun: it riddles the wounded man with its rays and all the wounds widen, the man uncloses and extends, his very veins are laid open, his strength is now incapable of obeying the orders it receives and is moved solely by desire, the spirit burns, sunk into the abyss of what it is now touching, seeing its own desire and its own truth out-stripped by the reality it has lived and is living. And one witnesses, dumbfounded, one's own raving.
Raving - check!
This type of editorless bombast is a well-known literary gambit employed by mediocre typers to ward off inspection (because it's nowadays considered bad taste to speak ill of the recently dead, we'll resist calling this the Foster Wallace Gambit and instead call it the Joyce Gambit). "I am clearly insane," it dead-facedly tells would-be critics, "and so I am by all rights outside your jurisdiction." It's a good gambit - it often works (at a Barnes & Noble near you, somebody is right this moment spending $20 on a copy of House of Leaves), but it isn't often associated with this, the most rigorously plotted and real-world grounded of Eco's novels. And yet, the book is full of passages just like this one, where our author is basically just letting his fingers fly across the typewriter keys, pouring our page after page of willfully obscure anachronisms couched in flowery-archaic verbosities. No human editor could be expected to wade through this stuff with a red pen, marking two-thirds of it for deletion (the above quotation says, "Religiously-indoctrinated virgin though I was, I found sex quite enjoyable"). William Weaver deserves a Bronze Star for managing to translate it. And very few readers, I suspect now even more than I did thirty years ago, likely got through it all to the end.
Which is sad, because the book's plot - and its ending - snaps with invention. Trapped inside the bloated flea market of Name of the Rose is a rock-solid murder mystery of around 200 pages. Fortunately for readers who might find this frustrating, Ellis Peters wrote twenty or thirty such mysteries, all starring another Benedictine altogether.