The Name of the Rose

Recently I began a Scribd subscription, and I’ve been happily surprised by how regularly I’ve been using it to listen to audiobooks. I’ve been bad about reading books in the evenings, which I’ve blamed on workdays of on-screen editing followed by an hour or so of writing afterward. I just don’t feel like sitting down with a book after all of those words and screens. But somehow listening to a book is different.

I plunged in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, one of those books that has been vaguely on my radar for years, but I’ve never gotten around to reading it. I thought it was going to be heavy because Eco was a professor of semiotics and it’s won all of the awards, so I was pleased when I realized that it’s just a gothic novel. A smart gothic novel. A page-turning gothic novel. But a gothic novel all the same.

Writing two hundred years after the gothic novel came into its own, Eco very self-consciously checks all of the genre boxes, starting on page one. The preface recounting the medieval document Eco “found” and obsessed over for years matches the made-up histories of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto or Thomas Chatterton’s forged medieval poetry, and Eco’s chosen setting of a Catholic monastery is as classic as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. Naturally Eco also liberally spices his novel with inquisitors, graphic descriptions of heretics burning at the stake, grisly murders, female seductions, homoerotic liaisons between monastic brothers, secret passageways, labyrinths, long sermons about hell, and so on.

Happily Eco marries the classic gothic novel with the twentieth-century murder mystery, complete with a Sherlock Holmes detective and a Doctor Watson narrator. (Wikipedia informs me that the initial description of William of Baskerville [as in Hounds, yes] is nearly word for word Arthur Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes in A Study in Scarlet.) William of Baskerville is a religious brother, of course, but he is a grounded man of science in the tradition of Roger Bacon, so he often sees through the “magic” of the monastery through deductions and his knowledge of geometry, or foreign languages, or natural medicines. The long discourses on theology, semiotics, and ethics may not be exactly historically accurate, but as I complained in an earlier blog post about anachronisms, I actually think it’s more interesting for Eco to work through the philosophic dilemmas of the 1980s than to try to completely inhabit the medieval moment of his characters.

Perhaps unsurprising (see: the 1980s pub date), Eco takes a postmodern turn at the end of his novel, and it is left somewhat open how “successfully” the mystery is solved. I am more of a traditionalist when it comes to detective stories—yes, I prefer Dorothy Sayers’s tidy endings to, say, the descent into madness at the end of Paul Auster’s City of Glass—and I was happy enough to read a fairly positive spin onto the end of The Name of the Rose. But perhaps like Adso, the novice who narrates the story, I am too ready to accept simple answers. Either way, the novel is a rollicking gothic phantasmagoria with plenty of moral and cultural quandaries I’m still mulling over.

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