The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. (This month’s in depth review.)
Quite a long time ago, probably round about 1983 when the book was first published in English, I read Umberto Eco’s novel avidly. I then, equally avidly, watched the Sean Connery film (1986) but not until it aired on TV. Recently, I watched the BBC programme of the eight part TV series made by a German/Italian collaboration. I lost my copy of the book in our Portuguese fire but felt a need to re-read and bought the Kindle version which I read concurrently with the TV series. I felt impelled to explore my reactions and thought I’d share them with you.
I loved the original book, because of the insights it gave into the mediaeval mind. Of course, Eco could be wrong, but it seemed to me that he had done all possible research, kept his own mind open, and got as close as a modern writer could.
It was the first (and so far last) time I have ever read a book with a dictionary to hand. I kept stumbling over vocabulary that I soon realised was part of Catholic, monastic and mediaeval usage. I am not altogether familiar with either Catholicism or monasteries and I was amused to note that on re-reading I had exactly the same problem with words like balneary (a monastic ‘bathroom’) and narthex (a porch in a monastery church) as well as Roman measures such as a sextary, used in the Italian monastery. (This last was hard to find in any online dictionary.) I had clearly had no need for the words in the intervening time and my mind had buried them. I suppose I could have ignored them but kept thinking I might need to know to make sense of clues in the mystery.
I also found my reading slowed by the amount of Latin. My Latin, originally studied till I was 18 then maintained to some extent during a law degree, is decidedly rusty. I can still cope with things like Fabula Petro Cuniculo or Winnie Ille Pu and with inscriptions on ruins but not with mediaeval debate, especially because mediaeval Latin is not quite the same as the Roman version. Perhaps if I didn’t have some grasp of Latin I would have been more able to skim over those bits!
I liked, from the start, the way a murder mystery was woven into a story about a kind of mediaeval Sherlock Holmes, so that we got crime, seeking solutions, solutions, and the entire world surrounding them in all its richness and strangeness. I like Eco’s writing and have read a few of his books and articles, but as I said recently to a friend, he does meander. However, I suppose his byways take us into unexpected corners, illuminating aspects of mediaeval life. I must say sometimes I just wish he’d get on with the story. It certainly builds to a satisfying if horrific climax, one tempered by the knowledge that Adso of Melk, the narrator, was still alive and indeed penning his tale at a great age.
I think the book stayed in my memory because of the depictions of monastic life which I found fascinating, and which helped explain ruins like Fountains Abbey when I visited them. The only thing that jarred with what I do know of mediaeval times was the size of the library. Books were precious in those days before printing, and very few monasteries or colleges had more than a shelf or two. The monastery here prides itself on its extensive library, but even so, it seemed a little too extensive to me. In a way, that takes the story into an alternative universe and gives it a kind of fantasy quality which for some readers (like me) actually enhances the overall effect. Similarly, the treasury seemed to have more than its fair share of relics for a small and comparatively unknown community.
Then I watched the film. I enjoy Connery’s acting and I thought the entire film was well done, but I have to say I thought it was too short to do real justice to Eco’s narrative. In just over two hours there was only time to create the chilling atmosphere in the monastery and show William’s erudition and sleuthing skills, not to ponder at length on the ecclesiastical debates that underpin the story. Still, I thought the acting and direction were excellent and that the film would serve as a good introduction to both the period and the book. I have rewatched it once but found myself distracted by other activities (I remember I was getting a meal ready) and with no pressing need to concentrate. I did put down my work and focus on the exciting ending all over again.
So after all that, I was thrilled to know that there was an eight hour series planned. Surely this would give sufficient time to explore the issues? Well, it did, but the series is, as one or two reviewers have already said, ‘messy’. The monks all look alike, the buildings, other than the library, are not well explained, and there are other flaws. The village girl who is brought to the monastery for one of the monks, with whom Adso falls in love, is shown as a feral woman living in the woods, and Adso meets her there, not in the monastery kitchen.
I gradually realised that this gave us the opportunity to have Adso actually speak aloud some of his thoughts which are interesting but obviously unspoken in the book. For instance, he tells her about the way to find out if someone is in love, by holding their wrist and noting the speed of the pulse if a certain name is mentioned. In the book he merely fears William or another monk will try this on him, Adso, using the name of the village girl.
There is another woman in the series who is not well explained. She appears to be living as an outlaw and is trying to put arrows through the pope’s military escort of Bernard Gui. She is injured in the process. Long after her first appearance we are led to think she might be one of the heretics some of whom were burnt by the inquisitors including Gui, or perhaps the daughter of one, and eventually this turns out to be the case. It’s possible the directors thought her presence would help to underline the importance of her father’s papers, which play a part in the story, but in the book, the heretics and their families are introduced in a more orderly fashion.
I was finding the series confusing. My husband, who, like me, had read the book and seen the film, reacted similarly. So that was when I bought the Kindle version of the book and started to re-read.
It was quite hard to keep pace with the series but avoid spoilers. I don’t mean spoilers in the sense of the murders, and the ending, but of details. A book is, of course, quite different in structure from a TV series (something recently brought home to many viewers and readers by Game of Thrones). As I said earlier, I had the same vocabulary problems. I also had instances of a kind of double-take where I couldn’t work out whether Eco was repeating himself (unlikely) or whether the TV adaptation was out of sequence (like Adso’s conversation with the girl).Much of the dialogue in the book is reproduced faithfully in the series, but not always in the exact place in the story.
The series is a joint German/Italian production and the cast are drawn from all over Europe. The acting is not, in ,y opinion, as stellar as that in the film. The young monk Adso (Damian Hardung) is brilliant as is Salvatore (Stefano Fresi). John Turturro as William of Baskerville is good, but lacks (for me) Connery’s commanding presence. Rupert Everett as Bernard is, I thought, disappointing. It doesn’t help that Turturro and Everett have similar dark, compelling features which, encased by a monk’s habit, make them hard to differentiate straight away. (Husband said to look at the hats or cowls, but I could never get past the eyes.) This is not to denigrate Everett’s acting; I simply thought the director missed opportunities to develop the character.
I reached the three quarters way point in the book, just about keeping pace with the half way point in the series, when BBC decided to give its weekly slot to a sports fixture (admirable, I’m sure, but it could no doubt have been differently organised) so I knew I would have to wait a fortnight for the next episode and so slow down in my reading of the text if I wanted to keep pace. I shrugged mentally and carried on to the end. I already knew the basic story after all, and it might be easier not to be reading and viewing concurrently; it was beginning to be a bit like watching a French film with subtitles that bear little relation to what is actually being said. (For the information of those of you who don’t watch films with subtitles or only ones where you don’t also know the language, this is a horribly/amusingly regular thing.)
Then BBC found yet another sports fixture for a Friday night. Surely they know these things in advance? Leaving viewers hanging for a fortnight when almost the entire cast are dressed in brown habits and are almost interchangeable is not the best of ideas. My husband had been away and missed a couple of episodes. He gave up trying to work out which…
The finale was just as exciting as in the book and the film, though not quite as believable. The very end, an epilogue with Adso and Baskerville, was beautifully done.
Eco shows us how the priests and monks, guardians of knowledge at the time, debated and argued. He explores their sometimes twisted logic, and their passionate beliefs in whatever they were saying. He writes a great deal about heresy, both factual and fictional (but true in the minds of the pope’s supporters).
Three big idea seem to underpin the story. The first is the division between the religious and the secular (in this case the pope in Avignon and the emperor in Rome). The second is the debate about poverty and riches, possession of worldly things, and the uses to which they should be put. The third is the anger with which people confront anyone who disagrees with them, accusing them of heresy and regarding them as deserving of death. These are, in fact, very modern problems and as such appeal to the twenty first century reader and viewer. We have the separation of church and state, the arguments for and against varying degrees of socialism (and the condition of the poorest in society) and the increasing tendency for politicians and their supporters, even in the ostensibly liberal ‘west’ to accuse their opponents of all kinds of treachery and crime. This all ties in well with a book that is basically about heresy.
William of Baskerville, the ‘hero’ of the book, is a man both of his time and with a modern way of thought, applying real, not false logic to puzzles and mysteries, unpacking for Adso and therefore for the reader, not only the immediate concerns but also the means of considering them properly. William tells us that the devil can be found in the arrogance of the spirit, an interesting concept. He also suggests that freeing ourselves of fear of the devil might be true wisdom.
The murders are, in the end, solved, and we learn (from Adso) the later fate of some of the other characters. Adso himself is an interesting character; in the story he is merely an assistant to William, but as a narrator he is brought to life not only for the duration of the events depicted but over a long life in his monastery at Melk.
Some of the other monks provide contrasting opinions on heresy and I was reminded of today’s fake news and conspiracy theories. This was particularly highlighted by the abbot’s long speech to Adso (in the book) about the jewels in his ring, a symbol of his office, and their symbolism, which differs from one group’s viewpoint to another. Adso’s dream (which he regards as a vision) is based on the Coena Cypriani, or the Feast of Cyprian, a book that uses mockery and laughter to combat prejudice. In some ways Adso’s dream interpretation mirrors the confusion in which he finds himself. In others, it foreshadows the importance of a hidden book to the mystery’s solution.
The text, of course, describes the fire’s effect on the entire monastery, not just the library. This makes for a less spectacular finale but one that perhaps stays longer with the reader. The film ignores this – as I said, it’s too short. The series touches on it, but barely.
Eco could not have foreseen events of today but in some ways his depiction of the fire that destroys the library has relevance for the recent fire in the roof of Notre Dame in Paris, both in the damage that occurred and in the arguments generated about general responsibility for historic buildings, and about religious donations.
A word about the title: I was unsure about its meaning and checked with Wikipedia. Apparently Eco had arguments with his publisher and wanted a neutral title that would give nothing away but would reflect mediaeval thought. Wikipedia says: In the Postscript to the Name of the Rose, Eco claims to have chosen the title “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”. I would, in fact, recommend looking at the Wikipedia article, not because it’s the fount of all wisdom but because it begins to answer some questions and points the way to explore further. At the end of the series, Adso attempts an explanation, telling us that texts are important. A rose withers and dies but the word that describes it remains.
At the heart of everything is the book, which is fitting because it symbolises both all the books in the library in that mediaeval monastery, a library that once described will never be forgotten, and the hidden book at the centre of the mystery. In some ways the library foreshadows and informs aspects of Terry Pratchett’s library in the Unseen University and the Hogwarts library in the Harry Potter series. It also, of course, reflects things like the Reading Room at the British Museum, and the wealth of information to be found online (again, using Wikipedia or various search engines as starting points).
The book certainly has meaning for the modern reader and it is not essential to know much about monasteries, mediaeval history, etc. to enjoy it simply as a complex murder mystery. The author explains everything necessary at length (sometimes at great length) and the story has plenty of relevance to us today. The film and the TV series, however, don’t do as much explaining, and the viewer would probably get more from them by reading the text, before, during, or after.
Altogether, I enjoyed the entire experience. I would recommend this ‘immersion’ but perhaps think carefully before embarking on it about the sequence to be followed. Book, series, film. Book, film, series. Film, book, series. I’m not sure and I think the answer would vary depending on the reader or viewer’s familiarity with mediaeval monasticism, and would differ for different people. At any rate, think hard before you dive in!
It’s certainly an experience that makes you think, wrapped up in brilliant writing and brilliant film production. I don’t think I can recommend it all highly enough.
Book – five stars plus
Film – four stars
Series – four stars
And yet – the series and the film both added immeasurably to the book if only as illustrations. And they caused me to re-read the book, which had to be a good thing!