Even before the publication of Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983)—which won for its author Italy’s two most prestigious literary awards, the Premio Strega and the Premio Viareggio—Umberto Eco enjoyed an impressive reputation in Europe and the United States. He was known, however, primarily in scholarly circles and almost exclusively as the author of a number of books on literary theory and aesthetics, including such studies as A Theory of Semiotics (1976) and The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979). The Name of the Rose, his first and only novel to date, catapulted him to worldwide fame. With the monographic Postscript to “The Name of the Rose” (published in Italy in 1983 as Postille a “Il nome della rosa”), the author refocused his attention on the scholarly preoccupation with signs, readers, and the Middle Ages that preceded (and culminated in) his writing a detective novel set in November, 1327, and peopled with such Sherlock Holmesian monks as William of Baskerville (a Franciscan and the story’s principal sleuth) and Adso of Melk (his Benedictine sidekick). The wit and irony ubiquitous in the novel find equally free expression in Postscript to “The Name of the Rose.”
Postscript to “The Name of the Rose” is divided into fifteen sections, including “Notes.” Eleven pages of illustrations accompany the text and consist largely of photographs of architectural details of twelfth century churches and of medieval miniatures in commentaries on the Book of Revelation. Below each of the eleven pictures appears a passage from The Name of the Rose; the illustrations greatly assist the reader in visualizing the novel’s narrative descriptions of the abbey and the macabre events that occur therein. Eco’s comments on his best-seller, on the other hand, will hardly satisfy the reader who expects definitive or straight answers to why things happen the way they do in the novel. The author-commentator prefers to provide a few, often tantalizing, details on the background of the novel’s composition and then allow the reader to draw his own conclusions.
In the first section, “The Title and the Meaning,” Eco states that no novelist should supply interpretations of his own narrative. To do so would greatly limit a novel’s purpose, which is, according to a somewhat tongue-in-cheek Eco, to generate interpretations. While he readily admits that almost any title, nevertheless, constitutes an interpretive key provided by the author, he claims that in his own case the title for The Name of the Rose came to him partially by chance (no further explanation); he hopes, moreover, that it disorients the reader and muddles his ideas. Eco continues in this ironic vein by concluding his opening remarks with the recommendation that the author “die once he has finished writing” in order “not to trouble the path of the text.” In fact, however, he is determined to do exactly the opposite: to live and to trouble his text’s path as much as possible. He begins the next selection, “Telling the Process,” by observing that, while the author must not interpret his own works, it is nevertheless permissible for him to satisfy his readers’ curiosity by relating “why and how he wrote his book.” Eco, however, does not explain how such “why’s” and “how’s” can be clearly distinguished from interpretive authorial comments. How, then, does he justify Postscript to “The Name of the Rose,” which many readers will take, despite his protestations, as a form of interpretation? The remainder of the book does not answer that question as much as it demonstrates that Eco the Cat greatly enjoys playing with Reader the Mouse.
The game continues in “Naturally, the Middle Ages,” in which the author makes such startling revelations as this: He wrote a novel because he “felt like poisoning a monk.” The psychological implications, while ostensibly astonishing, should be taken cum grano salis. Much more valuable to the cultivated (and perhaps even to the unsophisticated) reader are the sections entitled “The Mask” and “The Novel as Cosmological Event.” In these, Eco explains his desire not only to tell about the Middle Ages but also to narrate, as much as possible, in and through the period by means of an invented contemporary chronicler. To prepare to write historical fiction, he had, therefore, to read and reread chronicles of the time in order to acquire their style and tempo. In so doing, he claims to have “rediscovered what writers have always known:books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” Having offered a plausible rationale for the multiple frames of his own Gothic tale, Eco then proceeds to undermine, at least in part, the seriousness of what he has said by stating that a novel has less to do with words than cosmology. Citing Genesis as a perfect example, he immediately undercuts it with an irreverent if humorous reference to Woody Allen (“we all have to choose our role models”). The chief point that emerges from such banter is that The Name of the Rose seeks to re-create a world long dead. Notwithstanding the text’s numerous intertextualities and allusions to modern (for example, Heideggerian) philosophy and recent literary theory (for example, Eco’s own beloved semiotics) few would deny that the author succeeds in proving once again that well-established constraints of setting in fiction or poetry often result in increased creativity on the part of the writer.
In “Who Speaks?” Eco offers readers James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Moutain, 1927) as models of “a concentrative universe” such as he wished to create. The author, both in this section and in “Preterition” and “Pace,” explains with great insight the value of having the eighty-year-old Adso function as a “mask.” By having the aged Adso speak of his youthful experiences with Brother William, the author can capture, at will, the innocent voice of youth or the wisdom of a man possessed of a long lifetime of experience. Rather than longwinded authorial interjections, the novel’s digressions exemplify “the style of the medieval chronicler, eager to introduce encyclopedic notions every time something was mentioned.”
“Constructing the Reader” displays Eco the literary theoretician at his prime. According to Eco’s reader-oriented theory of criticism, detailed in Opera aperta (1962) and The Role of the Reader, any work in progress always contains a dialogue between the author and his ideal reader. Who was Eco’s model reader for The Name of the Rose? The answer, once more, is neither simple nor straightforward. He claims to have imagined an accomplice who would play his game and who would become (along with the author) thoroughly medieval. He also wanted someone, however, who would become his prey and who would experience a transformation as the text evolved, someone who would take pleasure in “the metaphysical shudder” that only the detective novel can offer.
The concluding sections—“The Detective Metaphysic,” “Enjoyment,” “Postmodernism, Irony, the Enjoyable,” “The Historical Novel,” and “Ending”—constitute, in large part, exercises in literary criticism or excursions in metaphysical reflection. Eco equates, for example, the fundamental question of philosophy and psychoanalysis with that of the detective novel: “Who is guilty?” He compares the labyrinth in his novel to abstract models of conjecture and insists that the reader should not only amuse himself (as he explores the world of the novel) but also learn at the same time. He categorizes the historical novel as one of three ways of fictionally narrating the past—the other two being the Gothic novel or romance and the swashbuckling novel or cloak-and-dagger story. For all of his scholarly assessments and philosophical commentary, however, he returns, in the end, to the pose with which he began. Eco wrote The Name of the Rose because of an obsessive idea; it remains for the reader to decipher for himself the meaning of that idea’s realization in print.
The Atlantic. CCLV, January, 1985, p. 100.
Booklist. LXXXI, January 1, 1985, p. 613.
Library Journal. CX, January, 1985, p. 87.
Los Angeles Times. November 30, 1984, V, p. 30.
The New York Times Book Review. XXXI, December 20, 1984, p. 49.
Times Literary Supplement. November 16, 1984, p. 1310.