The Name of the Rose, As Yet by Javier Berzal de Dios
On July 29, 2015, I received an unusual email from an undergraduate: “You mentioned that you want your students to know a few things well rather than many things superficially. If you would humor me, what books have you read better than others?” The question felt strangely personal. Cataloguing the books that beckon us to study them is akin to an exercise of exposure. But the question surprised me, partly because it could not be answered with the professor’s habitual refrain, “It’s on the syllabus,” so I humored the student. My inventory of six or seven books began with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
My listing of books was preceded, in characteristic academic fashion, by a qualifier: this is a litany of texts to which I have often returned, and a tentative one at that. I do not know what books I have “read better than others.” I am not sure what it means, to read a book well. And how could that knowledge be assessed? Is it a question of factual expertise, quoting relevant passages from memory? Or of academic perceptiveness, to address its aesthetic virtues and historical relevancy? There must be something more essential and immediate. Surely to read a book well entails reading it attentively, with care and under the right circumstances. I say surely, but such notions swiftly invoke clichés of absorbed, tranquil engagements in ideal settings: a green velvet corner armchair on a rainy day; a recondite beach on a summer afternoon; reclining in a window nook with a cup of black tea… Do people actually read like this, as if posing for a nineteenth-century portrait?
Recrudescing books have unfinished business. They endured ravenous readings. I’ll admit, it was unfair to confront them during sustained insomniac nights, evenings of existential turmoil, and intermittent subway rides. Maybe I should’ve gently heeded to the text’s needs to ponder: what type of reading does this book request? But there is no need to adorn a tryst with wistful recollections. Books that are tender and mild seldom leave enduring marks. I have an inclination for that distinctive breed of books that seems to resent cloistered safety: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Neverending Story.
Above all, books I remember are books I remember reading. These are books that inscribe a specific moment in my memory, anchoring sensory perceptions. Snow days and dimly lit summer nights that would’ve been quickly erased from my mind came to be engraved. The Name of the Rose has made its way sneakily into this category. Despite recurrent readings in different languages, typing the words “The Name of the Rose” in my response email conjured the rocking sound of a trans-European train and the texture of cluttered, coarse bed linens. Eco’s words will never feel or sound like anything else. Sneakily, I insist, for I did not expect such an affecting reading and, at that point, it wasn’t even me who read the novel. Or its salient introduction.
If you recall, Umberto Eco begins The Name of the Rose with a semiotic labyrinth. Noting the circumstances upon which he began working on the book, the writer explains how the novel hinged on the unexpected appearance of a volume by a certain Abbé Vallet that claimed to faithfully reproduce an original medieval manuscript authored by Adso of Melk. Six days after this serendipitous discovery, and amidst the Soviet invasion of Prague, the narrator flees Bohemia to meet his paramour in Vienna, where they sailed up the Danube. What was no doubt a tempestuous affair came to a halt just a few miles outside of Salzburg: “the person with whom I was travelling disappeared—taking Abbé Vallet’s book, not out of spite, but because of the abrupt and untidy way in which our relationship ended.” Nothing speaks of the significance of a romantic encounter as an unspoken name substituted by stubbornly tortuous words: “the person with whom I was travelling.” Deserted, the narrator is haunted by the original medieval chronicle, which leads him, he proclaims, to publish his own version of the text—one that, despite being based on a seventeenth-century rendition, he nonetheless feels compelled to present as if it were the authentic medieval manuscript. “Let us say it is an act of love. Or, if you like, a way of ridding myself of numerous, persistent obsessions.” We must find solace in the love of writing, he discloses, for pure narrative pleasure.
Like the narrator in The Name of the Rose’s introduction, I too met my traveling companion in Europe. My plane landed in Munich, and together we wandered though the European summer. Nothing like a halcyon journey up the Danube, and certainly at a time far from the dramatic events of 1968: the most strenuous surprise Prague held for us was incessant rain.
Read out loud not far from Salzburg, Eco’s introductory notes linger: “There are visions of books as yet unwritten.” Although I anticipate much of the impending events in that mysterious Italian abbey, the downtempo cadence and honey timbre stipulate an altogether new encounter with the text.
Caesuras: the flashing beats of Berlin, the malt of Bruges, the aperitivo in Milan’s Navigli… Throughout the journey, the reading of The Name of the Rose was protracted, delayed. This is the novel as it is to remain. I do not know what other rendition of Adso of Melk, fourteenth-century Franciscan, could be more tangible or alive.
It seems so obvious in retrospect.
My traveling companion’s plane left a day in August, The Name of the Rose in her suitcase. The reading was left unfinished, just a few pages to its end.
Perhaps “the rose of old remains only in its name.”
But there are visions of words as yet unread.
More work by Javier Berzal de Dios in apt:
“Stairs, Seizing” (First print annual, January 2011)
Javier Berzal de Dios, born in Madrid, is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Western Washington University, where he teaches early modern art and historiography. He obtained a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in art history and a M.A. in philosophy from the City University of New York, Queens College. He has work appearing or forthcoming in Sixteenth Century Journal, SubStance, and Renaissance and Reformation, and he is a contributor to online pedagogical projects like SmartHistory and Art History Teaching Resources.