“The Name of the Rose”: Forty Years Later
“The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s worldwide bestseller, was released in France forty years ago. A book of more than 500 pages with untranslated Latin excerpts… Question: would it have strive if it had been released now, in our TikTok era?
Fifty? Sixty? Eighty million? It is difficult to know, to the nearest ten million, the number of copies sold to date of Il Nome della Rosa, Umberto Eco’s novel published in Italy in 1980.
As Frederich Engels said, once a certain number is reached, quantity becomes quality.
And a bestseller, a sacred book.
This week, Grasset publishers in Paris are celebrating the 40th anniversary of this sacred book with a superb new edition, complete with the author’s drawings and preparatory notes.
What surprised everyone at the time was that the novel did not lend itself particularly well to becoming a page turner, and a global one at that. Who would be interested in a story about monks in an abbey in the 14th century that ran to more than 500 pages?
Especially since the author — then a professor of semiology at the University of Bologna and a witty chronicler of the zeitgeist in his weekly La Bustina di Minerva columns in the magazine L’Espresso — had taken perverse care to test his reader’s patience by inflicting a veritable obstacle course.
A title that is certainly poetic, but perfectly cryptic; a “heady” introduction to the genesis of an alleged manuscript; Latin blocks left untranslated; explanations of the protocol of monastic life in the abbey with its matins, lauds and vespers…; theological developments around poverty, heresies and the Papacy; a pointillist description of a church portal…
Publishers and friends had advised the then first novelist to delete the first hundred pages, which risked scaring off readers. However, Eco kept them because they constituted a form of “penance or initiation” for those who ventured to read them. Now, if this penitential discipline might have seemed trying to a reader in 1980, what can be said of a reader in 2022 who is immersed in our economy of attention? Would The Name of the Rose have had a chance in the age of TikTok?
In our humble opinion, more than ever.
The miracle of this book lies precisely in the penance it makes us undergo (with a lot of humour, to be precise). All these obstacles — the initial inception around the manuscript, the submission to the canonical hours of the abbey, the architectural details in the abbey, the Latin scoriae, the learned or trivial exchanges between monks… — turn out in the end to be addictive and bewitching.
And they help to immerse us in the very heart of the Middle Ages. With The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco offers the reader an unparalleled immersive experience: the ultimate medieval metaverse, more powerful than Silicon Valley will ever be.
Moreover, today’s reader would see his or her reading enriched by new echoes, one of which will necessarily have escaped the readers of 1982. Seen from where we are, this labyrinthine library built to prevent knowledge rather than to facilitate it, unfathomable as truth and deceptive as lies, where one can enter but not leave, suddenly begins to resemble our contemporary labyrinth: the Internet.
It seems to be open to all knowledge and yet, every day, it does more and more to eradicate, in the manner of the serial killer of the novel, the joy of knowledge and laughter.
Mutatis mutandis, the readers of The Name of the Rose of today and tomorrow will still be able to savour the unalterable poetry of the title, which is polysemous as hell. A facetious echo to the languid metaphysical melancholy of the final Latin verse, whose mysterious charm endures even though the library has long since been reduced to ashes.