Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Probably one of the deepest, most literary mysteries I’ve ever read! This novel contains as much (or more) discussion of philosophy, history, Apocalyptic revelation, ecclesiastical politics, and the purpose of knowledge, as it does of character and plot development, to say nothing of actual “detecting.” But while I felt bogged down in a few places, for the most part the characters and the mystery, as well as the richly portrayed medieval and monastic culture, kept me fascinated and turning pages quite eagerly.

The Franciscan monk William of Baskerville is an admirable protagonist and “detective” (not by profession, of course, but the role he assumes in the story). To me he resembles a combination of other characters I like: Brother Cadfael (another monk who investigates murder), Sherlock Holmes (uses similar methods of reasoning), and Albus Dumbledore (the wise mentor of great intelligence, keen shrewdness and courteous manners).

In the 1320s, there is upheaval in the Holy Roman Empire, marked by power struggles between Emperor and Pope, and accusations of heresies between various monastic orders. A meeting is arranged between two religious factions, one supporting the Emporer and one the Pope, to address the issue of the monastic lifestyle of poverty, which is divisive not only among the clergy, but has acquired political significance as well. William of Baskerville is one who will speak in favor of poverty, and arrives several days early at the designated location of the meeting, an unnamed but ancient and magnificent abbey. Accompanying him is Adso, William’s young novice pupil, who like a faithful Watson is the narrator of the story.

William is renowned for his wisdom and cleverness, and for this reason the abbot of this particular abbey beseeches William to look into the recent death of a young monk. Naturally, the matter proves to be more grave and complex than it first appeared. Over the course of the week that William and Adso spend at the abbey, several more deaths occur, together with apocalyptic portents and rumors of illicit sexual relationships and forbidden books full of dark secrets. As William attempts to unravel the clues, he and Adso encounter a mysterious reticence among the abbot and older monks regarding the restricted library, and William becomes convinced the key to the puzzle lies in that quarter. But discovering how to access the library and make sense of its labyrinthine passages is a whole other challenge. Adding to these difficulties is the arrival of the Pope’s contingent, accompanied by an Inquisitor, who desires to destroy the credibility of the Emperor’s supporters by discovering connections to heretical sects.

Obviously, this story is complex and involved! But despite the intricacies of the plot, the actual episodes of sleuthing and character interaction comprise only half the length of the book. The rest of the 500-some pages are devoted to long passages of discussion and meditation on the other topics I mentioned at the start, particularly the history of the monastic orders involved in the story, and the rise of heresies and doctrines that have led to all the political/ecclesiastical strife. There are also discussions of the value of knowledge and books; the grandeur of the abbey’s treasury; the various kinds of lust that can afflict the monks (not just carnal, but also lust for knowledge); and religious disputes such as whether or not laughter is a holy or a wicked thing, to name some. I confess my attention wandered during some of these passages. But they do enrich the story and pertain to the development and motivations of various characters, so they are not merely excessive rabbit trails!

The Name of the Rose provides a fascinating glimpse into medieval monastic life and the intrigue that could surround people of power, even in the church. Beyond this richness of setting, the portayal of the characters is equally riveting, and together with the skillfully constructed murder mystery, makes for an excellent and enjoyable novel.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt

The subtitle of Stephen Greenblatt's book Will in the World is How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. The subtitle of my review of this book is Why Literary Scholars Should Not Write History. Now, in all fairness, Stephen Greenblatt is a great Renaissance scholar. He is (according to the back of my book) the University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and is widely recognized as an influential voice in the field of Renaissance studies. My professors in graduate school noted that he is considered the voice in Renaissance studies at this time, so I have to tread lightly with respect to criticism of his work. Additionally, Greenblatt is considered a founder of the New Historicist movement with literary studies. Boiled down to its most basic, this movement is essentially the attempt by literary scholars to read history through literature. Greenblatt does this often in Will in the World. He quotes a passage from one of Shakespeare's plays and follows the quote up with an explanation about how one might read this passage in terms of Shakespeare's own life.

Notice the use of the word "might." I was only about five pages into this book when I began noticing something that disturbed me. Greenblatt claims to be examining the way that "Shakespeare became Shakespeare," but his theories are so speculative as to make this subtitle somewhat dishonest. Words and phrases such as "maybe," "perhaps," "it is possible," "almost certainly," and so forth are sprinkled throughout the book, but the story that Greenblatt weaves is so clever as to make this element less noticeable. But it is a problem in this book. I have no doubt that Greenblatt can handle a solid interpretation of Shakespeare with aplomb. In fact, he does it repeatedly throughout the book, and many of his close readings of passages from the plays and sonnets are beautifully done. As soon as he begins speculating on how these passages might relate to Shakespeare's life, he loses some authority. For instance, Greenblatt makes general observations about the marriages between characters in a number of plays and concludes that Shakespeare's marriage must have been unhappy. He notes some rather random points from Shakespeare's plays about fathers and makes what I would have to call sweeping statements about Shakespeare's own father. The problem is not that Greenblatt is necessarily wrong. The problem is that we have absolutely no idea if he is right or wrong and no way of finding out.

There is, in short, a dearth of information about Shakespeare. Apart from a smattering of mentions and name listing on a few legal documents, there is almost nothing tangible that modern readers have about Shakespeare's life. Thus, Greenblatt turns to the plays. The problem with this, however, is that the plays don't really provide anything more than a vague possibility for what was happening is someone's life. Case in point: after the publication of Lord of the Rings, a number of critics concluded that Tolkien must have been making a comment about World War II. Were we lacking information about and from Tolkien, this might appear to be a good argument. The problem is that Tolkien stated quite clearly on a number of occasions that this was not the case. I would have to say that the same potential exists in Shakespeare's writing. It's very possible that Greenblatt is making legitimate inferrences from the plays. It's even more possible that he's just creating a fantasy, however well-written.

I have to admit that far from convincing me, Greenblatt's book only raised more questions in my mind about who Shakespeare was. This review isn't the place to have a debate about the topic, but frankly, if I were a Shakespearean scholar I would have some major questions about the lack of information available about him. And that's what I took away from Greenblatt's book. I learned a great deal about Elizabethan England but almost nothing about Shakespeare. In fact, I feel that I know even less about him from reading this book than before I read it: in the process of opening the door of speculation, Greenblatt only managed to open the door of doubt. As a result, I have to say that I can't recommend Will in the World. It's certainly interesting and extremely readable, but it falls too short as a solid look at Shakespeare and is highly disappointing from such an accomplished academic.

Cross-posted at Dwell in Possibility