Archive for May, 2008

Nicolas Barker once said that ‘all libraries lead threatened lives’. He should know – he, along with Cheryl Porter, oversees the Montefiascone Conservation Project, a conservation program focused on preserving the Seminario Barbarigo Library and its contents. A leaky bathroom was the culprit in that case, but the literary tumescence of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose disfavours such banal malefactors in its case of library trouble. Though its ingredients – a dead man or two, a cast of clowns with reasons to hide, an appreciably brilliant outsider, his somewhat dull-headed companion – are conventional, The Name of the Rose is not caught by the evils of cardboard or cut-outs.

William of Baskerville, our Chief Inspector Wexford in this 14th-century mystery, having been invited to investigate a mysterious death at an (unnamed) abbey, finds there a hubbub formed by fear and defensive self-interest. It is unclear, as always in a whodunnit, how the detective will penetrate the monks’ insular world. And it is a slippery orb, the sphere of the abbey; it is no mere drop of water whose quivering surface area allows access to anything solid and of weight. William and Adso, the sidekick narrator, visit at a messy time, with the abbey beleaguered not only because of the sudden death of a young monk, but also because of the fierce theological (and remember the historical setting – political) debates which all but obscure the devotion to God which forms the nominal anchor of the monks’ community. Difference of opinion in the context of religion is easily ascribed import beyond the tickle of intellectual disagreement. Residents of the abbey routinely take sides in arguments about whether, for example, Christ ever laughed, the ramifications of which would be of dramatic significance for men who live and die by the Word. Each opinion is extravagantly coherent and extensive, the pleasurably painful result of being able to follow one’s intellectual desire wherever it leads.

Against this background fraught with the patent lust for knowledge (and surely the repression of other lusts), the expression and attainment of it is understandably key. The library, from whose windows it seems the dead man fell, is an obvious place to start. But the library is closed to all but its keeper and his assistant, and the prohibition includes William. Eco, with his sheltering of the library from eager eyes, triggers a tide of thought, not dissimilar to that of Ahab pending his meeting with the white whale. What is the library, what is inside? What is a library? What does it represent? Who has been there, and can we enter? We are warned, though – its representative force, and its forbidding geography – ‘A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth.’

Even before an original copy of the Magna Carta sold for $21.5 million last year, we have known that people will do wild things for words, the objects that contain them, and the ideas they represent. Words are weapons, symbols and sources of power, utterly dangerous. So it is no surprise when deaths start coming, thick and fast, and fingers are pointed with equal speed. Yet who could divine the perpetrator in such a rabble masquerading as an order? Logic, though William puts all his trust in it, can only do its compromised best in the face of lunacy.

The name and the rose exist together; the rose dies, and we are left only with the name. But what is the name without the rose? Eco implicates us all with this curtain-drawn view of the confusion wrought by words, those pretenders at clarity and meaning, which can baffle even and perhaps especially the learned. I bet those Carthusian monks never have problems like these.

i don’t often go out and buy new books. when i do it feels pretty good. but usually i borrow things from people or see what i can get from secondhand shops and opportunity shops. however, i read the review of hanif kureishi’s Something to Tell You in The Age on the weekend. that’s surprising in itself – kureishi is not someone i like to keep up with, partly because i wasn’t really into my beautiful laundrette or the body, and partly because i hear that Intimacy is often described as shallowly disguised self-exorcism. but there’s something about the new book that makes me want to read it, despite the title which is as equivocal and as indicative of average content as you can get. probably it has something to do with the main character being a psychoanalyst. or with the line quoted in the review, something to do with the middle-aged jamal (the psychoanalyst) assessing his son’s girlfriend as a hot piece, someone for whom he would burn down a barn or destroy Vermeers. i always like not very sensible declarations of lust, especially ostensibly literary ones. it’s why i like the internet so much.

i’ve got a couple of books to write notes about, which i will do soon.

other things:

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yesterday i turned the great gatsby from a SHOULD into a HAVE DID. i did it quite quickly because, bloody, it is good. but i couldn’t stop from ‘recontextualising’ and superimposing ‘modern accents’ and thinking about marc jacobs eau de parfum. i can see don delillo writing a short novel about a hideous writer ‘bringing gatsby into our times’ and proposing to have planes explode instead of cars, and for the jazz to be atonal. i feared to google this title in case i found an anti-boffin asking ‘so like what happens at the end of the great gatbsy i don’t get it???’ and some answer saying ‘daisy and tom buchanan r having affairs. and they both find out aobut it and get pretty mad lol. and gatsby buys a house and throws massive parties and then i think he kills soemone?’

it turns out i don’t really feel like saying much about the book, mostly because it seems everyone else read this book in year 11. (meanwhile, my main examinable text in english was the movie shine starring geoffrey rush.) it is pretty difficult to believe that gatsby came only three years after the beautiful and damned (my copy of which is likely to remain for some months with its bookmark at page 29, at least until i start hearing that the movie is coming out) with its almost insufferable lack of self-restraint. tony tanner’s amusingly rhetorical but nevertheless compelling introduction in the 1990 edition of the great gatsby states that it was by fitzgerald’s own hand that gatsby was edited and restructured from a messy, confessional thing into its final form. there is a somewhat magical perfection to this book and i think it likely that i will re-read it one day, on purpose.

colette’s the other one is not recommended by any means to those interested in polyamory, except as a cautionary tale. it is also a fine introduction to the quintessential jerk-off french male genius character. no sex in it though.

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