Studia IV

THE HISTORICAL NOVEL AND UMBERTO ECO’S TRICK

The translation of Hadrian’s Memoirs generated discussions on the validity of the historical novel as a species. The most important opinions seemed to me to be the ones expressed by Messrs. Ov. S. Crohmălniceanu and Nicolae Manolescu. Mr. Ov. S. Crohmălniceanu (“Literature and History”, in Contemporanul, No. 9, February 24, 1984) essentially points out there are two ways of making history and especially - we would add - a history of mentalities: (1) to get into the character’s boots and restore an extinct world from all documents available, a procedure resorted to, for instance, by Anatole France in The Procurator of Judea, and by Marguerite Yourcenar in the above-mentioned novel; or (2) starting from the historical sources, without the assistance of sympathetic magic this time, but by the maximum stimulation of the related imaginative magic, to create homonymous characters that should come to life and act like the historical characters; that is a procedure resorted to by Tolstoy in War and Peace. “Marguerite Yourcenar pushes things even further: she refuses to see any difference between the historical novel and the common one... Hadrian ’explains’ himself and finds a justification even to his own deeds he regrets. But to us he becomes fully credible also because, more often than not, he simply does not understand certain things. This fundamental blindness, proper to the human nature, gives him an extraordinary spiritual, moral and social truthfulness.” I would name such a blindness the divine folly of human nature.

Mr. Nicolae Manolescu (“How Is a Historical Novel to Be Written?’’ in Ateneu, No. 2, February 1984) also refuses to accept the difference between the historical novel and the common one from a reductionist viewpoint, which annihilates the literary quality of a fresco-novel of such extensive texts writen by Tacitus, Michelet, Iorga, whom Mr. Crohmălniceanu gives as examples in his more nuanced analysis. Here is Mr. Manolescu’s thesis: “A few years ago, at a round table devoted to the historical novel, during the Days of Călinescu Culture at Oneşti I put forward the thesis that the historical novel does not exist. I aroused protests among the few people who took me at my word and made most people there, who did not believe me, smile in amusement at my propensity for the paradox. My idea was the following: properly speaking, a novel is not historical, irrespective of its theme, it is topical, that is it is more closely connected to the person writing it and the age he is writing it in than to the personality or age it describes: if I am interested in this latter one I do not need to write a novel, pure history is enough for me: finally, if I am a novelist I describe my life and the life of my contemporaries in the same way as well as of other people’s life who lived in other centuries before, namely I write from my own point of view. To say there is a historical novel means claiming there are as many kinds of historical novels as there are themes we can think of. To speak of a historical novel is tantamount to speaking of the novel of a love story or of a war. These formulas may be useful for each of them taken separately, but they are not valid in a classification. For it is not the theme that makes a novel, but it is the novel that chooses a theme. Marguerite Yourcenar is right: ’No matter what you may be trying to do, you are always reconstructing the moment in your own way.’ It is true, she adds: ’But this is quite a lot, for you use the original stones only.’ Any novelist uses original stones today.” I think Mr. Manolescu gives too many meanings to the word original.

Quite original, too, in its own way, is the trick Umberto Eco played on us when he made his literary debut, with the novel The Name of the Rose. Being a classicist, an aesthetician and a semiotician, Mr. Umberto Eco also has a charming talent as a novelist, with which he seems to make jokes quite often, leaving aside the limits of his constitutive erudition and scientific rigour that define his personality.

Subject to the sweet wing of fashion, Eco’s “historical” novel has turned into a case which can adequately be analyzed from the vantage of the psychology of the success. This was actually remarked at that time by Mrs. Irina Mavrodin (România literară, No. 10, 1985, p. 20) with good reason, but also with nuanced and restrained sobriety (“if we are to believe the Marginalia”), as is but natural when it comes to a work about which the near future can tell us more than the present.

Nobody can deny there are very many fragments in the novel that are beautifully written, nobody can deny one may read about moving frames of mind and events (Adso and the girl in the kitchen, the girl’s burning as a heretic, Jorge swallowing Aristotle’s Poetics) and about the convincing parable of the dogmatic ban on laughter (“Christ has never laughed”!). I quite doubt the absolute truth of a statement like this:

“Eco... demonstrated one can brilliantly write a lively novel and a detective plot starting from the most austere subject matter” (Dan Hăulică, in Secolul 20, No. 272-274, 8-10, 1983; hereafter mentioned as Secolul). Some tens of years ago I read an excellent detective novel, which had started from an even more austere subject: the viruses. Its title was La mort en blouse blanche and was printed in the famous inter-war collection “La masque”. The plot was similar to the one developed by Eco, seemingly based on a real fact. The author published it under a pseudonym, as she herself was to say later. She was the wife of a well-known Romanian biologist (both of them are now in pace), who had worked for a few years with the Pasteur Institute of Paris, where the action actually takes place (this is Raisa Nicolau, wife of Professor Ştefan Nicolau).

Eco’s Marginalia (Secolul, pp. 87-106) are an alibi quite obvious for anybody in touch with reality. Frightened by the success of his novel, the author strengthened his new position he had never hoped for and thought it was incumbent on him to inform that he had foreseen it and especially how he had come to it. All scientists were happy to help him. The semiotician wrote a work himself, in which he could reflect and apply his theories. However, Eco was aware of some weak points of his literary text, for instance the conventional character of the dialogues (Secolul, pp. 94-96).

If, as I was saying, in the debut book of a novelist, it is proper to look for what he managed to do well and to reveal it, showing our understanding for what inherently pertains to being a beginner in the trade and art of novel writing, we cannot assume a guilty tolerance as regards Eco’s capacity as a critic, philologist and historian, on behalf of which he asks, with good reason, for accurate facts in a historical novel, among the main aims of which one has to detect the minute reconstruction of the age, with that subtle insight which a historian not backed by a writer and a writer not backed by a historian cannot have (Secolul, pp. 93-105).

Despite the scientific rigour, which he admitted in Marginalia as being the major “quality” of his novel, Eco’s trick derives from an erudition that does not hesitate to mix ex aequo with improvization, inconsistency and even ignorance as regards certain details.

On Mr. Umberto Eco’s visit to Romania in 1985, a few years after the publication of his novel, I had the opportunity to express my perplexity directly and then in written form. Of course the part on tragedy of Aristotle’s Poetics was entirely translated in 1278, from the Greek into Latin, by Wilhelm of Moerbeke, but the fact took place after the death of Thomas Aquinas, therefore too late, after the scholastic philosophers of the 12th century (Marbord, Conrad of Hirschau, John of Garlandia, Gervasius of Melkley) had already consolidated their outlook on the beautiful and art.

Aristotle’s Poetics was ignored not only by the scholasticism of the 13th and 14th centuries, but also by Dante, Boccaccio and probably Petrarch. It is only after G.Valla made his translation in 1448 that the Poetics became a popular and influential work in aesthetics, actually being the most popular and influential one for a long time. There is a marked tendency to dub the Middle Ages as Aristotelian and the modern age as anti-Aristotelian when, in fact, Aristotle was for the former a forbidden book as regards poetics, and aesthetics, generally speaking, but was much admired and studied by the latter. Of course it is true that the Middle Ages, quite familiar with the Stagirite’s other writings, were able to infer their aesthetic opinions from them and assimilate his philosophical method and spirit in their aesthetics, says Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz in his History of Aesthetics. These are the facts, but to say that in 1327, when the action of The Name of the Rose takes place, the Poetics, namely the part on tragedy, was on everybody’s lips and that all people were trying hard to know the part on comedy, which will finally be swallowed by Jorge, is something quite different from the facts. It is rather distorting and untrue to let people infer (and this can be inferred from Eco’s entire text) that the part on comedy might be lubricously interesting to the young and old monks, who were sure they would find there a kind of avant la lettre Hypnerotomachia Polyphili, that they would probably learn what those falliká Aristophanes spoke about as part of the Bacchanalia actually were. Greek was too little known at that time in the West. So the original text of the (banned) Poetics could not be accessible to many monks, who were as a matter of fact quite ignorant in other aspects of the spirit (proof to it is the need for translation into Latin made by Wilhelm of Moerbeke).

It is only before and especially after the fall of Constantinople (1453) that the Byzantine scholars take refuge to the West, bringing their knowledge of Greek along. Their students, such as Guillaume Budé (1467-1540), Erasmus (1496-1536), Henri II Étienne (1531-1598), with his Thesaurus graecae linguae (1572), are the first great Hellenists of the West. Between them and William Occam (cca 1300-1350) or the Irish monks who knew Greek and Arabic there is a time span of almost or over two hundred years. We are no longer willing to accept the would-be counterargument, as it had already happened: that the Poetics was burnt when that abbey burnt down and remained unknown! The book says as clearly as possible that all the monks who had come to that abbey from all over the West were familiar with the part on tragedy and wanted to read the part on comedy by all means. When entering the abbey and speaking to Abbone, Occam himself says: “He made a movement in surprise, which took away from him any imposing appearance that is expected from a serious and great person, as Aristotle requires.” And Aristotle requires it at the beginning of Chapter XV of the Poetics.

I do not understand how, as far as the author is concerned, one can speak of “the competence and devotion with which the portico of the church is described or the jewels in the treasury of the abbey... the way the whole abbey is described and built. We mean that ’The Name’ is a remarkable treatise on architecture” (Florin Chiriţescu, in Secolul, p. 33).

We shall mention only a few of the huge number of striking inadvertencies, aberrations and anachronisms so that the reader may see by himself what a “remarkable treatise on architecture” that is. Let us take the portico, for instance.

From its columns “there appeared two buttresses which, having other buttresses and numerous arches above, made one look as in a chaos at the portico proper”. Buttresses on columns, moreover in a portico, this is a double aberration. “The portico proper” is not the folding door admitting people to the church, it is the very portico under which one has to pass to reach the door. On its tympanum Adso sees four fearful animals holding a book each. And Eco enumerates them: the eagle, the bull and the lion; therefore there are only three of them. It should have been compulsory for Adso to know that those were the emblematic animals of the Evangelists, whom Eco - out of carelesness, obviously - reduces in number to three. Adso’s not being able to tell the animals of the Evangelists is repeated several times in the text (if the fourth one, the angel, could be called an animal).

Above the church choir, says Eco, there was “a daring steeple, pointed to the sky”. Quite impossible! It would have fallen to the ground as it would have had nothing to rely on. Possibly a spire might have risen at the crossing of the (central) nave with the transept, therefore in front of the choir, not above it.

There are repeated inadvertencies and errors whenever it comes to the big windows. In the early 14th century and in some places even nowadays, they were not made to be opened, as Eco puts it, and were fixed in their frames. The wood frames could not carry the weight of the thick pieces of glass, which were encased in an even heavier lead network. The glass was not opaque, which was quite absurd, it was translucent and by no means transparent. To say nothing of the rare expensive glass, especially when it showed colour images, such big windows could be broken by hail, birds, etc. That is why they were covered with wood planks in the upper part. The lower part alone was made of glass to let the light in.

As for the description of the Edifice, it is absolutely misleading. We are told that the four corner towers had a fire place each, the smoke of which was let to escape through chimneys that went through the scriptorium and the library under the form of thick columns. In two successive sentences the author says that from the refectory one could go directly to the scriptorium and then that one of the two spiral staircases went up behind the kitchen oven. In the scriptorium the corner towers had five big windows each. What they were good for when the space between the column chimney and the windows was so narrow that a person could harldy squeeze through? As the draught and the fire grate of the combustion chamber were discovered no sooner than the early 18th century, we do not know how the oven and the hearth in the kitchen worked, considering the fact that the smoke let to escape through the chimneys had to go up by two floors. In winter it was all right, let’s say, but how about summer?

Presuming that the column chimneys sat out heat, at least two of them used to scorch the copyists and the books in the library in summer. A library on top of a kitchen, with hot chimneys running through it, this is an architectural performance by which Eco probably wanted to draw the food metaphors nearer to the erotic and bookish ones (the book as a symbol), thinking of Curtius’ book mentioned somewhere else. In the Middle Ages the libraries of the monasteries or universities were not heated. The capitular rooms were heated through their floor (the Roman system) with individual openings, covered with bronze discs (see the Teotonic castle of Marborg, Poland).

There is a very slight resemblance between the plan of the abbey and the reality pictured in the text. Where is the guest room? One can see a common bedroom with an opening to the sky too, but where are the individual cells in which the monks paid tribute to the favour of reading the Greek version of Aristotle, which Jorges was to eat?

And where are many other things? The detective plot is badly impaired because of the inadvertencies and errors I briefly pointed out, for nobody will be able to follow the routes of the characters, which makes reading more difficult and diminishes the interest of the attentive reader by the essential nondetermination of the place.

I am going to stop here for fear of being boring myself. I still have something to clarify: Guglielmo tells the abbot he knows some of the studious monks in the abbey are Germans, Dacians, Frenchmen, Spaniards and Greeks. I am highly interested to know what source Eco used when saying that the Dacians (sic) and the Greeks studied in the western monasteries in the early 14th century. Weren’t they Danes by mistake? Did the Greeks still go to the western monasteries after the destruction of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204 and after the forced recognition of the Pope’s supremacy by the Eastern Church in 1274?

Things being like this, after I myself explained to him what bewildered me, I wrote the following letter to Mr. Umberto Eco, which was kindly given to him by Mrs. Anca Giurescu, who accompanied him during his visit and had translated his Treatise on General Semiotics into Romanian:

May 24, 1985

Attn.: Mr. Umberto Eco

As he enjoyed many excerpts from The Name of the Rose and taking into account the statements made in Marginalia concerning the rigorously documented character of the novel intending to render the atmosphere specific to that time, Mr. Mihai Gramatopol asks Mr. Umberto Eco to explain at least some of the numerous information errors in this book, which, because of its success, implicitly misinforms readers. References are made to the seventh Bompiani edition published in September 1981.

1. Aristotle’s Poetics was not known in 1327, it was discovered more than two hundred years later. The monks in the abbey, who had come from all over the West, knew it. The whole detective plot of the novel is not historically believable.

2. Greek was almost unknown in the West in 1327. When coming across Greek words, the copyists of Latin manuscripts used to write down: graeca sunt, non leguntur!

3. How could Guglielmo know (p. 43) that, besides others, there were also Dacian and Greek monks in the abbey?

4. How could one say that the portico was supported by buttresses placed on columns (p. 48)?

5. How and by what was supported a steeple above the choir, pointing to the sky (p. 48)?

6. What abbey was that having the library on top of the kitchen, on the highest floor of a building, which was crossed and heated (even in summer) by some chimneys, when the principle of the draught (actually the only one that could have underlied its functioning) was discovered no sooner than the early 18th century (pp. 77-79)?

7. In 1327 there were no glass windows that could be opened (p. 79); they were fixed and their glass was by no means opaque (p. 41), it was translucent.

8. As Adso could read and write and as he learnt Latin on the text of the New Testament too, is it possible that he should not know that the fearful animals on the tympanum of the portico (p. 49 and in other excerpts in the book) were the Evangelists’ emblematic animals and is it possible that the author should not say that the fourth animal (if it can be called like that) was the angel?

9. Why does the plan of the abbey not correspond to the reality described in the text? Where is the guest house and where are the individual cells where the monks sold their grace to be able to read Aristotle in Greek, which will be swallowed by Jorge (alias Borges)? Under such circumstances what is the use of the merely formal presence of this plan?

10. In the light of what has been enumerated as a result of a tight selection, are the Marginalia an alibi?

Faithfully yours, Mihai Gramatopol

P.S. Mrs. Anca Giurescu is requested to give Mr. Umberto Eco an oral translation of this text and leave the original with him, together with the visiting card herewith enclosed, so that he may give me an answer, possibly a written one too, when he finds the necessary time.

Here is the answer I got:

June 8, 1985

Dear Anca,

I have sent the books. Now, in a hurry, short answers for Gramatopol.

1. The Poetics is translated from the Greek by Wilhelm of Moerbeke in 1278 and two manuscripts are still extant (see Artistoteles latinus, a work well known by mediaevalists).

2. In the West, after Boethius (6th century), people used to translate from the Greek quite often. Roger Bacon knew Greek. Those putting down graecum est non legitur were ignorant copyists.

3. The Dacians were Danish grammarians. The Greeks were Greeks and I do not see the reason why they should not have travelled even if they were Orthodox.

4. There is actually an error in the first Italian edition. Buttresses are mentioned, where there was a slanting opening in the wall (strombatura), embrasure in French.

5. The church I am describing is the church of Moissac. Maybe I should have said that the steeple was placed on the cross-piece of the transept, but it was Adso speaking and Adso was no architect.

6. Scriptoria were often built near kitchens to get heat from the walls. I have not mentioned draught.

7. I said that the windows “opened”, but in Italian this metaphor means they “looked out on”. I saw many opaque stained-glass windows in cathedrals, but I never saw transparent ones. If this remark is of a linguistic nature (better translucent than opaque) I accept it. I do not know Italian well, but I know mediaeval windows.

8. Adso has a shock, a vision and sees what he sees. Adso is rather dull. I and Gramatopol are clever (merçi) and know that the fourth animal is the angel. Gramatopol has to reproach Adso, not me with that.

9. The plan is faultless. The bedrooms are there and the pilgrims’ house is near the capitulary room.

Best wishes and thanks for everything.

Umberto

*

Quite amused at my hyper-rigoristic pretensions, Mr. Umberto Eco told me, during our short meeting after the lecture he delivered in one of the lecture rooms of the University of Bucharest, that he received thousands of letters, to which he did not even answer, with even more inadvertencies pointed out by western readers, and that the Germans, “pedantic as they are”, when they issued the German version of this novel, put in the necessary inverted commas in the numerous excerpts quoted

in extenso from the Latin authors.

How did things happen in my opinion? Like many other critics, aestheticians etc., Mr. Umberto Eco wanted to write a novel, an intellectualistic historical novel that should be thrilling through its “detective” plot. His knowledge in the field entitled him to deal with this theme. He never intended to make a historical reconstruction.

Therefore, he took a few volumes of Patrologia latina, then he resorted to the famous book written by Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, for the various aspects of mediaeval monastic life mirrored in the literature of that time. He is sure to have used other books too, quite available to any mediaevalist. Le roman de la rose was the starting point of the allegory; besides, the hetero and homosexual erotica and symbols, the general background, the heresies, “witchcraft” and burning at the stake, the atmosphere specific to that time, the few historical and cultural personalities, the reality and the location in time, the very general information on mediaeval art and architecture help the text to be credible. As I was saying, Eco did not probably expect his book to be successful and this is why, shortly after its publication, he wrote those unhappy Marginalia that were meant to picture the novel as the result of minute work and comprehensive information of various fields. As it quickly turned into a best seller, Eco did no longer need the importance of erudition. Flooded with letters of protest from experts, who had taken the book for what it is not, Eco finally claimed it was nothing but a game, that the “detective” plot thrilled him and that he had not intended to write a historical novel, but a very successful one. If it is looked upon like this, it goes without saying that the text loses all the connotations I had endowed it with, by the juxtaposition of which so many errors and inadvertencies had been revealed. Finding out that cultivated readers do not let themselves taken in, Eco acted accordingly, probably surprised at the fact that contemporary people are less ignorant than he thought them to be. The point where I do not understand his carelessness at all is the rigour of the detective plot. The plan at the end of the book could have been removed as it did not correspond to the details of the place. In other words, Eco may think that readers are all uncultivated persons, but not deprived of an elementary intelligence, especially as there were passionate readers of thrillers among them. I cannot say anything of Umberto Eco’s initial and subsequent intentions as I do not know more than he himself declared. And I wonder if it is worth knowing. Once the book read, nothing lingers on your mind (proof to it is the fact that, in the answer he gave me, he mixed up certain details years afterwards), neither the atmosphere, nor the characters, nothing! Nor the wish to read it again! This is why I called a trick his attempt at a novel and this is why I was no longer interested in reading Foucault’s Pendulum. I do not mean that everything is pointless or that the author has no talent. On the contrary, you are puzzled and nervous when seeing that so many beautiful, positive things are not included in the book with a view to giving a genuine description of the Middle Ages, but only an artificial, hasty hotch-potch.

Pity for it! I am sure Mr. Umberto Eco knows from Aristotle’s Poetics, the one Jorges did not eat, that such procedures are an attempt on the reader’s intelligence.

Even if Mr. Umberto Eco, with all inadvertencies and errors, uses numerous “original stones” in his writing I have been dealing with, this does not mean too much. Original stones help you get the effect you planned only if they are placed where they belong. I hope I shall not be misunderstood if I am going to give an example. The temple of Nike Athena on the right promontory of the Acropolis, when you look to the Propylaea, was built again with all its original stones some time ago. Now it has to be pulled down again as the stones were not placed where they had been in the 5th century B.C. And such a disorder can be seen easily. Not only if you are quite close to it. If you are at a certain distance, you can see nothing of the genuiness, majesty, monumentality and brightness of this gem although you can see nothing of the infinitesimal disorders in matching the pieces. But those optical corrections I talked about in one of my previous essays are annihilated. A special computer and a sophisticated apparatus establish again the initial order of the pieces. It is only after the old arrangement is made that we shall be able to know how this small temple really looked like at the time of Pericles.

Concluding what has been said so far, an argumentation reached at by using the contraries, can one still maintain that the historical novel does not exist?

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