T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

Well Read Wednesday

Well Read Wednesday: The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco

I was prompted to write this not in the first place by a book I am reading, but by the first episode of a new TV Drama series. I watched this on BBC Two last Friday night and I was hurled back in time 35 years to my first reading of the book itself. I have to say that the series looks as if it may remain even more faithful to the book that the wonderful  1986 movie version with Sean Connery and Christian Slater. Umberto Eco‘s classic medieval murder mystery has remained ever since that first reading, one of my all time favourite novels. The book Il nome della rosa was written in 1980 and translated into English in 1983 by William Weaver and The Name of The Rose was released in paperback in 1984. My much loved copy is shown here.

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, “The Name of the Rose” is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

Such was the blurb but it hardly scratches the surface of Eco’s debut novel. The writer was a professor of semiotics so it should not be any great surprise that the book is sometimes wordy, but always intelligent and a very clever, partial fictionalization, full of linguistic ambiguity.  The story works on a great many levels according to the interest of the reader, in the way that it creates a world enriched by several layers of meaning. What do I mean by that? Well let’s take a look at the name of the central character William of Baskerville. His style of deduction in solving the murders is very similar to that of Sherlock Holmes and as detectives they both work according to the principle of Ockham’s Razor which is the idea that one should always accept as most likely the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts. William of Ockham lived during the time in which the novel is set. Right at the beginning of the novel, young Adso‘s description of his master in the beginning of the book resembles, almost word for word, Dr. Watson’s description of Sherlock Holmes when he first makes his acquaintance in A Study in Scarlet. So we may take William of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and deduce William of Baskerville.

Some of the other characters in the story are true historical figures e.g. Bernard Gui, Ubertino of Casale and the Minorite Michael of Cesena, although Eco’s characterization of them is not always historically accurate.

Brother William’s young apprentice, Adso of Melk, is the narrator of this book so his name does not escape complex origins either. Adso is among other things a pun on Simplicio from Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue; Adso deriving from “ad Simplicio” (“to Simplicio”). Adso’s putative place of origin, Melk, is the site of a famous medieval library, at Melk Abbey. His name also of course echoes the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson (omitting the first and last letters, and with “t” and “d” being phonetically similar).

With such linguistic riches dripping from every page, this is also rollicking good story. With it’s wonderfully elegant descriptions of monastic architecture and it’s love of beautiful illuminated manuscripts Eco probably gets as close to an accurate portrayal of life in a late medieval scholarly Italian monastery as any modern writer could. Is it any wonder then, that The Name of The Rose has sold over 50 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling books ever published.

Maybe you can tell by now that I am a little in love with this book. When The Folio Society issued its beautiful Limited edition I had to add it to my collection of most treasured books. Oh, yes I will still be watching every episode of the new tv series.

If you want to know a bit more about the story, here is a fuller synopsis copied with grateful thanks from Wikipedia:

In 1327, Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice travelling under his protection, arrive at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to attend a theological disputation. This abbey is being used as neutral ground in a dispute between Pope John XXII, and the Franciscans, who are suspected of heresy.

The monastery is disturbed by the death of Adelmo of Otranto, an illuminator revered for his illustrations. Adelmo was skilled at comical artwork, especially concerning religious matters. William is tasked by the monastery’s abbot, Abo of Fossanova, to investigate the death, and he has a debate with one of the oldest monks in the abbey, Jorge of Burgos, about the theological meaning of laughter, which Jorge despises.

The next day, a scholar of Aristotle and translator of Greek and Arabic, Venantius of Salvemec, is found dead in a vat of pig’s blood. Previously, William and Adso had been prohibited from entering the labyrinthine library by the librarian Malachi of Hildesheim, so they penetrate the labyrinth, discovering that there must be a hidden room, entitled the finis Africae. Benno of Uppsala, a rhetoric scholar, reveals to William that Malachi, and his assistant Berengar of Arundel, had a homosexual relationship, until Berengar seduced Adelmo, who committed suicide out of conflicting religious shame. The only other monks who knew about the indiscretions were Jorge and Venantius.

By the day after, Berengar has gone missing, which puts pressure onto William. William learns of how Salvatore of Montferrat, and Remigio of Varagine, two cellarer monks, had a history with the Dulcinian heretics. Meanwhile, Adso is seduced by a peasant girl, with whom he has his first sexual experience. After confessing to William, Adso is absolved, although he still feels guilty. Severinus of Sankt Wendel, the herbalist, tells William that Venantius’s body had black stains on the tongue and fingers, which suggests poison. William and Adso penetrate the library once more, discovering that Venantius had a book stolen from him, which they pursue.

On the fourth day, Berengar is found drowned in a bath, although he bears stains similar to those of Venantius. Bernard Gui, a member of the Inquisition, arrives to search for the murderer via papal deduction. Due to this arrival, Gui arrests the peasant girl Adso loved, as well as Salvatore, accusing them both of heresy.

Remigio is interrogated by Gui, who scares him into revealing his heretic past, as well as falsely confessing to the crimes of the Abbey. Severinus then is found dead in his room, to which Jorge responds by leading a sermon about the coming of the Antichrist.

Malachi returns to the early sermon that day near death, and his final words concern scorpions. Nicholas of Morimondo, the glazier, tells William that whoever is the librarian would then become the Abbot, and with new light, William goes to the library to search for evidence. The Abbot is distraught that William has not solved the crime, and that the Inquisition is undermining him, so he fires William. That night, William and Adso penetrate the library once more in search of the finis Africae.

William and Adso discover Jorge waiting for them in the forbidden room. He says that he has been masterminding the Abbey for years, and his last victim is the Abbot himself, who has been trapped in a secret passage of the library. The Abbot suffocates, and Jorge tells them that Venantius’s hidden book was Aristotle’s Second Poetics, which speaks of the virtues of laughter, something Jorge despises. Jorge put poison on the pages on the book, knowing that a reader would have to lick his fingers to turn them. Venantius was translating the book and died. Berengar found the body and disposed of it in pig’s blood, fearing exposure, before reading the book himself and dying. Malachi was convinced by Jorge to retrieve the book, which was stashed with Severinus, so he kills Severinus and retrieves the book, before getting curious and dying as well.

All of the murders time out with the Seven Trumpets, which call for objects falling from the sky (Adelmo threw himself from a tower), pools of blood, poison from water, bashing of the stars (Severinus was killed with his head bashed in with a celestial orb), scorpions, locusts, and fire. Jorge consumes the book’s poisoned pages and uses Adso’s lantern to start a fire, which burns down the library. As the fire spreads to the rest of the abbey, William laments his failure. Confused and defeated, William and Adso escape the abbey. Years later, Adso, now aged, returns to the ruins of the abbey and collects books that were salvaged from the fire, creating a lesser library.

Well Read Wednesday: Middle England by Jonathan Coe

I love it when a writer I respect sings the praises of a book and I am led to discover a new author and their work. This happened recently when I heard about Middle England. I read it, loved it, then wondered how I’d not heard of Jonathan Coe before!

Beginning eight years ago on the outskirts of Birmingham, where car factories have been replaced by Poundland, and London, where frenzied riots give way to Olympic fever, Middle England follows a brilliantly vivid cast of characters through a time of immense change.

There are newlyweds Ian and Sophie, who disagree about the future of the country and, possibly, the future of their relationship; Doug, the political commentator who writes impassioned columns about austerity from his Chelsea townhouse, and his radical teenage daughter who will stop at nothing in her quest for social justice; Benjamin Trotter, who embarks on an apparently doomed new career in middle age, and his father Colin, whose last wish is to vote in the European referendum. And within all these lives is the story of modern England: a story of nostalgia and delusion; of bewilderment and barely-suppressed rage.

Even if you are suffering Brexit burnout, you should find a little more space in the ‘B’ file for this wonderful, witty, light, insightful, incisive, state of the nation novel. In fact if you are suffering Brexit burnout, you need this book. This novel looks at the changes this country has witnessed over the last decade and lays bare the effects of those changes upon the big themes like family, love, politics, people and literature.

The book is inhabited by a wonderful cast of characters and through their lives we cry, we rage, we laugh both at them and with them and at times we not sagely. Always there is wit, laugh out loud outrageous wit. The writer in me loved the hilarious editing of Benjamin’s book. As for the sex in the wardrobe scene, well……

I am happy to see that this is the third outing for this bunch of characters so I am looking forward to reading both The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle

Well Read Wednesday: Morning

Morning has always been my favourite time of day and so the premise of this quirky little book drew me in and I am so glad that it did. Morning, written by author and food journalist Allan Jenkins is his “manifesto for morning”.

There is an energy in the earlier hours, an awareness I enjoy. In today’s world we tend to wake as late as we can, timed to when we have to work. But we don’t need to chase the day.’

In Morning, Allan Jenkins shows how getting up earlier even once a week or month can free us to be more imaginative, to maybe read, to walk, to write. He talks to other early risers such as Jamie Oliver and Samuel West, to poets and painters. We hear from a neuroscientist about sleep, a philosopher about dawn, a fisherman about light. Allan wakes early, he listens, he looks. He introduces us to a secret world.

This is a celebration of dawn and morning: the best time of day.

In essence the book is an intimate diary taking us through a year of the author’s mornings. This is also where the writing is at it’s best, especially when marvelling at the slowly waking natural world. Since many of these morning begin in pre-dawn darkness, he listens for sounds around him including naturally the increasing birdsong. the next sense to be engaged is that of sight as it records the first gentle diluting blackness and the coming of colour with the dawn’s early light. Movements are noticed and even the fragrances of morning. One of the things I loved was the recording of the very subtle changes which heralded each new season.

This is writing with all of the senses engaged and presented in short poetic bursts. It is a mindful journey through the quiet hours when day replaces night.

For many of those interviewed, including the author, the early start provides a golden period to do those things for which they have no time in their busy lives.

I love it when a book like this crosses paths with my own experience. Having thought of myself as something of an insomniac I have adjusted my bedtimes to encompass to shorter periods of sleep. The author briefly mentions this and it appears that throughout history, there have been numerous accounts of segmented sleep, from medical texts, to court records and diaries, and even in African and South American tribes, with a common reference to “first” and “second” sleep. There is strong evidence from studies carried out which suggest bi-phasic sleep is a natural process with a biological basis.

Reading this great little book has inspired me to to examine my relationship with sleep more closely and maybe to question the bedtime rules which we have all accepted as the norm.

Well Read Wednesday: King Perry

If I am to make these posts a regular thing then they will cover a wide spectrum of books both fiction and non-fiction. Today’s selection is King Perry by Edmond Manning and comes from the m/m fiction genre in which I write. The book was recommended to me by dear friends which is always a worry, but in this case they proved that they know my reading tastes very well.

So what is the story about?

In a trendy San Francisco art gallery, out-of-towner Vin Vanbly witnesses an act of compassion that compels him to make investment banker Perry Mangin a mysterious offer: in exchange for a weekend of complete submission, Vin will restore Perry’s “kingship” and transform him into the man he was always meant to be. Despite intense reservations, Perry agrees, setting in motion a chain of events that will test the limits of his body, seduce his senses, and fray his every nerve, (perhaps occasionally breaking the law) while Vin guides him toward his destiny as ‘the one true king.’ Even as Perry rediscovers old grief and new joys within himself, Vin and his shadowy motivations remain enigmas: who is this off-beat stranger guiding them from danger to hilarity to danger? To emerge triumphant, Perry must overcome the greatest challenge alone: embracing his devastating past. But can he succeed by Sunday’s sunrise deadline? How can he possibly evolve from an ordinary investment banker into King Perry?

This book has taken me by surprise. I must admit that I may not have picked it up myself and indeed I struggled with the opening chapters.The tale was just too improbable and the characters too disparate. Vin appears to us as some well-intentioned madman. Perry on the other hand is a typical San Francisco investment banker living in his own safe bubble of boring existence. Vin is determined to burst that bubble but Perry has no idea what he has agreed to for the weekend. Did he in fact agree to it at all?

The whole endeavour is risky, some of it even illegal, but the execution of the plan is quite magical and beautifully written. The author is a fine wordsmith who can generate strong emotions with a simple, well crafted sentence. One moment I would laugh out loud and the next I was fighting back the tears. The duck was a brilliant comedy device but at the other extreme, the scene with a cello was one of the most moving and romantic I’ve ever read.

Vin himself seems uncertain about his own ability to break down Perry’s defences and at times we wonder if he is in fact going to break Perry the man instead. Of course the potential rewards for freeing the man from himself appear to be worth the risk. There is also lots of very hot sex along the way!

This story has so much to teach us about ourselves. The best fun is to be had outside our own safe comfortable bubble. The experience may be risky, but then love itself is risky and cannot thrive enclosed in a bubble. It takes great courage and also a real measure of vulnerability to accept unconditional love. Thith ‘kingship’ comes a new self-awareness and a powerful sense of achievement. It also brings with it a responsibility to share the rebirth with others.

King Perry was the first in a series of books called ‘The Lost and Founds’ and I look forward to reading them all in time.

 

Well Read Wednesday: The Binding

Welcome to the second of my new Well Read Wednesday series of personal book reviews. This week I have chosen another novel which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The Binding

by Bridget Collins

I will admit that it was the beautiful cover of this book which initially grabbed my attention. When I saw the author’s name I recognised the writer of some great stories for Young Adults and so I read the blurb and was hooked. There were two reasons for this. Firstly it sounded like an unusual tale with a great premise. Secondly this is the author’s first foray into writing for an adult readership.

Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to start an apprenticeship with a Bookbinder not far away. The elderly and mysterious Seredith is a woman who, like her profession, arouses fear, superstition and prejudice, but neither Emmett, nor his parents can afford to refuse her summons.

Emmett leaves home, and Seredith begins to teach him the craft of hand-making beautiful volumes but along the way he learns that all the books contain real memories taken from real people to be sealed forever in the pages of the precious books. If you want to forget something, a binder can help you. If there are memories that need erasing the binder can assist. Your past can be stored away safely in a book and you will never again remember your secret, however terrible it might be.

These volumes are stored away in a vault beneath Seredith’s workshop. Row upon row of memories meticulously kept and recorded. One day however, Emmett discovers that one of the books has his name on it. What should he do?

Of course with this mysterious craft comes great responsibility an there are some unscrupulous practitioners who do not live by Serediths moral code. Books are sold and traded purely as a form of salacious entertainment.

To see this simply as a book about books is to do it a grave injustice. At its heart is a love story between two idealistic young men. There is tension, humour, pathos, horror and romance between its covers. If I have any reservations about the storyline it is that the early hints of mystery and magic are forgotten once the fires of romance have been ignited. Latent talents or special powers are suggested for Emmett but then discarded.

For all that, the story delivers strong themes and deep, emotional characterisations. As a writer well versed in teenage angst, the author can be forgiven for writing a lead couple who are both angsty and full on. Abusive fathers, exploitative employers, soul searching about soul stealing, it’s all here in a beautiful immersive story.

I loved it and heartily recommend it as a great read.

 

Well Read Wednesday: The Warlow Experiment

This is the first of a new series of blog posts in the form of Book reviews. Always a passionate and avid reader I tend to have strong opinions about the many and varied books I read but so far have written very few book reviews. Well read Wednesday will give me the chance to tell you about what I like to read but also give me some much needed experience of writing reviews.

The Warlow Experiment

by Alix Nathan

Having just finished this extraordinary book I believe it will appeal to all who love a great story, well crafted with strong characters, firmly bedded in it’s social and historical setting.

Herbert Powyss lives on a small estate in the Welsh Marches, with enough time and income to pursue a gentleman’s fashionable cultivation of exotic plants and trees. But he longs to make his mark in the field of science – something consequential enough to present to the Royal Society in London.

He hits on a radical experiment in isolation: for seven years a subject will inhabit three rooms in the cellar of the manor house, fitted out with books, paintings and even a chamber organ. Meals will arrive thrice daily via a dumbwaiter. The solitude will be totally unrelieved by any social contact; the subject will keep a diary of his daily thoughts and actions. The pay? Fifty pounds per annum, for life.

Only one man is desperate enough to apply for the job: John Warlow, a semi-literate labourer with a wife and six children to provide for. The experiment, a classic Enlightenment exercise gone more than a little mad, will have unforeseen consequences for all included. In this seductive tale of self-delusion and obsession, Alix Nathan has created an utterly transporting historical novel which is both elegant and unforgettably sinister.

I found the characters to be strong and utterly believable. The author has brilliantly captured the nature of the opposing dynamics of the major characters. The social strictures of the master and servant, the male subjugation of the female characters, the complete absence of empathy and the selfish reach for aggrandisement are all laid out for us.

The novel successfully blends fine historical detail with keen psychological observations, especially mental fragility, misogyny, compassion and  failed altruism. While set in the age of European enlightenment, with the French Revolution and Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man featuring in the background, the story also speaks to us in the present.

If you need your stories with a happy ever after ending then this may not be for you, but you are missing out! In fact the ending is as dramatic as anything else in this tale and since it was difficult to put down, the ending came all too soon.