This week the last of our look at books before we move on to to other things
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, barely 30 years after it was published has been acclaimed as a classic, praised for its portrayal of “the late medieval world, teetering on the edge of discoveries and ideas” and as a breath-taking novel of ideas and a masterpiece of postmodern literature. It has also been called one of the greatest whodunits. If you wanted to be intellectual you could say it is a novel about ideas, learning and ignorance, about faith and heresy, scepticism and doubt; and it is a novel about truth and who decides what’s true but who wants to be bothered with all that intellectual stuff; most of all it is just possibly the greatest novel about libraries ever. It is a novel about when librarians were not quiet, inoffensive and helpful but powerful, cunning and ruthless; today if you are a librarian you are at considerable risk of being made redundant and replaced by a retired accountant. In medieval Europe if you were a librarian you ran a considerable risk of ending up dead. So if you are tired of all those dead bodies in the library and the dead librarians we seem to be racking up in recent posts you may want to give this post and indeed the novel a miss because the library provides the context for several more mysterious and gruesome deaths. And you thought the worst harm you could come to in the library was dropping War and Peace on your foot!
If this complex and absorbing whodunit had been set in interwar Europe Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple would pop up in chapter two; if it was present day Oxford, Morse would be making cynical noises about academics and if it was Victorian England then it would inevitably involve Holmes and Watson. But as it is medieval Italy step forward a reluctant monk, and just to point us in the right direction about all the twists and turns and false trails we can expect our unassuming hero monk is named William of Baskerville. And yes of course Umberto Eco, a semiotics professor knew exactly what he was doing when he gave his protagonist that name and it’s a lot more subtle than putting his monk in a deerstalker!
Some might consider it quite irresponsible to reduce such a wonderfully rich and powerful classic novel, with more layers than a prize winning onion at the village show, down to a series of set pieces about libraries and librarians but that’s not going to stop me of course because the library, at the heart of a great medieval abbey, is also at the heart of the plot throughout. Anyway it is Eco himself who offers the library of the novel as a metaphor at the heart of his story referring early on to “the greatest library in Christendom” but hints at the mystery of the plot when one frustrated and disgruntled cleric describes the library and the abbey as “a den of mad men…fallen from its pedestal as the champion of learning in the days when abbots acted as abbots and librarians as librarians”.
The Library is so important that the abbey which hosts it has been built as “as a citadel to defend the library” and just to show how clever he is Eco’s has imagined a library that clearly pays homage to one of the most fantastical libraries of literature, Borges’s The Library of Babel. Borges’s Library is “composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries… From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors…” whilst the Library that William of Baskerville encounters he describes as “the quadrangular form included, at each of its corners a heptagonal tower…” with “a greater octagon producing four minor heptagons which from the outside appeared as pentagons.” If you have read Borges short story Eco knows you will spot the homage and if you haven’t well you don’t care do you and frankly it’s a hard going so I wouldn’t bother on my account! All you need to know is that it probably involved an architect playing their usual games, which is why the Abbott is able to say of the labyrinthine design “The library was laid out on a plan that has remained obscure to all over the centuries”.
But I wouldn’t be wasting your time or mine on a novel that just wants to show how clever the author is. It’s here because not only is it a wonderfully constructed and complicated thriller it is also full of some of the most memorable quotations about libraries that you are ever likely to find. So wonderful in fact that for years I used several of them, and in particular the one above, in presentations about library building design in a desperate attempt to create comic effect. So if you have ever had to sit through any of my talks that might be another reason for skipping this post and taking the cat for a walk or something more rewarding like that. But let’s get on with that plot.
William of Baskerville a monk with a reputation for Holmesian deductive skills has been sent to one of the medieval world’s most famous monastic libraries because it is scene of a gruesome and inexplicable death. No, not another locked library, well not quite. The dead body of a young novice has been discovered outside the library at the foot of a high, sheer, unscaleable wall below the windows of the library, the only place from where the body could have fallen where it did. But all the windows are closed so it isn’t suicide and that part of the abbey is locked and forbidden to everyone after nightfall, when the death occurred, and protected by fiendish defences. With such an impossible scenario The Abbott fears diabolic forces or worse, one of the monk, so Baskervilleand his young assistant Adso are asked to solve the mystery.
And just to make it a little trickier Baskerville is forbidden from entering the library despite the fact that this was clearly material to whatever happened. Not because they are waiting for the scenes of crime officers and forensic scientists, they have not been invented yet. In fact everyone is routinely denied access to the library apart from the select few. As the Abbott explains with logic that would warm the hearts of many old-school librarians who could never understand why, when you had compiled a collection of the most wonderful literature, you would want to pollute it by letting people anywhere near it because they’ll only keep putting them back in the wrong place and getting coffee stains all over them. “Only the Librarian has received the secret from the librarian who preceded him and he communicates it while still alive to the assistant librarian…the secret seals the lips of both men. Only the librarian… has the right to move through the labyrinth of the books and he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them”.
Even after a second murder that clearly points to the library Baskerville is denied access because the Abbott and Librarian take the view that despite the vast and important collection in the library impressionable young clerical minds need protecting from all that potentially corrupting literature. As the Abbott explains again “Only the Librarian knows ….what secrets what truths or falsehoods the volume contains. Only he decides how, when and whether to give it to the monk who requests it.” The power of the librarian back then eh…Wouldn’t happen today would it? “Never mind the latest Jo Nesbo, I’ll tell you what book you are allowed to borrow today madam!” But please don’t tell my local County Council because they might just think this is nearly as brilliant an idea as letting volunteers run libraries without giving them any money.
Eco completes his picture of the all powerful library with a quote that I thought was the perfect introduction to a conference paper on the design of library buildings “The Library defends itself immeasurably… You might enter and you might not emerge”
And of course only the librarian understands the classification scheme as Malachi the abbey librarian explains “only the librarian is allowed access to the library. It is therefore, only right and proper that only the librarian knows how to decipher these things.” I am sure that just about any library user in a hurry would entirely concur. Readers have never needed to understand these things despite all the hours librarians spend trying to explain how the Dewey classification system works. As soon as assignment deadlines converge with pub opening times they just wander up to a Helpdesk with a helpless girly or dumb bloke look on their face and ask a librarian to find the material for them which of course we always do. And Dewey is nothing like as infernally complicated as the classification system used in the abbey library, which appears to be a cryptic version of Mornington Crescent, based on a map of the ancient world, the letters of the alphabet and the invasion route for German Panzer divisions during the Second World War. All the combinations of which the librarian would of course know by heart but the hapless reader would give up trying to follow in despair two stops out of Cockfosters. If that isn’t enough to deter the curious minded who manage to get into the impregnable library then the library is protected by its impossibly elaborate construction and by the fear created by the skilful use of ventilation to create unworldly howls, the monsters generated by your own reflection in the sort of distorting mirrors that you find at cheap seaside fairgrounds today or more disturbingly the use of psychotropic drugs cunningly disguised as incense. It’s so much easier nowadays to fob off readers looking for material. The harassed and irritable assistant librarian simply tells the poor reader that due to the budget cuts we can’t afford it. It has the same deterrent effect but is nothing like as satisfying as scaring the pants off them with the drugs and the funny mirrors.
Eco being an accomplished thriller writer of course there are plenty of red herrings and false leads in The Name of the Rose. Is the motive for the murders gay lust amongst the monks? Is it the increasingly worldly venality of the monks? Is it about heresy or witchcraft, is it about the battle between the Pope in Avignon and the Holy Roman Emperor or is it about power because back then of course the Librarian was the second most powerful person in the abbey who automatically became the next Abbot. Unless he gets bumped off of course. The answer is no, no, no, no and possibly. But all, at various times, are used to distract or mislead our sleuths and us. And like all good whodunits our hero finds the solution by accident after misreading too many of the clues by which time the body count has reached Midsommer Murders levels.
If you need confirmation that this really is a novel about a library rather than one where the library is discarded after about Chapter Two, when he does his Poirotesque exposition towards the end William begins “it was always the Library”. Or to be more precise it was about the books. “The library was perhaps born to save the books it houses but now it lives to bury them” he says. The real motive was controlling access to the books that might challenge the established order of things if they were read by the uninitiated which is everyone apart from the monks then. They remain hidden in the Library denying people access for fear that they will think for themselves in a way that the Church and the powers that it supports would not approve and could not control. Of course we are much freer with our sensitive information nowadays, apart from the Official Secrets Act, confidentiality agreements and the use of “commercial sensitivity” to undermine the Freedom of information Act all of which perform much the same function.
From one perspective the book portrays how powerful librarians were in the medieval world, where to read was rare and have access to anything worth reading even more so. Librarians were the guardians of the accumulated knowledge since the beginning of the written word and this bestowed enormous power. It was this power that made it possible for the Librarian to succeed the Abbot. Sadly no longer. I recall a time when out on placement at a college library from my post-graduate library and information diploma I was asked how libraries appeared to have changed and in response being cocky said that it used to be that in academic processions the librarian used to walked right behind the Vice Chancellor, nowadays they were lucky to get in ahead of the tea trolley and the caretaker so much had our position been eroded. So in the Abbey at the heart of Eco’s story the ambitious young radical monk determined to end the conspiracy of the library can easily be bought off by the offer of initiation into the secrets of the library as the new Assistant Librarian. Those were the days; when librarians could control the Abbott, dictate who read what, wield great powers of patronage and were still the only ones who knew where all the good porn was. Nowadays you can read what you like, the librarian is a figure of fun and porn is instantly available on your mobile phone but on the other hand as a librarian you stand less chance of ending up dead.
If you haven’t read the book and intend to you might like to skip the rest of the chapter as I will be giving the game away.
In one of my early posts on librarians in literature I referred to an academic article that referenced The Name of the Rose in which the authors decided that “in casting a librarian as one of literature’s most fiendish villains, Eco has paid our profession the ultimate compliment.” It is an interesting thesis that; if we are to get respect for the library profession we need a few good evil psychopathic librarians in novels. Which would be fine apart from the fact that the old Librarian who is Eco’s villain, is Spanish, elderly and blind so painting him as such a consummate villain will almost certainly infringe a whole raft of modern equality legislation on race, age and disability not to mention mental health as he is clearly bonkers. And of course the final scenes in the Library with all those naked flames, blind alleys and absolutely no fire escapes would certainly be used by any health and safety inspectors to prosecute just about everyone involved. I wouldn’t like to be the PR agency given the account to sell The Name of the Rose as an advert for the modern professional librarian even if it is the best book about libraries ever.
And that seems as good a place as any to finish looking at libraries and librarians in novels although as I said many weeks ago there are potentially hundreds more with more appearing as we speak. This was never meant to be exhaustive as it would have been exhausting long before we reached that point but I hope that I have at least managed to provide a taste of the rich and varied range of books that feature libraries and thank you all for persevering so far. But now you can have a rest from literature. As I trailed a week or two back, next we will have a look as some film and TV portrayals of librarians.