As I’ve not been doing very well at reviewing books on here — and as I’ve not had the energy to write full blog posts recently because of my health — I decided this week to write a short review, only a few paragraphs, of each book I finish on Goodreads as I finish it. Every week or so I’ll pull those reviews into a single blog post and put them here…
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of the many books you would expect me to have read already, given that the basic elevator pitch would be “Sherlock Holmes argues theology with Borges, in what purports to be a murder mystery but is actually a discussion of the extent to which, when we’re thinking, we’re doing so with reference to the outside world or just to our own symbols for it”
It’s pretty much exactly as good as that description makes it sound. Truly remarkable book.
(And since writing this, I’ve looked through the Goodreads reviews, and seen a lot of people reviewing it, even those who like it, complain that it wasn’t the page-turning murder mystery they thought it would be. It isn’t — in fact it’s not really a novel, rather it’s what Northrop Frye referred to as an anatomy, or Bakhitin called a Menippean satire (rather different from the classical form of the same name). The point isn’t, as with a novel, the plot and characters, rather it’s the way these things can be used to discuss ideas. The “story” is incidental to the book.)
The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
All the reviews of this book pointing out its good points are quite correct, but I think that the structure, while deliberate and part of the author’s intention, lets it down somewhat.
Paxton attempts to delineate the way fascist regimes act — or acted, he thinks that the Italian fascists and the Nazis are the only two examples of such regimes –and from looking at the way they grew, the compromises they made, the internal structures of the parties, the structures of the governments they formed, and so on, to come to a working understanding of fascism.
However, while he leads the reader to conclusions rather than starting from them, his conclusions feed back into the earlier chapters, before the justification for them. Thus he makes several controversial assertions (for example that neither Franco nor Peron was really fascist) and doesn’t give the reasoning for them for several chapters. Thus for me at least, while everything is eventually explained, I spent much of the book with mental “” clauses after every expressed opinion (though statements of fact are scrupulously cited in endnotes). Knocking one star off purely for that.
Postscript to the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book, which I read under the title “Reflections on the Name of the Rose”, is a very short (the book comes in at 88 pages, but many of those are illustrations) essay on the composition of Eco’s novel (though not the interpretation, which as one would expect from him, he leaves to the reader).
Having myself recently written a novel with multiple nested unreliable narrators (though not, I fear, one of which Eco would approve) I was fascinated to read his description of the process that led him to do the same thing with Name of the Rose, as it’s more or less the same reason I always write fiction in someone else’s voice (and why my recent attempt at serialising a third-person novel on Patreon failed so badly).
Eco talks about how it feels impossible to start a book with “It was a beautiful morning at the end of November” without feeling like Snoopy, but if you have Snoopy — or at least someone who is unaware that starting a book that way is a cliché — be the narrator then suddenly it becomes acceptable. In fact he later goes on to talk about postmodernism as a whole as somehow all about avoiding the embarrassment of cliché while reclaiming it — about how a lover who knows that “I love you madly” sounds like a line from a Barbara Cartland novel might say “As Barbara Cartland might put it, I love you madly” and thus take the sting from the cliché. This certainly seems to sum up some of the appeal to me as a writer of postmodernism, though not its appeal as a reader. (On the other hand, when I read that passage to my wife, she said “why not just say what you mean?” — unlike me, she is capable of expressing her emotions openly in public without multiple insulating layers of irony).
I can’t recommend this unreservedly — Eco is a literary snob, which I’m fine with, but he’s judgmental about the people who read lowbrow stuff, rather than about the work, which I’m not — but for anyone who is interested in the writing process it’s utterly fascinating.
I would highly recommend Foucault’s Pendulum if you enjoyed Rose; it is, somehow, even denser while also containing some truly breathtakingly beautiful prose on Eco’s part.
I read and enjoyed Foucault’s Pendulum about fifteen years ago. I keep meaning to reread it, as I’m sure I’d get more out of it now, but I thought it was very good then.
I read Watchmen, Name Of The Rose, and Eliot’s Four Quartets in quick succession, and it pretty much rendered me permanently unfit for socially-acceptable work, so make of that what you will…
Lovely little proof of the non-existence of God at the end, there, as I recall.
Personally, I’ll go a bit with you and a bit with Holly on insulating layers of irony — surely the Barbara Cartland thing implies that either you’re extremely familiar with the work of Barbara Cartland, or you think she’s so terrible that you don’t need to be? That if she’s as bad as you think then she must have characters say things like “I love you madly”, but then again if you haven’t read her then whose cliche is it, really? We hate most in others what we despise in ourselfves, maybe…
But: nitpicking, I guess. Still, “it was a beautiful morning at the end of November” maybe says no less about the writer than does “as Barbara Cartland might say”, etc.?
Snobs can be useful. I still miss “my” TCJ of the Nineties, that wouldn’t sully its hands with discussion of superheroes, no not even as representatives of some zeitgeist or other…