Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like this character? Tough tamales, I’ll kill him. Why? Because I can. Mwa ha ha!

mediaLast Time, on Jean Lee’s World…

To be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went.

~*~

Now: This is the second step, and the more irritating of the two at that.

Death is a natural for the mystery. Death is itself a mystery, after all. Being a daughter of faith, I learned that death is but a door, a turning at the crossroads. All reach this turning when God says it’s time. Since the birth of my daughter I have seen four important people of my life take that turn: my father-in-law, my grandfather, my grandmother, my father. One year after another, Death’s crossing led my family away from me. The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.

So when it comes to death in a fictional world, I do not take it lightly. In fact, I am infuriated when an author does. Like Eco.

Yes, Eco.

“But Jean, it’s a mystery. People die in mysteries ALL the time.” Well duh. My all-time favorite tv show is Murder, She Wrote, for cryin’ out loud. Once I started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I lost myself in the intrigues of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, P.D. JamesEllis Peters, and Elizabeth George.

Yes. In a mystery, someone dies. A bunch, even.

But those deaths are still not taken lightly. At the very least, those deaths serve the story, and press it forward. Justice is sought, and usually served. If justice is not served, there is at least some sort of reason to answer why.

Does Eco have such deaths? Oh, yes. A number of monks die in The Name of the Rose due to their involvement with something sinister. Their deaths work with the story. Eco even seems to relish the foretelling of their murders, which…eh. A little foreshadowing is fine, now and again, such as when Ado alludes to a future tragedy in the midst of a religious debate:

Perhaps I made a mistake: if I had remained on guard, many other misfortunes would have been averted. but I know this now; I did not know it then.

Or he’ll stick his foreshadowing into the chapter heading to hook the reader:

MATINS: In which a few hours of mystic happiness are interrupted by a most bloody occurrence.

Yes, it worked on me every time, blast him.

Yes, I’m still infuriated. Not about that–about the fates of two particular characters.

First, the girl. A poor villager smuggled in by monks for sexual favors and paid for with food. The only physical girl character in the novel (as opposed to female saints or witches), our narrator, the novice Adso, discovers her in the kitchen waiting for whomever has bought her that night. But his entry interrupts that, and they…well Adso’s far more poetic about sex than I could ever be. A few chapters later she is discovered by an inquisitor and branded a witch. Adso pleads with his master, William of Baskerville, to save her. He shakes his head. Nothing to be done. She is, as he puts it, “burnt flesh.”

Not that we see her death. We’re just told it will eventually happen in some other town. Adso never sees her after the arrest, and she quickly fades from importance.

I gritted my teeth over this one. So, the character was created to help propel seedy events. Growth of Adso’s character. Expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations back then. Okay. Sure. But her death doesn’t matter? Even the screenwriters of the film version didn’t care for this, and had the girl be saved from the pyre. Saved or not, at least give the girl a chance to finish her life’s arc on the stage instead of off.

But the “death” that REALLY gets me is way, way in the beginning of the novel, with one of the first major characters we meet: Ubertino. An older man, very learned, experiences with the warring Pope and the Emperor, friend of William of Baskerville, and now in hiding for his life awaiting the secret religious debate to take place at this very abbey. At one point in their first conversation, Adso gets a little freaked out by Ubertino’s behavior:

At that moment, terrified, I thought Ubertino was in the power of a kind of holy frenzy, and I feared for his reason. Now, with the distance of time, knowing what I know–namely, that two years later he would by mysteriously killed in a German city by a murderer never discovered–I am all the more terrified, because obviously that evening Ubertino was prophesying.

Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is that there’s no telling who will be killed, when, with what, or why. Because Adso is writing this account years later, we know he survives, but that’s it. We don’t know if William of Baskerville lives through this murder. We only know that one monk has died under suspicious circumstances, but the book is massive (my edition is 538 pages long), so there HAS to be at least another death. Who will it be? Readers want to be invested in the characters. Sure, they want them to live. That makes them read on: so they live.

What we DON’T like is being told: “Sure, this guy will live. For now. He dies later, so you know. His efforts are pretty pointless here. But hey, he lives through this!”

Then what’s the point?

Why should I care about him, if I know he’s going to live through this ordeal only to die for no reason offstage? Any suspense surrounding this character is gone. That means the mystery around this character is gone.

And the last thing a mystery can afford to lose, is mystery.

 

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Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like these characters? Good, because they’re going to talk. A lot. And I ain’t tellin’ you who’s talkin’.

14abfqTo be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went. Two steps in particular irritated me time and again. This is the first.

~*~

In the prologue, the narrator Adso states he’s not going to bother describing people because “nothing is more fleeting than external form.” Fine. I suppose describing a bunch of monks will feel repetitive in some respects. Part of me feels like this is a cheat on Eco’s part, though. This is a record from centuries ago. Imagine your own version of these people while I put words in their mouths. And boy, does he.

Time and time again I find myself turning back pages to figure out who’s talking. Of course, dialogue and rhetoric are lifelines for those in the cloister. Plus, there are hundreds of pages of history to share in order to bring this story to life. That history’s got to come out somehow. Why not in dialogue?

But that means pages upon pages of talking. Just. Talking. If you’re lucky, you get a “William said,” or “the abbot nodded.” While omitting dialogue tags isn’t a sin outright, it DOES become a nuisance when characters often speak for more than a page, and then someone responds with a page’s worth of dialogue, and so on. Readers shouldn’t feel like they’re experiencing the story blindfolded.

On a preferential level, I also find it important to share what on earth characters DO while they talk. How many of us literally stand still and speak to one another for several minutes at a time? Isn’t there other stuff going on around us? The world’s stimuli can open up so many opportunities to learn about a character. Take a bird. Let it fly over the abbey. Let it relieve itself as it flies over some monks. (Hey, I’m a mom of small children. “Poop” is one of the top ten words in this house.) I bet the abbot would be horrified. The oddball Salvatore would have likely laughed and eaten the stuff, or maybe thrown a rock to kill the bird and then eat the bird. And William of Baskerville would have likely raised one of his Connery eyebrows and rubbed the stuff off with snow while never losing his train of thought.

I dig moments like this. Characters don’t speak to one another in the Cone of Silence from Get Smart.

Get_Smart-Cone-of-silence

Life is going on around them, and it’s NOT going to leave them alone.

Did Eco miss a mark? Technically no. Adso does state this is a record he wishes to leave for future generations to help record signs of End Times. What would it matter to future scholarly monks if bird droppings landed on an abbot’s head in the 14th century?

Yet I cannot help but wonder what this story could have been had all our senses been  engaged.

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Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: If the Reader Cares, They’ll Read it All. Even Latin.

Eco, from my meager understanding, was an extremely brilliant individual. Speaker of many tongues, student of many histories–i.e., a brainy dude. One can expect that when an intellectual someone wishes to write  a story set in the distant past, that someone will immerse in all aspects of the culture, and come forward with a riveting tale.

For the record, I LIKE The Name of the Rose. I do. But at the same time, I’m not sure how to feel about all of this:

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Just look at all those not-English words! I mean, I figured there would be some Latin. It is a mystery inside a monastery set in fourteenth century, after all. But I have my limits. And there are GOBS of sections like this. Was I warned? Yes. “You can usually get the gist from context, but then you miss out on crucial stuff. Keep a dictionary handy.”

Outwardly I gave an absent assent, but inwardly my mind is groaning as loud as a kid told she can’t lift shirts to poke belly buttons anymore. (Am I the only one who had a daughter go through this phase?) I read from 5-6am if work and/or kids permit. The last thing I want to do at 5am is conjugate a pluperfect verb and decipher which noun is in its ablative case. No. Thank You.

Thankfully I discovered a blog that did all the translations–Rapid Diffusion. This, I always kept handy when I read Eco, and yes, having the translations does make a difference.

So is it wrong to make readers work? No. Granted, the idea of translating all that Latin intimidated, but it did not deter. I still had my Latin books from high school, so I was totally ready…to contact my classmate who could translate Latin as she read it without notes or dictionaries or anything by the flipping brilliant age of 16. (Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.) I wanted to read this book. I knew this book was going to require more of me than other literary fare. I didn’t care. I wanted to read it. If my friend couldn’t help me, then (insert gulping sound) I would give the translating a go.

In an earlier post, I discussed Diana Wynne Jones’ lament over the dumbing-down of fiction for adults, while kids don’t mind working their brains to appreciate a story. When I first cracked open The Name of the Rose and saw all the Latin, I thought of this. Maybe translating several dozen pages’ worth of Latin is a touch extreme, but shouldn’t books written for adults be at least a LITTLE challenging? I like my chocolate muffins of fantasy or mystery, sure, but veg is good for the body AND the brain, and Eco provides a cornucopia of veg with this novel. Yeah, I had help with the Latin, but the history is so complexly woven with the mystery, and the dialogue so dense without action (a topic I very much want to discuss in another post) that my brain had to chew it all, slowly, before fully appreciating what it had just devoured.

904cea2232616.56012d54f1266I highly doubt I’ll ever write a period novel, but Eco helps me appreciate just how much world-building goes into recreating the past. Writers fill their worlds with what matters to the story; to pass over a description, a conversation, or a verse in another language is, well, rather akin to ignoring someone in conversation, isn’t it? Just, turning up the nose and continuing on with the person you like because he’s the interesting one.

No.

A writer should not overwhelm their story with innocuous minutia, and a reader should not skip around and still expect to understand the story without a hitch. Both parties must work, and work hard, to truly bring a book to life.

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Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Chapter Headings

220px-Name_of_rose_movieposterI’ve always been antsy about chapter titles. They always seem to have a touch of spoiler to them, such as “Chapter 19, in which Sophie expresses herself with weed-killer” from Howl’s Moving Castle. Thanks a lot, Diana Wynne Jones, now I won’t be surprised when the protagonist gets emotional as she gardens. (I am a very cranky reader before dawn, which is rather inconvenient for one whose reading time MUST take place before children wake.) So when I notice that Eco has them in this massive tome of his, I am skeptical.

The Name of the Rose is divided by days, and then by the canonical hours (Vespers, Matins, etc.). This fits: it gives readers a consistent sense of time and place, since the narrator Adso doesn’t always bother. Eco took great care for the breaks between hours to come with high tension, or tension releases.

Do the chapter headings help or hurt this tension? Let’s see. First one:

First Day, Prime: in which the foot of the abbey is reached, and William demonstrates his great acumen.

So they’ve reached their destination, and we get to see James Bond the Monk be smart. Well that’s a given. Nothing spoiled here.

I do like how Eco sometimes uses those headings to hook me for one more chapter:

First Day, Vespers: in which the rest of the abbey is visited, William comes to some conclusions about Adelmo’s death, there is a conversation with the brother glazier about glasses for reading and about phantoms for those who seek to read too much.

What are his conclusions? Who are the phantoms? See, I had to read a little further.

Yet these headings also forewarn me the characters are about to wander from the plot. While forewarnings are always appreciated, they do make me wonder why wanderings must eat up entire chapters, like this one:

Third Day, Terce: in which Adso, in the scriptorium, reflects on the history of his order and on the destiny of books.

Perhaps Eco has these chapters to screw with the reader. After I muck my way through a chapter of inner pondering, I read another heading, and think Great, he’s going to do it AGAIN.

Third Day, Nones: in which William speaks to Adso of the great river of heresy, of the function of the simple within the church, of his doubts concerning the possibility of knowing universal laws; and almost parenthetically he tells how he deciphered the necromantic signs left by Venantius.

Hang on—what was that on the end? We’re back to the mystery? (grumbles) All right, Eco, I’m on for one more bloody chapter of yours…

And sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if Eco puts the tension release into the headings as if to promise himself he gets to have that moment of release.

Third Day, Vespers: in which the abbot speaks again with the visitors, and William has some astounding ideas for deciphering the riddle of the labyrinth and succeeds in the most rational way. Then William and Adso eat cheese in batter.

I don’t blame him, not when there are other chapters like this:

Fifth Day, Nones: in which justice is meted out, and there is the embarrassing impression that everyone is wrong.

Overall, I must admit the chapter headings are quite useful. They are, in an odd way, a roadmap through the story—no. More like a treasure map, where one clue leads you to another, and while you can see the connections between the past clues, you can’t at all see where this new clue is taking you. Would I use chapter headings in this fashion? I honestly don’t know. I have a feeling I’d be too paranoid about giving something away, or trying too hard at wit and failing. Perhaps such chapter headings will fit your story, and provide readers with the reason to read just one more chapter. And another. And another.

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Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: The Prologue

119073No, I didn’t have a brain-freeze and misspell Diana Wynne Jones that badly. I’m taking a wee break from Jones to fulfill an obligation I set for myself a decade or so ago.

Back when my dad walked with the living, he also read. Profusely. Not just Scripture and Bible commentaries—he was an avid reader of Dr. Who and Star Wars, as well as mysteries cozy and hard-boiled. We often shared mysteries, even unwittingly giving each other the same books for Christmas.

This shared love spilled into shows and films, and has resulted in why on earth I’m typing this post right now.

Already a fan of the Ellis Peters books and Mystery! series Cadfael starring Sir Derek Jakobi, Dad didn’t have to ask me twice about watching a different medieval mystery. The Name of the Rose was…well, it was a bit dark for a child of single digits, but I wasn’t afraid, since James Bond the Monk just HAD to win out in the end. When I discovered it was also a book, I knew I had to read it.

Aaaand then I saw how big the book was, and decided to wait a bit.

Does sixteen years still qualify as “a bit”?

Anyway.

The only other experience I’d had of Eco came from The Count of Monte Cristo, where he wrote a lengthy introduction about how the novel is one of the best and worst ever written.

Perhaps not the best first impression of the writer, considering how much I adored Count.

So admittedly, I cracked open The Name of the Rose with a teeeeeeny bit of skepticism.

A prologue.

Hmph. Aspiring writers hear a lot of mixed messages about prologues. Use’em, don’t use’em. They detract, they provide an excellent spot for necessary info. I’ve personally read prologues that had more action/drama than the actual novel.

First person narration. In the second paragraph Adso, the narrator, informs us he’s old, and he’s going to tell us of “wondrous and terrible events,” which he clearly must have survived if he’s writing it all decades after the fact.

Well there goes that tension.

Sass aside, The Name of the Rose really does require the prologue. Unless you’re a medievalist—heck, even if you are—there is a LOT of historical context required to fully understand the tumult of Church and political conflict, how they amplified and worsened each other. You’ve got sects of monks being burned, a pope and an emperor trying to outfight and outwit each other. Frankly, I’m still not entirely sure how that all breaks down, but one thing’s certain: the structure of the known western world depended on The Church, and The Church was not secure. It had cracks like those of a mug knocked off the table (by two mischievous little boys, of course): the mug’s intact, you can put liquid in it and it won’t leak. But you can see the fissure-veins, and you know it won’t take much for the mug to shatter in your hand.

All right, I accept prologues are capable of contributing to the story.  Will I make use of one? Doubtful. But I will appreciate a prologue that sets the stage and lays out the players without ruining the story itself.

So far, so good, Eco. Let’s see what else you’ve got.

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