Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Name of the Rose

Well, I've been saying that I would read Umberto Eco for over a year now, and I've finally done it.  I read The Name of the Rose, though I'm too embarrassed to confess how long it took me to complete this task.  My friend Andrew, whose recommendations I always take with eagerness, loves Eco and wrote a great post for me about the author.  Please do yourselves a favor and read it here; it's a brilliant analysis.

Before I really get started, I think it might help if I gave a quick summary.  The Name of the Rose was published in 1980, so it just barely misses my criteria for "Contemporary Fiction."  The story is about a group of monks in the 1300s, and several are mysteriously killed at an Italian monastery.  The protagonist is William of Baskerville, who is modeled on Sherlock Holmes in more than just his name.  With logical reasoning and astute observation, William quickly pieces together confusing circumstances and stuns those who witness it.  Adso, the narrator of the story, acts as the "Dr. Watson" for William and assists him in his investigation.  The story follows a fairly typical mystery plot, and I was able to successfully detect the culprit based on the formula I've developed after reading way too many Agatha Christie novels.

However, the standard plot formula is surprisingly subverted at the very end, challenging the modern emphasis on structure and instead promoting postmodern fragmentation.  All along, we are led to believe that there is a complex and intricate pattern, but Eco challenges it with his ending.  This stimulates a fascinating conversation about analysis and meaning.  I believe this is why William was modeled so obviously on Holmes, to emphasize this sudden contrast.  The Modernist philosophy depended heavily upon Reason, but was that really a secure foundation?  Can Reason actually be trusted?

Another fascinating component of Eco's novel is that it is embedded and overflowing with historical, literary, and philosophical allusions.  I am very unfamiliar with the world of monks in the 14th century, so this was all new information for me.  We learn about the various factions within the monks, the important figures, and a whole lot of Latin phrases.  In addition, the story coincides with the Inquisition, and several of the monks share their encounters with it.  Ubertino of Casale, an actual historical figure, appears in the story as a refugee hidden in the monastery.  According to historical legend, Ubertino disappeared from record and was never heard of again after he was exiled for heresy.  William appears to have great respect for Ubertino and disdain for the Inquisition.  Eventually, the Inquisition comes directly to the monastery, and William and Adso are forced to watch a man get battered by an onslaught of unfounded accusation.  Throughout the novel, this an underlying critique of dogma in favor of tolerance is an interesting and modern perspective.

As I continue to think about it, I can see that The Name of the Rose can certainly be considered a postmodern text.  Adso's narration contributes to the questioning of Truth with his metanarrative style.  He breaks in and out of his narration, revealing that many years have passed since these events occurred, though they are still sharp in his memory.  He reflects on his actions with nostalgia, warmth, and also regret, adding a thoughtful commentary to the narrative.  Balancing and contrasting the narration, he divides the interpretation of the story between his perspective at the time as a youth and now as an old man.  This style highlights the shifting and uncertain discernment of morality and values, particularly through the lens of time.

Adding to the postmodern style, the monks all place extreme value on their literature, lauding the importance of story.  Their library is shaped as a complicated labyrinth, illustrating a protection of literature as well as a barrier to it.  The Name of the Rose is quite a dense novel, and I can't say that I breezed through it or was able to get lost in it as I read.  However, I recognize the ingenious and careful design Eco had in mind, and I'm glad I took the time to explore it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Into the Wild

This is one of the few books left that I have been longing to discuss and yet have put on hold.  When I first read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, I was incredibly moved and inspired.  I knew immediately that I wanted my friends to read it as well, and I almost instantly gave my copy to someone on loan.  This story was a necessary reminder of why I love literature and spend so much time reading it.  I had just slogged through one of those long and difficult books I often tackle, which provide value but often bring exhaustion along with them.  Into the Wild was a breath of fresh air.

However, the trouble with this book is that its summary is a terribly inadequate representation of its meaning.  From the very beginning, you know that it is a true story about a young man who ventured off in solo travel and tragically died alone in the wilderness.  At the surface, this appears to be the story of a foolish and arrogant kid who brashly took on more than he could handle.  You could say that Christopher McCandless abandoned his privileged inheritance in a self-righteous attempt to flex his strength and independence.  You could say that his life was wasted in an appalling demonstration of hubris and pity his suffering family.  Many people have done just that.

On the other hand, Jon Krakauer was captivated by this mysterious adventurer and intuitively knew that his journey was worth exploration.  After covering the story in a brief newspaper article, Krakauer couldn't get McCandless off his mind.  On some level, he identified with McCandless and knew that there was more to his story. Like Truman Capote, he abandoned his other work in a relentless pursuit of understanding this stranger who posthumously crossed his path.  He sought out every connection he could find, even those who spent just minutes with McCandless, transporting the hitchhiker.  He poured through McCandless’ personal book collection, noting all the highlighted and marked passages.  I say this reminds me of Truman Capote because he similarly dedicated himself to write In Cold Blood.  Both of these books spoke to me on a different level than those I typically read.  It changes things to know that what you’re reading actually happened.  There is something fascinating about uncovering the layers of a person who cannot speak for himself.  We won’t ever truly know what McCandless was thinking, but we can piece together an idea with the scraps of life he left behind.  Guided by Krakauer’s skilled hand, those pieces result in a beautiful and inspiring story.

It is difficult to pick out what moved me most about McCandless' story.  I admire that he wanted to challenge himself and that he sought to also understand himself in the process.  There are times when I felt very disconnected from him, as he adopted the moniker "Alexander Supertramp" and abandoned all the relationships he had formed.  But his last words are recorded, his final thoughts in the knowledge of his oncoming death.  This is such an incredibly intimate thing, and I was enraptured as he penned his own eulogy: "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord.  Goodbye and may God bless all!"

Whatever led McCandless to venture into the Alaskan wilderness was not wasted in his untimely death.  He showed us how it looks when a person follows his convictions and steps out in the face of uncertainty.  He demonstrated what it means to follow your dreams despite the obstacles.  He learned to recognize his mistakes and adapt his philosophy by the end of his journey.  Most of all, he showed us that a life well lived is a life without regret.

I absolutely love this book and hope to read much more by Jon Krakauer in the future.  I have no trouble asserting that it should join the ranks of Classic Literature and be read by many generations to come.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

In Defense of Javert

With the recent resurgence of Les Miserables in popular culture, I want to take this opportunity to discuss a fascinating literary character: Inspector Javert.  In one of my very first blog posts, I gave a quick review of Hugo's literary masterpiece and briefly mentioned my connection to Javert.  However, I now want to indulge in further discussion of those feelings.  (You can read my original post here.)

I think that Javert is one of the most misunderstood characters in literature.  He is almost always categorized as a villain and criticized.  (Russell Crowe is likewise receiving criticism for his portrayal of this character, but I'll get to that a bit later.)  The second time I saw Les Miserables on stage, I overheard the man behind me trying to describe Javert at intermission: "He is a despicable human being... scum of the earth."  My heart leapt in objection, and I had to restrain myself from heartily expressing my dissent.

I believe that Javert is Valjean's foil but not the story's villain.  A villain is typically described as "an evil character in the story," but it is almost impossible to argue that Javert is evil.  Although he may have a skewed sense of right and wrong, he relentlessly pursues that which he perceives as good.  A foil, however, is described as "a character who contrasts with another character in order to highlight each other's particular qualities."  Javert and Valjean are certainly set in contrast throughout the novel, but this emphasizes each man's core beliefs and principles.

To really understand Javert, you must read the book.  But because the book is absolutely massive, I will try to fill you in as best as I can to save you some of that work.  Javert is a man of the highest integrity and discipline.  He has dedicated his life to public service and believes that the only way to be just is to be completely unbiased.  Yes, he develops a Captain Ahab-type obsession with Valjean, but it comes from dedication to his job.  In truth, I think all of Hugo's characters are fairly one-dimensional, but that doesn't bother me because of the broad variety of characters and the grand scale of time and action in Les Miserables.  However, Javert experiences arguably the most drastic character development when he encounters Valjean's mercy.

The chapter that describes Javert's suicide is absolutely breath-taking.  In fact, it is the passage of the novel that I remember most clearly and carries the most lasting impact after a few years have passed.  I just read it again after watching the recent movie, and I was just as enthralled by it.  Although there are many brilliant ways in which the musical version of the story captures the essence of the novel, I do not think it adequately represents Javert's suicide.  So allow me to let the book speak for itself:

"Javert's ideal was not to be humane, not to be great, not to be sublime; it was to be irreproachable.  Now he had just failed."

"His supreme anguish was the loss of all certainty.  He felt that he was uprooted.  The code was now but a stump in his hand."

"'In sparing me, what has he done?  His duty?  No.  Something more.  And I, in sparing him in my turn, what have I done?  My duty?  No. Something more.  There is then something more than duty.'  Here he was startled; his balances were disturbed; one of the scales fell into the abyss, the other flew into the sky, and Javert felt no less dismay from the one which was above than from the one which was below."

"All that he had believed was dissipated.  Truths which he had no wish for inexorably besieged him.  he must henceforth be another man.  He suffered the strange pangs of a conscience suddenly operated on for the cataract.  He felt that he was emptied, useless, broken off from his past life, destitute, dissolved."

You see, Javert's torment and subsequent suicide were a picture of deep humility.  Rather than stubbornly refusing to change his mind, he recognized that he had been wrong.  He spent a considerable period of time in deep thought, coming to the humbling conclusion that his strict moral code was imperfect, and he was crushed by this realization.  Javert had not been pursuing evil, and he was anguished by the discovery of his own error.  His death is the loss of a good and upright man, a loss you have to both respect and mourn.

I love Russell Crowe, and I probably always will.  So it's possible that I'm biased about his portrayal of Javert, but I do think it was well done.  No, Crowe doesn't have the best singing voice, but even he would admit that.  However, he brought nobility as well as angst to the role.  His portrayal of the suicide was phenomenal and truly brought to life the images in the book.  Crowe illustrated Javert's conscience and moral anguish rather than making him appear stubborn.  In showing these subtleties, his acting made up for his singing and added depth to the movie.

Thank you for allowing me to explore this fascinating character in detail.  In closing, I want to say that Les Miserables is a beautiful, fabulous, brilliant book.  The musical is a masterful interpretation of the story.  The recent movie is a heart-wrenching and powerful adaptation of the musical.  All three forms of this story are worth your time.