Five Moral Pieces

A Sweeter Rose:
The Name of the Rose (Folio Society Edition)

Umberto Eco.
Translated by William Weaver

Folio Society, 2001, Boxed Hardcover with 8 Color Plates. £27.50 + membership. [Browse edition/Folio Society Web site]
For US enquiries, contact Lia Hunt

Review by Allen B. Ruch

Universally regarded as a modern masterpiece, The Name of the Rose has already earned the status of "classic," and though published in 1980, Harcourt Brace still keeps a hardcover edition in print. Although this is unusual, it's not entirely surprising -- of the few novels published in the last few decades to merit a perpetual hardcover edition, The Name of the Rose belongs next to such works as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Gravity's Rainbow. A book about books, Rose evokes the weight of ancient libraries, of illuminated texts bound in exotic leathers and inscribed with maps and legends; indeed, only a hardcover seems truly capable of supporting its labyrinthine prose and sheer density of ideas.
So it was therefore with great pleasure that I received a copy of the Folio Society's recent edition of The Name of the Rose, which is in every way a wonderful achievement. Snugly set in a sturdy black box, the novel is bound in red cloth, its front cover entwined with golden thorns reaching up to a ceiling of Zodiacal symbols. A tendril of thorns winds its way around the spine to the back cover, there to touch upon a heraldic glyph: an open book inside a burning disk, encircled by the word PENITENZIAGITE. (Perhaps a nod to the film as well as the novel?) Furthermore, the Folio Society has commissioned artist Neil Packer to illustrate their edition, and his delight in the novel is evident from the very first page -- upon opening the cover, the reader is welcomed by a menagerie of fantastical beasts. Emblazoned in gold on the burgundy endpapers, the creatures twist and turn around each other in an explosion of wings and limbs and beaks: harpies and hydras, saurians and sirens, mandrakes and minotaurs, and a host of stranger monsters bearing names as outlandish as their chimeric forms. Adelmo himself would be proud of the mischievous sense of invention illuminating their delightful grotesquery.
The text is handsomely set in a typeface (perhaps appropriately) called "Centaur," its quirky serifs suggesting a vague, antique aura. (I'm also fond of the ornamental Maltese crosses used as section dividers.) Happily, the Folio edition retains the map of the abbey found in the HBJ original, and though it no longer occupies its convenient former position inside the cover, it has been re-inked to appear more substantial. But best of all are the interior illustrations -- eight full-color paintings by Neil Packer, each residing upon its own glossy leaf. Bursting with both vivid color and ironic wit, each illustration serves as a visual meditation on a passage selected from the text. Eschewing any attempts at a faux period authenticity, the images are a whimsical blend of arcane symbolism and modern collage, each with a sly humor that again conjures the novel's own illustrator, Adelmo of Otranto. Three highlights include "The system of words was eccentric," a three-dimensional rendering of the Library floorplan, with a bird-skulled hermaphrodite pointing to a secret room; "I had a vision," a ghastly account of the Dies Irae exploding with fleshy satire; and "The Antichrist is truly at hand," an apocalyptic scene worthy of Bosch, with a "bite" of bitter wormwood taken out of the plate itself!
All in all, a wonderful and very welcome edition of a much beloved book. The catch is, of course, that it's available only through the Folio Society, and is not sold as an independent volume. The only way to procure a copy is to join the Folio Society. (Which after all, doesn't sound like much of a sacrifice to any Eco enthusiast.) The basic deal is simple: sign up with the Society and receive a set of classic books for a greatly reduced rate, then buy at least four full-priced volumes within a year. While the price tag per book is a bit steep -- at £27.50 the Folio Rose is close to $43 -- their selection is quite varied, and the quality of their editions is always high. Indeed, for the color plates alone, the Folio Rose is worth the extra expense over the normal hardcover.

--A. Ruch
30 July 2002

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