BOOK REVIEW / By any other name: Tom Shone wonders why there are three new editions of The Name of the Rose

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TO SOMEONE as fond of bibliographical brain-teasers as Umberto Eco, the state of his novel The Name of the Rose would present a cute cryptic coda to its publication nearly a decade ago: there is not one definitive paperback edition but three competing for our attention. So before readers can even start to wind their way through the labyrinthine library which provides the novel with its climactic setting, they must negotiate a similar poser in more concrete form: which version of the book to buy.

Dare he or she risk the sensuous lures of the Mandarin edition ( pounds 4.99), which, complete with jagged embossed title and picture of Sean Connery, risks broadcasting the fact that you only saw the movie on TV last Christmas? Perhaps, in recoil from the Mandarin, the austere design of the Secker & Warburg edition ( pounds 9.99) - lots of white space, neat picture of an empty corridor, large critic's quote - would be a more ascetic, if slightly fashion-victimised, alternative. Perhaps the best bet would be the Minerva ( pounds 6.99) - slim elegant typeface, no picture - whose hefty size keeps it this side of suggesting a recent trip through Gatwick.

Unlike Eco's maze, though, this one has a centre. The conundrum leads back to one publisher: Reed International, who, when Picador's paperback contract for Eco's novel expired in October, decided to publish the novel in three editions: 'An 'A' format for the hoi polloi, 'B' format for students, and the Secker paperback for discerning design-conscious readers,' explains Dan Franklin of Secker.

It may be the result of canny marketing, but the multiple editions bear mute witness to the many-layered nature of Eco's novel, the tiers of which - detective novel, historical novel and postmodern novel - he isolated in his essay 'Reflections on The Name of The Rose' (Secker, 1985). So now there's an edition for each level of the brow - high, middle or low. The latter is the most important, if sales are anything to go by. 'The one that sells the best is the TV tie-in with Sean Connery on the cover, which sells to those who just want an adventure novel,' says Ian Brereton, manager of Dillon's in High Street Kensington. And the others? 'The others sell to more discerning readers who admire the book's literary qualities.' Or so he can only hope.

This tripartite publishing strategy could not have happened to a more appropriate novel, for The Name of The Rose has much to say about the visual appearance of books. It starts with the death of a monk illustrator, Adelmo of Otranto, who leaves behind him a collection of potentially blasphemous marginalia. This occasions a long debate between the blind head librarian and William of Baskerville about the merits of illustrating the scriptures with images which, though seductive, could lead one from the path of righteousness. So too with the novel itself: might not the Sean Connery still confuse the novel's intellectual message? In which case the minimalist Secker edition, from which even the marginal illustrations with which Eco originally bedecked his novel have been removed, would be best?

Maybe not. Eco's characters reach the conclusion, familiar from his own book, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, that the experience of appreciating scriptural marginalia 'is neither a simple pleasure in the sensuous, nor an intellectual contemplation'. Which conclusion, applied to the dilemma facing potential readers of The Name of the Rose, implies that only those who possess all three editions will be properly getting into the spirit of things. A welcome conclusion to those at Reed International, no doubt.