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Alberto Manguel and the Library of Babel

The Argentinian-born man of letters, cosmopolitan defender of books and reading, is exiled to a world of his own making

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Argentine-born writer Alberto Manguel pictured Sept. 11, 2007, in his house of Mondion near the city of Châtellerault, France. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

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Alberto Manguel really should be an heir to some sort of fortune, for how could someone like him not be in possession of great sums of cash? He has no full-time job. He is elegantly dressed. Sixty-five years old, blue-eyed, bearishly bearded, and so obviously, in photographs and in person, at ease. So well-traveled, so well-read. Gay, Jewish, Argentinian-born, Canadian by citizenship, a resident of Tahiti, London, and now France, a worldly man in the old sense, not in any debased, current, broadband sense—an essayist and anthologist and occasional fiction writer. Those occupations do not pay much.

But it turns out that Manguel needs income, as he told me when I asked. What I thought he did for fun, he in fact does for profit: read, write about reading, and lecture about writing about reading. He has over 50 books to his credit, mostly collections that he has assembled and for which he writes the introductions, but many original works, too. He writes about books that he has read, read in any one of the multiple languages at which he’s adept—and he writes about books that he may not have read but that he has collected. In 2008, his 30,000-volume library, adjacent to his home in southwest France, received its own loving profile in the New York Times Home section; the occasion for the story was the publication of The Library at Night, Manguel’s book about libraries, including his own.

I was, of course, fully prepared to loathe Manguel, to resent his good fortune. But about halfway through our conversation, which took place in a fifth-floor room at a Holiday Inn in Kingston, Ontario, where he was attending a literary festival, we had an exchange that made me sad—sad for him. It began when he was telling me about his beloved German-speaking Czech nanny, who took care of him in infancy and his young boyhood in Israel, where his father was the Argentinian ambassador.

“I lived with this nanny for seven years of my life,” Manguel said, “and it was wonderful. It was like having two parents in one just for me.” I then asked Manguel if he had siblings. “I have two brothers,” he said. “They were born in Israel, but they were looked after by another nanny. This was some kind of bizarre arrangement my parents had thought of, and we didn’t even speak the same language”—him and his parents, that is. “My parents spoke Spanish, a bit of French. I was taught English and German. My brothers were taught English, so I could speak to brothers but not to my parents.”

“Your Spanish wasn’t good enough to speak to your parents?” I asked.

“I spent no time with my parents,” Manguel said. “I said good morning to them some mornings. That’s all I can remember. And then we returned to Argentina after the fall of Peron in ’55. Then we learned Spanish, and then I was able to speak to my parents.”

“Was that—” I hesitated. “That sounds like a rather sad childhood.”

“It was very happy,” Manguel said. “Imagine a childhood where you have someone to yourself 24 hours a day, who understands that you love books and therefore allows you to buy any books that you want, travels with you, treats you as an adult? So, we had all sorts of interesting conversations, and that was that.”

It is entirely possible that Manguel is that rare man who was not scathed by having distant, even completely absent, parents (when many of us are scathed even by close, loving parents). Still, his odd childhood seems to have gifted to Manguel an affinity for books so powerful, so endlessly generative, that it has compensated for every normal affinity that he lacks. Instead of parents, he had books. Instead of a country, he had books. Instead of a people or a race or a religion, he had books.

***

Manguel is a Canadian citizen. He raised his three children in Canada, and he principally identifies as Canadian. On the last night of the literary festival in Kingston where I met him, I heard him say that of all his countries it is Canada that his heart calls home. But in 2000 Manguel and his partner, Craig Stevenson, whom he began seeing after he and his wife divorced in 1987, moved to the southwest of France. Given his ties to Canada, I asked him, why did they move?

“What happened was—look, this is really silly, but I don’t drive,” Manguel said. “So, that meant that in Canada, because, thanks to [former prime minister Brian] Mulroney, who ripped up the railways, you can only get to places if you drive.” Therefore, he had to live in a city. “And to get a place in a city that’s big enough to lodge my library was impossible. You know that. That’s every book collector’s nightmare. So, I’ve always lived in small places and sent my books into storage … ”

But—as the story goes—Manguel was in France, and he met a bookseller, one thing led to another, and he found, for a steal, a property where he could have a house and library, in a town where there are 10 other houses, and he doesn’t have any friends. “So, that is the only reason we’re there,” Manguel said. “I mean, I would come back to Canada if I could.”

It’s an extraordinary thing, really: to leave a country that one professes to love, where one has raised children, in order to have a better space to store books. Of course, I am not a bibliomaniac. But nor am I Alberto Manguel, who has learned in life to take his leave of countries—first Israel, then Argentina—and to put more stock in books than in parents. He was abandoned by his mother, and had to abandon his motherland, where he now returns if “asked to give a talk or something.”

What I thought he did for fun, he in fact does for profit: read, write about reading, and lecture about writing about reading.

It is undeniable that books gave Manguel a childhood, a life, and a living. But I think that the small shortcomings that Manguel does have, as an essayist and a critic, might also be traced to that original, sacrificial swap, which he denies was any sacrifice at all. I think that many would agree with the New York Times critic Dwight Garner, who wrote last year, in a review of a novel by Manguel, that “Mr. Manguel is among the most self-consciously literary people alive,” and that while he is “ardent and adept on this topic,” he is “vaguely tiresome too.” I believe, however, that Garner has somewhat misdiagnosed the problem. It is true that Manguel has only one dominant topic, reading, or perhaps two, if we are to separate reading and the physical artifact of the book. In art, consistency can be a virtue. Roy Lichtenstein’s famous paintings all look alike. And Bach used a lot of harpsichord.

What I find a little shifty about reading Manguel, what keeps me from settling into his work like a comfy corduroy chair, is the way that he returns so often to a few favorite examples: The big three seem to be Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (along with other Lewis Carroll); the works of Robert Louis Stevenson; and having worked as a reader to a blind Jorge Luis Borges, when Manguel was a teenager in Buenos Aires.

Stevenson and Borges are both all over Manguel’s most famous book, A History of Reading, from 1996. In the 2010 collection A Reader on Reading, which includes work from 1993 to 2009, every essay is prefaced by a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s writing. The Red Queen pops up in an essay called “Saint Augustine’s Computer,” the Caterpillar in the essay “Homage to Proteus,” Lewis Carroll himself in two more essays. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears in three essays, in one case as a mere fillip, mentioned when, one imagines, other books might do. Borges is mentioned in, by my count, about a quarter of the essays in this collection and is also the subject of a short book, With Borges. It’s a totally delightful book, by the way—and if I had spent my late teen years reading to John Updike or Raymond Carver or Grace Paley or, heck, Robert Ludlum, you’d better believe I’d work it into as many essays as I could.

What I cannot quite forgive is how uncritically Manguel approaches his favorite authors, how he suspends judgment and shrewdness. When he is writing about an author who is not on this short list, he can be very smart, especially in praising a writer. To read, say, his 2012 Guardian review of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, one of his current favorites, is to be tutored in what specifically is great about a writer. But his all-time favorites Manguel deploys for personal comfort rather than for his readers’ instruction. You get the sense that he returns to Alice because she was a childhood friend of his, and he wants to keep her close by. When I asked him what it was about Alice that endeared her to him so, he replied, “I don’t know. To me, it’s mysterious, this falling in love with one person.

“In the beginning, Alice was me, and the world of crazy adults she was in was the world that I was confronting, with their absurd rumors and their nonsense logic. But then afterwards, before almost any situation, when we go through politics in high school and afterwards”—this was Argentina in the years of coups d’état—“when I was looking at languages and how to read and write and all that is in Alice, I play a game with myself of coming up with a subject and saying to myself, ‘Well, where is there a quote in Alice that corresponds to that?’ And there always is.

“So, Alice is a very intimate book, which I constantly translate into my own experience.”

It is not exceptional that Manguel relates to a book this way; most avid readers probably do. But Manguel has generalized a principle of affection into a principle of criticism. It is one thing to have books for friends, but the most enlightening readers also have some books for enemies. Manguel does not. He elevates enthusiasm to a first principle. I found only one book that he really seemed to detest: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. When I asked, he confirmed that the book was uniquely loathsome. “American Psycho is simply two things,” he said. “It’s a list of brand names that we have already forgotten, and the very loving and accurate description of inflicting terrible pain on another human being, mainly women. And I find that, as a reader, unforgivable.”

***

Bret Easton Ellis aside, Manguel is a radical partisan for the author, the book, the character: They keep us from loneliness. This favoritism leads to his rather curious diagnosis of what ails publishing today. Worse than the usual suspects like e-books, the Internet, or the vanishing reader, topics on which he must pontificate everywhere he is paid to go, Manguel wanted me to know that there is an even more worrisome culprit, bringing writing, and writers, down: the editor.

“If I would have to find fault somewhere,” he said, “I would say that it is largely the fault of the mechanics of publishing that have imposed the idea of the editor.” He then added something about creative-writing classes, which also seem to be part of the problem, but mainly as adjuncts to the editor-driven industry. “Implied in these systems is the idea that a piece of writing is an object of consumption that can be perfected, aspiring to a certain model, in the same way that you can tell that a shoe is well made or a house well built. And literature simply doesn’t function that way. … If the model that exists today of perfecting the work through an editor and a course and even a formula … were to impose itself today, the oeuvre of writers like, to use a classic example, Milton, Shakespeare, etc., etc., could never exist! Could never exist, because you’d have an editor working on Macbeth and saying to Shakespeare, ‘Do we really need Lady Macbeth? Is it not better if we just have this one character struggling? And why are there three witches? Why are there not five?’ ”

This fundamentalist anti-editor stance privileges the author above everyone else, including those who might have something useful to tell her, like when she’s not doing her best work. It’s a kind of exaltation of the individual’s spirit over the expectations of society, which the editor, after all, represents. Editors are paid to bring authors in line, to help them produce stuff more fit for public consumption. But Manguel is completely uninterested in society, in man-in-general. He is not just a man without parents, but a man without a country, and without a people. He is the Luftmensch par excellence (to go polyglot, like Manguel).

Manguel reveres the writer as a citizen only of the Land of Art—as a man, or woman, beyond national borders or any conventional loyalties. Manguel has almost no use for blood or soil. Most of us, even writers and other artists, feel some affective ties to our family’s ethnicity or religion, as well as to our country of origin. But Manguel evinces almost no loyalty to either. I don’t make this point to insult or denigrate Manguel, but rather as a blunt statement of fact. He is a Jew without Judaism, and an Argentinian without Argentinian-ness. Or at least that’s what he aspires to be.

Manguel’s father’s family were German Jews who settled in Buenos Aires. His mother’s family were Russian Jews who moved to one of the agricultural colonies, established for Jews by the philanthropist Maurice de Hirsch, in the Argentine interior; from there, they later moved to Buenos Aires. I asked Manguel what Judaism had meant to his parents.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?” I asked again.

“Absolutely nothing. In fact, I did not discover—after having lived in Israel for seven years—I did not discover that I was Jewish until I was about 10. We kept none of the Jewish holidays.” Despite his father’s having been ambassador to Israel, the family celebrated Christian holidays, as befitted their residence in a Catholic country. His nanny, a Jewish refugee, did not want him to talk about Judaism. “She had a friend who had a number tattooed on her arm, and I remember every time we met her, she would say, ‘Above all, you don’t ask questions about the tattoo.’ … When we returned to Argentina, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, she went to synagogue and so on, and I remember blessing the candles and all that sort of stuff, but I didn’t know what it was, and I just thought it was something that she did. That was it.”

In primary school, back in Argentina, Manguel would occasionally be taunted by anti-Semitic classmates. “And in high school, in this colegio, you sometimes felt this anti-Semitism which is endemic in the Argentinian aristocracy,” he said. “You wouldn’t be insulted, but you knew there was some kind of stigma attached to this.” But in dictatorship-era Argentina, religion was not the most important category for organizing people’s enmity. “The political divisions were so strong, and the political questions were so loud, that that overrode everything else.” And then there was the fact that Manguel was an egghead: “If anything, I felt somewhat segregated because of my bookish interests, you know? Now, when people say, ‘Young people don’t read’—well, in my generation, we had maybe three, in a class of 30, who were interested in books.”

***

Manguel dropped out of college and left Argentina in 1969, at the age of 21. He found jobs in publishing houses in both Paris and London; in London, he also wove belts that he sold to British and expat hippies. He began to write essays and short stories. But almost immediately after Manguel had left Argentina, the country’s politics fell into a chaos that only ended with a military coup in 1976—bringing to power the most brutal government of all, which would famously “disappear” thousands suspected of leftist sympathies. During this time, Manguel stayed out of Argentina, spending time in Tahiti, England, and Tahiti again, before settling in Canada, where he lived from 1982 to 2000.

Alberto Manguel

Manguel, 2007 (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

Of course, in the United States or England, being a writer of one’s land is a great calling: There is hardly higher blurbalistic praise than “the great American novel.” But in South America and in the Caribbean islands, national borders are constricting. For someone like Gabriel García Márquez, to be a great writer means being great beyond Colombia. And it’s not just a Hispanophone trait. It’s a small-country trait, and an island trait. Nobody is less interested in being seen as Trinidadian than V.S. Naipaul. When Manguel speaks of having to attend literary festivals in order to see his friends, friends “from Turkey and Colombia,” etc., he is not lamenting this state of affairs but, I think, bragging.

Manguel also dismisses his Jewishness in a particularly Argentine way. Most of the great Jewish writers have had distant or estranged relationships with Jewish religious practice—with Judaism—but they typically enjoy their ethnicity; they emphasize it and exploit it. I am thinking here of Sholem Aleichem, Bernard Malamud, Howard Jacobson, plenty of others. Many younger Jewish writers are interested in Jewish practice, too: Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Michael Chabon. I can think of Jewish writers who at times seem quite angry with the Jews, in an obsessive way, like Philip Roth and Shalom Auslander. Manguel’s smooth indifference to his Jewishness is something else. It is the work of an Argentinian man of letters, for whom being un-Argentinian, like being un-Jewish, is a lifelong practice.

***

Manguel does not like talking about “the troubles” in Argentina, but if his literary ambitions had not recommended that he move beyond his native land, the murder of many close friends might have done the trick. He feels vaguely guilty, he told me, for having not been there during the years that his friends were getting “disappeared.” But it’s not as if he fled: He was already gone, to Europe, and just refrained from coming back to the place that an American might casually call his “home.” He had a lot of the wrong friends, and his name could have been in the wrong address book, or inscribed in the front of the wrong book lent to somebody—and that would have been that. His guilt is a survivor’s guilt, the guilt of one inexplicably favored by fate.

It is understandable that Manguel generally avoids politics. His choice of subject tends in the opposite direction, away from reality. He enjoys nonfiction—George Steiner, Schopenhauer, Gramsci—and of course much realism, but, even beyond his trinity of Lewis Carroll and Robert Louis Stevenson and Borges, his passions run mainly from the fantastical to the ridiculous. He has edited anthologies titled, to pick a few, The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories, The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, Canadian Mystery Stories, and Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature (not to mention Black Water 2: More Tales of the Fantastic). Manguel has a strong claim to being the leading anthologist of our age, and while his list also includes titles like God’s Spies: Stories in Defiance of Oppression, a collection of short fiction about political oppression, I suspect that Manguel edits his more serious collections for the money, his more whimsical collections for the joy.

Manguel’s smooth indifference to his Jewishness is the work of an Argentinian man of letters, for whom being un-Argentinian, like being un-Jewish, is a lifelong practice.

We could say that a fantasist is made, not born, that Manguel’s life, from his unsettled childhood to the dark affairs in his homeland, made him crave books that veered away from life outside the covers, that did not replicate it. But many children of distant parents, or of authoritarian states, have the opposite reaction: to use books to record and to remember. And Manguel has been so omnivorous a writer and reader that books surely do anything and everything for him: The brilliance of Alice as a favorite character, for Manguel, is that her absurd journey is both child’s play and eerily reminiscent of police-state hell. It depends on how you read it.

Manguel is aging, and his children are interested in their family’s past. They are more interested in Judaism than he or his parents were, he told me, and one daughter has just moved to Argentina. Perhaps they will pull their father in front of mirrors that he had long avoided. His next collection, to be published in Canada next year, includes “A Return,” a novella about a resident of Rome who returns after decades to his native land, which in the interim was ravaged by troubles that sound distinctly Argentinian. “Thirty years had passed since Nestor Esteban Samuel Fabris had left the city to which he was now returning,” it begins, “and to do so now, simply because he had promised to attend the wedding of his only godchild (whom, it must be said, he’d never seen), seemed to him an act of remarkable idiocy.” When he arrives, the hotel where he had a reservation seems not to exist; old friends are recognizable but slightly, uncannily off; he cannot navigate the streets. It’s not third-rate Kafka—I’ll grant it second-rate—but its pathos inheres in what we know, or imagine we know, about Manguel. At the end, the narrator is trapped in his childhood city, which “he had sworn to himself … would from now on belong to the past … swallowed by the sea.”

I have a theory that if Manguel is a little more interested in the political world today than he was yesterday, it’s not just age and fatherhood that we have to thank. It’s also Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, journalist, and, in 1990, presidential candidate. Manguel’s best essay, his angriest, most political, and most memorable piece of writing, an essay in which his passion vigorously goads his talent, is called “God’s Spies.” Along with his short book on reading to Borges, with its intrinsic historical interest, “God’s Spies,” which was first published as the introduction to the 1999 collection of the same title, is the work of Manguel’s that should last longest. It is about many things—memory, violence, poetry—but it lands on Vargas Llosa’s 1995 newspaper article “Playing With Fire,” published in the Spanish newspaper El País. In his article, Vargas Llosa argued, more or less, that Argentina would do well not to bring the old government torturers and murderers to justice, that it is better to forget, and that, after all, wasn’t everyone at least a little bit at fault?

Manguel was not the only writer horrified by what he felt amounted to a defense of brutal dictatorship, and in fact the end of “God’s Spies” is given over to a lengthy summary of Argentinian writer Juan José Saer’s published rejoinder. But if Manguel’s was not a surprising reaction, reading it surprised me. To read the compulsively amiable Manguel launch from Auden—“Poetry makes nothing happen,” he famously wrote—into an evisceration of a colleague in the world of letters is like watching a bookish nerd finally snap, punch the bully, and knock him out cold.

“Burston-Marsteller”—the public relations firm hired by the Argentinian military—“could not have come up with a more efficient publicist for its cause,” Manguel writes. “The maze of a politician’s mind has seldom held the promise of redemption,” Manguel icily adds, “but that of a gifted writer is almost exclusively built on such a promise, and in spite of Auden’s dictum, it allows no forgetting.” Not only is Vargas Llosa, who was to win the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature, demoted to p.r. flack, but then, the close reader will notice, he is identified not with the “gifted writer” but merely the politician. For the writer, Manguel is telling us, must in the end side with justice. Just as the sadist, like Bret Easton Ellis, forfeits the title “writer,” so too does the politician who betrays truth for votes.

Manguel held this conclusion about Vargas Llosa with the newfound force of the reluctant convert, of one who had resisted for a long time. “I had, for a time, a theory that literature, good writing, or good art in general, disallowed certain attitudes and ways of thinking simply because they were dogmatic and literature is contrary to dogma,” Manguel told me. Although, he added, Vargas Llosa’s “political memoirs are very badly written”—so maybe the theory holds? “I tried to contain the anger” in that essay, he said, “but of course it seeps through. Hypocrisy angers me. I think it’s a cardinal sin. If you don’t know better, if you’re stupid, it is up to a point a valid excuse.”

As it happened, Vargas Llosa never got far in politics at all, and he moved to Spain. But Manguel has not forgiven him. One can imagine all sorts of good reasons to carry this grudge: Vargas Llosa’s apologies for crimes against humanity; for crimes against humanity in a country not his own; for crimes against humanity in a country not his own where, during the troubles, as other writers died, he was able to publish freely. The whole thing stinks, and Manguel was right to hold up the rotting fish for all to see. Manguel, of course, has yet another reason, not unique to him but of unusual importance: Vargas Llosa is an excellent writer. That good books were written by unkind people—Manguel would never have denied that. But how many of those unkind people had run for president in another, nearby country, also with a history of man’s great cruelty to man, and then, five years after losing, written a blithe and obtuse defense of dictatorship in the land where Alberto was born?

For the most part, Manguel lacks the ambition of the great cosmopolitan writers. If Naipaul left his small island to be a writer of the world, Manguel left his country to read books in other countries. Want someone to edit a collection of Tanzanian haiku? He is surely your man. His facility with many kinds of literature, originally in many languages, makes him a fine party magician, turning tricks for a bit of money. But it is hard to be unmoved by the force and clarity that enliven his writing when he is truly agitated, when he is after something more than diversion or profit—when he is summoned, as by the impertinence of Vargas Llosa, to answer a great writer by being a great man.

***

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Alberto Manguel and the Library of Babel

The Argentinian-born man of letters, cosmopolitan defender of books and reading, is exiled to a world of his own making