A READING DIARY: A YEAR OF FAVOURITE BOOKS
by Alberto Manguel
Knopf Canada, 253 pp.
I am holding a book in my hands that uses one novel, each month, to describe a great many other books. The months include such disparate writers as Kipling, Cervantes, Margaret Atwood, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Goethe. It is personal, and yet full of quotations and lists. It is European in its design. Slabs of narrative are fanciful leaps of intellect. It is befuddling, chatty and a bit like Claudio Magriss Danube without the river. It is elliptical, thoughtful and throws off hundreds of tangents. And it is another remarkable publication by Alberto Manguel.
Born in Buenos Aires, Manguel was raised in Israel, where his father was the Argentine ambassador. When they returned to Argentina, Manguel worked in a bookstore and, by chance, became one of several young people employed to read for a blind man, named Jorge Luis Borges. The young Alberto would accompany Borges to films and describe gestures, actions, rooms: all the visual bits that gave the voices meaning. He attended a notable high school, a political hotbed in Buenos Aires, which was taught by university professors instead of high school teachers.
In an interview, Manguel once remarked that, "this was extraordinary because people very much interested in one particular aspect of the subject would teach us nothing but that throughout the whole year, so we'd have a whole year of Don Quixote, or a whole year on the certain chemical properties of sodium, or whatever, but the wonderful thing about this was that it taught me that through one aspect of the subject you can learn the techniques of studying, you can learn the system and it's much better than to try and become an encyclopedia the whole literature in two years or whatever. So we concentrated on one book and through that book learned about the rest." This sort of reading education strikes me as a very similar model to the book Im now holding in my hands.
All of the translations in this book are Manguels own. He spent his 20s in Europe, picking up languages and reading more books in the original French, Spanish, German, Swedish and Italian. To support these habits, he worked in an Italian publishing house, and in London, he made mirrored belts on Charing Cross Road. Mick Jagger is the proud owner of one of these Manguel belts.
In 1984, he became a Canadian citizen, and it was in this country that Manguel seemed to invent himself. He began assembling a Dictionary of Imaginary Places. He became a regular voice on CBC Radio. He once told me that they were tired of stodgy old English commentators and liked his accent. In one radio interview, he remarked that there were no Canadian revenge stories, an idea that struck Margaret Atwood so forcefully that she sat down immediately and wrote one.
He became the sort of reader who will comb through the 1,001 Arabian Nights only to focus on one tale for his anthology of the fantastic, Black Water. In Black Water a book that celebrates the imaginary breaking into the real Manguel found not one night, but a footnote to one night a page-long dream within a dream that perfectly illuminated the fantastic with the storys context, placement and introduction. Ive always admired this editorial choice, the use of a well-placed footnote, so I ran out and bought the 10-volume Burton translation of the Arabian Nights. Later, when I came to know him, Manguel told me once that he prefers the two-volume Lane translation for its clarity.
It was in those early Canadian years that Manguel learned that his Argentine literature teacher had became an informant for the government, a man who was directly responsible for the disappearance and torture of countless fellow students. The incredible disparity between a love of stories and the horrors of the Disappeared gave Manguel a question to resolve. And this question became his novel, News From a Foreign Country Came.
His international bestseller, A History of Reading, was a treasure trove of vignettes, essays, personal history, authorial gossip, origins of eyeglasses, medical prescriptions for literary vices, Elizabethan hornbooks, rotary reading desks and illustrations from every corner of the worlds most glorious libraries. The Globe and Mail labelled this work "an absolute treasure." P.D. James, in the Sunday Times, said, "A remarkable achievement. I finished the book with a sense of gratitude to have shared this journey though time in the company of a mind so lively, knowledgeable and sympathetic."
With A History of Reading, Manguel was named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France, and won the prestigious Chevalier Prize. Past winners of this award include Atwood, Timothy Findley, John Ralston Saul, Jane Urquhart, Celine Dion and Sylvester Stallone.
Manguel has wandered the world in search of stories and languages, making connections between various pages, and out of these bookish wanderings he has formed two enviable libraries. One library is, of course, the mental library which we enchant into life with each new book we encounter. It is the library of all the other books we have read while we read the one in our hands. His other library, the "real" one in France, is the subject of this book, A Reading Diary. Four years ago, Alberto Manguel packed up all his books that were spread out in various storage units, in Toronto, Calgary and London, and he moved to Mondion, France. For the price of one Canadian bungalow, he and his partner bought a stone presbytère, an orchard, a pool, a guesthouse and a medieval tower. Cats invade the library and hedgehogs have a habit of falling in the pool. But it is this act the travel, the unpacking, the settling, the organizing of books that has led us to the present work in question.
As I read this book, I remembered that one of Manguels favourite cookbooks is written by Sophia Loren. He is a remarkable chef and baker. In Tasmania, he once found a recipe for a kiwi-pecan pie. His French toast, with lemon zest, was quite famous in Calgary.
In Canada, Manguel loved the cold weather, the clouds and the huge expanse of sky. "Weather is a Canadian subject. There is no weather to speak of in Don Quixote."
He doesnt drive a car. In Calgary, he didnt have direct access to a car or the CTrain. He doesnt like the urban sprawl, child poverty or big-box superstores. "What kind of dialogue or communication can take place in communities like these?" He missed the "urban heart" of a city: squares, schools, churches, small shops.
I learned this from a conversation with his partner, Craig: wherever Alberto travels, he has always chosen the busiest place in the house to set up his writing office. This is where he writes best: the kitchen, the front hall entrance, wherever you find the most traffic. It is as if the household plays an active process in his daily writing habits. I find this choice fascinating. Manguel the anthologist, the writer-collector requires a constant supply of bookish trivia. As for writers solitude: foo! He seeks a dialogue with his writers to fuel his imagination. He seeks a Renaissance of creative interplay. He seeks the "perfect" book at just the right moment. These ideas also strike me as particularly European, and its as if Alberto is weaning himself away from Canada.
Last night, after reading this book, my mind was charged with new ideas. I woke at 5 a.m., ready to begin this conversation and write these words. Its now seven, the sky is slate-coloured, and I hear my wife downstairs, struggling her way out of an eiderdown.