Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Interview with Alberto Manguel

Boyd Tonkin interviews Alberto Manguel.
"I could hear the books screaming in their boxes," he reports. "Like everyone else, I had always lived in small places. But now that my children had left home, I thought, maybe I can indulge in having a library." In the southern Loire, he found an old priest's house with a ruined barn attached, in a neighbourhood where "the prices seemed to have frozen before the war... for the Parisians, who set the price of real estate, anything south of the Loire is Africa". A local architect transformed the wrecked barn into a sturdy home – described with envy-inducing relish in The Library at Night – for 30,000-plus books.

So what did it feel like to have them all in place? "I had the sense that something had come, not to an end, but to an age in me. It was as if you have roots for the first time; it's all here. You're somehow complete – coupled with the knowledge that the essence of a library is that it is never complete." Soon after the final tome had reached its designated spot, the barn of books began to overflow. Now they colonise the house, with one bedroom ("we call it the Murder Room") occupied by the detective fiction Manguel writes about so well. The Library at Night wittily shows how every dream of order breaks down, and "the number of books always exceeds the space they are granted". Equally, it argues that the hankering for a flawless system remains a persistent Utopian hope of homo sapiens, the classifying animal.

As a teenage bookworm, Manguel says, "I had a library of maybe 1,000 books in my room in Buenos Aires. I did have the sense that everything there was organised in the right way. You'll probably think I needed serious psychiatric treatment, but there were times when I would not buy a book because I knew it wouldn't fit one of the categories into which I had divided the library." The fledgling bibliophile worked during school holidays in a local bookshop, Pygmalion. Through that job, he became one of the disciples who read aloud to the blind spinner of labyrinthine, enigmatic tales acknowledged not only as Argentina's greatest writer, but as its greatest reader: Jorge-Luis Borges.

It was "an extraordinary privilege to listen to what went on in the mind of one of the great readers". Borges, blind since his early fifties, planned to write fiction again. He "wanted to see how the great masters had put together their work. So he would comment on the mechanics of the story." Yet the young reader would disagree with the sightless sage: "You have to learn to read on your own... This seems presumptuous. But there was in Borges a fascination with the description of violence and a certain prudery regarding erotic stories; he preferred sentimentalism to eroticism."

"For Borges," he recalls, "everything consisted in creating the right structure out of words; we had nothing but the words to go by. Whatever music or meaning the words carried, we had to remember that they were... untrustworthy tools." Borges would criticise the slips of every writer – including that bodger, Shakespeare.
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