Category Archives: Wonder

The Passions of Alberto Manguel

Passions require time: time to develop in the first place, time to be expanded, time to be enjoyed. Passions, like any experience/activity that requires prolonged attention and an active imagination, can be tripped up even before they’ve found their legs in our contemporary fast-paced world. It is fortunate then, that the pleasures of passionate engagement whether with music, reading, maths, theatre, people or just being alive are such that even a short exposure is generally enough to hold a person for a life-time.

There have always been people who appear to inhabit lives of uniform colour and temperature, who can walk a glacier or climb a mountain and be occupied, not by the magnificence surrounding them, but their growling muscles. There have always been people who hear Bach or read Dickinson and complain of boredom, or see a flamboyant parrot or a scampering lyrebird and remain unmoved.

And there have always been people who inhabit the world as if on alert. Nature, art, people, so many experiences elicit from these people responses that are invariably high-octane. These are exciting people to be with, their enthusiasm rubs off, you feel more alive, more geared to possibility when you are with them.

There are friends who belong in the passionate category, and there are authors too. I have thrived in the company of Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, and many others. I’m excited when there’s a new book from, say, John Banville, Ann Patchett or Justin Cartwright. And even if their latest is not among their best I still enjoy moments walking the high peaks with them.

Alberto Manguel is one such writer. Recently I reviewed his latest book Curiosity. Even if I had not known his work, the title would have lured me in. Below is the review, published in Australian Book Review, September, 2015.

 

CURIOSITY by Alberto Manguel.
Yale University Press, $44.95 hb, 377pp, 9780300184785

There are two broad approaches to reading Alberto Manguel’s, Curiosity. The first type of reader will study the book – or rather, the text – assiduously connecting the personal narratives that introduce each chapter with the books Manguel references in the more theoretical and discursive aspects that follow. Dante’s Commedia is a constant presence in Curiosity, so they will have their Dante in easy reach for ready consultation, and they will strive to connect Dante’s journey with Manguel’s chapter titles, all of them questions: ‘How Do We Reason?’ (Ch. 3), ‘What Is Language?’ (Ch. 6), ‘What Is an Animal?’ (Ch. 11), ‘What Comes Next?’ (Ch. 15). They will make notes as they read, in an attempt to harness the voluminous material. And they will keep a separate list of the surprisingly numerous literary references that are unknown to them. This type of reader will try to get on top of the material, bring it to heel, master it.

The second type of reader will plunge in. They will not feel the ground beneath them, rather they’ll be swept up in Manguel’s narrative. As Virgil guides Dante, and Dante Guides Manguel, so Manguel guides this type of reader. It is an unpredictable journey. In the first chapter alone, ‘What Is Curiosity?’, Manguel saunters from Dante to Thomas Aquinas; he makes a quick digression to Augustine and Aristotle before slipping past Dante to David Hume and Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Diderot’s co-editor of the Encyclopédie (I had always thought Diderot did the job alone); there are nods to Boccaccio, Isaiah Berlin, Seneca, Socrates, and several others like Covarrubias (a Spanish lexographer who wrote an etymological dictionary in 1611), previously unknown to this reader. This is a journey without an itinerary. A risky odyssey, it is impossible to anticipate where Manguel is heading. But this second type of reader, trusting that Manguel knows what he is doing, goes with the current. These readers are so immersed in Manguel’s wanderings, they might be in a trance as they read – this book is their entire reality – they’re prickling with awareness, in a world bathed in a golden, if sometimes opaque light. These readers are guided by Manguel but, at the same time, they are nudged along by books they’ve read themselves, experiences they’ve had, and thoughts and ideas that surface without warning.

The first type of reader seeks control of the material, the second, although no less hungry for understanding, can tolerate the mystery of the not-yet-known (and perhaps never to be fully known) and the uncertainties of an intellectual quest without a plot.

The capaciousness of Manguel’s curiosity, his voracious reading, and his eagerness to share both with his readers are simultaneously wonderful and daunting. This is old news to those familiar with Manguel’s earlier work. With an author who can leap from the mid-thirteenth century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia to Borges in a single paragraph, any attempt to control the material is, I believe, counter-productive. Too much in the way of analysis somehow annuls the meaning and sense of understanding that arises from this material. Trust Manguel: in The City of Words, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading and A Reader on Reading*, he has proved to be not simply a reliable guide, but the best there is outside Dante’s first circle of Hell.

Manguel, driven by his own ravening curiosity, ranges here, there and everywhere in Curiosity, so it is somewhat amusing that he adheres to a strict format in the structure of his latest book. It is comprised of seventeen chapters, each titled with a question, and each beginning with a full page illustration depicting a woodcut from the 1487 printing of the Commedia (with commentary by Cristoforo Landino). I am wedded to Doré’s illustrations to Dante, their detail and lyricism form a perfect duet with the poem. These fifteenth century woodcuts do not speak to me in the same way; they simply do not – to me – depict the terrible horrors that are related in the Inferno, nor the sublime joys of Paradiso. I am curious as to why Manguel chose them over Doré’s plates. Sometimes the connection between the particular canto from the Commedia and the chapter question is obvious, sometimes it becomes clear by the end of the chapter, and on other occasions a second or third reading will be required. Understandings surface when one reads Manguel.

The text of each chapter begins with a page or two of personal material: a happening from Manguel’s childhood, a recent illness, sexual discrimination in his childhood books (Anne of Green Gables for girls, The Coral Island for boys), Argentina’s dirty war, the economic crisis in Argentina in 2006, concern over the environment, animals, injustice in the world. Following the personal snippet are approximately ten pages during which Manguel wanders through art and literature gathering material that enhances and elaborates on the chapter question. The dynamic is reminiscent of musical improvisation.

Questions, as Manguel makes clear, are far more saturated with meaning than answers. Curiosity is short on answers. What it has are intellectual explorations triggered by all the crucial questions that comprise the human project; indeed, most of the chapter questions have inspired entire schools of philosophy. No précis nor synopsis would do this book justice. Suffice it to say that for readers of Manguel, his favourites are here – Montaigne, Plato, Alice, Don Quixote – and his customary concerns: how we make sense of the world, how we can understand one another. There are many delights. In the chapter ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, Manguel reveals Dante as an environmentalist (with a touch of Paganism) and the Commedia as an environmentalist tract. And surprising thoughts. After reading his account of Nimrod and the building of the Tower of Babel, atheist that I am, I found myself thinking that God made a big mistake, that he should have found a different punishment for the people’s heresy, anything but the confounding of language and meaning. How much more difficult it would be for hatred, prejudice, brutality and corruption to occur if we shared a common language.

The last two chapters of Curiosity, ‘Why Do Things Happen?’ and ‘What Is True?’ represent, at least to me, Manguel’s narrative assent into paradise. As I closed the book, I felt a little as Dante did when brought into the presence of his Beatrice.

 

*Reviewed by AG in ABR, May 2010.

 

 

POSSIBILITY

POSSIBILITY

Kierkegaard wrote that ‘Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.’ This is a warning to all those tempted to write an early memoir. Although given how very many early memoirs are produced these days – dull, superficial, even soporific accounts of lives that do not warrant remembering much less sharing – no one is taking much notice of Kierkegaard. In 1977, Tom Wolfe published an essay called the ‘Me Decade’ in which he drew attention to the cult of the self. How much more intense and widespread has the focus on self become. Ours is the ME ME ME ERA. Sharing is a hallmark of contemporary life, and an early memoir allows for the possibility of several more volumes before one is confined to the grave.

But it is not memoir nor the dominance of the self that has prompted this note, rather what interests me is the increased understanding that comes with advancing years to which Kierkegaard alludes. For those excited by understanding, this is one of the rewards of ageing. For myself, it’s a great relief to know that so much is behind me: mistakes never to be repeated, misbegotten lovers, misspent moments that might stretch into months, the weight problems, the money problems, the job problems. It’s satisfying to have sufficient understanding to forgive my parents their mistakes. I understand the madness of past relationships, the blind longings for love, I understand now, long after the fact, the roads I should have taken. I am much wiser now I am no longer young.

I’m not nostalgic, I don’t long for my youth – I didn’t care for it much while it was happening – and besides, with so much left to do I simply don’t have time for a rerun. I like my increased understanding. I like the fact that so many issues that caused me stress and sleepless nights simply do not matter any more. But I do have one major regret: the shrinking of possibility that accompanies the passing years.

At 40 I could still study medicine if I wanted, I could still expect to get around to the lesser plays of Shakespeare and the second half of Ulysses, I could delay returning to my piano studies. If I’d been without a partner – I wasn’t – there was still the likelihood I would meet someone who would become my beloved and journey with me through the years. I had time, and with time came the possibility of things happening now or later, some planned, others unexpected. At 50, possibility was still strongly evident. But a mere ten years later and possibility, ‘amazing possibility’ is dwindling.

Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, argued that what kept people from suicide was their hope that conditions of life would improve. Hope has always nudged precariously close to delusion, I’ve always thought, but possibility – well, that’s something else.

If you consider life to be an adventure, if you are alert to unforeseen possibility you are constantly surprised and often full of wonder. You’ll see the moon at its fullest, you’ll see it as a mere sliver of finger-nail and both will invigorate; you’ll see the red-rump parrots scratching in the grass; you’ll relish the conversation with a stranger on the train; you’ll count your blessings at having found an extraordinary Neruda poem, at hearing Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards. This is not wide-eyed Pollyanna stuff, it is, simply, LIFE writ large. Every day brings the possibility of revelations, of alive-ness, of wonder. Given life won’t last forever, allowing for possibility seems a sensible way of going.

But now it seems I have reached the age of diminishing possibilities. At 40 I would tell myself that when I had finished my current novel I would spend a few months at the piano. At fifty I promised myself that when the current novel was over I would, again, tackle Ulysses. At 60, I doubt I will ever return to my study of the piano or finish Ulysses. I’d prefer to reread Proust than Joyce (and at this stage it is an either/or situation). And I’d prefer to reread the major plays of Shakespeare rather than plod through the lesser ones. I’ll manage with my trips and stumbles over the keyboard, and I’ve adjusted to there not being a beloved. And while I know this state of mind reveals a certain wisdom, I long, not for youth, but for the huge unchartered terrain of possibility that was a life still to be lived.