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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.

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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