Alberto Manguel

Tenderness, wisdom and irony

‘Every poet describes himself, as well as his own life, in his writings,’ observed Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in one of his lectures on English literature, which he delivered twice a week to an audience of young people in his palazzo in Palermo. ‘Every poet describes himself, as well as his own life, in his

Solace in the written word

Not only Webster but most of us are much possessed by death. Even if we don’t see the skull beneath the skin, we enjoy the thought that it’s there and look forward to the day when it will turn to dust so that we can sing its bygone glories. Notoriously, the ancient Anglo-Saxons allowed their

The unreliable narrator

There are literary monuments that don’t allow for intimacy. Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is one of these imposing masterpieces; Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers is another. There are literary monuments that don’t allow for intimacy. Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is one of these imposing masterpieces; Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers is another. Vastly

Reading between the lines

‘Voltaire and the Sun King rolled into one’ is how Elizabeth Longford has described her Oxford tutor Maurice Bowra. If the promoters of the e-book have their way, personal libraries of the future will consist of intricate cyber-memories holding thousands of volumes conjured up at the touch of a finger, while the reader, bounded in

No longer at home

The Writer as Migrant, by Ha Jin Three quest-ions, labelled as ‘Aristot- elian’ by the author, begin the Rice University Campbell Lectures delivered by Ha Jin in 2007: to whom, as whom, and in whose interest does a writer write? To which the reader might respond: can any writer truthfully answer any of these questions?

No denying it

Montaigne wished for a library of deathbed chronicles. ‘If I were a maker of books,’ he wrote, ‘I would assemble an annotated registry of various kinds of dying.’ Such a collection exists. Its ancestors are the ars moriendi of the Middle Ages and its modern manifestations bear uplifting titles such as The Year of Magical

Sins of omission

Readers are defined by what they don’t read as much as by what they do. George Moore shunned works of reference. ‘An encyclopedia in this house!’ he spluttered indignantly at the enquiry of a friend. Mark Twain was not an enthusiast of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. ‘The best way to start a library,’ he

Scenting the storm

One of the stories that haunted my childhood (I can’t remember where it came from) was the ancient conundrum of the mandarin, which I later found retold by Eça de Queiroz and Ursula K. Le Guin and goes like this: If you can get anything you want by pressing a bell and killing an unknown

A gallery of pen portraits

Trying to explain the limits of his Parallel Lives, Plutarch compared the work of historians to that of cartographers who must crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect that beyond this lies nothing but the sandy deserts

The survival of literature

Shelley (and later Paul Valéry) suggested that all literature might be the work of a single Author and that, throughout the ages, writers have merely acted as His (or Her) amanuenses. A visit to any large bookshop today seems to confirm this thesis: an infinitude of almost identical accounts of Da Vinci conspiracy theories, immigrant

Swiss master of madness

First, I’d like to put a curse on most editors of ‘Selected Writings’ who, sometimes under the devious word ‘Collected’, serve us cold cuts instead of the whole hog; second, I’d like to congratulate the University of ChicagoPress for allowing us once again to read Friedrich Dürrenmatt in English, thereby restoring to the English-speaking public

Tricks played by memory

In a learned essay on semiotics (and here, I imagine, the chaste Spectator reader will blanch but, steeling himself for the worst, bravely carry on reading) published in 1979, Umberto Eco explored the role of the reader in the construction of a text. The essay, ‘Lector in fabula’ — punning on the Latin tag, ‘lupus

Lands beyond the sunset

As we were taught in our distant childhood, it little profits that an idle king (doctor, botanist or missionary) mete and dole stuff by a still hearth. We cannot rest from travel, as these close-to-2,000 pages of double-columned small print attempt to prove. In a couple of beautifully produced volumes, each the size of a

The precious core of civilisation

In 1989, two years before the Gulf war, I travelled to Baghdad to write an article on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon which the Iraqi Ministry of Culture then planned to have rebuilt. The project never materialised, but instead I was able to explore Baghdad and its intricate labyrinth. One experience was memorable above all:

Alpha minus query

VOLUME I: THE MODERN MOVEMENT VOLUME TWO: THE TWO NATURESwith a foreword by William Boyd As a formula for failure, the first line of Cyril Connolly’s once famous ‘word cycle’, The Unquiet Grave, is unsurpassable: The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a