Interviewed by Charles-Adam Foster-Simard
Alberto Manguel was born in Buenos Aires in 1948 and is one of the world’s most renowned bibliophiles. He is also an accomplished novelist, essayist, translator, editor, and anthologist—he has written and edited over 40 books since 1980, including reader favourites like The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, A History of Reading, The Library at Night, and All Men Are Liars. In 2007, he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures titled The City of Words, which was published as a book by House of Anansi Press. Manguel currently lives in France, in a renovated medieval presbytery that also houses his 30,000 books.
I approached Mr. Manguel by letter in order to ask him if he would be amenable to this interview. He informed me that he has recently acquired an email address and agreed to answer my questions electronically.
You moved a great deal throughout your life. You were born and grew up in Argentina (and in Israel for several years), and then spent some time in Italy, Tahiti, England, Canada, and France, where you now reside full-time. Generally, what was a common impetus behind these moves, and in what country did you feel more comfortable and supported as a writer?
Chance. Borges has a story in which a man spends his life travelling, criss-crossing the world, doing all sorts of things. At the end of his life, he looks at the line his movements have traced and it depicts the features of his face. Maybe that’s what all my travel is about: an exercise in self-portraiture.
What country I feel most comfortable in? I judge my comfort through the place I’m in and the people I’m with, not a country in general. Countries are too vast and multifaceted for that. Where am I most supported as a writer? Curiously enough, countries in which I don’t live: Turkey, Spain, Brazil…
From what I read of your life, it seems clear that you were always a reader and a lover of literature. You also worked in publishing and as an editor for many years. At what point did you know you wanted to be a writer, and what steps did you take to make that happen?
I never wanted to be a writer; perhaps I still don’t. I always knew I was a reader, and I feel that my books (most of them) are extensions of my reading.
I’m curious to know how language relates to the nature of your writing. From what I can tell, you’ve written books in both English and Spanish, but you’ve also translated between several languages (French, English, Spanish) indiscriminately. From looking at your list of works, one might get a sense that you experience languages as being very permeable, and that you navigate through them with ease. What dictates your choice of language for a project: is it the work itself or the context of its publication? Do you find that some languages are better suited to a certain type or genre of writing?
I’m convinced that, even though language is the instrument that we use to communicate, our communication itself is, to a great extent, determined by this instrument. In particular, each language fashions our thought and experience through its own characteristics. We don’t have the same thoughts in English as in Urdu, in Icelandic as in Spanish. Language, to a great extent, defines us and our ways of thinking. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” cannot come up naturally in Spanish, for instance, where the meaning of “to be” is shared by two different words: “ser”, which means to be temporarily, in an existential state, and “estar” which means to be in a specific place, to occupy that space. So, for Hamlet’s question to occur to a Spanish Shakespeare, it would have to be phrased as: “To be in time and to be in space or not to be in time and not to be in space”, which is nonsense.
While we’re on the topic of language and translation, you once wrote in a review of Andrew Hurley’s translation of Borges’ stories that Borges hasn’t yet had an “inspired translator” in English. You seem to me to be the perfect man for the job: you write in English and Spanish, you’ve done quite a bit of translation, you’re extremely well-acquainted with Borges’ work, and you were even well-acquainted with Borges himself. [As a teenager in Argentina, Manguel read to Borges, who was blind—an experience he recounts in With Borges.] Has something deterred you from undertaking a translation of Borges?
I’ve only translated bits and pieces of Borges: a full translation would require talents I know I don’t have.
One last question about translation: I would like you to talk about how you view your own books in translation. Since you read and speak most languages you’re translated in, have you had a more active role in shaping translations of your books or helping the translators deal with certain issues?
I work with my translators in the languages I speak. I make changes: certain examples, certain quotations, but also certain subjects. For the German publisher of Reading Diary I wrote an extra “month” on Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and for the French publisher of A History of Reading, a section on the translation of the Bible into French. The Spanish edition of City of Words includes a section on the recent economic crisis in Spain.
I’m curious about your view on book reviews and popular criticism. There are some admirable critics out there who produce thoughtful, intelligent reviews, but there are also many reviews that seem a bit lazy. Do you mistrust reviews, both of your own books and of the books of others? How has writing reviews been part of your own career as a writer? Are there some books you’ve refused to review because you didn’t like them or because you thought you couldn’t do them justice?
Reviewing has long been my bread-and-butter. Regarding reviews of my own books, I’ve had a number for which I’m grateful, because they illuminate something that I hadn’t seen. Petty reviews irked me for a long time, because they are cowardly: the reviewer knows that whatever he or she writes, you cannot answer it: a letter to the editor cannot compete with a front-page review, and often sounds self-pitying. Earlier in my life, I reviewed every book that I was given. Now I turn down books I don’t like: life is too short to spend it tut-tutting and scolding.
You’ve written before about the concept of difficulty—in relation to reading, especially—as a positive thing. Can you elaborate on that? How does difficulty affect reading and writing, and how does it play into the writer’s life more broadly.
In reading, as in so many other things, difficulty obliges us to dig deeper, go further. I feel that almost anything that is easy is not worth doing. In literature, I call “easy” anything that has no depth, a superficial text over which you glide without being tempted to stop anywhere, to investigate more, to ask questions. An easy text gives you all the answers, like a phone book.
Finally, I wanted to ask about your latest book, The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor, which came out last year. Can you explain how that book came to be and how it fits in with your other books about reading?
The Traveler was published last year by University of Pennsylvania Press. It consists of several extended lectures that I was asked to give at the University of Pennsylvania on the subject of reading. They try to explore in a little more depth the subject of the metaphors of reading, and how they define the society that uses them, on which I have a chapter in A History of Reading.
Charles-Adam Foster-Simard grew up in Montreal and is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, where he is the Online Editor of PRISM international. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Millions and he has a piece of creative non-fiction forthcoming in Prairie Fire. He blogs about books at booksend.wordpress.com.