6 AUGUST 2005, Page 28

A beatitude of books

Jasper Griffin

A READING DIARY: A PASSIONATE READER’S REFLECTIONS ON A YEAR OF BOOKS by Alberto Manguel Canongate, £12.99, pp. 253, ISBN 1841956384 ✆ £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 Alberto Manguel, novelist and essayist, is a bookman in an unusually strong sense of the term. In the course of this discursive, self-indulgent and charming book, he refers to ‘my life as reader-writer’. He confesses:

For years, for lack of space, I kept most of my books in storage. I used to think I could hear them call out to me at night.

Returning home after being away, (‘on one of my book junkets’, naturally), I explore my library like someone returning to his native land after an absence of decades.

Ordinary possession of a book, in fact, is not intense enough for this most intense of readers: ‘I will sleep one night in the library to make the space truly mine. C. says this is equivalent to a dog peeing in the corners.’ ‘The perfect nightmare’, for Manguel, is of suffering what Don Quixote’s attendants do to him in the hope of curing his madness: they wall up his library so the poor knight cannot find any trace of his books.

What does Manguel read? Each month is allotted a book: in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian — and the delightful Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, court lady in Japan in the tenth century, read in the classic English translation by Arthur Waley. The range is wide, the choices unexpected: The Island of Dr Moreau, by H. G. Wells; Kim; Don Quixote; Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave; The Wind in the Willows (‘the reverse of Ovid’s Tristia’); Goethe’s Elective Affinities, here assigned to the brumous month of November.

We observe an absence of the trendy, of the theoretical, of the academically impressive. We observe, in fact, something not very far from a late Victorian sensibility, with a very wide range and a self-confident mixture of classic and middle-brow. This is a man who reads for pleasure, not from any kind of compulsion, whether economic, educational or competitive. It is a pleasure, in turn, to find that his kind still exists. Not much in the way of poetry, though; this is emphatically a prose sensibility.

We might be tempted to feel flattered that he chooses more English books than Spanish ones, but he knows that we are not likely to return the compliment. We ought to be chastened by the rebuke, all too well deserved, that ‘the ignorance of the Englishspeaking world never ceases to amaze me’.

These books elicit from Manguel an anthology of personal reflections and memories. There are some poignant memories of his native Argentina, and some bitter remarks on the military junta: ‘This infamous amnesty [for the torturers] will endlessly invalidate any attempt to restore social order.’ There are more general thoughts on life. He is a great compiler of lists: ‘There is a certain magical arbitrariness to list-making, as if sense were to be created by association alone.’ We find his 13 favourite cities, including Edinburgh but not London. London is described at various points as horrid and inscrutable. Finally, it is declared to be fictional:

London or Baghdad, Holmes’s city (that London I looked for when I first came to England and of course never found) is perfectly fictional, the reflection of an unreal reality. It is the London over which Peter Pan flies off to Never-Never-Land, the London through which Dr Jekyll seeks Mr Hyde, the red-brick maze of Chesterton’s nightmares, the decadent London of Beardsley and Wilde.

The reader is tempted into a reverie of his own. How far does South America, how far does Argentina, really resemble my mental pictures, literary and derivative: is it indeed peopled by those flamboyant gauchos, languorous señoritas, and sinister dictators in comic-opera uniforms?

Manguel lists his ‘literary heroes’, including Alice, Sancho Panza, Prince Florizel of Bohemia (that sublime man) and Pinocchio. He quotes with empathy Sei Shonagon’s list of ‘things that give you an unclean feeling’: a rat’s nest; children who sniffle as they walk; all faded clothes, especially those that have glossy colours ... He confesses to a ‘habit of thinking in quotations’. He imagines books that he would ideally like to possess: not just the text, but the actual volumes. They include Alice Liddell’s copy of Alice; St Augustine’s copy of Cicero; Keats’s copy of Chapman’s Homer; Freud’s copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The book abounds in acute yet gentle observations, economically expressed, and adding up to a picture of an attractive personality. The reader feels that he has been, perhaps rather beyond his deserts, admitted to a guided tour by a connoisseur, brief but unhurried, of an exceedingly well stocked library.