Geist - - Features - AL­BERTO MANGUEL

From With Borges by Al­berto Manguel. Pub­lished by Thomas Allen in 2004. Al­berto Manguel is the award-win­ning au­thor of hun­dreds of works, most re­cently (in English) Cu­rios­ity. He lives in New York. In late 2015 Manguel was named di­rec­tor of the National Li­brary of Ar­gentina, a post held by Jorge Luis Borges from 1955 to 1973.

For a man who called the uni­verse a li­brary, and who con­fessed that he had imag­ined Par­adise “bajo la forma de una bib­lioteca,” the size of his own li­brary came as a dis­ap­point­ment per­haps be­cause he knew, as he said in

an­other poem, that lan­guage can only “im­i­tate wis­dom.” Vis­i­tors ex­pected a place over­grown with books, shelves burst­ing at the seams, piles of print block­ing the door­ways and pro­trud­ing from ev­ery crevice, a jun­gle of ink and pa­per. In­stead they would dis­cover an apart­ment where books oc­cu­pied a few un­ob­tru­sive corners. When the young Mario Var­gas Llosa vis­ited Borges some­time in the mid­fifties, he re­marked on the qui­etly fur­nished sur­round­ings and asked why the Master didn’t live in a grander, more lux­u­ri­ous place. Borges took great of­fence to this re­mark. “Maybe that’s how they do things in Lima,” he said to the in­dis­creet Peru­vian, but here in Buenos Aires we don’t like to show off.”

The few book­cases, how­ever, con­tained the essence of Borges’ read­ing, be­gin­ning with those that held the en­cy­clopae­dias and dic­tio­nar­ies, and were Borges’ pride, “You know,” he would say, “I like to pre­tend I’m not blind and I lust af­ter books like a man who can see. I’m greedy for new en­cy­clopae­dias. I imag­ine I can fol­low the course of rivers on their maps and find won­der­ful things in the many en­tries.” He liked to ex­plain how, as a child, he would ac­com­pany his fa­ther to the National Li­brary and, too timid to ask for a book, would sim­ply take one of the vol­umes of the Bri­tan­nica from the open shelves and read what­ever ar­ti­cle opened it­self to his eyes. Some­times he would be lucky, as when, he said, he chose vol­ume De–dr and learned about the Druids, the Druzes and Dry­den. He never aban­doned this cus­tom of trust­ing him­self to the or­dered chance of an en­cy­clopae­dia, and he spent many hours leaf­ing through, and ask­ing to be read from, the vol­umes of the Bom­piani, the Brock­haus, the Meyer, Cham­bers, the Bri­tan­nica (the eleventh edi­tion, with es­says by De Quincey and Ma­caulay, which he had bought with the money of a se­cond-place Mu­nic­i­pal Prize he re­ceived in 1928) or Mon­taner and Si­mon’s Dic­cionario En­ci­clopédico His­panoamer­i­cano. I would look up for him an ar­ti­cle on Schopen­hauer or Shin­to­ism, Juana la Loca or the Scot­tish fetch. Then he would ask for a par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing fact to be recorded, with the page num­ber, at the back of the rev­e­la­tory vol­ume.

Mys­te­ri­ous no­ta­tions in a va­ri­ety of hands sprin­kled the end pa­pers of his books.

The two low book­cases in the liv­ing-room held works by Steven­son, Ch­ester­ton, Henry James, Ki­pling. From here he took a small red, bound edi­tion of Stalky and Co. with the head of the ele­phant god Gane­sha and the Hindu swastika that Ki­pling had cho­sen as his em­blem and which he re­moved dur­ing the War when the an­cient sym­bol was co-opted by the Nazis; it was the copy Borges had bought in his ado­les­cence in Geneva, the same copy he was to give me as a part­ing gift when I left Ar­gentina in 1968. From here too he had me fetch the vol­umes of Ch­ester­ton’s sto­ries and Steven­son’s es­says, which we read over many nights and on which he com­mented with won­der­ful per­spi­cac­ity and wit, not only shar­ing with me his pas­sion for these great writ­ers but also show­ing me how they worked by tak­ing para­graphs apart with the amorous in­ten­sity of a clock­maker. Here too he kept J. W. Dunne’s An Ex­per­i­ment with Time; sev­eral books by H. G. Wells; Wilkie Collins’s The Moon­stone; var­i­ous nov­els by Eça de Queiroz in yel­low­ing card­board bind­ings; books by Lu­gones, Güi­raldes and Grous­sac; Joyce’s Ulysses and Fin­negans Wake; Vies Imag­i­naires by Mar­cel Sch­wob; de­tec­tive nov­els by John Dick­son Carr, Mil­ward Kennedy and Richard Hull, Mark Twain’s Life on the Mis­sis­sippi; Enoch Ben­nett’s Buried Alive; a small paper­back edi­tion of David Gar­nett’s Lady into Fox and The Man in the Zoo, with del­i­cate line il­lus­tra­tions; the more-or-less Com­plete Works of Os­car Wilde and the more-or-less Com­plete Works of Lewis Carroll; Spen­gler’s Der Un­ter­gang des Abend-lan­des; the sev­eral vol­umes of Gib­bon’s De­cline and Fall; var­i­ous books on math­e­mat­ics and phi­los­o­phy, in­clud­ing vol­umes by Swe­den­borg, Schopen­hauer and Borges’s beloved Wörter­buch der Philoso­phie by Fritz Mau­th­ner. Sev­eral of these books had ac­com­pa­nied Borges since his ado­les­cent days; oth­ers, the ones in English and Ger­man, car­ried the la­bels of the Buenos Aires book­stores where they had been bought, all now van­ished: Mitchell’s, Rodriguez, Pyg­malion. He would tell vis­i­tors that Ki­pling’s li­brary (which he had vis­ited) cu­ri­ously held mainly non-fiction books, books on Asian his­tory and travel, mainly on In­dia. Borges con­cluded that Ki­pling had not wanted or needed the work of other po­ets or fiction writ­ers, as if he had felt that his own cre­ations suf­ficed for his own needs. Borges felt the con­trary: he called him­self above all a reader and it was the books of oth­ers that he wanted around him. He still had the large red, bound Garnier edi­tion in which he had first read Don Quixote (a se­cond copy, bought in his late twen­ties af­ter the first one dis­ap­peared) but not the English trans­la­tion of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the very first book he re­mem­bered read­ing.

The book­cases in his be­d­room held vol­umes of po­etry and one of the largest col­lec­tions of An­glo-saxon and Ice­landic lit­er­a­ture in Latin Amer­ica. Here Borges kept the books he used to study what he called the rough la­bo­ri­ous words:

That with a mouth long turned to dust,

I used in the day of Northum­ber­land

and Mer­cia

Be­fore be­com­ing Borges or Haslam.

A few I knew be­cause I had sold them to him at Pyg­malion: Skeat’s dic­tio­nary, an an­no­tated ver­sion of The Bat­tle of Mal­don, Richard Meyer’s Alt­ger­man­is­che Re­li­gions Geschichte. The other book­case held the po­ems of En­rique Banchs, of Heine, of San Juan de la Cruz, and many com­men­taries on Dante: by Benedetto Croce, Francesco Tor­raca, Luigi Pi­etrobono, Guido Vi­tali.

Some­where (per­haps in his mother’s be­d­room) was the Ar­gen­tine lit­er­a­ture that had ac­com­pa­nied the fam­ily on their voy­age to Europe, shortly be­fore World War I: Sarmiento’s Fa­cundo, Silue­tas mil­itares by Ed­uardo Gu­tiér­rez, the two vol­umes of Ar­gen­tine his­tory by Vi­cente Fidel López, Már­mol’s Amalia, Ed­uardo Wilde’s Prom­e­teo y Cia, Rosas y su tiempo by Ramos Me­jía, sev­eral vol­umes of po­etry by Leopoldo Lu­gones. And the Martín Fierro by José Hernández, the Ar­gen­tine national epic the ado­les­cent Borges chose to take on board ship, a book Doña Leonor dis­ap­proved of be­cause of its flashes of lo­cal colour and vul­gar vi­o­lence.

Ab­sent from the apart­ment’s book­shelves were his own books. He would proudly tell vis­i­tors who asked to see an early edi­tion of one of his works that he didn’t pos­sess a sin­gle vol­ume that car­ried his “em­i­nently for­get­table” name. Once, when I was vis­it­ing, the post­man brought an large par­cel con­tain­ing a deluxe edi­tion of his story “The Congress,” pub­lished in Italy by Franco Maria Ricci. It was a huge book, bound and

Sleep­ing War­rior (se­ries of six digital pho­to­graphs, 40"× 60") by Shel­ley Niro. Niro is a mem­ber of Six Na­tions Re­serve, Bay of Quinte Mo­hawk, Tur­tle Clan. Her work fea­tures photography, paint­ing, bead­work and film. She was the in­au­gu­ral re­cip­i­ent of the

Abo­rig­i­nal Arts Award pre­sented through the On­tario Arts Coun­cil in 2012. She lives in Brant­ford, ON.

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