Seduced by Characters—Q&A with Alberto Manguel

Yale University Press: What is your earliest memory of connecting deeply with a literary character? How old were you, who was it, and what do you remember feeling at the time?

Alberto Manguel: Because I learned to read when I was about four, my earliest remembered stories are those of the Grimm and of Enid Blyton. Noddy was my favorite character, and I loved to see how he built his house with his friend Big Ears in Toyland. I wanted a house like that for myself, a place entirely of my own, to fill with things of my choice, especially books. I achieved that wish when, more than fifty years later, I set up my house and library in France. And then I lost it, as I tell in Packing My Library.

YUP: What do you look for in a literary character when forming a relationship with them?

AM: I don’t think I look for anything in particular: I allow myself to be seduced. It’s a little like when I meet someone of flesh and blood: a mysterious exchange happens or does not happen, an alchemical reaction is produced or not, something is transformed into gold or dissolves into thin air. Many times, encountering a character that seduces me, I realize: Ah, yes, this is what I wanted and didn’t know I wanted it; this strength or this weakness, this intelligent gesture, this gift, this power. Matilda’s curiosity, Horatio’s devotion, Ahab’s passion, Beloved’s mother’s courage.

YUP: How much of a role does timing play in how you relate to a story or a character? What happens when you go back and read something for a second or third time? Does the fondness change? Does it ever go away?

AM: In a second or third reading, what disappears is the element of surprise, of course, of superficial surprise: discovering that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are the same person, or who killed Roger Ackroyd. But then other secrets come to the surface of the text, things I hadn’t noticed before: Don Quixote mending his sock before appearing in front of the prostitutes who pretend they are noble ladies, or the God of Genesis, who’s supposed to be omniscient, having to descend from the Heavens to inspect what the builders of the Tower of Babel are doing. These are marvelous and important details that escaped my attention on the first reading. Sometimes the fondness for a character remains unchallenged; sometimes it disappears or is watered down because I’ve grown older, become jaded. I don’t feel I want to play with Noddy anymore, but now I’m deeply in love with Jane Eyre, whom I had long neglected. And I’m not so fond of Hesse’s Damian anymore but still admire his Narziss and Goldmund.

YUP: How has your relationship to literature changed over your life? What was it like when you were young compared to adulthood?

AM: Books change with us. The Alice books I read as a child are not the ones I read now. In my adolescence, Alice was like myself, an adolescent confronting the world of absurd adults with their egotistical rules and their irrational behavior. Now Alice is my companion in a struggle against stupidity, against the efforts of our society to convince us that we are stupid: to buy two eggs, because they are cheaper than one, when we only want a single egg (like the Sheep explains to Alice) or to paint our whiskers green (like the White Knight suggests) and then to “wear so large a fan that they can not be seen.” To all these absurdities Alice answers: “Stuff and nonsense!” That’s the only response idiotic policies deserve.

YUP: Do you find yourself drawn to a particular type of character?

AM: Not really. I love horrible monsters like Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and kind, amiable creatures like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. My literary friends are a very eclectic lot.

YUP: What is it you hope to find in someone each time you pick up a new work of fiction?

AM: As I said, I don’t look for anything in particular: I let the characters find me and make me want to know them. I don’t care much about the social worries of Jane Austen’s ladies, but I think I couldn’t live without revisiting Kim and his Lama at least once a year.

YUP: What do you think it is that gives certain characters in literature staying power?

AM: A combination of truth and artistry. As someone said when asked how to write a good piece of literature: “The right words in the right order.” Ultimately, memorable literary characters are things made out of words, whether the despicable Elmer Gantry in Sinclair Lewis’s novel or the valiant Aureliano Buendía in A Hundred Years of Solitude. Someone truly present, such as Nabokov’s Professor Pnin or someone flat and unbelievable like the banal characters of Paolo Coelho, is made of the same words. Except that in one case they live in our imagination and in another they have no breath at all.

YUP: What real-life lessons can fictional characters offer us? What can they tell us about our world and ourselves?

AM: That depends on the readers, not on the characters of fiction. We can read about Kafka’s miserable heroes and feel for them, or we can see their tribulations as ours, in our world in which justice is denied and people are punished for sins they ignore. We can follow the adventures of Dorothy and be merely amused by them, or we can see how the Big Humbug of a Wizard foreshadows a certain American president with his false promises and tweet-long pronouncements.

YUP: What is a life lesson you’ve gained from literature that has most stuck with you over the years?

AM: The words of advice Flaubert wrote to friend: “Read in order to live.”

YUP: How much of the character lives in the author and how much lives in the reader? You happen to be both.

AM: The author is the midwife who brings the character into the world and then leaves the room; the reader will, or can, become the character’s brother or sister, companion or friend or enemy. The characters I’ve imagined in the novels I have written are less alive to me than the ones I have read about in the books of others.

YUP: How do you go about choosing a life reading list?

AM: By intuition, by recommendation, by advice in a review, by the cover, by the name of the author, by the title. How can you not choose to buy a book entitled “Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears”?

Alberto Manguel is a writer, translator, editor, and critic, but would rather define himself as a reader. His previous books include The Library at Night and Packing My Library.

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