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Criticism and Fiction

Between the Lines

Reviewed by Sven Birkerts
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page BW12

A READING DIARY •

A Passionate Reader's Reflections on a Year of Books

By Alberto Manguel. Farrar Straus Giroux. 205 pp. $22

STEVENSON UNDER THE PALM TREES

By Alberto Manguel. Canongate. 105 pp. $18

What writer -- indeed, what devoted reader -- has not dreamed of putting on paper the trail of books consumed, thoughts sparked, connections made, capturing in the process something of the mind's shuttle between life and text and the eerie way that the one can seem at times to refract the other? If most of us hold off from pursuing the project in a public way, it's likely for a good reason: The traffic between work and world, unless it is subjected to a great generalizing pressure, is likely to yield insights of a mainly private nature. Who will understand or care if I thrill to note a sub-theme of jealous misalliance in the lives of my friends just as I am reading Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier? To get a reader invested, I would have to summon up the whole charged atmosphere of the reading event and at the same time find ways to make the personal connections matter.

Alas, this is precisely what Alberto Manguel has not done in his idiosyncratically ambitious, engaged and -- in spite of my upcoming criticisms -- intriguing book, A Reading Diary.

In 2002, shortly after his 53rd birthday, Manguel, the author of the widely praised A History of Reading, decided to reread some of his old favorite books, taking on one a month and keeping a record of his thoughts and associations. Among the works he chose were Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, Chateaubriand's Memoirs from Beyond the Grave and Goethe's Elective Affinities, books that I would hazard that many readers (myself certainly included) will not have available to ready recall.

Insofar as Manguel's reflections induce the reader to discover or reconnect with important works, the project will have a larger payoff. But my fear -- and my central criticism of Manguel's undertaking -- is that they will not. His style of familiar referencing does not establish context, and without context we cannot appreciate the particular charm or incisiveness of his insights.

Hard as it is to excerpt from a volume like this, let me offer a single representative instance. In his diary entry for Wells's novel, under the sub-heading "Wednesday," Manguel writes:

"I'm supposed to be giving a talk tonight, and my publisher has set me up in a small hotel near Soho Square, where Hazlitt once lived. The manager is not terribly friendly; I don't think Hazlitt, not the most patient of men, would have put up with her.

"On the second page of Dr. Moreau there is a mention of a schooner that sets off from Africa with a puma aboard, and I suddenly remember my first Karl May novel, The Treasure of the Silver Lake, which I read when I was six, entranced by the opening scene, in which a panther escapes from its cage aboard a ship crossing a North American lake. In my mind, both scenes are identical.

"Note: Reading sometimes consists of making connections, putting together anthologies."

I couldn't agree more: This is exactly what reading does. But I would suggest that in that last sentence both "connections" and "anthologies" usually take the adjective "personal."

Later, in the section devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, Manguel asserts: "The reader contradicts the writer's method, whatever that may be. As a reader, I'll follow a carefully plotted story carelessly, allowing myself to be distracted by details and aleatory thoughts; on the other hand, I'll read a fragmentary work . . . as if I were connecting the dots, in search of order." The observation makes a perfect pivot to introduce Manguel's Stevenson Under the Palm Trees, a short fable confected from certain biographical particulars of Robert Louis Stevenson's period in Samoa in the late 1800s. And if I don't necessarily think Manguel's words are binding with respect to our reading habits, here they are apt. For it's true that most of us will bring to A Reading Diary a search for order, and also likely that we may follow the plot tracks of the novella with less care, though this would be less owing to any density of plot and more because the mystery Manguel creates is not sufficiently fleshed out or psychologized.

In the novella, the ailing Stevenson, out watching a beautiful island sunset, encounters a stranger, a Scottish missionary who straightaway announces his disgust with the easy morality and vices of the natives. A short time later, with that sudden compression that fables specialize in, the body of a beautiful young girl is found in the hills, and the author's hat is discovered nearby. There is just enough ambiguity -- abetted by Stevenson's delirious fevers -- to direct our thoughts to the theme of the double. As it turns out, Stevenson himself is involved with this theme in the work he is struggling with, a grim Scottish fantasia that bears a distinct resemblance to his famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Manguel's spare storybook style keeps us from deeper engagement with the plot but serves him well at the end, when the suggestions and implications are most densely woven. Then he can create a sonorous cadence in keeping with the dark intention of this little work: "He tried not to think of what had happened. Here, in the green heat, that which was forbidden was not mentioned. Evil was tabu, unuttered, it was not given existence in words. On the stones of Edinburgh was written, in the Gothic script that had so delighted Sir Walter Scott in his youth, the Old Testament warning, Thou Shalt Not, so that during Stevenson's wanderings through the city his eye would always land, unbidden, on the outlawed temptations, the sins spelled out for all to know, offered as in a dark mirror even to those who had not yet conceived them, like an inverted pleasure." Though we do hear the Stevensonian echo throughout, only in these last pages does the note ring clear. •

Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays and a memoir. He edits the journal AGNI at Boston University.


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