Books: Master of the Art of Surprise ; Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate by Alberto Manguel Bloomsbury, Pounds 30, 337pp; Argentina's Wandering Scholar Has Turned His Gaze from Words to Pictures. Amanda Hopkinson Takes a Trip across the Canvas
Hopkinson, Amanda, The Independent (London, England)
Alberto Manguel apparently changes writing styles as frequently as he changes countries. He is a translator, journalist and literary critic, the author of a novel (News from a Foreign Country Came), a variant dictionary (The Book of Imaginary Places), one "history" (A History of Reading) and now a mutated sequel to the latter, Reading Pictures. He was raised in Buenos Aires of East European parents, has lived in Italy, Tahiti, Canada and England, and is now domiciled in a French parsonage.
It may help to remember when and why Manguel left his native Argentina. It was following the military coup of 1976, when a succession of generals were targeting students and intellectuals, among others. The officers have subsequently been accused of "disappearing" up to 10,000 individuals. And the least of their tortuous crimes is rendering "to disappear" a transitive verb. His life at risk, Manguel began his peregrinations, with his languages for a passport and his books for an anchor.
The fascination became a passion. Gradually, the interest in reading seems to have become balanced by one in books for their own sake. As artefacts - whether illuminated medieval manuscripts or the discreet delights of plain-jacketed volumes from the Hogarth Press in London and Olympia in Paris - they are to be explored and cherished. Manguel's own, increasingly illuminated, writing verses between extremes. His fiction evokes the world of sudden abductions and mysterious politics, while his critical writings focus on coaxing every possible allusion from the shadows. He sheds the illumination of multiple meanings, rather than mere reason, on whatever he encounters.
No better topic for him, then, than Reading Pictures. The subtitle is taken from Leopoldo Salas-Nicanor's Mirror of the Arts of 1731: "After all, every picture is a history of love and hate/ when read from the appropriate angle". What we respond to in a painting - and the works he surveys lie predominantly within Western figurative art - has as much to do with our own formation as the pictures themselves. What he does is to deconstruct the picture's meaning for the artist while enriching the viewer's understanding of what we are looking at, and why our responses can be so intense and complex.
The ways in which he does this are immensely variable. Manguel operates as an intellectual and an amateur, a lover of what he surveys, and clearly feels no pressure to conform to academic categories. Thus his chapter on "Image as Reflection", chronologically the first topic, starts with Philoxenus' mosaic of the Battle of Issus in the second century BC, and takes as its leitmotif a dying soldier raising his shield for a last look at his own reflection - at "who he is, before dying". From Issus, Manguel roams not only across the classical world in the wake of Alexander the Great, but also takes in authors and artists as disparate as Goethe, Paolo Uccello and Diego Velasquez.
By contrast, his reading of Robert Campin's portrait of the Virgin and Child before a Firescreen, in "The Image as Riddle", combines X-ray with exegesis in a rarified exposition of the literal layers of the painting, along with a rabbinical comparison of Old and New Testament prophecies of the Messiah. He discusses their application to art and breastfeeding with as much gusto as Freud (who merits only a passing glance). …