Magazine article The Spectator

Little Time for Proust or Tolstoy

Magazine article The Spectator

Little Time for Proust or Tolstoy

Article excerpt

WITH BORGES by Alberto Manguel Telegram, 26 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RH, tel: 020 7229 2911, email: orders@telegrambooks. com, £6.99, pp. 77, ISBN 1846590051

Alberto Manguel is the notoriously well-read international man of letters, author of A History of Reading. Between 1964 and 1968 he was one of those who read aloud to the blind Borges in Buenos Aires, 'minor Boswells whose identities are rarely known to one another but who collectively hold the memory of one of the world's great readers'.

Few indeed of them have remained silent.

With Borges is his modest and pleasant contribution to the pile of printed encounters. It is short - something the subject, at his best as short as Kipling, would have appreciated.

Though grand claims are made here and there that Borges more than any other writer of his time altered readers' relations with books, 'renewed the Spanish language' - a lot of people appear to have done that - and 'changed forever the nature of literature', they are not pursued, and for the most part Manguel avoids the excessive reverence of which Borges in life and death has been a frequent victim - Borgesians can be as tiresomely precious and sycophantic as the fans of Jane Austen. Manguel gives in his small compass a lot of facts.

Some are well known, such as Borges's devotion to De Quincey, Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling and Andrew Lang, English writers now, one suspects, mostly more dusted off in Buenos Aires than in London. (Manguel himself, I feel, is a sort of globalised Andrew Lang of our time, though he would never dare use such a sensational title as Adventures Among Books. ) More novel and stimulating is the list of writers Borges had little time for: Jane Austen again, Goethe, Neruda, Tolstoy, Garcia Marquez, Stendhal, Balzac, Proust, all Flaubert except the first chapter of Bouvard et Pecuchet. 'One could construct a perfectly acceptable history of literature consisting only of the authors Borges rejected.' There were certainly limits to the great reader's tolerance, and he made no bones about being a hedonist: no reading to be done out of a sense of duty. After going blind he had no nostalgia for pictures - Manguel thinks that those he remembered he liked for unpictorial reasons, and though he occasionally felt he ought to spend more time on Mozart, he was not particularly musical: he preferred West Side Story. …

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