In Search of Libraries Past by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel

In Search of Libraries Past


Recently, I was standing in what used to be the library of one of the most distinguished Spanish-language intellectuals of the first half of the 20th century, the Mexican scholar Alfonso Reyes. Borges, one of his greatest admirers, said that providence had given each of us a section of an arc but to Reyes the entire circumference. More than twenty years after Reyes’s death in 1959, his books, in accordance with a presidential decree, were given to the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León in Monterrey; only his archives, his art collection and a few detective novels remained in his house in Mexico City, which his close friend, the writer Enrique Díez Canedo, had baptised the Alfonsina Chapel. Here, on the nights of his frequent quarrels with his wife, Reyes slept on a makeshift bed that barely held his hefty body. Here he wrote lucidly about the indigenous roots of Mexican culture, the Greek classics, the French symbolist poets and Spanish literature of the Golden Age, and here he translated into Spanish much of the work of Chesterton and Laurence Sterne. I was in the Alfonsina Chapel as part of the ceremonies relating to the Alfonso Reyes Prize, which I was awarded last August, and I thought I could feel the master’s presence lumbering through the room. After a library has been dismantled and its creator has finally departed, the space often retains something like a shadow, a rustling, a whiff of what took place there, trapped between the vanished pages. It has a peculiar phantom quality, not so much that of a site abandoned as that of a site about to come into full existence.

I’ve had this feeling many times, in other spaces that, like the Alfonsina Chapel, were once living libraries. I felt this absent presence vividly on the March afternoon when, for the last time, I locked the door of what had been my library in France, the books packed in boxes and shipped to Montreal, to await, in a storage space provided by my Quebec publisher, the morning of their resurrection. I had lived for fifteen years in the small French village where my partner and I had found a house large enough to hold the many books that, following the inveterate custom of libraries, kept multiplying surreptitiously whenever my back was turned. When we saw the place – a 12th-century presbytery with an ancient garden and ruined stone barn that we rebuilt to lodge the books – we knew we had discovered paradise; we didn’t remember that paradise is always a place you must lose. It seemed so perfect and we tended it with so much loving care that I never conceived of a possible existence away from it. In a very true sense, I’m still there. Made up of the many libraries I had built and dismantled throughout the long half-century that preceded its existence, my library in France still stands in my thoughts, wise and welcoming, and I can put my hand on any book I want, knowing exactly on which shelf I’ll find it. Alexander Selkirk, the real-life Robinson Crusoe, is said to have asked, after being rescued, how he could let ‘the other’ know that he was safe, among his people. It only takes a second of distraction for me to feel I’m back there.

We all inhabit imaginary landscapes. Whatever place we lived in as children, whatever part of the world has granted us a small epiphany: all combine to stitch together a patchwork cartography into which we periodically stray. Passports and family ties try to enforce boundaries and allegiances, but most of the time, happily, they are unsuccessful. Moscow doesn’t need to exist for the three sisters to yearn for it, and the authorities who banished Dante from Florence never quite managed to keep him out of his beloved city. I had this feeling when I returned to Buenos Aires on a short visit after the fall of the military dictatorship. The city had changed, as cities do: skyscrapers had sprouted like mushrooms near the old port, the ubiquitous luxury shops had hung their awnings where small grocery stores and dusky cafes had once stood, and buildings that were landmarks for my adolescent self had been torn down. But as I wandered through the streets, the city I remembered laid its scribbled map over the modern one of asphalt and stone, and obliterated it. I would say to myself: ‘In this place stood the cafe where we met with friends who had to escape into exile, here lived so-and-so who was taken away by the secret police and never seen again, here was the house of the writer who was tortured and killed.’ Now, almost fifty years later, I’ve returned to Buenos Aires as director of the National Library. The vanished city of my adolescence is still visible to me every day, as I walk from my apartment to the stern cement tower in which the library is lodged.

In the late 1990s, I saw an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris of the visionary drawings of Etienne-Louis Boullée. Boullée lived in Paris at the time of the French Revolution and devised new architectural concepts, such as that of ‘buried architecture’ and of an ‘architecture of shadows’, in order to achieve, for instance, the effect of having the stones of his buildings reflect no light. His visionary projects (never realised except on paper) included a basilica, a colosseum, a new bridge spanning the Seine, a cenotaph for Isaac Newton and, closer to my heart, an enormous reading room for the Royal Library. Repulsed by Robespierre’s divisive Terreur politics, and taking inspiration from the 17th-century books of Athanasius Kircher, Boullée designed a new Tower of Babel, conceived as a gigantic cone set on a square pediment, with spiralling figures ascending towards the pinnacle, as if, in spite of Babel’s curse, humankind had managed to once again enjoy a common language. Boullée was less interested in having his projects realised than in conceiving them; his wish was to create imaginary spaces that might perhaps (but not necessarily) allow reality to occupy them in the flesh.

Here is a question for the future: is my imagination sufficiently dextrous to create the image of a new library to rise from the one I remember? Can I conceive a space to lodge the books before the awaited day, so that when the trumpets sound (if ever they do) they’ll each know their assigned place and stand in companionable silence within reach of my future hand? I hope I can.

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