The Next Chapter

Alberto Manguel wrote a book about how his favourite literary characters inspire him

The author of Fabulous Monsters talks about why characters Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio have stayed with him through a lifetime of reading.
Alberto Manguel is a writer, critic and translator. (Melik Külekci, Yale University Press)

This interview originally aired on Jan. 18, 2020.

Alberto Manguel is a writer, critic and translator. But he prefers to be known as a reader — one who once boasted a personal home library of more than 35,000 books. 

In his latest book, Fabulous Monsters: Dracula, Alice, Superman, and Other Literary Friends, he explores the literary characters that helped shape the writer he is today.

He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about how he wrote Fabulous Monsters.

Big Red

"The first fictional character who made a big impression on me would be Little Red Riding Hood. She's been one of my heroes for the longest time.

"Red Riding Hood is a proto-feminist example of civil disobedience. She's doing her own will and finding adventures knowing that it will turn out right if you do things the way you want to do them."

Down the rabbit hole

"Lewis Carroll's Alice has been my friend since very early on. I read her in my early adolescence and I re-read her at least twice a year. Alice has taught me so much. As I grew older and changed, Alice changed with me.

So the first Alice, the adolescent Alice, was like me in confronting the absurdities of the adult world and responding to those absurdities with politeness.

Alice has taught me so much. As I grew older and changed, Alice changed with me.

"But then when I became politically conscious, Alice taught me how to react as well.

"When she attends the Mad Hatter's tea party and the Mad Hatter shouts at her, 'There's no room, no room, no room,' and Alice sees that the table is laid for many people, she says, 'Of course there's room' and she sits down. Our society is constantly saying there's no room, but there is."

Education through villainy

"One of the extraordinary things of literature is that it familiarizes you, not only with the good characters, but with horrible characters. If the writer is capable of producing this magic, you feel empathy for these characters.

"I don't mean empathy in the sense that you justify their actions — or that even you understand their actions in any deep way — but you understand how they move, how they act.

Characters allow the reader to learn something about him or herself and the world.

"You understand Richard III, you understand the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and so many others. That is an extraordinary creation of the imagination that allows for this relationship between the writer, who has created the character, and the reader who rescues the character from that limbo on the page. Characters allow the reader to learn something about him or herself and the world. 

"There are studies that prove that fiction is much more effective in teaching us how to relate to the world and to others than any kind of nonfictional instruction. Reading about Madame Bovary's suffering or Anne of Green Gables' emotions or Pinocchio trying to become a little boy of flesh and blood, we learn to relate to those others."

Alberto Manguel's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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