Sympathy for literature’s least unheroic characters

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

Whether we see the primary cause as being postmodernism (for decades we’ve been told that our master narratives no longer connect us to each other) or cultural fragmentation (apart from worldwide phenomena such as Game of Thrones and the World Cup, we possess few shared encounters), the intellectual consensus is that we don’t talk meaningfully to each other because we lack communal stories. Leavers and Remainers, Trumpers and Never Trumpers seem to read the same experiences in entirely different ways.

This failure to communicate is what makes Alberto Manguel’s Fabulous Monsters such a charming and essential book.As a result of a lifetime of reading, he argues that as divided as we may be about the universality of shared stories (the Bennet sisters, he says, never spoke to him, while Pride and Prejudice is one of my read-every-year books), our culture and our history are indeed marked by a multitude of characters who can still help explain us to ourselves and to each other.

Manguel calls Dracula an ‘essential monster’, and argues, in smart, funny short essays, that all the figures about whom he writes represent something essential about human experience. In a wide-ranging exploration of literature, religion, myth and pop culture, he delves into what 40 of these characters might deliver to us, how they might limn those universal human themes that William Faulkner spoke about in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

It takes a certain amount of romantic literary optimism to believe that these characters — some of them more than 2,000 years old — might continue to speak to our wired world; but Manguel convinces us that they could help heal our fractured public and intellectual life. Fabulous Monsters is a paean to the value of literature, an affectionate literary memoir in tiny bites, and a close critical and cultural reading of significant stories worthy of our attention.

In the process, Manguel finds the kernel interest in many canonical figures, including a number I’ve overlooked. His sympathetic embrace of Monsieur Bovary made me think about that character in an entirely new light (and about all of us who have been overshadowed by a more photogenic partner). I’ve rarely considered Queen Gertrude from the standpoint of her story, but Manguel’s analysis of Hamlet reminds us that we all have our backstories, our heartaches, and (mostly) our own good reasons for the actions we choose.

His inclusion of Cide Hamete Benengeli, the Moor thought to have been the inspiration for Don Quixote, suggests that even in times of great fracture between world views we might still find the value of the Other. And his short exploration of Satan as a literary and metaphysical figure could be held up alongside Elaine Pagels’s seminal book-length study, The Origin of Satan (‘We resort to Satan’, says Manguel, ‘to try to understand the infamous events that plague us daily, now and always’).

One of the longest pieces is an extended fable centred on the prophet Jonah and the relation between art and life and truth. Manguel casts much of the story of Jonah’s calling to bring God’s revelation to Nineveh as part of a larger conflict between politicians and artists. The city’s representatives, suspicious of artists, hoped to wear them out, to get them to work against themselves, to accept wealth and fame as the great human achievements. Manguel has Jonah standing up and promoting the importance of the artist as truth-teller, and this essay has a transcendent literary power of its own.

Ultimately, the joy of Fabulous Monsters is its forceful argument that these figures may help us better understand our own reality. Perhaps we won’t agree on the characters of Trump or Prince MBS; but it still might be possible to reverse-engineer our human insights and remind ourselves of some truths about the good life and the unworthy life. We are not so far gone, Manguel suggests, that we can’t read ourselves back to sanity.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments