“Analyser une adaptation. Du texte à l’écran”

By Jan Baetens


Jean Cléder & Laurent Jullier

Analyser une adaptation. Du texte à l’écran

Paris : Flammarion, 2017 (« Champs Arts »), 410 p.

ISBN : 9782081395954 (15 euros)



For many years, adaptation studies have been the core business of film and literature studies. The often sterile debates address issues of fidelity as well as the progressive opening of adaptation studies to other media than just film and literature. Co-authored by two leading French film scholars with an impressive pedigree, Jean Cléder and Laurent Jullier, this important book helps reframe both issues, while breaking new ground in this vital field of research.

On the one hand, Cléder and Jullier propose to study adaptations as interpretations, that is, as new works that offer a certain point of view and a new perspective on the adapted work. A clever and nuanced answer to the many problems raised by fidelity discussions, since it avoids direct comparison of source and target, while at the same time keeping a creative relationship between both. On the other hand, Analyser une adaptation demonstrates the usefulness of sticking to close-reading and meticulous exploration of the verbal and the audiovisual, whose medium-specific features should not be discarded in favor of a more generalizing, for instance historical or cultural examination (which does not mean that the historical and cultural context of the analysis is neglected in this book).

The importance of this publication exceeds, however, these global and more institutional considerations, for Analyser une adaptation, which I hope will soon be translated in English, is really the book for which all film scholars, theoreticians as well as teachers, have been anxiously waiting (in that regard, I would like to compare the possible impact of this book to that of Jacques Aumont’s 1990 The Image, a game-changer in the field of visual studies). I would like to foreground here four qualities, each of them already remarkable in itself. First of all, this book demonstrates the possibility of making a technical, even microscopic analysis of adaptation, and it does so with the help of many, excellently chosen examples. The analysis of the “distance” between character and camera, an often -overlooked feature, is a significant renewal of the well-known but not always correctly understood close-up/medium shot/long shot approach. Second, the book succeeds in encouraging its readers to start loving this kind of technical analysis, sometimes considered boring or shallowly mechanic. Cléder and Jullier show very convincingly that extreme close-reading matters and that it discloses key aspects of film adaptations. Third, this book also offers a two-way approach of film and literature, paying as much attention to the verbal adaption of images as to the audiovisual adaptation of texts, thus creating (finally!) a more encompassing reading of word and image in the field of film studies. Fourth (but certainly not last), Analyser une adaptation is a work that proves helpful to both scholars and students. The former will find in it an invitation to rethink many of their concepts and perhaps attitudes. The latter are offered a hands-on approach of adaptation that will prove supportive in more than just the classes on cinema.


Arty as Experience

By Jan Baetens


John Updike

Always Looking. Essays on Art

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

This is not a new book and many readers may find it pathetically old-fashioned. Yet this collection of writings on art with a capital A by an author often discarded as typically WASP is doing what so much modern art criticism seems no longer “capable and willing” of doing, as we are asked by the air hostess when boarding the plane and being offered an exit seat: to make critical judgments, taking into account one’s personal, subjective, individual point of view, but always in a kind and gentle way, written in an elegant and jargon free language, and addressing the reader as a partner in a polite and cheerful conversation.

Updike is never on the lookout for the new or the surprising. The selection of the art shows he discusses may even seem horribly conformist and conservative, unpleasantly biased toward the Western canon, and dramatically reluctant to revise canonical values and classifications. With some slight American exceptions, Updike’s taste –even in the hypothesis that he is doing nothing else than accepting well-paid commissions– almost naturally brings him to the masterpieces of Western painting (things become suddenly American when sculpture is involved, and this sculpture is always bigger than life as in the case of Oldenburg and Serra). And his writing is that of the mild and smiling guide, who hints at what is to be seen and discusses what others –mostly the authors of the catalogue, which is as important a part of a big budget exhibit as the works themselves– have to say on it. It reads marvelously, a real feel good experience for those who do not want to read romance novels.


Yet Updike is also a very sharp and ruthless judge, who is not afraid of saying things nobody else would say. As an outsider –after all, he did not have to make his living as an art critic– he is not only repeating what the artistic community so noisily repeats, he also dares to show the emperor’s new clothes. His remarks on Serra are exemplary in this regard. While underscoring the strength of some of his sculptures but quoting some sophisticated babble of the specialists, Updike concludes “All this steel devoted to scrambling our habitual perceptions? Wouldn’t the funhouse or Ferris wheel at the country fair do just as well?” (p. 192).

This remark ties in with the preface of the book, in which Updike, who first wanted to become a cartoonist, shows the modest, if not “silly” books that made him an artist: the Mickey Mouse “Big Little Books” of the 1940s serious readers would no longer allow their children to read. That a high-brow and apparently conservative writer such as Updike opens a book like this with praise of what is anything but “the best of the best” is a kind of manifesto –no fists raised of course, since this is Updike, but a lesson on the lasting effects of a real artistic experience (to quote John Dewey, that forgotten founding father of cultural studies).


A universal Belgian

By Jan Baetens

In these days of globalization, including global culture, it might be useful to recall the old humanist ideal of “universality”, that of the uomo universale (and please do not read the term “uomo” in gender-biased terms) who develops his faculties in as many fields as possible and who manages to do so thanks to the general (that is: nonspecialized) education s/he receives and eventually implements in his or her life as scholar, artist, scientist, but also citizen. Today, this ideal has come under pressure, but many examples of great men and women remain to demonstrate how challenging and necessary this ideal of universality remains in today’s society.

img768Simon Leys (pseudonym of Pierre Ryckmans, 1935-2014) is a great example of this humanist ideal. As a law and art history student in Leuven and the representative of a students’ magazine, he was offered the possibility to go to China for one month, an experience that dramatically changed his life. He started to learn Chinese and, after his graduation, left for Taiwan where he defended a PhD on Chinese painting before moving to Hong Kong and eventually Canberra and Sydney, Australia, where he became a professor of Chinese culture. Ryckmans had to take a pseudonym when publishing the book that made him world-famous, The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (1971), the first critical account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

It would be unfair, however, to reduce Leys’ work to his political writings. The anthology just released in the Espace Nord series, which had already reissued his best-known novel, The Death of Napoleon, gives an excellent overview of his exceptional diversity. It gathers essays on his three main passions: China (Leys is considered one the best scholars on Chinese culture and painting; he has also translated Confucius in French as well as in English); the sea (in this book one finds for instance an amazing personal testimony of his journey on an old-fashioned sail fishing vessel and thought-provoking comparisons of literary and nonliterary authors fascinated by the sea), and of course literature (a field in which Leys has worked as critic, translator, and novelist).

What strikes most in all these texts is the quality of writing as well as thinking –and it is of course the convergence of these qualities that make Simon Leys such a “universal” author. Leys’ prose is as fluent and crisp as it is jargon-free and permanently open to broader questions, while the discussion of more general issues is systematically supported by literary and cultural examples and insights. Read, for instance, the essay on his experiences as translator, which are also a great example of how to live with, and thanks to, the other (if not in service of him or her). Or take the essay on the issue of heritage in Chinese culture, which departs from a paradox, at least for us Westerners: China is simultaneously the country that succeeds in keeping its traditions alive and that systematically destroys the material traces of its past (all those interested in heritage policy should read this text in order to understand the problematic character of our Western definition of “authenticity”, which we have ridiculously fetishized).

Oh, you don’t read French? It’s never too late to learn it (as Leys himself understood very well after his first trip to China). In the meantime, you can have a preview by reading these texts in English (and Leys is smart and universal enough to repeat that the original is not always better than its translation).

Simon Leys, La Chine, la mer, la littérature. Essais critiques (Brussels : Espace Nord, 2018)

ISBN : 978-2-87568-250-5 ; 378p., 9,50 euros

“Thrown Across The Room”: Heather O’Neil’s ‘The Lonely Hearts Hotel’

By Laura Smith


“You can pick up a book but a book can throw you across the room.”

—Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects, p.122


the-lonely-hearts-hotel-by-heather-o-neillThe Lonely Hearts Hotel is the most recent novel by Canadian author, Heather O’Neil. It is the story of Pierrot and Rose; orphans, who both, in differing circumstances, nearly die at birth but miraculously survive against the odds. O’Neil’s novel begins against the backdrop of Pierrot’s and Rose’s childhoods, spent together at a Montreal orphanage in the early part of the twentieth-century. Both the nuns and the other children at the orphanage recognize that Pierrot and Rose are special; through music, dance, and play they manage to cultivate pockets of joy out of their dismal realities. While the nuns do their best to stifle Pierrot’s and Rose’s flourishing (as well as their connection), the other children delight in the magic that is brought into their otherwise fragile and violent existences. From here, the novel follows the two protagonists as life takes them in differing yet equally dark directions. Despite their separation, both hold onto their childhood promise to one another of a shared future. Nineteen-thirties Montreal becomes the stage for make-believe, unlikely friendships, poverty, theft, theater-troops, addiction, sex, and mafia-life. Written with unparalleled imagery in the form of metaphor and simile, O’Neil’s prose come alive in the imagination like an illustrated fable stretching out before the reader, spontaneously coming into being as each page is turned. When a nun is described as reminding Pierrot of “a glass of milk” and “clean sheets blowing in the wind at the exact moment when the water evaporated from them and they became dry and light and easy again,” the reader is not tripped up by this strange mix of subject/object but instead sees the sunlight on those sheets, the rolling hills in the distance, and almost smells the fresh country air.[1]

The Washington Post called The Lonely Hearts Hotel “virtually cinematic.” Indeed, it unfolds in the reader’s mind as if on stage, in the darkened theater, and in vivid color. This book is a fairy tale and, more specifically, a fairy tale for adults. The book is, among many things, an examination of how trauma persists and yet, how it can be overcome, transformed into another energy rather than denied. Themes of vulnerability, pain, guilt, shame, love—and most profoundly—what it might mean to be free, linger well after the reader closes the book. The novel addresses sex from the rapture of lovers, to the indifference of prostitution and pornography, to the horrors of assault and abuse. O’Neil creatively plays with the inversion of gender roles and with notions of female desire.[2] The Lonely Hearts Hotel succeeds in the difficult task of intertwining the most destined of love stories, a true romance, with a fierce and unrelenting feminism. Rose “felt the grandeur of being responsible for oneself. She was independent, and her actions had enormous consequences.”[3] The lean Pierrot, on the other hand, a Heathcliff-like lover without all the possession and brooding, is the sort of young man whose fist “would probably [punch] like a pillow.”[4] It turns out to be the clowns and gangsters of the story who, sharing a similarly acute perceptivity, best understand—perhaps better even than the protagonists themselves—the lovers’ connection.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a tale of survival and of the degrees of resilience. O’Neil unravels how, for better or worse, our interior worlds bring our exterior worlds into being. There is a Benjaminian-like understanding that it is precisely the very ruins of everyday life which point, paradoxically, to a larger “truth content.” This book is a magical vortex that draws the reader in (and will likely liquidate any plans you foolishly had foreseen for your day). The power of O’Neil’s work resides in the fact that, when the reader resurfaces from this other world, their own reality feels slightly different; it collides vertiginously with the fresh experience of this other imaginary space. With The Lonely Hearts Hotel, O’Neil proves that to conjure enchantment can be empowering rather than solely romantic. This novel, and in particular, its ending, is likely not only to stay with its readers but to shift and continue to reveal itself in different ways, across time, in its readers’ consciousnesses. This reader will take author Kelly Link’s advice now and go “read all the rest” of O’Neil’s work.


External Links:

Writer’s Trust of Canada podcast: Author Heather O’Neil on The Lonely Hearts Hotel:



CBC Ideas with Paul Kennedy (O’Neil on Wisdom in Nonsense)



[1] Heather O’Neil, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.14.

[2] For more on this, visit the Writer’s Trust of Canada link and hear O’Neil explain these themes.

[3] Heather O’Neil, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, p.369.

[4] Ibid., p.323.

Food culture, much more than a lifestyle

By Jan Baetens

Food is a key theme in cultural studies, but often the approach focuses on the negative or problematic aspects of it: anorexia and other eating disorders, obesity and fat studies, outdoor eating rituals and social distinction, the critique of deeply rooted national preferences as a form of modern “mythology” (in the sense of Roland Barthes), the commercialization of snootiness, and the relationship between alimentary habits and climate change.

Interesting as these topics may be, they overlook the most essential part of food: the pleasure that is in both making, serving and eating dishes and the joy of sharing it with others, in words and images, either on the spot, while preparing and consuming the food, or afterwards, for instance by making a comic on the many delights food can give us. Such a comic is Comme un chef (“Like a Chef”), a collaboration between Benoît Peeters, novelist, critic, theoretician, but also biographer of Jacques Derrida and scriptwriter of the famous The Obscure Cities series (http://www.theobscurecities.com/home/), and Aurelia Aurita, the comics author best known for Fraise and Chocolat (“Stawberry and Chocolate”), a work exploring the many joys of sex seen from a female point of view and unfortunately not yet available in English (https://lesimpressionsnouvelles.com/catalogue/fraise-et-chocolat-lintegrale/).

comme un chefLike a Chef is a work with a double focus. It is, in the very first place, an autobiography, or at least in part, but it is also a vibrant presentation of gastronomy, more particularly the various types of the “new cuisine”, an approach to cooking and food presentation in French cuisine. In contrast to classic cuisine, an older form of haute cuisine, new cuisine is characterized by lighter, more delicate dishes, an increased emphasis on presentation, and the desire to make cooking as innovative and surprising as, for instance, art. Both perspectives come neatly together in the person of Benoît Peeters who, as a young author (he published his first novel at age 20), had to try to make a living. His love for food as well as his lust for innovation encouraged him to try his luck as a cook, and the book reports his many gastronomic adventures in the first years of his adult life, from the discovery –a nearly religious epiphany– of the new cuisine in the restaurant of the Troisgros brothers to his personal contacts with some great chefs such as Willy Slawinksi from the Apicius restaurant in Ghent and Ferrian Adrià from El Bulli.

Comme un chef is thus a very personal book, but also an extremely comical one. Instead of giving a “biopic” presentation of the new cuisine –this would have been the default option in the contemporary graphic novel, where many authors’ lack of ideas and imagination recycle documentary material in comics format, often with very boring results–, Benoît Peeters tells his own experiences within the new cuisine movement. His book is not a portrait gallery of great chefs or an illustration of famous dishes, but its own life as reconstructed with the help of the new food culture. It is permanently both hilarious and inspiring. One does not find real recipes here, but a funny yet very smart narrative of a young food lover and would be chef learning how to eat (how to order in a great restaurant for instance when one has no money and does not obey the dress code) and how to prepare food by trial and error (how to react for example to customers who ask the young new cuisine chef to make a very traditional dinner).

The beauty and dash of this autobiography is also much indebted to the vivid drawing style of Aurélia Aurita, who strikes the right balance between a more cartoonish presentation of the characters and the necessity to carefully reproduce a large amount of factual information. The chemistry works perfectly, and one can easily bet that the collaboration between Peeters and Aurita will set a new tone in the often uneventful and quite stereotypical current of biographical graphic novels.

Benoît Peeters & Aurélia Aurita, Comme un chef

Paris : Casterman, 2018, 216 pages, 18,95 € (ISBN : 9782203146754)


Barbie, Inc.

By Jan Baetens

Everybody knows the situation: a delayed flight, and nothing more to read. Airport literature is then the answer to all our anxieties. In this case, it was entitled Swing Time (2016, Penguin edition in 2017) and its author is Zadie Smith. 453 pages of which I read 91 during the flight. I stopped in the middle of a sentence and did not go on to page 92, despite the multiple incentives that litter the volume. Swing timeThe book has indeed an exceptionally long blurb section, which starts at the front cover, continues on the back cover, appears to cheer up the interior cover pages and quite a lot of the front matter. In short: no less than nine pages of praise of a “superb”, breathtaking”, and “brilliant” book, which only made me yawn.

For skeptical readers, excessive blurb always sounds suspect and my own reading only confirmed this intuition. Imagine a novel where the author has tried to combine the following three constraints:

  1. List and mix everything that may illustrate the modern, cosmopolitan life of a bobo (please don’t forget issues of race, class and gender).
  2. Be cool and try to surprise with crisp dialogues and a “well written” style, but never forget that easy reading is the key of success.
  3. Target an audience as broad as possible (think of all the translations and how people abroad think of London, New York and West Africa) and cater to all possible reader groups.

Zadie Smith applies all these rules in an amazingly efficient way (after all, she also teaches creative writing, and one can guess that her work holds a top place in book discussion groups all over the world). The result is perfect plastic literature. Barbie and Ken may do and experience and say and think everything that the Mattel dolls are not allowed to, but they remain dolls. What Zadie Smith is writing is Barbie literature for post-young adults. Let’s hope the film will be better.

Mimesis as anti-Figura

By Jan Baetens

Porter1James I. Porter’s “Disfigurations: Erich Auerbach’s Theory of Figura” (Critical Inquiry, vol. 44-1, 2017, pp., 80-113) is one of the best essays I’ve read in recent months. It is a rereading of Erich Auerbach’s seminal study “Figura” of 1938 as well as a vital contribution to the cultural analysis of reading and storytelling, not in the empirical, but in the philosophical sense of the word.

At first sight, “Figura” is a typical philological study on the many meanings of this word and the semantic field it organizes. On a less superficial level, it is a reflection on two conflicting types of reading and interpretation by a German professor, one of the founding fathers of modern comparative literature, who had been forced to abandon his position at the university due to the Nazi anti-Jew laws. In “Figura”, Auerbach mainly distinguishes the allegorical way of reading, which wipes out the concrete historical event told by a story in favor of its symbolic and extra-temporal meaning, and the figural one, which maintains the reality of the historical event while reframing it as the symbolic announcement of some later event. The Christian reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition as a prefiguration of the New Testament is the classic example of such a conflict between allegorical and figural reading and the no-less-classic example of the victory of the figural over the allegorical. The figural will become the hegemonic way of reading between early Christianity, when this type of reading appears, and the Renaissance, when it rapidly vanishes as a dominating type of interpretation (after the Renaissance, the hegemony shifts from figural reading to “realist” reading, in a society whose dominant paradigm is increasingly that of science).

Porter2For contemporary readers, however, Auerbach (1892-1957) is not the author of “Figura” but of Mimesis, written in exile between 1942 and 1945. Mimesis, which has never been out of print, is a study of the progressive emergence of “realism” in Western literature, that is of a way of interpreting that emphasizes the literal, not the symbolic meaning of the text, even if the literal meaning is open to debate, and that highlights how stories are rooted in concrete historical and material contexts. Auerbach scholarship generally focuses either on “Figura” or on Mimesis, but rarely brings together both studies, as if the author’s attention had simply shifted from classic philology and symbolic reading to comparative literature and realism. Yet in “Disfigurations”, this is exactly what James I. Porter does: rereading Mimesis in light of “Figura”, not in order to find a dialectic synthesis of the two apparently conflicting poles, but in order to disclose the profound continuity in Auerbach’s thinking as well as the crucial importance of “realism” in the genesis and meaning of Mimesis itself, which was written in exile in Turkey (a then militantly nonreligious state). Auerbach’s great book, Porter argues, should be read not just as a defense of Western realism, but as a reaction against the symbolic –be it figural or, worse, allegorical– that was defended by Nazi philosophy, philology, theology, etc., to delete not only Jewish history and Jewish tradition but the typical way in which the Jewish tradition read its own stories, namely as realist stories deeply rooted in precise historical conditions yet utterly ambivalent and ambiguous –and therefore inevitably open to endless interpretation and reinterpretation and permanently inviting us to question our own relationship to the specific environment in which we are living here and now (including our fundamental incapacity to produce final and fixed meanings).

I must confess that I did not know James I. Porter’s work. Shame on me, but I have the excuse that he is working in a field (critical theory of ancient literature) that is not mine. Thanks to Critical Inquiry, the leading journal in my field, this excuse is now no longer valid, and of course I immediately ordered this book: Erich Auerbach. Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach. Ed. James I. Porter. Trans. Jane O. Newman. Princeton University Press, 2013. I haven’t read it yet, but I already recommend it very warmly!

Anything but a tourist guide

By Jan Baetens

Tourism is big business and “literary” travel guides are often marketed as culturally correct tools to upgrade the experience of the journey, be it abroad or at home. The new book by Eric Hazan (a publisher and political activist born in 1935 whose crisp and provocative ways of writing and thinking can be given as an example to many of those who are much younger than him) is not a book of this kind. A personal and often directly autobiographical expansion of his well-known social history of Paris (The Invention of Paris, translated by Verso in 2011), Une Traversée de Paris (“A Crossing of Paris”, a heavily connoted title which refers to the tradition of Situationist psychogeography as well as to a famous French movie on the black market during the German occupation) is, in the first place, a political book: a challenging contribution to the rich corpus of non-tourist books on Paris (other recent examples can be found in the work by Jean Rolin, Zones, 1997, which exists in a bilingual pocket edition, and Thomas Clerc, unfortunately not yet available in English).

HazanHazan’s crossing of Paris leads him from the south (Ivry) to the north (Saint-Denis) and focuses on the “center” of Paris; that is, the twenty neighborhoods that can be found “inside” the beltway, which both prevents the traditional city to grow and protects it from the dangers of the less wealthy suburban circles that surround it (some French view Saint-Denis the way some Belgians view Molenbeek). Yet the margins are permanently present: geographically, humanly, culturally, politically speaking. The major aim of Hazan’s book is to disclose the “popular” aspects of the capital, which resist the galloping gentrification, and to highlight the continuity of a revolutionary tradition in the city.

Walking though Paris –and Hazan is a wonderful guide, a great observer, an excellent writer– is a very different experience from what tourist offices and their marketing spin doctors describe in countless brochures and reportages (all costs paid by the organizations that commission the writing, of course –and should it be repeated: literary slum tourism is an extremely popular, well paid and highly profitable part of this industry). The book is not at all an aggressive rebuttal of the tourist dream factory. It does what all great literature should do: make us aware of a different reality, and help us look better; that is, to really watch instead of just look around.

On: Eric Hazan, Une Traversée de Paris, éd. du Seuil, 2016, 194 p.

What Do We Want to Know? Alberto Manguel’s ‘Curiosity’

 By Laura Smith

What Is Curiosity? How Do We Question? What Are We Doing Here? What Do We Want to Know? The award-winning Canadian writer Alberto Manguel explores these, and thirteen other equally poignant questions in his book Curiosity, published by Yale University Press (2015). A personal, historical, poetic, and imaginative journey, Manguel’s book invites readers to contemplate some of the questions that—since time immemorial—have driven human beings to display both their best and worst attributes.


Born in Buenos Aires, Manguel grew up in Tel-Aviv, and has since mostly resided in Europe and Canada. The experience of living in multiple countries as the son of a diplomat has inevitably influenced Manguel’s complex sense of identity and culture, his experience as a writer and, foremost, as a reader. For Manguel, the reader pierces through the constraints of a constructed linear experience of time and space and as such forms part of a collective imaginative fabric. Manguel explains that “the intimate conviction of readers is that there are no individually written books: there is only one text, infinite and fragmented, through which we leaf with no concern for continuity or anachronism or bureaucratic property claims” (277). The weaving of history, fiction, and personal memory reveals Manguel’s understanding of thought as a complex temporal and spatial shared geography. “Cartography,” writes Manguel, “is an art of mutual creation” (166). The participation of readers and writers in such a fabric testifies to the individual and shared life of human curiosity—Manguel’s questions are always posed in the first-person plural.

Each thematic chapter begins with a short personal reflection by Manguel. These are the author’s impressed memory-images: finding home in his imagination rather than his ever-changing address; the recognition of a special teacher igniting the spark of his intellectual curiosity; the obligation of sincerity to himself in the presence of his beloved dog; and the appreciation of his own inevitable death as the accelerated end to the story of his life. Against these brief peaks into our guide’s experience, our own sense of a dynamic time inevitably rises to the fore. We are transported to our hybrid real-and-imagined memories or dreams; those, for example, which are intimately intertwined with the pages of our favourite childhood books.

Guiding us in the exploration of these questions, Manguel incites the aid of another traveler: Dante in his, The Divine Comedy. Weaving an intricate narrative of juxtaposed historical, contemporary, personal, and universal, imaginative experience, Manguel’s philosophical questions are mirrored and explored through the adventures of Dante’s epic fourteenth-century poem. Like Manguel, who follows the poet on his quest through the three realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, we too follow the author of Curiosity into a forest of his making; exploring, in his footsteps, the paradoxes of human existence. In times of hardship, when words fail her, the writer Jeanette Winterson has remarked that she looks to the poets who have “deep-dived [the words] for [her] and brought them back to the surface.”[1] This allusion, perhaps to Hannah Arendt’s description of Walter Benjamin as a ‘pearl diver,’ rings true for the collected insights that Manguel’s book so generously offers.

Like Dante’s poem, there turn out to be few clear answers in Curiosity—this is fine and even must be so. “Nothing in the Commedia is only one thing,” writes Manguel (217). Rather, Curiosity is the journey of engaging the plurality of what drives our human quests, our modes of expression, and our troubled communication. For Manguel, human beings are born storytellers: “we imagine in order to exist,” he states (3). The inevitability of the failure to ‘answer’ fully to our curiosity, however, safeguards against extinguishing what Walter Benjamin described as the ‘living flame’ of a work of literature. Manguel explains:

There is an essential problem with which every writer (and every reader) is faced when engaging with a text. […] Our ability to grasp the text in all its multilayered complexity falls short of our desires and expectations, and we are compelled to return to the text once again in the hope that this time, perhaps, we will achieve our purpose. Fortunately for literature, fortunately for us, we never do. Generations of readers cannot exhaust these books, and the very failure of language to communicate fully lends them a limitless richness that we fathom only to the extent of our individual capabilities (7).

Manguel’s Curiosity is a reflection on difficult questions of a moral, ethical, and philosophical nature. Like all great guides, Manguel offers his readers the tools required to venture forth on a journey of their own making.


Alberto Manguel will be the keynote speaker at the Feestelijke Opening Kunstenbibliotheek, September 30, 2017, in Ghent.

KASK en Conservatorium / School of Arts Gent i.s.m. S.M.A.K., Design museum Gent, HISK, STAM en de Gentse Gidsen. Location: Campus Bijloke, Louis Pasteurlaan 2, 9000 Gent (gratis).


External links:

The CBC’s host of Ideas Paul Kennedy interviews Alberto Manguel about his book Curiosity:


You can find a selection of Manguel’s essays on his personal website as well as a list of recommended readings – his 100 favourite books.


[1] Jeanette Winterson, talk from the 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival. https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/06/01/jeanette-winterson-edinburgh-book-festival-art/

Many voices are one voice

By Jan Baetens

hymns and qualms

Peter Cole

Hymns & Qualms (Poems and Translations, New and Selected)

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017

ISBN-13: 978-0374173883

Internet culture has made copy and paste, sampling, “uncreative” or “unoriginal” writing, as Kenneth Goldsmith or Marjorie Perloff like to say – in short all kind of modern day versions of imitation – fashionable once again. However, the success of this way of writing should not prevent us from understanding that real imitation always involves a high degree of admiration and awe, but not fear, and this in many cases is the most challenging way to authentic poetic expression. Just as there is something like “deep time”, there is something like “deep theme” as well as “deep form” in poetry, and ambitiously imitative takes on writing are perhaps the best way to address these issues in both modern and sustainable ways.

Born in Paterson, as, among many others, the hero of Jarmusch’s Paterson (see my review: https://lesimpressionsnouvelles.com/une-semaine-dans-la-vie-du-poete/), Peter Cole is a deeply multilingual and multicultural poet, whose work in English is nourished by his knowledge and translations of Hebrew and Arabic. Dividing his time between New Haven (CT) and Jerusalem, he is the author of one of the most remarkable bodies of poetry in English today. His new book, an anthology of old and new work as well as old and new translations that reuses the title of a previous collection from 1998, seamlessly brings together texts from three different languages, many cultures (it would be absurd to reduce the Arabic and Hebrew traditions to monolithic wholes) and a wide range of periods (the book contains translations of texts from late antiquity and the 11th century till very most contemporary creations). In that sense, it is much more than a personal anthology offering wonderful examples of the modern lyric, which in a very accessible but always sharply formulated language blurs the boundaries between the local and the global, the personal and the political, the descriptive and the meditative. The most striking feature of this multi-voiced and multi-layered book is its incredible unity. Not as the result of a modern and subjective streamlining, but as the outcome of a poetic inquiry into what authors, languages, cultures, and epochs may have in common in spite of their welcome differences, the very discovery of what humans share, which only poetry can teach them that it exists.

Hymns & Qualms is a once in a lifetime book for his author, a work of great maturity one can only publish every two, three decades. Readers, don’t miss it!