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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature


Fabulous Monsters

Alberto Manguel

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To purchase Fabulous Monsters

Title: Fabulous Monsters
Author: Alberto Manguel
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2019
Length: 236 pages
Availability: Fabulous Monsters - US
Fabulous Monsters - UK
Fabulous Monsters - Canada
  • Dracula, Alice, Superman, and Other Literary Friends
  • With illustrations by the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine collection, nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review . 8/2019 Allan Massie
The Spectator . 31/8/2019 Greg Garrett
TLS . 20/9/2019 Emma Smith

  From the Reviews:
  • "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 (.....) Ultimately, the joy of Fabulous Monsters is its forceful argument that these figures may help us better understand our own reality." - Greg Garrett, The Spectator

  • "Manguel’s insights are usually reassuring ones. (...) Few of the characters in Fabulous Monsters, however, are discussed in realist or psychological terms: they exist, rather, in revealing intertextual genealogies which establish them less in relation to real people than their fictional forebears (.....) Fabulous Monsters bears Vane’s imprint: it is appealing but ultimately workmanlike. Manguel surveys some favourite set subjects including Borges, the imaginary island, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but his book is only rarely (and then wonderfully) able to embrace the uncanny, unexpected peculiarity of literary character to which its title aspires." - Emma Smith, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fabulous Monsters consist of short pieces on some three-dozen characters from literature and myth -- characters who make a lasting impression (unsurprisingly, many are ones first encountered in childhood) even as, as Manguel also notes: "Perhaps one of the main attractions of these fabulous monsters is their multiple and changing identities" (so also in how they are presented in different works), and who accompany one over the years (even if shifting over time in how we relate to and consider them). Manguel's is a personal selection, but most of these are familiar figures; part of the appeal of the collection is to compare how differently (or similarly) Manguel sees and relates to them.
       The figures include the biblical -- Job, Satan, Lilith -- and the mythological, such as the Chimera and Hippogriff; quite a few are figures from what is considered children's literature: Alice of Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, or the cartoon Superman. Many are iconic figures: Frankenstein's monster, Quasimodo, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe. Particularly intriguing is Manguel's repeated focus on what might be considered secondary figures from more familiar works: not Heidi as much as her grandfather; Gertrude, rather than Hamlet; Middlemarch's Casaubon, rather than Dorothea Brooke; The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield's sister Phoebe; or Monsieur rather than Madame Bovary from Madame Bovary (though somewhat disappointingly he doesn't manage to slip in a nod to Jean Améry's Charles Bovary, Country Doctor in that particular piece). Or, for example, as a representative of dictator-literature -- of the Latin American tyrant, in particular -- he argues: "the most complex, the most puzzling is the protagonist of Tyrant Banderas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán"
       Manguel also ranges beyond the Western canon, including with Sandy from the Chinese classic, Journey to the West, Hsing-chen from Kim Man-jung's The Nine Cloud Dream, and the Turkish pair of Karagöz and Hacivat. Here, as with the other examples, he also connects them with the more familiar: these figures are all in some ways universals, representative types appearing in other guises in other cultures and works -- from the obvious, such as Satan/Mephistopheles, to Manguel's sympathetic consideration of the men who fall short of their wives' expectations of them, such as Casaubon and Monsieur Bovary.
       Manguel is at his most explicit in his conclusion to his piece on Captain Nemo, describing how:

At this magical point, protagonist and author, author and reader, reader and protagonist blend into a single being, both inside and outside the book, suspended in the time of the telling and our own time, when we read him today.
       It is in lifting these characters, small and large, beyond their original (con)text(s), and suggesting and showing connections over time and other works -- and Manguel skips lightly but far afield in his musings -- that Fabulous Monsters is such an entertaining work. Much here -- specifically, the figures themselves -- is familiar, but Manguel moves beyond this familiar and shows the deeper, more profound resonance the characters have.
       The essays are brief -- only a few pages each --, so Manguel only looks and goes so far -- but that's also part of the appeal: this isn't long-winded and technical scholarly analysis, but rather personal readings -- but by a great reader. Manguel moves easily about various literatures, but also includes the occasional political reference -- without ever straying too deep or far, and on the whole keeping the focus on the personal. (There are occasional missteps: Wu Cheng'en's novel most certainly was never known as Story of the Stone -- that's a different Chinese classic.)
       A fascinating reader's-companion, with considerable food for thought with the many figures it touches upon, Fabulous Monsters is an enjoyable and thought-provoking work. And Manguel's charming drawings complement the texts nicely.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 December 2019

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Fabulous Monsters: Reviews: Alberto Manguel: Other books by Alberto Manguel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Translator and critic Alberto Manguel was born in Argentina in 1948.

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© 2019 the complete review

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