A Shameless Plug for Jorge Luis Borges

or "Why you owe it to yourself to read some Borges"

If you haven't read any Borges, you are missing out on one of the great treats of Twentieth Century literature. Everyone should give him a try before they die. I recommend Ficciones for starters. If you read Spanish, then do yourself a favor and try to dig up a copy in its original language, as I'm told that the translations, while themselves quite good, don't do the original justice. (I have no direct experience in this respect, since I don't read Spanish, but having compared differences in English translations of a couple of stories, I can readily believe it).

Most of the stories in Ficciones are what I would call "concept sketches". That is, rather than telling a story, or painting a portrait of a character, they sketch out the broad outlines of some unusual concept. Typically Borges gives only broad outlines of his concepts, and the gaps serve as an invitation for the reader to ponder the ideas on his own. Borges uses a variety of interesting devices for his sketches. Other writeups have mentioned the reviews (complete with footnotes, no less), or more generally, discussions, of fictive books. Several take the form of memoirs, a few are almost entirely imagery, and there is even the odd conventional narrative.

To summarize, simply delightful. Just one caveat: the first one's free.

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.
- Afterword to El hacedor, 1960
Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 24, 1899. His compatriot in the fantastic, Vladamir Nabokov was also born the same day, nearly to the hour. His family was of Spanish, English and Portuguese Jewish descent. He spent his adolescence in the rough and tumble district of Palermo, on the outskirts of the city, among Catholic Sicilian immigrants, rebellious politicos and impoverished bandits and beggars. The patriarch of the family, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was a contradictory man – a lawyer and a psychology teacher with anarchical political leanings. Borges’ mother, Leonor Acevedo de Borges, came from a lineage of soldiers and freedom fighters. Every wall and staircase of the family home was cluttered with well-worn swords, moth-eaten uniforms, and yellowing portraits of great rebel ancestors.
Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.
- "The Wall and the Books"
This drama was all quite removed from Jorge’s own existence, as a middle class suburban boy, both bookish and terribly nearsighted, he tended to hide indoors. His grandmother insisted on calling him “Georgie” for most of his life. He started writing at the age of six, taking Cervantes as his model. When he was nine, he translated Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" into Spanish. In 1908, at age nine, public schooling finally began for the young Borges. Strangely, however, his mother insisted upon a English style of private school dress for her young Jorge. And so off he went, laughed at by the other boys in his neighborhood, donning his comically thick glasses and hefting his old leather satchel of books.
No one is anyone, one single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist.
-- "The Immortal"
Not long afterwards, however, in his early teens, his family moved to Geneva, and in 1914, amid the clamor of war, Jorge found himself in a swirl of European culture and thought beyond his wildest imaginings. He attended an excellent college, and focused on the literature of Rimbaud, and Mallarmé - who brought to his writings and thought the tools of Symbolist poetry. From Arthur Schopenhauer, he fell upon a carefully elaborated critique of reality. And finally Walt Whitman showed him the renewed power of the poetic image and its root in nature. In 1919, he completed his degree and his family moved on to live in Spain now that the threat of war had passed (none of the male Borges, could of course, have served in the war: both father and son had terrible vision). Here he concentrated wholly on poetry, which throughout his life he would consistently state as his favorite form, despite the popularity of his stories and essays.
It is venturesome to think that a coordination of words (philosophies are nothing more than that) can resemble the universe very much. It is also venturesome to think that of all these illustrious coordinations, one of them -- at least in an infinitesimal way -- does not resemble the universe a bit more than the others.
-"The Avatars of the Tortoise"
Returning finally with his family after years abroad, in 1933 Borges began his Historia universal de la infamia, "A Universal History of Infamy." Published in 1933-34 in the magazine Crítica, these were Baroque revisionist interweavings of already well-known stories - elaborated fictionalizations which overlapped frequently with established reality. Newspaper stories, magazines and books were quoted to support the fictions –some of the references being genuine, others entirely invented. Then, in 1935, Borges went a step further, penning "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim," a carefully constructed academic review of a wholly fictional novel. This was soon followed, in ‘36 by another collection of strange essay-like fictions, Historia de la eternidad, or "A History of Eternity." Borges had by this time carefully but unknowingly founded something entirely new, along with his wider South American poetic circle: ‘magic realism’.
There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless.
-- "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote"
Then, in '37, Jorge fatefully landed a post as a cataloguer, for less than $20/week, in the Miguel Cané branch of the Municipal Library. He remained in the library for nine years, nine years of "solid unhappiness" leading a "menial and dismal existence," but which furnished his fictions with an endless store of references, quotations, allusions and bibliographical shading. He spent his long lunches poring over encyclopedias and histories, filling notebooks with fictional possibilities. The result came in 1941, a collection of these stories was published, The Garden of Forking Paths, which would later be added to Artifices and re-released as Ficciones in 1944.
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.
--Borges interviewed for Argentine radio, 10 November 1941
In 1949, the second short story collection appeared, The Aleph. In 1950 Borges was elected President of the Sociedad Argentina de Escritores (The Argentine Writer's Society.) and then in ’55, Borges was appointed Director of the National Library of Argentina. It was the chance attainment of all his bookish childhood fantasies. It was also wholly lyric in its timing, for Borges was already well near-blind: "I speak of God's splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness." In 1956 he was named to the professorship of English and American Literature at the University of Buenos Aires & won the National Prize for literature. In 1960 he published El hacedor or "The Maker," (titled Dreamtigers in America).
That history should have imitated history was already sufficiently marvelous; that history should imitate literature is inconceivable.
-- "Theme of the Traitor and Hero"
The next year, he and Samuel Beckett received the International Publishers Prize. Worldwide renown suddenly darkened his door, even as he had just begun to adjust to being completely blind. Ficciones was translated into a dozen languages, the first Latin American work to receive such commercial interest. In 1961, in the company of his mother, he spent six months in America, lecturing by invitation at universities across the continent. In 1973 he resigned as Director of the National Library and dedicated himself to dictating (he dictated much of his later work due to his blindness, and all his favorite works had to be read to him) El libro de arena, or "The Book of Sand" in 1975. "Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time,’ he wrote from that collection, in a poem entitled "The Threatened.” That year, his mother died, but he was also reunited with his teenage love María, and they were married soon after.

On June 14, 1986, at 86, Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer in Geneva.
I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
-- "Poema de los Dones," from El Hacedor
Finally, as for the writing itself, my attachment to Borges is, admittedly, embarrassingly simple. First, Borges prided himself in his bookishness, and effectively wore his wallflower introversion like a badge of pride. In his writing, however, he rebels - ignoring all the petty rules of what was to be fiction, and what was to be poetry; what was realistic, what was fantasy. Genre was a meaningless delimitation to his imagination, dialogue was commonly dispensed with entirely. His stories are spring-loaded clockworks of allusion, cross-reference, interlace, and literary mirror-mimicry, while his poetry seethes with the humid history and memory of his Argentine years, never failing to echo a cool, shadowy Enlightenment sense of form and thought.

His mentors and appreciations span six continents and all civilized time – from the dank jail cells of a Babylonian prison to the desert campfire of a Arab dervish, from the construction of China’s great wall to the medieval ruminations of a Moslem theologian, from the paranoid machinations of a Nazi foreign agent to a calm autumn stroll along the Charles River in 1980s Boston. There was no need for encapsulation of theme, motif, image or symbol in any of Borges’ writings, poetry or prose; no complacent presumption of what a reader would and would not ‘get’ – and this is likely one of his greatest (but rarely acknowledged) strengths. He never worried about being too vague, or obscure, or referential – because his fictions unfold all the better if a reader was forced to look up a date, or check a fact, or look askance at a historical ‘event’ that seemed too strange to believe (quite often, they turned out to be true after all). He trusted us, as few writers will ever do now, to work his puzzles through in our own way.

In other words, reading Borges’ writing was like reading over his shoulder, reading along with him, like lingering over all the weird coincidences and perfect quotations one might come across in a whole lifetime, but that most of us never get around to writing down.

But he did, for us.

A universal history of iniquity / Jorge Luis Borges ; translated with an afterword by Andrew Hurley. London : Penguin, 2001, c1998..

The total library : non-fiction 1922-1986 / Jorge Luis Borges ; edited by Eliot Weinberger ; translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine and Eliot Weinberger. London : Penguin, 2001..

The book of sand ; and, Shakespeare's memory / Jorge Luis Borges ; translated with an afterword by Andrew Hurley. London : Penguin, 2001, c1998..

This craft of verse / Jorge Luis Borges ; edited by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2000..

Selected nonfictions / Jorge Luis Borges ; edited by Eliot Weinberger ; translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine & Eliot Weinberger. New York : Viking, 1999..

Selected poems / Jorge Luis Borges ; edited by Alexander Coleman. New York : Viking, 1999.

Jorge Luis Borges : conversations / edited by Richard Burgin. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, c1998..

Collected fictions / Jorge Luis Borges ; translated by Andrew Hurley. New York : Viking, 1998..

Atlas / by Jorge Luis Borges, in collaboration with María Kodama ; translated by Anthony Kerrigan. -- New York : Dutton, c1985. ---

Evaristo Carriego : a book about old-time Buenos Aires / Jorge Luis Borges ; translated, with an introduction and notes, by Norman Thomas di Giovanni with the assistance of Susan Ashe. -- New York : Dutton, 1984. ---

Seven nights / Jorge Luis Borges ; translated by Eliot Weinberger ; introduction by Alastair Reid. -- New York : New Directions Pub. Corp., 1984. ---

Six problems for Don Isidro Parodi / Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy-Casares ; translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. -- New York : Dutton, 1981..

The gold of the tigers : selected later poems : a bilingual edition / Jorge Luis Borges ; translated by Alastair Reid. -- New York : Dutton, c1977. ---

In praise of darkness. Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. A bilingual ed. -- New York : Dutton, 1974..

Doctor Brodie's report. Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author. - New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972..

The Aleph and other stories, 1933-1969, together with commentaries and an autobiographical essay. Edited and translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author. New York : E. P. Dutton, 1970..

A personal anthology / Jorge Luis Borges ; edited and with a foreword by Anthony Kerrigan. New York : Grove Press, c1967..

Other inquisitions, 1937-1952. Translated by Ruth L. C. Simms. Introd. by James E. Irby. Austin, University of Texas Press 1964

Labyrinths : selected stories & other writings / edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby ; preface by André Maurois. New York, New Directions Pub. Corp., 1964. ---

Ficciones. Edited and with an introd. by Anthony Kerrigan. -- New York : Grove Press, 1962
Borges is a great comfort to me in times of confusion. It is in no way on-topic, or affirmational, or in any way connected to the normal definitions of 'comfort'. I can't even read Latin or Greek. But two things bring joy to me: 1) his style of prose reminds me that some people still learn for the joy of learning, to pull apart the fibers of the tapestries of their lives, and 2) his plot constructions yield a very strange sense of choice and fate.

His fictions depict characters who could do nothing but what their being drove them towards. "The Circular Ruins" enclose one man driven on a quest to dream another man, dream him whole, and set him free on the earth. We find at the end that his motive is set because, without his knowing, he himself was dreamed by another. "Death and the Compass" follows a detective whose investigation of a spree of murders both drives and solves the spree - he himself is both questioner and answerer, or perhaps just question and answer. "The Theologians" watches two mediaeval monks, opponents and competitors in doctrinal study, who over the course of their work establish themselves as symmetric: the neither would exist, in current form, without the other. Each was himself in order that the other could be himself.

Some of his fictions are not character driven, but they are nonetheless imbued with a driving pattern. "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" asks a question of the world: if all fiction had to have been written. "Lottery of Babylon" is a chronology of a lottery that grows to encompass nonmonetary, and eventually ecclesiastical, powers; in time it becomes a religion whose one heresy is that all chance is not planned in advance by the secret Company which runs the lottery.

His poetry, and essays on history and literature are more complex and open-ended, set as they are in a less mutable world. But again we see Borges reach into the scene and trace a structure, a connection; a connection much more suprising and perverse than any found in a survey history text. (and has not all brilliance some element of perversity?)

I am intentionally simplifying Borges' works. Each of his stories has much more interesting, unique concepts, simply couched in the framework I have described above. I know that none of this is literally relevant to our lives. We have total choice in our dealings, we can be anything we want. But we have choice in interpretation, and a world of mathematic description, one whose past, present, and future come together in a cohesive whole, is intensely useful in the infinite Now, where we construct these patterns to give motive to our daily activities.

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