All reviews copyright 2005-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.
"April March" by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/04/2010]
Back in January 1996, Mark wrote about alternate pasts in the MT VOID. Briefly, he said:
"It is the usual model to say that the set of possible alternate histories has a tree structure opening toward the future. That is, that you have at some point in time events happening that could go one way or another so you consider this a branch point to two or more alternate futures. ... For me anyway it seems likely that if there are alternate futures, there should also be alternate pasts. The branching should take place going in either direction. Most reactions in science are time-symmetric. With the exception of entropy most reactions are reversible in time. ... Currently we think of the whole set of possible alternate futures as a big and rather motley set. We think of there being only one past, because that is what we remember, but there would have to be an infinite set of pasts all of which lead to this one present and then the timelines diverge again going separate ways into the future. ... The problem is that while it is easy for us to imagine a huge array of different possible futures that come out of our present, it is difficult to imagine even one significantly different past that could have led to our present. About the nearest thing to it in human experience is the fact that different cultures have different creation myths. ... It nonetheless would be interesting to see if a good writer could give us a convincing alternate past story. It might be easy enough if it were set back in the Triassic, though it would be less interesting than a setting more recent. But any convincing alternate past supposedly from another timeline is probably indistinguishable from a viable theory of our own past."
At the time I might have said something about how this was effectively a description of what alternate history fans usually call "secret histories". Wikipedia says, "A secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or not a subject dealt with by respectable scholars. Further, it says, "Secret history is sometimes used ... to preserve continuity with the present by reconciling paranormal, anachronistic, or otherwise notable but unrecorded events with what actually happened in known history."
However, I recently ran across another, more "pure" example of alternate pasts: the fictional book "April March". Long-time readers of this column will hardly be surprised to hear that this was invented (possibly) by Jorge Luis Borges in "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain".
One could say that "April March" was in the structural genre of MEMENTO and Harold Pinter's "Betrayal", except that "April March" predated both of them.
"April March" begins with a chapter which takes place on a railway platform. The next three chapters are three different possibilities for what happened the evening before, and the next nine provide the preceding evening to each of these, again three each.
Now I suppose that this is just a slightly fleshed out version of what Mark had said--after all, Borges does not actually write any of the stories.
[A side note: there are two sorts of stories that run backwards. One is the sort we have been discussing, where there is standard time-flow but episodes are examined in reverse order. The other is actual "time reversal" fiction, such as Martin Amis's TIME'S ARROW and Philip K. Dick's COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD. I don't think Borges wrote any of the latter, though it seems like his sort of thing.]
"Averroës' Search" by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/09/2010]
Re-reading "Averroës' Search" by Jorge Luis Borges reminded me of all those "future archaeology" books. I have previously referred to Gary Westfahl's article about this genre, "The Addled Archaeology of the Future", which discusses Edgar Allan Poe's "Mellonta Tauta" (1849), John Ames Mitchell's THE LAST AMERICAN (1889), Robert Nathan's THE WEANS (1960), and Macaulay's MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES (1979). "Averroës' Search" postulates that Averroës, when he read the words "tragedy" and "comedy" in Aristotle's "Poetics", had no idea what they meant because he had never seen a drama, or rather never saw anything he recognized as a drama. For shortly after he has been thinking on what the terms might mean, he glances out the window and sees three boys "playing" with one standing on the shoulders of the second, and the third kneeling with his head on the ground. Averroës recognizes them as being the muezzin, the tower, and the congregation, but makes no extension of this to a dramatic form. And when his friend Abulcasim describes seeing a play in China, his description is similar to the "future archaeology" style--the interpretation of what is going on is just a bit off. (Even when he explains the idea of drama, though, one of the people listening asks why they needed twenty people to tall a story that one person could tell just as well.)
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"The Babylon Lottery" by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/16/2007]
I was reminded of "The Babylon Lottery" when I read someone's comment that as far as government health insurance goes, all they want is the same medical plan their Congresspersons get. This would be far more likely in a "Babylon-Lottery" situation, because the Congresspersons would know that with the next roll of the dice, they could end up with whatever health plan a random person in the society gets.
BORGES ANTES EL ESPEJO by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/24/2009]
Having read many of the books published in English about Jorge Luis Borges, I figured the time had come to branch out, so I decided to try BORGES ANTES EL ESPEJO by Jorge Mejia Prieto and Justo R. Molachino (ISBN-13 978-970-732-133-5, ISBN-10 970-732-133-4), in Spanish. It was probably the best possible choice to start with, being only 180 pages, and consisting almost entirely of one- or two-paragraph quotes by or about Borges.
Some random samples (all translations are mine, which is why I am giving you the original Spanish as well):
Borges talks about how he and his sister had invisible friends when they were young and, "Finalamente, cuando nos aburrimos de ellos, le dijemos a nuestra madre que habían muerto." ("Finally, when we were bored with them, we told my mother that they had died.") [page 17]
Perhaps an early example of Borges's playing with the the concrete versus the figurative can be found in José Ángel Valente's comment of Borges's thoughts when he was a boy on buying items: "Pero si el objeto que el niño desaba adquirir costaba más de un peso y menos de dos, ¿cuál era de las dos monedas de un peso la que el comerciante le cambiaba?" ("But if an object that the boy wanted to acquire cost more than one peso and less than two, which of the two one-peso coins was the one that the cashier gave him change from?") [page 22]
I must admit that sometimes I found that I had initially mistranslated something--and I liked it better that way. "Me lanzó a esta aventura el 'Sartor restartus' ('El remendón remendado') de Carlyle, que me deslumbró y dejó perplejo." I initially read this as "I threw myself into the adventure of 'Sartor Restartus' ... by Carlyle, that put me to sleep and perplexed me." But it actually says, "I threw myself into the adventure of 'Sartor Restartus' ... by Carlyle, that dazzled me and perplexed me." [page 26]
Weeks ago, I commented on Borges's comment on politicians: "Creo que ningún político puede ser una persona totalamente sincera. Un político esta buscando siempre electores y dice lo que esperan que diga. En el caso do un discurso político los que opinan son los oyentes. más que el orador. El orador es una especia de espejo o eco de lo que los demás piensan. Si no es así, fracasa." ("I believe that no politician can be a wholly sincere person. A politician is always looking at the voters and says what they want him to say. On the case of a political discourse it is the listeners whose opinion is expressed more than the speaker's. The speaker is a type of mirror or echo of what others think. If this is not so, he loses.") [page 43] Both this quote, and the title of the book, are reflections (!) of the importance of mirrors in Borges's work. I have commented on this at length in my reviews of Labyrinths and A Universal History of Infamy.
Borges even comments on his recurring symbols: "¡Ah, los laberintos! ¡Ah, los símbolos! Al final de cada año me hago una promesa: el año próximo renunciaré a los laberintos, a los tigres, a los cuchillos, a los espejos. Pero no hay nada que hacer, es algo m s fuerte que yo. Comienzo a escribir y, de golpe, he aquí que surge un laberinto, que un tigre cruza la p gina, que un cuchillo brilla, que un espejo refleja una imagen." ("Ah, the labyrinths! Ah, the symbols! At the end of every year I make myself a promise: the next year I will renounce the labyrinths, the tigers, the knives, the mirrors. But there is nothing to be done--it is something stronger than me. I start to write and, suddenly, up pops a labyrinth, or a bright knife, or a mirror reflecting a face.") [page 118]
In CONVERSATIONS WITH JORGE LUIS BORGES, Borges explains why he wrote only short works: "I think what I want to write, but, of course, they have to be short pieces because otherwise, if I want to see them all at once--that can't be done with long texts. ... I want to see at [one] glance what I've done ... that is why I don't believe in the novel because I believe that a novel is as hazy to the writer as to the reader." In BORGES ANTE EL ESPEJO he is quoted as having said of novels: "Soy demasiado perezoso para escribir novelas. Para hacerlo hay que utilizar muchos rellenos. Antes de llegar at tercer capítulo me sentiría tan aburrido que nunca llegaría a terminarla. La novela es una supersticíon de nuestro tiempo, como lo fueron la tragedia de cinco actos y la epopeya. Es verosímil que desaparezca. Puede haber una literatura sin novelas de cuatrocientas o quinientas p ginas, pero no sin poemas o cuentos." ("I am too lazy to write novels. In order to do that, I would have to use too much 'stuffing.' Before getting to the third chapter I would be so bored that I would never manage to finish it. The novel is a 'superstition' of our times, as was the tragedy in five acts and the epic poem [earlier]. It is likely that it will disappear. One can have a literature with novels of four hundred or five hundred pages, but not without poems or short stories.") [page 109]
Borges also talked about how he tried to write as simply as possible; I wrote about his statements and how they do or do not apply to other authors in my comments about H. P. Lovecraft in the 10/31/08 issue of the MT VOID.
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BORGES ON WRITING by Jorge Luis Borges:
TWENTY-FOUR CONVERSATIONS WITH BORGES by Jorges Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/08/2006]
I had read most of the Jorge Luis Borges available through my library system, but I was recently in a Library not in the system, so I read a couple of books that they had: BORGES ON WRITING edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Daniel Halpern, and Frank MacShane (ISBN 0-525-47352-1) and TWENTY-FOUR CONVERSATIONS WITH BORGES (ISBN 0-394-62192-1). The latter is a collection of interviews by Roberto Alifano carried out between 1981 and 1983, and I will make a couple of comments. In "Funes and Insomnia", Borges claims that "memorious" is not an English word. Actually it is a very old word, dating back to at least 1599; Shakespeare uses it a year later in TIMON OF ATHENS.
In "Books", Borges says, "Scripta manent verba volant (The written word stays, the spoken word flies). That phrase doesn't mean that the spoken word is ephemeral, but rather that the written word is something lasting and dead. The spoken word, it seems to me now, is somewhat winged and light...."
And then later, he adds, "I believe that books will never disappear. It is impossible that that will happen. Among the many inventions of man, the book, without a doubt, is the most astounding; all the others are extensions of our bodies. The telephone, for example, is the extension of our voice; the telescope and the microscope are extensions of our sight; the sword and the plow are extensions of our arms. Only the book is an extension of our imagination and memory."
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"The Gospel According to Mark" by Jorge Luis Borges:
"The Streets of Ashkelon" by Harry Harrison: [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/05/2008]
As regular readers of this column know, I am a big fan of Jorge Luis Borges. Recently I listened to a reading (in English) of his story "The Gospel According to Mark" (from DOCTOR BRODIE'S REPORT, written between 1970 and 1972). And something clicked, and I said, "I've read this before." An on-line query turned up the answer: this is basically the same story as Harry Harrison's "The Streets of Ashkelon". And lest you think that Harrison may have borrowed from Borges, Harrison published "The Streets of Ashkelon" in 1962.
So did Borges read the Harrison story? Well, "The Streets of Ashkelon" first appeared in Brian W. Aldiss's original anthology NEW WORLDS and has been anthologized over three dozen times (in fourteen languages), including a half dozen before the writing of "The Gospel According to Mark". It is possible that Borges read it in English (a Spanish translation did not appear until 1987). It is also possible that the idea is one that could easily occur independently to two different authors.
The Borges is available on-line at http://www.mrtheilacker.com/gospel_mark_borges.doc> or http://anagrammatically.com/2008/03/09/borges-gospel-according-to-mark> (the latter being bilingual). The Harrison is not available on-line.
JORGE LUIS BORGES: CONVERSATIONS with Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/08/2008]
After reading Edwin Williamson's opinion on the name "Emma Zunz", I ran across Borges's own comments on "Emma Zunz" in JORGE LUIS BORGES: CONVERSATIONS (ISBN-13 978-1-578-06076-4, ISBN-10 1-578-06076-1) in a conversation with Richard Burgin in 1967. What Borges says is, "[Even] the name Emma was chosen because I thought it particularly ugly, but not strikingly ugly, no? And the name Zunz is a very poor name, no? I remember I had a great friend named Emma and she said to me, 'But why did you give that awful girl my name?' And then, of course, I couldn't say the truth, but the truth was that when I wrote down the name Emma with the two m's and Zunz with the two z's, I was trying to get an ugly and at the same time a colorless name, and I had quite forgotten that one of my best friends was called Emma. The name seems so meaningless, so insignificant, doesn't it sound that way to you?" Nothing about the letters being mirror images, or rotations, or whatever.
On why he wrote only short works, Borges says, "I think what I want to write, but, of course, they have to be short pieces because otherwise, if I want to see them all at once--that can't be done with long texts. ... I want to see at [one] glance what I've done ... that is why I don't believe in the novel because I believe that a novel is as hazy to the writer as to the reader." This "holistic" view of a short story reminded me of the written language in Ted Chiang's "The Stories of Your Life". In that language, a sentence was not a series of consecutive words, but rather a single complex ideogram, written as a whole. (What is it about Borges, languages, and science fiction? A language he described in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" was very similar to that in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Darmok".)
Borges also talked about an earlier Argentinian science fiction writer, Leopoldo Lugones, and Lugones's 1907 book LAS FUERZAS EXTRANAS (STRANGE FORCES), influenced by Wells and Poe. This is available in book form in English, or (if you read Spanish) free on the Internet at http://www.edicionesdelsur.com/cuentos_lugones.htm.
(JORGE LUIS BORGES: CONVERSATIONS should not be confused with TWENTY-FOUR CONVERSATIONS WITH BORGES with Roberto Alifano. What is it about Borgesian books?)
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MISCELÁNEA by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/31/2014]
Miscelénea by Jorge Luis Borges (ISBN 978-8-499-89204-7) is 1189 pages long, so I cannot possibly comment on every item in it. I cannot even read all of it, or rather, a fair amount of it would be meaningless, such as prologues to works I am unfamiliar with (although even that has its exceptions). But I will comment on items of particular interest. (I will give some of the titles of the articles in English, even though they are in Spanish in the book, especially when they refer to English-language works.)
The book is actually an omnibus of six volumes of literary criticism:
Prologue to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles: Borges talks a little about the predecessors to Bradbury in terms of interplanetary voyages, including those of Lucian of Samosata, Ludovico Ariosto, and Johannes Kepler., and notes that while the first two are just pure invention, while Kepler's has an air of verisimilitude. Why? Because for Lucian and Ariosto such a voyage was impossible, while for Kepler it was indeed a possibility. Borges also says that in reading The Martian Chronicles he is given the chance to re-live the "delectable terrors" he felt when he read H. G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon almost fifty years earlier.
Borges also writes, "Bradbury is heir to the vast imagination of the master [Edgar Allan Poe], but not of his 'interjective' and at times dreadful style. Deplorably, we cannot say the same of Lovecraft." This is odd when one considers the many parallels of some of Borges's stories with some of Lovecraft's.
Prologue to Edward Gibbon's Pages of History and of Autobiography: Borges gives a brief literary biography of Gibbon and how he came to write his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but also drifts into subsidiary topics. For example, many people talk about how Christianity makes doing good problematic--people who believe in Heaven and Hell seem to be doing good because of the threat of punishment or the promise of reward, rather than because it is the right thing to do. Borges cites William Warburton's 1737 work, The Divine Legation of Moses, in which Warburton says that (according to Borges) "the omission of any reference to immortality is an argument in favor of the divine authority of Moses, in that he was known to be sent by God and so he did not need to appeal to supernatural rewards or punishments."
Prologue to Carlos M. Grünberg's Mester de juería: It turns out that Grünberg's title ("The art of Jews") is a pun on the famous medieval tract "Mester de juglaria" ("The art of minstrels"). In his prologue, Borges cites Macaulay's "fantastical history" of the persecution of red-haired people, which Macaulay used as a way of showing how the treatment of any minority in such a manner would lead to resentment (and worse) by that group. This appeared in a book of Macaulay's essays, but not in his famous speech to Parliament on "Jewish [Civic] Disabilities", and has a definite alternate history feel to it, albeit one with a clear agenda. Mester de juería was published in 1940 and as Borges notes, "The poems that I have the pleasure to write this prologue to declare the honor and the sadness of being a Jew in the unbelievable perverse world of 1940." Having said this, and discoursed briefly upon anti-Semitism in Germany and in Argentina, Borges then turns to a detailed analysis of Grünberg's poetic form, most of which is hard to follow for a non-native speaker. But he concludes with a thought he has expressed elsewhere, though not as vividly: "Perhaps the most obvious mistake of this volume is the ostentatious use of words that live only in the columns of the Dictionary of the Academy [El diccionario de la lengua español of the Real Academía Española]."
Bret Harte's California Sketches: Of Harte, Borges says, "After 1870, he could not do more than plagiarize himself, before the indifference or indulgence of his readers. The observation confirms this melancholy law: in order to render justice to a writer there has to be injustice to others. ... Bernard De Voto, in order to exalt Mark Twain, has written that Bret Harte was 'a literary impostor.'" Of Twain himself, Borges says, "[Harte] was a patron to Mark Twain, who quickly forgot his kindness."
Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis: Borges says, "The critic deplores that in Kafka's three novels there are many intermediate chapters missing, but recognizes that these chapters are not indispensible." By this he does not mean that there are lost chapters somewhere, but that Kafka felt no need to spell everything out, and indeed, Borges compares such an attempt to Zeno's paradox, where before one can get from point A to point B, one must get to point C halfway between them. But before one can get to C, one must get to D, again halfway between A and C. And so on. One can see that Borges is fascinated by infinity, even in places where it is not obviously present.
William Shakespeare's Macbeth: Borges refers to "la selva que avanza contra el castillo." "Selva" is actually closer to "jungle" than to "forest" or "wood", which would be "bosque". Borges thereby gives it an additional layer of mystery--or maybe not; does the jungle appear as mysterious and exotic to his Argentinian readers as it does to us?
"The Book": This is Borges's paean to the book, both as the object and the contents thereof. He says (in this lecture given in 1979) that even though he is blind, he keeps buying books and filling his house with books, because he can feel them there. He also contends that, curiously, the iconic writers of many European countries are atypical of those countries' cultures. More specifically, the English are understated, while Shakespeare tends toward hyperbole; the Germans are "easily fanatic", while Goethe is tolerant and cares little for patriotism; and Victor Hugo is "un-French" in his use of grand stage scenery and vast metaphors.
"Immortality": Borges notes that in Plato's dialogue of the death of Socrates, the Phaedo, it is written that Plato was not present ("Plato, I believe, was sick"). Borges says he thinks Plato wrote this as a way of saying, "I wasn't there, so I don't know exactly what Socrates said, but I can imagine that this is what he said."
He cites Gustav Theodor Fechner as noting that just as fetuses have fingers, eyes, and other body parts that are of no use to them in the womb, but only in their life after birth, we have hopes, fears, etc., that are of use only in an after-life. This Fechner (and perhaps Borges) thinks is an argument in favor of immortality.
Borges himself says that if there is immortality, he does not want to continue to be Borges, but to become someone else. Later in talking about reincarnation (which would seem to be what he is referring to), he says that the apparent paradox with the Hindu and Buddhist belief that your fortune or misfortune in this life is reward or punishment for your previous life is that it sets up an infinite regression. But just as Pascal describes space as infinite, with its circumference everywhere and its center nowhere, so time can be considered similarly. And indeed the Hindus and Buddhists believe in an infinite number lives for each soul.
Borges says, "Each time we repeat a verse of Dante or of Shakespeare, we are, in some way, in that moment in which Dante or Shakespeare created that verse." This reminds one of his story, "Pierre Menard, Author of El Quijote". He then says, "In the end, immortality is in the memory of others and in the work that we leave behind." I'll note that Woody Allen disagrees with this, having said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying."
"Emanuel Swedenborg": Borges descibes the philosophy of Swedenborg, and in particular, elaborates on the subject of Heaven (and Hell). According to Swedenborg, God allows Hell to exist because only in Hell are the spirits of the damned happy. In Heaven, they would be miserable. (Borges suggests the third act of Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw as a more eloquent exposition than he can give.)
But also, Swedenborg says, to enjoy (or even appreciate) Heaven, one cannot live the life of an ascetic on Earth. If one never gains an appreciation of music in this life, one cannot enjoy the heavenly choirs in the next. To one who has no understanding of beauty on Earth, the Heaven will not seem beautiful either. And so on.
As a side not, when reading a foreign language, one must beware of false cognates. Borges writes that Jesus "ya no predicaba por medio de palabras sino de parábolas," which I read as, "Jesus did not preach with the medium of [mere] words but with parabolas." This startled me, since I thought I would have noticed had Jesus been preaching about parabolas and other geometric figures. A few seconds' consideration, however, led me to realize that in this case "parábolas" were not parabolas, but parables!
Borges speculates on why Swedenborg has had as little influence as he has., and notes that it is part of a "Scandinavian destiny" to have its great accomplishments ignored or forgotten. He notes, for example, that the Vikings discovered America centuries before Columbus, but nothing came of that and it was forgotten. The novel was invented in Iceland with the saga (at least as Borges sees it), but no one remembers that. Borges says that Charles Xii of Sweden is forgotten while conquerors of far smaller empires are not (though my brief investigation of Charles XII does not paint him as an expectionally successful conqueror).
"The Detective Story" ("El cuento policial"): After a brief reference to Edgar Allan Poe as the originator of this genre, Borges interruprs himself to ask whether there is such a thing as genre? Benedetto Croce, in his "Aesthetics", claims not, saying one might as well consider all yellow cups as forming a meaningful subset of cups. However, Borges feels that the notion of genres is useful, but that "literary genres depend, perhaps,less on the texts than on the way in which they are read." This is basically Samuel Delany's definition of science fiction by the way people read it (i.e., the reading protocols). For example, when someone reads the sentence "Her world exploded" in a science fiction novel, they do not look for metaphorical meaning, but assume that he world literally wxploded, The zombies or dragons or meteors are not metaphors, but are real zombies or dragons or meteors.
The effect of this perspective (according to Borges) is that we, as readers of detective stories, are as much an invention of Poe as the detective story itself.
It is interesting that what many people like most about the Shelock Holmes stories is the authentic Victorian (later Edwarian) London ambiance, yet Borges feels that Edgar Allan Poe had to crate a foreign detective rather than one working in (say) New York in order to avoid people asking too many questions about whether this was really how the (New York) police department worked. It is true that Poe was blazing a trail, and by the time Doyle entered the scene, the reader understood what was expected of him in terms of reading protocols.
Borges sees the detective story as an intellectual exercise, and says that while this is maintained in England, it has degenerated in the United States with too much violence, too much blood, and too much sex.
"Time" ("El tiempo"): Heraclitus said that no one can step in the same river twice. Borges notes that this can be interpreted two ways. The more common one is that it is because the river is flowing and changing. Less common is that the consciousness and being of the person is flowing and changing as well.
Time is ubiquitous. Borges quotes Tennyson: "Time is flowing in the middle of the night."
Describing time is daunting. St. Augustine observed, "What is time? If uou do not ask me, I know. If you ask me, I o not know."
He quotes Nicolas Boileau as writing (presumably in French), "El tiempo pasa en el momento en que algo ya está lejos de mí." (I translate this as "Time passes in the moment in which something is already far from me," but that cannot be right!)
"The present moment is made up of a little bit of the past and a little bit of the future."
Two theories of time: it is like a river, flowing from the past to the present, or that it is indeed the reverse, with the future moving "backward" to become the present, and then the past. That everyone accepts the image that the future is moving backward, even when I am describing a philosophy in which that is the direction of flow, indicates (to me, anyway) that we tend to feel the first interpretation instinctively. (I will note in passing that while in English we talking about the past being behind us and the future before us, in some other languages, it is the reverse, based on the quite rational argument that since we know the past, it must be in front of us where we can see it.)
He discusses the proof that the cardinality of the even numbers is equal to the cardinality of all the integers, but then later in referring back to this, talks about the even integers and the odd integers having the same cardinality. I think most people would agree with the latter even if they find the former hard to believe.
In 1985, Hyspámerica began publishing a collection of a hundred "indispensible" literary works chosen by Borges. He wrote only seventy-four prologues before he died in 1986; these form the volume Personal Library, Prologues (ISBN 978-8-4206-3209-4) which I read in the omnibus Miscelanea.
As with earlier reviews of compendiums (compendia?) of Borges's works, I will comment only on items of particular interest. (I will give the titles of the articles in English, even though they are in Spanish in the book.)
Prologue to Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt, Hedda Gabler": Borges actually begins by discussing "A Doll's House", saying that now (1987, when he wrote this), the idea of a woman having her own life is commonplace, but in 1879 it was "a scandal." Indeed, for its London performances, Ibsen was forced to add another scene at the end where Nora returns to her husband and children, and in Paris he had to ad a lover so that Parisians could have a reason they understood for why she was leaving.
Prologue to Edward Kasner & James Newman's "Mathematics and Imagination": It is only fitting that Borges write a prologue to this, given how mathematical his work is; just consider the number of books and papers written on the mathematical aspects of it. He starts be observing that an immortal locked in a prison with a lifetime sentence, could discover all of algebra, all of geometry, and indeed pretty much all of mathematics. It is not an experimental science.
He then goes on to describe how points form lines, lines form planes, planes form solids, and solids form hypersolids. Of hyperspheres and hypercubes, he says, "It is not known if they exist, but their laws are known to us." (It sounds less repetitive on Spanish, since he uses two different verbs, saber and conocer, but I cannot come up with a better translation.)
Borges particularly recommends the "strange/alien illustrations," for example, of the Moebius strip, which can be constructed from a strip of paper and is "an incredible surface of only one side."
Prologue to Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno"; "Billy Budd"; "Bartleby, the Scrivener": Borges's prologue is mostly about Melville's life and "Moby Dick", with only a brief paragraph on each of these works. He sees "Bartleby" as a precursor of the works of Franz Kafka, and "Billy Budd" as the story of the conflict between justice and the law. (Why in English is it always the full title "Bartleby, the Scrivener", but rarely the full title "Billy Budd, Foretopman"?)
Of "Benito Cereno", he writes: "'Benito Cereno' continues to generate argument. There are those who judge it the masterpiece of Melville and one of the masterpieces of literature. There are those who consider it a mistake or a series of mistakes. There are those who suggest that Herman Melville set himself to write a text deliberately inexplicable that would be a cabalistic symbol of this world, also inexplicable."
Prologue to Arthur Machen's "The Three Imposters": Borges makes what seemed an astounding claim: that during World War I, Arthur Machen invented the legend of the Angels of Mons. Well, it seems to be true. Machen wrote "The Bowmen" as a propaganda story for the "Evening News" (29 Sept 1914). When occult magazines and even supposed eye-witnesses spread the story, Machen tried to explain it was fiction, but was not believed. Many have said that thought the "One Step Beyond" episode "The Vision" was inspired by this legend, especially since no one has ever found any documentation for the incident in "The Vision", which was pinned to a specific date and time, (John Kenneth Muir, author of "An Analytical Guide to Television's 'One Step Beyond'", states, "Though [this episode] must be based on an account that writer Larry Marcus unearthed in his research, that account has not been located, and the author was unable to secure an interview with Mr. Marcus for further information." Why he is so sure that there was an account and not that Marcus made it up either from Machen's story or out of whole cloth is not clear.)
And Machen's "The Three Imposters" seems to have been named after a famous book titled "De tribus impostoribus" which was supposedly written in the twelfth century. The "three impostors" were allegedly Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but as you might have guessed by my adverbs, the book was entirely fictional. However, it generated a lot of fuss for hundreds of years as rulers and clerics tried to locate it and destroy it.
Prologue to "Song of Songs", "Exposition of the Book of Job": Of "Job", Borges writes, "We hope to find rationality, but rationality, characteristic of the Greeks, is foreign to the Semitic soul and the work limits itself to offering splendid metaphors. ... Max Brod, in "Paganism, Judaism, and Christianity", has analyzed [God's speech from the whirlwind]. The world is ruled by an enigma."
Prologue to Thorsten Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class": Borges writes that when he first read "Theory of the Idle Class", he thought it was a satire. One reason may have been Veblen's tendency to go overboard: while living in certain neighborhoods and owning certain artworks may be valid examples of conspicuous consumption, he also "erroneously affirms that the reason for the study of Latin and Greek is because of the fact that both are useless." And if an executive doesn't have time to conspicuously consume, his wife and children must do it for him. (If this doesn't sound like the source for Frederik Pohl's "The Midas Plague", I don't know what does.)
Then Borges claims that in Argentina, this notion of the leisure class is taken very seriously. Except for monks, everyone in Argentina pretends to be of this class. "Since my youth," Borges writes, "I have known families that spent the hot months hidden in their homes while everyone else believed they had gone to spend the summer on a hypothetical ranch or in the city of Montevideo."
Prologue to Marcel Schwob's "Imaginary Lives": This is apparently a collection of biographies in which the protagonists are real, but the events are unreal, at times even fantastic (in the sense of fantasy, rather than in the sense of spectacular). Borges says this was one of the inspirations for his book "A Universal History of Infamy", but this was not noticed, even by the critics. (Wikipedia mentions it, but also cites this book as a reference, so no one gets credit for discovering it on their own.)
Prologue to Eden Phillpotts's "The Red Redmaynes": Of Phillpotts, Borges writes, "Eden Phillpotts, 'the most English of the English writers", was of evidently Hebrew origin and was born in India. Without denying his ancestry, he was never a professional Jew the way Israel Zangwill was." Clearly what Borges means is that Phillpotts did not write about Jews or Jewish culture, or Jewish settings, but what an odd way to express it.
Prologue to Gustave Meyrink's "The Golem": Alas, Borges does not really say anything new about the Golem here, but I felt I should mention that he included it in his selections.
Prologue to Henry James's "The Lesson of the Master", "The Private Life", and "The Figure in the Carpet": Borges describes Henry James as "the son of the theologian of the same name," which I found confusing (wasn't his brother William James the theologian, or at least the philosopher in the family?), until further comments indicated that William James "was" his brother, and his father must have been a theologian also named Henry, just one that I had never heard of. Borges describes Henry James (the author) as "not ... a creator character; he created deliberately ambiguous and complex situations, capable of indefinite and almost infinite readings."
Prologue to Herodotus's "Histories": Borges writes, "He curiously imagined that the Danube was as the 'antistrofa' of the Nile, corresponding to its inverse." This sent me digging through dictionaries until I found "antistrofa" in the 1572-page "Diccionario manual e ilustrado de la Lengua Española" by the Real Academia Espanola, where it was defined as "in Greek poetry, the second part of a lyric poem composed of a strofa and an antistrofa, or of these two parts and an epode." Well, that was not very helpful. The best I can figure is that Herodotus felt that the Danube somehow "balanced out" or "completed" the Nile, but that is mere guesswork on my part. ("Antistrofos" is Greek for "inverse", if that helps.)
Prologue to Antoine Gallan's translation of "The Thousand and One Nights": Why is it "a thousand and one nights" instead of just a thousand? Borges suggests, "It has been conjectured that the addition was due to a superstitious fear of even numbers; I would rather believe that it was a discovery of an esthetic nature."
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OTHER INQUISITIONS by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/06/2006]
One finds references to Jorge Luis Borges in the oddest places. I was reading the title essay in ADAM'S NAVEL by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN 0-146-00047-1), in which Gould discusses (and refutes) Philip Henry Gosse's OMPHALOS: AN ATTEMPT TO UNTIE THE GEOLOGICAL KNOT. Gosse's theory was that the world had been created by God out of nothing, but that there was a timeline before creation, implied but just as real as that after creation, and that Adam's navel, fossils in stone, and implications of growth and evolution before the time of Creation are all necessary to testify to this pre-Creation timeline. In a postscript, Gould writes that after the essay first appeared, he learned that Borges had written a comment on Gosse in "The Creation and P. H. Gosse" (OTHER INQUISITIONS, ISBN 0-292-76002-7). I find it amusing, if not downright bizarre, that the blurb on the back of OTHER INQUISITIONS from the "Saturday Evening Post" says, ". . . the word that best describes these essays is manly." I have seen many adjectives applied to Borges's writing, but up until now "manly" has not been one of them. ADAM'S NAVEL is one of those delightful "Penguin 60s" created for the 60th anniversary of Penguin Books.
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THIS CRAFT OF VERSE by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/08/2013]
THIS CRAFT OF VERSE by Jorge Luis Borges (read by Jorge Luis Borges) (ISBN 978-0-674-00587-7) consists of six lectures: "The Riddle of Poetry", "The Metaphor", "The Telling of the Tale", "Word Music and Translation", "Thought and Poetry", and "A Poet's Creed". So when I say that the book was "read" by Borges, that is not quite true, because what I listened to were recordings of the original lectures, which were later transcribed into a book. These lectures were given at Harvard during the 1967-1968 school year, but the tapes were missing or unknown for thirty years before being re-discovered in the archives. I am not generally a fan of audiobooks, but clearly this is an exception, both because the spoken version was the original format, and because it is Borges himself delivering it.
The lectures are full of examples and references, and this is all the more amazing in that by this time Borges was almost entirely blind, so he delivered these lectures (each about forty-five minutes long) with no notes. Thus when in the lectures on metaphors, he goes through dozens of metaphors in a half-dozen different languages, complete with translations and analysis, he is doing it entirely from memory. Two of my favorites were the Anglo-Saxon use of the term "whale-road" for the sea and John Burgon's description of Petra as "the rose-red city, half as old as time." Borges discusses why that is so much more evocative than "the rose-red city, as old as time," and also references use of "the thousand nights and a night" rather than just "the thousand nights."
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stories by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/16/2007]
If science fiction is the literature of ideas, then the quintessential science fictional author is Jorge Luis Borges. This occurred to me when someone cited a short story by Borges, "The Library of Babel", and I realized once more that many of Borges's stories are not really stories, but "merely" ideas or concepts, unfettered by characters or plot. "The Library of Babel", "The Babylon Lottery", "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "Funes the Memorious", ... so many of the "stories" are ideas presented so beautifully as to convince the reader that they are complete in themselves.
SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/28/2006]
Until a short while ago, I was unaware of the existence of SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares (ISBN 0-525-20480-6). I thought I had looked through all the bibliographies and such for Borges, but I suppose that they may not have included books that were co-authored, or they were in a separate section or something. But checking what Borges was available at the library, I ran across this delightful book. These six detective stories feature Don Isidro Parodi and are (not surprisingly, given his name) parodies of classic detective stories. For example, Parodi is frequently referred to as "the prisoner in cell 273", which cannot help but evoke Jacques Futrelle's classic story "The Problem of Cell 13" as well as Baroness Orzy's "Man in the Corner" (who solves mysteries without ever leaving his corner table in the coffee shop). There are references to more Hollywood movies than one can imagine, as well as to such authors as James M. Cain and H. G. Wells. And when one reads, "My brain is a huge refrigerator. The circumstances of the death of Julia Ruis Villalba--Pumita to her peers--live on in this gray vessel, untainted," one cannot help but think of Hercules Poirot and his habit of referring to his brain as "the little grey cells." Even some of the plots copy classic stories; one seems heavily modeled after a Sherlock Holmes story.
(Borges's co-authored books include SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI, CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ, EXTRAORDINARY TALES, and NEW CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ (all with Adolfo Bioy-Casares); AN INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN LITERATURE (with Esther Zemborain de Torres), THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS (with Marguerita Guerrero) and ATLAS (with Maria Kodama). ATLAS, AN INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN LITERATURE, and THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS are non-fiction. "The Immortals" ("Los inmortales") from THE ALEPH AND OTHER STORIES 1933-1969 is from CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ. I mention this because it is not included in Borges's "complete" COLLECTED FICTIONS, which omits all co-authored works.)
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JORGE LUIS BORGES: THE LAST INTERVIEW AND OTHER CONVERSATIONS by Richard Burgin:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/08/2013]
In JORGE LUIS BORGES: THE LAST INTERVIEW AND OTHER CONVERSATIONS (ISBN 978-1-61219-204-8), there is an interesting exchange between Borges and Richard Burgin. Borges is talking about an anthology that appeared in Argentina in which six writers each chose the best story they knew, and he said, "[One] took, I don't know why, a very disagreeable and rather bogus story by Lovecraft. Have you read Lovecraft?" And to Burgin's negative response, he said, "Well, no reason why you should." Given how many parallels and borrowings from Lovecraft that Borges made, as were pointed out in the book I reviewed last week, BORGES Y LA CIENCIA FICCION, this seems a rather surprising statement.
And in his prologue to the Argentinean edition of Ray Bradbury's THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, Borges writes, ""Bradbury is heir to the vast imagination of the master [Edgar Allan Poe], but not of his 'interjective' and at times dreadful style. Deplorably, we cannot say the same of Lovecraft." For someone who copied Lovecraft as much as Abraham indicates, these seem odd sentiments.
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EL SEÑOR BORGES by Epifania Uveda de Robledo:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/22/2014]
EL SEÑOR BORGES by Epifania Uveda de Robledo as told to Alejandro Vaccaro (ISBN 978-950-9009-09-7) proves that I am a true Borges junkie: it consists of the recollections of Borges's housekeeper. In Spanish. And reading Vaccaro's introduction, I am struck by how Borges could elaborate complex puzzles and paradoxes with very simple language. I rarely need to consult a dictionary when reading him. Vaccaro, on the other hand, will give me a nine-word clause with four words requiring me to look them up (and the only other substantive word was the word "invisible").
Of course, one reason for needing the dictionary is that Vaccaro uses words that are uniquely Spanish. For example, he refers to "tres lustros"--three "lustros"--but what is a "lustro"? It turns out that a "lustro" is a period of five years. (I needed the Academia Real Spanish dictionary for this.) Later the word "quincena" appears ("la segunda quicena"). One of my dictionaries translates this as "fortnight", but a more accurate translation is "fifteen days", or in this context, "the second half of the month". There are parallels in other languages, especially for such things as units of measure; for example, in Hindi we have the lakh (100,000) and the crore (10,000,000) instead of the thousand and the million.
Borges, on the other hand, always looks for the simplest words, both in Spanish and in the English translations. As Borman Thomas di Giovanni writes, "We agree that words having Anglo-Saxon roots are preferable to words of Latin origin--or, to put it another way, that the first English word suggested by the Spanish should usually be avoided (for instance, for 'solitario,' not 'solitary' but 'lonely'; for 'rigido,' not "rigid" but "stiff"; or, taking an illustration Borges likes to use, not 'obscure habitation" but 'dark room')." ["At Work with Borges" in THE CARDINAL POINTS OF BORGES]
Borges himself once said, "I do not believe that the entire dictionary is fit for literary treatment. We can take (for example) three words: 'azulado', 'azulino' and 'azuloso', [all meaning 'bluish']. I believe that 'azulado' can be used in writing because it is in our oral usage. 'Azulino' and 'azuloso'. on the other hand, are words that are in the dictionary, but not in our mouths. Thus it is better not to use 'azulino' or 'azuloso', stumbling blocks to the reader and small surprises that the writer gives.") [pages 155-156, BORGES ANTE EL ESPEJO] In "The Aleph" he writes, "[Danieri] had revised them following his pet principle of verbal ostentation: where at first 'blue' had been good enough, he now wallowed in 'azures', 'ceruleans', and 'ultramarines'. The word 'milky' was too easy for him; in the course of an impassioned description of a shed where wool was washed, he chose such words as 'lacteal', 'lactescent'' and even made one up--'lactinacious'."
Now it's true that English has many words for "bluish"--azure, cerulean, aquamarine, periwinkle, navy, and so on. But they are not as similar as 'azulado', 'azulino' and 'azuloso'. Those do seem redundant, as if Spanish had decided it needed more words and so made minor modifications to the ones it already had.
However, ultimately this book is for the true Borges junkie, since most of what we learn from it is on the level of the fact that he used to sleep in a nightshirt until he married Elsa Astete Millan in 1967. She insisted he switch to pajamas, and even after they divorced he continued to sleep in pajamas instead of a nightshirt. And while he had been a sharp dresser before his marriage (according to Epifania), after the marriage Else bought him pre-tied ties and used suits! Now to mention that he had a falling-out with a nephew over a post-dated check the nephew wrote on a joint account--not exactly the most exciting revelations.
[And Eduardo Rey, who designed the cover and apparently was the one who decided that white letters on an orange background was a good combination for the back cover and French flaps should be forced to read all his documents that way for a week!] To order El Señor Borges from amazon.com, click here.
BORGES: A LIFE by Edwin Williamson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/08/2008]
BORGES: A LIFE by Edwin Williamson (ISBN-13 978-0-143-03556-5, ISBN-10 0-143-03556-8) is a very thorough biography of the life of Jorge Luis Borges--so thorough down to precise addresses that one could easily create a tour of Buenos Aires (and Geneva and Madrid), visiting all the houses where he lived, cafes where he ate, and so on. Beyond providing the minutiae of daily life, it also covers Borges's literary influences, contacts, and so on.
It also refreshed my memory on the word "tertulia", which I had first encountered in the film BUNUEL AND KING SOLOMON'S TABLE, but could not bring to mind. A "tertulia" is a group of friends who meet regularly at a cafe for discussions, and it struck me as an excellent term for the group that my father is in that meets twice a week at McDonald's. They have been meeting there for over twenty years. It used to be every day, but they cut back over the last few years. Borges's tertulia in Madrid did not last anywhere near that long, but almost definitely had a greater literary effect.
Borges wrote of learning Anglo-Saxon that it afforded him. "The pure contemplation of a language at its dawn" ["Al iniciar el estudio de la gramatica anglosajona"]. It's an understandable reaction, but there is something wrong with it. Assume that he was studying Anglo-Saxon from the ninth century. The problem is that in the ninth century they were not sitting around saying, "We're starting a new language here." Whatever state the language was in, it was in a continuum from what people were speaking in the eighth century and what people were speaking in the tenth century. Saying that this was a "language at its dawn" is really putting the perception of people a millennium later on the situation.
I was sure that I had remembered that Borges's first appearance in English was in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, but it was actually in FANTASTIC UNIVERSE--"The Rejected Sorcerer" appeared in the March 1960 issue of that magazine. This was not mentioned at all by Williamson.
And at times I think Williamson may be reading too much into Borges:
"Borges drew attention to the name of the protagonist: 'Emma with two m's and Zunz with two z's, I was trying to get an ugly and at the same time a colorless name... [T]he name seems so meaningless, so insignificant.' And yet, as he would have known, the name is so heavily charge with meaning that it reverberates like a magic charm. Emma is an abbreviated form of he father's name, Emmanuel, which in Hebrew signifies the 'savior.' Beginning and ending in vowels, Emma has an open, expansive quality, but Zumz is a thoroughly inverted word--the internal u and n are inverted mirror images of each other, and they are further boxed in by the two z's, which themselves are shaped like capital N's turned on their side. It is as if the fullness of Emmanuelle had been truncated to Emma by its juxtaposition with Zunz, and in that conjunction of a and z we again come across introversion--the a, which is the last letter of Emma, is also the first letter of the alphabet, but it is blocked by the letter z, which is the initial letter of Zunz, while being, of course, the final letter of the alphabet. The overall effect is of a confusion of beginnings and endings, of openings and closures, from which there is no issue other than in the blank space in the middle that divides one name from the other. In purely graphic terms, the name Emma Zunz functions as an ideogram of the kind of solipsistic labyrinth in which Borges imagined himself to be trapped, for all the ements end up turning in on themselves, pointing to nothing but reflections or distortions of each other, so that if there is a promise of salvation in the first name emma, the second, Zunz, stops it dead."
My one complaint about Williamson's book is that the proof-reading has some slips, including consistently giving Poe's name as "Edgar Allen Poe".
(Williamson's BORGES: A LIFE should not be confused with James Woodall's BORGES: A LIFE. Whatever possessed Williamson, whose last name also starts with a 'W', to choose the precise same title as Woodall, it must have been some Borgesian paradox.)
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JORGE LUIS BORGES by Jason Wilson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/22/2013]
JORGE LUIS BORGES by Jason Wilson (ISBN 978-1-86189-286-7) is in Reaktion's "Critical Lives" series, and combines a short biography with an analysis of how the events in Borges's life affected his thinking and writing. For example, Wilson says that Borges's friendship with Macedonio Fernandez "taught him to read [and presumably to write] skeptically." Wilson also points out how in his stories and poems Borges makes references and allusions to real people in his life, sometimes just by name, sometimes more in the manner of a roman a clef. My main complaint is that the book has no index.
In reading Wilson's comments about "Funes, the Memorious" it struck me that Funes's memory resembles that of a person with Asperger's, not just in its extent, but in its insistence on specificity: "He was, don't forget, almost incapable of generalities or Platonic ideals. Not only was it difficult for him to understand that the generic term 'dog' covered so many disparate individuals of diverse size and form, it distressed him that the dog of 3:14 PM seen in profile had the same name as the dog of 3:15 PM (seen from the front)." This is close to the situation Temple Grandin describes: she can remember every chair she has seen, but has difficulty with the idea of a "Platonic" chair. However, I do not think this extends to perceiving the dog at 3:14 as a different dog than that at 3:15. In part, this is because there would be the problem that there would be another dog at 3:14:30, and another one at 3:14:15, and indeed, an infinite number of dogs between those two times.
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