The OF Blog: Borges Month: Crónicas de Bustos Domecq (1967, with Adolfo Bioy Casares), Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos (1975)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Borges Month: Crónicas de Bustos Domecq (1967, with Adolfo Bioy Casares), Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos (1975)

Toward the end of his career as a critic, eyesight virtually gone, Borges had two interesting collections come out eight years apart.  The first, Crónicas de Bustos Domecq, is the first book-length collaboration he had done with Adolfo Bioy Casares in several years, while the second, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos, collects all of the forewords that Borges had written for publications, either of local writers or for translations that he or others had done of foreign authors.  Each are interesting in their own right.

In previous Borges Month posts, I had noted that for the most part, Borges collaborations with Bioy Casares were inferior to the work that either author produced independently.  Part of that doubtless was due to the relatively non-serious "let's see what we can produce here" mindset behind the stories, but part of it I believe was due to Borges' and Bioy Casares' strengths rarely meshing well, while each author's weaknesses were magnified.  Yet in Crónicas de Bustos Domecq, the two have managed to create a collection that is far superior to their efforts in the 1940s.

Part of the reason why I think this collection worked is that the entire premise revolves around writing absurdly pompous fake literary critiques and articles.  Both Borges and Bioy Casares have a wicked, mischievous sense of humor (this is really evident in the edited Bioy Casares diary entries regarding Borges, called simply Borges) and these short literary forgeries read as hilarious extensions of their sometimes brutal send-ups of other, real Argentine literary critics.  There is nothing particularly deep about these fake articles, but as amusing diversions, they succeed admirably at their task.

A far more serious work is Borges' 1975 collection of his forewards, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos. Here can be found almost forty forewards that Borges had written over a forty or so year frame.  Some of the entries, such as the ones that his secretaries had to transcribe in the 1960s, are rather brief.  Others, such as the one he composed for José Fernández's Martín Fierro (which he may have condensed from his earlier critical study, since this foreword wasn't published until 1968), are nearly the length of his longest fictions.  For the majority of these short critical appreciations, Borges lays out what he sees as the author in question's reasons for writing the story at hand, the mechanics of such stories, and how such stories relate to other fictions.  One example of this that I translated a few days ago is the foreword he wrote for the Spanish translation of Lewis Carroll's works:

In the second chapter of his book Symbolic Logic (1892), C.L Dodgson, whose everlasting name is Lewis Carroll, wrote that the universe consists of things which can be ordered by classes and that one of these is the class of the impossible. He gave as an example the class of things which weigh more than a ton and that a boy is able to levitate. If they don't exist, if they were not part of our happiness, we would say that the books of Alice correspond to this category. In effect, how to conceive a work that is not less delightful and inviting than The Arabian Nights and that is likewise a plot of paradoxes of logical and metaphysical order? Alice dreams of the Red King, who is dreaming of her, and someone warns her that if the King awakens, she will go out like a candle, because she is no more than a dream of the King that she is dreaming. In regard to this reciprocal dream that well could have no end, Martin Gardner recalls a certain fat woman, who painted a thin female painter, who painted a fat female painter that painted a thin female painter, and so on to infinity.

English literature and dreams protect an ancient friendship; the Venerable Bede mentions that the first English poet whose name we know, Caedmon, composed his first poem in a dream; a triple dream of words, architecture and music, dictated to Coleridge the admirable fragment of "Kubla Khan"; Stevenson declares that he dreamed the transformation of Jekyl into Hyde and the central scene of Olalla. In the examples that I have cited, dream is the inventor of poetry; innumerable are the cases of dream as the theme and among the most illustrious are the books that Lewis Carroll has left us. Continuously the two dreams of Alice border on nightmare. Tenniel's illustrations (which now are inherent to the work and which did not please Carroll) accentuate the always rising threat. At first sight or in memory the adventures seem arbitrary and almost irresponsible; then we confirm that they enclose the rigid secret of chess and a deck of cards, which likewise are adventures of the imagination. Dodgson, it is known, was a mathematics professor at Oxford University; the logical-mathematical paradoxes which the work places before us does not impede that this be magic for children. In the background of dreams lies in wait a resigned and smiling melancholy; Alice's loneliness among her monsters reflects that of the unmarried man that wove the unforgettable fable. The loneliness of the man that never knew love and who had no other friends but some young girls that time was robbing him of, no other pleasure than photography, then scorned. To it we ought to attach, of course, the abstract speculations and invention and execution of a personal mythology, that now luckily is of everything. Another zone remains, which my incapacity does not surmise and the experts disdain: that of the "pillow problems" which schemed to crowd the nights with insomnia and in order to distance himself, he confesses to us, bad thoughts. The poor White Rabbit, artifice of unusable things, is a deliberate self-portrait and a projection, perhaps involuntary, of that other provincial lord, who tried to be sir Don Quixote.

The somewhat perverse genius of William Faulkner has taught current writers to play with time. It's enough for me to make mention of the ingenious dramatic pieces of Priestley. Already Carroll had written that the unicorn revealed to Alice the correct modus operandis in order to serve the raisin pudding to the guests: first it is shared and then it is cut. The White Queen gives a brusque cry because she knows that she is going to prick a finger, which will bleed before the puncture. Likewise he recalls with precision the deeds of the week to come. The Messenger is in jail before being judged for the offense which he will commit after the judge's sentence. To reversible time is added delayed time. In the house of the Crazy Hat it is always five in the afternoon; it is tea time and the cups are drained and filled to the brim.

Through entries such as this, the reader can gain greater insight into not just these authors, but also in how Borges the Reader viewed these works, several of which have been classics.  It is for this reason that this collection is of value to me.  There will be a second, similar collection discussed later, one that was published posthumously and which contains new forewords, but this book is the first that the reader ought to consult when seeing what Borges had to say in foreword context about other authors and their works.

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