The OF Blog: Borges Month: Inquisiciones (1925)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Borges Month: Inquisiciones (1925)

By the time he was 25 years old, Borges had already become a sort of minor literary celebrity in his native Argentina.  His first poetry collection, Fervor de Buenos Aires, had received some positive reviews, perhaps due to the rather unique ways that Borges and his friends distributed it (sticking it in editors' coat pockets, passing some copies out for free, the sort of promotional decisions one can do when one's father paid for the entire print run of 300 copies).  Borges began contributing essays and reviews for the publications of the time, including Martín Fierro and Proa, who published his first collection of non-fiction, Inquisiciones, in 1925.

There is this image many readers have of Borges:  weathered, blind, leaning on a cane while he dictates some of the most erudite commentaries on books, when he's not composing in his head marvelous fictions.  Put that out of your head now.  Imagine a 25 year-old neophyte writing about 17th century Spanish poets, then casually switching to writing about the philosophical underpinnings of George Berkeley or Sir Thomas Browne.  Considering that some hold the oft-erroneous belief that a youth/young adult cannot have the "experience" and "maturation" necessary to contemplate such "weighty" matters, the fact that Borges in his early and mid-20s was able to speak at length and with penetrating analysis on these subjects is perhaps all the more remarkable when considered from the vantage point of his contemporaries rather than a quarter-century after his death.

This is not to say that Inquisiciones was a perfect, fully-formed Borgesian literary critique/essay collection.  There are some gaps in his coverage, gaps that he did later fill in with books released in his 50s and 60s.  There perhaps are places where Borges waxes poetic a bit too much for some readers' liking.  But these complaints can be made about virtually any essay/review collection ever published.  What I found within this short book (178 pages in my Alianza Editorial edition) were far more gems than duds.  Below I want to highlight a few of the many interesting essays and reviews that I read.

One of the first things that struck me about several of Borges' essays is the use of a more florid style to introduce his topics.  Take for instance the opening to his essay "La traducción de un incidente":

La amistad une; también el odio sabe juntar.  Dos nombres hermanados por una fraternidad belicosa como de espadas que en ardimiento de contienda se cruzan son los de Gómez de la Serna y Rafael Cansinos Asséns.

Friendship unites; hatred also joins.  Two brethren names through a bellicose fraternity like swords which in ardent restraint cross are those of Gómez de la Serna and Rafael Cansinos Asséns.
Yet despite this being a bit too florid for my personal tastes, I have to admit that such an introductory sentence drew me in to reading what turned out to be a fine essay on those two Spanish writers and a host of other issues.  Borges later has an interesting thing to say about these two writers and their writings:

Antes, quiero adelantar una salvedad.  No es intención de estos renglones el comparar, en menoscabo de cualquiera de ellos, las personalidades verdaderas de los dos escritores.  Son dos países muy distintos y enmarañados que distan un incaminado trecho el uno del otro, tan bravamente incomparables como lo pueden ser, por ejemplo, la perfección de dejadez y huraño vivir que en todo arrabal porteño me agrada y la nerviosa perfección de codicia que alborota las calles céntricas.

Before, I want to make an exception.  It is not the intent of these lines to compare, in diminishing any of them, the true personalities of the two writers.  They are two very distinct and entangled countries that are an unfathomable distance from one another, so wildly incomparable as they are able to, for example, like the perfection of carelessness and unsociable living that in all the outskirts of Buenos Aires it pleases me and the nervious perfection of greed which excites the central streets.
Yes, young Jorge Luis Borges sometimes got a bit carried away with his metaphors and his comparisons of two renowned writers.  But despite these excesses, his analysis at times could be quite direct and penetrating.  One example of this is found in his review of James Joyce's Ulysses.  Published in France in 1923 due to strict obscenity laws in Great Britain and the United States, Ulysses was not readily available during the 1920s, a fact Borges alludes to in his introduction, when he says "soy el primer aventurero hispánico que ha arribado al libro de Joyce (I am the first Hispanic adventurer who has managed [to get] Joyce's book)."  In his fairly positive appraisal of the book, Borges first compares it to other works by Irish writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, writers whose works rocked the English literary establishment.  This was not something that I recalled encountering in previous studies of Joyce, yet in reflecting upon what Borges wrote here, it does make quite a bit of sense.  And then there is Borges' note of the time issues in the novel:

Si Shakespeare - según su propia metáfora - puso en la vuelta de un reloj de arena las proezas de los años, Joyce invierte el procedimiento y despliega la única jornada de su héroe sobre muchas jornadas de lector (No he dicho muchas siestas).

If Shakespeare - according to his own metaphor - covered in the turn of an hourglass the feats of years, Joyce inverts the procedure and unfolds the single day of his hero over many days of reading (I did not say many siestas).
This point about the inversion of time in Joyce's most famous works presages much of the latter commentary that followed in the decades after the book finally was allowed to be sold in the UK and US, years after Borges had managed to snag one of the copies printed in France.  Here, Borges is not as baroque in his expressions.  He is more concise, yet probing to find connections between Joyce's works and those of other writers with whom Joyce may have shared some similarities in theme and approach.  It is a style that he later improved upon in his latter essays.

So the young Borges of Inquisiciones already displays several of the traits associated with the elder Borges - an eye for developing mood with vivid introductions, combined with an ability to connect a piece being considered with those of other writers.  It is not his strongest collection, yet it is an impressive first effort worthy of being read and re-read several times in the years to come.

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