Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Borges Month: Literaturas germánicas medievales (1951; revised in 1966, 1966 edition with María Esther Vázquez)
Those who glance at the fiction section of Jorge Luis Borges' bibligraphy might at first conclude that the 1950s was a fallow period for him, as he had no new fictions, prose or poems alike, published in book form during this time (outside, of course, of a few stories that were appendages to earlier editions of his fiction collections). Such a reader might wonder if Borges advancing blindness (he was almost completely blind by 1957) had a major one in curtailing his literary output during this time.
Perhaps these sight issues did have a bit of impact on Borges' writings, but a closer examination reveals that during the 1950s, Borges had an explosion of literary critiques published. As I have stated in prior commentaries on his 1920s and 1930s non-fiction, Borges was a prolific reader and during the time leading up to his appointment as head of the Argentine National Library (which occurred after the fall of his political nemesis, Juan Perón, in 1955), several studies on national literatures were released. The first of these was the 1951 Antiguas literaturas germánicas, co-written with Delia Ingenieros and later revised, with the assistance of María Esther Vásquez as Literaturas germánicas medievales in 1966.
In reading this short synopsis of Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian literatures from the time of Christ up until shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066, I was struck by how much Borges' scholarship reminded me of the early, pre-Ranke historians like Gibbon and Carlyle. This is probably no accident, considering how Borges claimed Carlyle as an influence on him, starting with his youth in Geneva. There are very few sources directly cited in a traditional footnoted fashion. Instead, Borges utilizes allusions to what a few, more recent commentators have stated about the source material, before he begins telling stories covering issues such as the presence of Christian symbolism in the preserved Beowulf or the structure of the Icelandic sagas.
Although there were times that I wished there would have been some direct citation presented, this was more than made up for by just how easy it was to read Borges' descriptions of the texts, broken down into Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian chapters, as it felt more like reading the transcript of a lecture than anything else. Considering the vision problems he was having then, it is perhaps quite likely that these chapters started off as being edited transcripts of the lectures that he would sometimes give on Germanic literature. Regardless of the genesis of this narrative approach, the result is that this collection reads well, with many topics to interest readers who want to know more about medieval Germanic literature.