The OF Blog: July 2010

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Borges Month: Siete noches (1977), Nueve ensayos dantescos (1982), La memoria de Shakespare (1983), Atlas (1984), Prólogas de La Bibloteca de Babel (posthumous), Biblioteca Personal (posthumous)

In this brief essay, I want to touch upon Borges' final non-poetry releases during the last nine years of his life, as well as note two in-progress series of forewords he was writing for Argentine and Italian publishers that were collected posthumous, sometime around 1988-1989.  It is a remarkable amount produced by a man who was in his late 70s and early 80s during this time period between 1977 and his death on June 14, 1986.

Back in 2007, I had written a short review of Borges' final collection of short fiction, La memoria de Shakespeare.  Below is what I said about it at the time:

I just finished reading the last-written collection of short stories that Jorge Luis Borges wrote before his 1986, collected as La memoria de Shakespeare (Shakespeare's Memory in English translation, contained within Andrew Hurley's omnibus translation, Collected Fictions). Written around 1983, there are only four stories contained within, but I feel that some, if not all of them, ought to be talked about in much the same fashion as his earlier stories from Ficciónes or The Aleph are discussed.

Before I did the virtual version of sitting down to write this review (having already had my tookus in park for a while), I scoured the web for reviews of Shakespeare's Memory. They were scant, perhaps in part because at first they were only available within the omnibus Collected Fictions. Perhaps it's because many reviewers are drawn to the first sparkles of creative light and are not willing to reflect upon the last refractions cast before the life's sun sets eternally. Whatever the reason, I want to devote some words to two of the four stories contained within, "Blue Tigers" and the eponymous story of "Shakespeare's Memory."

"Blue Tigers" is that of searching too far, of having the miraculous given unto you, in the guise of stones that multiply or disappear at will. It is a story that can be viewed as a reflection upon the Almighty and all of His names, or perhaps of our attempts to make order out of things beyond our ken. It was for me a cautionary tale, with multiple possibilities, but also rather straightforward in its storytelling and language. It is not another Tlön, nor did it need to be - it was its own story, possessing a unity of voice and style that did not hearken back to an earlier tale, but instead felt more as if it were written by a more world-wise and weary Borges, one who wasn't content with asking simply "What if?" but rather "Why this, perhaps?"

"Shakespeare's Memory" is one of the better tales that Borges has written. It is a reflection of how the Bard has had an influence on how we have perceived people and motives, but also a musing on how impossible it is to contain that dead man's "memory" within that of the living, vibrant souls, regardless of how "inferior" of a talent that person might possess in comparison. It is also a tale of personality conflation, of a confused jumble of images, emotions, and loves. It is a memory to be passed on rather than kept for oneself. It is, perhaps, a personification of the transmission of literature and ideas and how they are altered and transmuted by each person in line from the past to the now-present towards the future.

These two stories, along with "August 25, 1983" and "The Rose of Paracelsus," represent a Borges that still was continuing to probe questions about Self and Others, among other things. He just wasn't being as whimsical about it as he might have been earlier in his writing career. It would be a grievous oversight for people to neglect his latter fictional works in favor of the earlier work. One would miss out on the maturation process that took place through the various experimental stages that made up the last 50 years of his life. Borges was not a static stylist; his pieces have their own tunes. We just only have to open ourselves enough to consider that the old dog still had tricks to show us that he hadn't done before his last years and not judge the new act by the memories of before, lest it all become jumbled and hazy in our minds. 

Three years later, there is very little I would change to it, except maybe the wording slightly.   It is still a fine collection, but lamentably short at only four stories.  A year later, in 1984, Borges' final non-poetry collection (although that is not exactly true, as a few of his earlier poems were reprinted here or later in 1985's Los conjurados), Atlas, was released.  It is a very short, photography-filled collection of Borges' thoughts on travels, life, tigers, mysteries, and various mystical aspects associated with his travels in the late 1970s and 1980s with his future second wife, María Kodama.  It is a very minor piece, but one that perhaps might be of interest to Borgesian scholars and fans.

There were two related critical studies released during this time period.  The first, Siete noches (1977), is the transcription of seven nights of lectures that Borges gave in Argentina in front of packed audiences.  The first night dealt with Borges' appreciation for Dante's The Divine Comedy, a topic he explored in more depth in his 1982 book, Nueve ensayos dantescos.  In this lecture, Borges combines some scholarly rigor (he is familiar with certain interpretations of the texts, but he is not providing footnote-heavy commentary here) with a fan's passion, creating a fascinating look into Borges' thoughts not just on Dantes, but also, in the succeeding six nights, on the following:  nightmares, The Arabian Nights, Buddhism (which he first covered in 1976's Qué es el budismo), poetry, the Cabala, and finally, blindness.  Below is a clip I've posted before of the first part of his lecture on blindness:

These are the last of Borges' works that he managed to finish in his lifetime.  At the time of his death, he was working on two projects simultaneously for Argentine and Italian publishers, where he would select lists of favorite authors and write forewords for limited-edition works that would bear Borges' name along with the original authors.  These books, Prólogos de La Biblioteca de Babel (the Italian) and Biblioteca Personal (the Argentine), were created from collecting what forewords Borges had managed to complete before his death in Geneva from liver cancer.  They are interesting only as sources of how Borges viewed other authors; there are overlaps of authors in the two, but no duplicate essays between the two.

And with this, I have commented at least a little bit on every Borges-penned work that I own.  There are a few that I have not yet bought.  Perhaps in the near future, I'll comment on those.  Sometime in August (not tomorrow!), I do plan on writing three more Borges-related posts.  The first will be a review of three memoirs/diaries that three friends of his wrote after his death (Adolfo Bioy Casares, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, María Esther Vásquez), the second a short commentary on Carlos Abraham's book on Borges' connections with SF, and the final essay will be a summation of what I have learned about Borges.  Hopefully, these will be done by the 111th anniversary of Borges' birth, August 24.

It certainly has been fun and hopefully these three related posts will be of interest to people who have read these posts and who perhaps have learned a bit more about Jorge Luis Borges.

Third time's the charm? One more Basil Marceaux video for the weekend

The election is Thursday, thank God. Don't know if I can take any more of this political goodness...

Friday, July 30, 2010

Borges Month: La Moneda de Hierro (1976), Historia de la Noche (1977), La Cifra (1981), Los Conjurados (1985)

Over the past nine years of his life, Borges produced four final poetry collections:  La Moneda de Hierro (1976), Historia de la Noche (1977), La Cifra (1981), and Los Conjurados (1985), which was also his last original publication of any sort before his death in Geneva on June 14, 1986.  These four collections differ very little from comments that I have made on Borges' late-period poetry.  Many of the same themes, of mirrors, of tigers, of a weary endurance of life, these all reappear in some form or fashion in his poems found in these four collections.  The quality is roughly the same as in the past few collections that I have blogged about.  There are very few subpar poems and several that linger on long after I have finished them.

But enough of the waxing eloquent about general matters.  Here are a few of the poems that I found to be of interest that are found in at least one of these four collections:  No translations, because I'm a bit exhausted, plus I'd rather people focus on the cadence of these poems and not depend so much on my translations:

"La Moneda de Hierro"

Aquí está la moneda de hierro. Interroguemos
las dos contrarias caras que serán la respuesta
de la terca demanda que nadie no se ha hecho:
¿Por qué precisa un hombre que una mujer lo quiera?

Miremos. En el orbe superior se entretejan
el firmamento cuádruple que sostiene el diluvio
y las inalterables estrellas planetarias.
Adán, el joven padre, y el joven Paraíso.

La tarde y la mañana. Dios en cada criatura.
En ese laberinto puro está tu reflejo.
Arrojemos de nuevo la moneda de hierro
que es también un espejo magnífico. Su reverso
es nadie y nada y sombra y ceguera. Eso eres.
De hierro las dos caras labran un solo eco.
Tus manos y tu lengua son testigos infieles.
Dios es el inasible centro de la sortija.
No exalta ni condena. Obra mejor: olvida.
Maculado de infamia ¿por qué no han de quererte?
En la sombra del otro buscamos nuestra sombra;
en el cristal del otro, nuestro cristal recíproco.

Soy el único hombre en la tierra y acaso no hay tierra ni hombre.
Acaso un dios me engaña.
Acaso un dios me ha condenado al tiempo, esa larga ilusión.
Sueño la luna y sueño mis ojos que perciben la luna.
He soñado a Cartago y a las legiones que desolaron a Cartago.
He soñado a Virgilio.
He soñado la colina del Gólgota y las cruces de Roma.
He soñado la geometría.
He soñado el punto, la línea, el plano y el volumen.
He soñado el amarillo, el azul y el rojo.
He soñado mi enfermiza niñez.
He soñado los mapas y los reinos y aquel duelo en el alba.
He soñado el inconcebible dolor.
He soñado mi espada.
He soñado a Elisabeth de Bohemia.
He soñado la duda y la certidumbre.
He soñado el día de ayer.
Quizá no tuve ayer, quizá no he nacido.
Acaso sueño haber soñado.
Siento un poco de frío, un poco de miedo.
Sobre el Danubio está la noche.
Seguiré soñando a Descartes y a la fe de sus padres.

"Posesión del ayer"

Sé que he perdido tantas cosas que no podria contarlas     
y que esas perdiciones, ahora, son lo que es mío. Sé que     
he perdido el amarillo y el negro y pienso en esos     
imposibles colores como no piensan los que ven. Mi padre 
ha muerto y está siempre a mi lado. Cuando quiero escandir     
versos de Swinburne, lo hago, me dicen, con su voz. Sólo el     
que ha muerto es nuestro, sólo es nuestro lo que perdimos.    
Ilión fue, pero Ilión perdura en el hexámetro que la plañe.    
Israel fue cuando era una antigua nostalgia. Todo poema,    
con el tiempo, es una elegía. Nuestras son las muejeres que     
nos dejaron , ya no sujeto a la víspera, que es zozobra, y a     
las alarmas y terrores de la esperanza. No hay otros paraísos     
que los paraísos perdidos. 
There are indeed no other paradises than lost paradises.  This is one I'll contemplate for a while, I believe. 

Errata and disjecta membra from my recent essays

One of the problems that occurs when one composes a quick essay draft and posts it online is that there are going to be several errors, both of the typological and argumentative natures.  Those errors, of course, are the writer's fault, and most everyone pointing these out in my previous essays on "There are no sacred cows...," "There are few "great books" but fewer "great" readers," and "Reading a book as opposed to consuming a book" have been gracious in pointing out areas where my comparisons seem to ring hollow or where I could have gone a bit further.  In addition, there were a few points that I deleted from these essays because of the length of the essays and how I felt these points perhaps could be made separately.  So here is a post that will not be a full, formal essay, but instead a printing of corrections and previously-rejected material.

In my second essay, I had put forth the notion of there being a sort of idealized "great reader," one that spent some time grappling with the textual meanings to wrest some sort of understanding from it.  I noted that such an idealized reader probably does not exist at all due to the internal and external pressures put upon us that detract us from this noble purpose.  In my third essay, posted yesterday, I alluded to this second essay, but I left it vague, because I thought it would be interesting to explore how actual readers, as opposed to the idealized "great readers" and "book consumers," can shift and move between various levels of reading intensity.  I do not think I have the time today that I thought I had yesterday for doing this, so I'll just suggest that people re-read the second and third essays and then judge for themselves how much, if any, the descriptions fit them at any point.

A related point that I saw mentioned (I think it was at this blog, but it might have been elsewhere) is that reading/not reading is not a moral/character flaw.  That was an interesting take on it, one that I frankly had not considered at all.  Especially considering that over half of my immediate family have never been fiction readers, it would be very difficult for me to condemn this as a character/moral flaw, seeing what I see on an everyday basis.  I do see reading/not reading as a choice, one that can have a profound influence on how one comes to see the world and its peoples.  As such, obviously I'm going to encourage people to read more and to ask deeper questions, because that is what I've been trained to do professionally, but choosing not to read is no flaw at all, unless of course one wants to weigh in and proclaim opinions as if they are certain of matters.  Reading, I have found, as part of a greater education of one's self, tends to introduce enough opposing viewpoints as to make most people, after long and deep exposure, rather hesitant to believe that they know everything.  Most of the time that I write these sorts of posts, I usually take pains to make sure there is a disclaimer that virtually everything raised as points of contention are things that I have wavered on or that I am guilty of doing, mostly because I am not by nature a very "certain" person.

But just because one ought not be too "certain" about matters does not mean that there can be a complete relativity approach taken to evaluating literature.  Understanding/processing literature is of course a subjective process; no two people do it exactly the same fashion for every book read.  But there are core elements that touch upon commonly-shared experiences.  These touchstones, coupled with the literary equivalent of "preponderance of evidence," makes some textual interpretations more valid than others.  Readers who content themselves with a simple, "oh, it's just a difference of opinions" do risk weakening their evaluative tools.  Perhaps more reasoned passion (oxymoron?) should be injected into these discussions.  Not all opinions are well-supported ones and sometimes people just have to be called out for this.

Which I suppose goes back to another related point, that of reacting to strong comments.  Occasionally, I have read where some have thought that I was "mocking" another's argument.  That is an interesting accusation.  I am used to picking apart arguments that I find to be weak, laying out its perceived flaws (and receptive when others do the same to mine in a similar, considered fashion), hardly worrying myself about the tone of such dissections.  But some take it to be a sort of derisive action on my part, as if I get pleasure from doing this.  I think the more appropriate description of my emotional state would be a sort of gallow's humor, since I know this is so pervasive that virtually everyone writes something that is sloppy at some point.  See opening paragraph for personal disclaimer.

But the emotional aspect is something that I think lies at the heart of all this.  Richard Morgan makes some interesting points in my second and third essays about this.  I think it strange that a sense of "us" and "them" seems to have developed in reading.  Reading, I believe, is at its core a solitary exercise.  You and the Text, mano a mano, with the Author off to the side, being a coach of sorts.  There may be some shared similarities between one Reader and another, but never enough for me to identify very strongly with others.  And yet over the past couple of generations, there have been larger and larger groupings of readers that have developed.  From book conventions to book clubs, there have been attempts to make this solitary exercise into a social one.  Perhaps that's due to humans being largely social creatures who love hierarchies of organization.

I suppose that's fine to me (I tend to be at best on the fringes of any group, preferring instead the conversations of a person here, another there, and not forming too close of an association with any), at least to some extent, but I have worried in the past that there might be too much of a group mentality that forms around books.  At times, groups of like-minded readers seem to have developed this sort of possessiveness about "their" authors and "their" genres.  At times, I suppose this sort of possessive fannish attitude is positive in that it shows how strong of a support there is for certain narrative styles and for certain writers who might otherwise flounder.  But I have also sensed an irrationality behind this, an intense defensiveness that will not go away regardless of how many counter-arguments and appeals to reason may be made.  Perhaps in the creation of a "we," there has to be a corresponding boogeyman-like "they" to counter and to justify the "we" being in existence. 

Naturally, I think it is a bit ridiculous.  Perhaps it is because I just move as far away from being at the centers of any groups as possible, but the insecurity that I often detect underneath the bold, brash comments about how Author X's work sucks and that Author X is "elitist, pretentious, snobbish" is rather disconcerting.  It sounds and looks just like a cornered animal that's about to lunge out and bite out of fear and alarm.  Maybe there are some who don't feel defensive when they use such strong language, maybe these are usually considerate readers who have accepted that it's okay to be uncertain about one's opinions and that a periodic testing of them to see if they are still valid is a good thing.  But something tells me that those making such comments are not the most confident of people, deep down inside.  I say this as one who still wavers a bit, one who can lash out with the best of them...before admitting to myself that I was wrong in doing so and that there is something troubling me that ought to be examined.  But for several, this sort of self-evaluation will not take place.  For those people (at least at certain points; this is not an absolutist claim, after all), it is better to lash out and claim others are stupid without taking a glance in the mirror and wondering if it is they themselves that are wearing the fool's outfit. 

Reading is not a static thing.  It is at its heart a dynamic affair, with readers morphing as much as do understandings of the author and of textual content.  No one fits in any category forever, although some may try their damnest to do so.  If you get passionate about reading, or rather about the incidentals of reading, stop, take a deep breath, and go do something else for a while.  Just as I noted that there are readers who at times view reading as an act of consumption rather than as an art of dialogue, there are times that the activity of reading can consume its readers.  If you sense a group mindset, just back away and distrust it.  If you think that you alone have the answers, distrust that as well.  And most importantly, don't always trust the tellers; just trust the tale as far as you can throw it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

More goodness in the Tennessee governor's race

I fear I might get fined for not having a gun...

Borges Month, Qué es el budismo (1976, with Alicia Jurado)

Jorge Luis Borges' 1976 religious piece, Qué es el budismo, is a very curious piece.  Although technically written in collaboration with one of his secretaries, Alicia Jurado, this work is for the most part (as Jurado herself declares in the introduction) Borges' own work.  In his previous writings, fiction and non-fiction alike, there are a few fleeting passages that reference Gautama/the Buddha, but nothing really in the way of substantive exploration there comparable to that done on similar mystical/religious entities such as the Cabala or Islam.

So why did he write this introduction of sorts to Buddhism?  After having read it, I would hazard a guess and say it was done out of sheer curiosity for the subject and the book is structured as to give someone who is almost totally ignorant about Buddhism and its precepts a general idea of how this philosophy/religion started,  a history of Gautama's life (legend and relatively non-legendary accounts alike), the various disciplines within Buddhism, as well as an exploration of its core tenets, including the Four Noble Truths.

Qué es el budismo is not an extremely scholarly work; Borges never intended for this work to be anything other than a layman's guide to one of the world's five major religious faiths.  However, it is a very clear and concise explanation of the religion, its value systems, and how some of its principal teachings share some similarities with other faiths.  For those curious about Buddhism, this certainly is an informative book, albeit one that rarely goes beyond what one might find on say a Wikipedia article on Buddhism.  For those wanting to see what Borges made of this religion, he does not editorialize much here.  It is obvious that he had some passing interest in the religion, but that it is something rather distant to him and not something that had a major influence on his writings.  Therefore, I would not recommend this book to anyone who wants to read the book just to learn more about Buddhism, as although it is a good enough introduction, there are certainly many more books that go into more depth and which are more readily available for those who do not read Spanish as a first or second language.  For those, such as myself, who are Borges completists, Qué es el budismo is an interesting footnote to Borges' vast and varied literary output.

Reading a book as opposed to consuming a book

In my post on Tuesday, I discussed briefly the notion that there are fewer "great" readers than there are "great" works of literature.  Today, I want to expand the parameters of that discussion to discuss perceived differences between "reading" a book and "consuming" a book.  It is, more or less, a continuation of the old but never dead-end argument regarding why critical reading is a fundamental part of cultural diffusion of ideas.  Futhermore, I want to touch upon what I perceive to be a deep-rooted fear for many book consumers about the art of reading.

A great many book buyers are book consumers.  They buy a book with the intent of consuming it as a product.  For such readers, books are a product, meant to provide a bit of entertainment to while away the hours spent on a bus, train, plane, or waiting in an office for an appointment.  A book is, to them, akin to a movie or CD - a source of entertainment that can be disposed of after its completion, likely with little thought given to it afterward than "Well, yes, I found that book to be enjoyable", or in cases of books that did not provide the sought-after passive, easy entertainment, "I didn't like it and wouldn't recommend it to you."

The book (or in the advancing digital age, the e-book) is seen here as a product.  Something produced by writers, perhaps following a formula that allows for easy communication of ideas.  Only occasionally is the book-product viewed as being something idiosyncratic, something that may contain ideas that will clash with our expectations.  Oftentimes, the consumer will reject those books that run too counter to their expectations, as they find these books to be "dull," "difficult," "uninteresting," and if they are more honest with themselves, "non-engaging."

The book consumer and her attitudes dominates book matters these days, just as it has ever since mass readerships emerged (and likely before then).  For them, the book is to be consumed, it is not something to waste a lot of time thinking about or arguing for or against.  For these people, those who do engage in this sort of textual wrestling may be viewed, in the words of one such consumer, as providing "wanker's answers."  Even in their bafflement, they fail to go much further than a very general like/dislike divide.

Too often the question surrounding books is "what should I read next?" rather than "how and why should I read this?"  I am currently reading Harold Bloom's 2000 book on the joys of reading and its mechanics, How to Read and Why.  He begins his book with the prologue "Why Read?"  I want to quote a few passages from this section to support what I will say shortly about book readers as opposed to book consumers:

Sir Francis Bacon, who provided some of the ideas that [Dr. Samuel] Johnson put to use, famously gave the advice:  "Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe or take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider."  (p. 21)


Let me fuse Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson into a formula of how to read:  find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and that addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time's tyranny. (p. 22)


Opening yourself to a direct confrontation with Shakespeare at his strongest, as in King Lear, is never an easy pleasure, whether in youth or in age, and yet not to read King Lear fully (which means without ideological expectations) is to be cognitively as well as aesthetically defrauded.  A childhood largely spent watching television yields to an adolescence with a computer, and the universtity receives a student unlikely to welcome the suggestion that we must endure our going hence even as our going hither:  ripeness is all.  Reading falls apart, and much of the self scatters with it.  All this is past lamenting, and will not be remedied by any vows or programs.  What is to be done can only be performed by some version of elitism, and that is now unacceptable, for reasons both good and bad.  There are still solitary readers, young and old, everywhere, even in the universities.  If there is a function of criticism at the present time, it must be to address itself to the solitary reader, who reads for herself and not for the interests that supposedly transcend the self. (p. 23)

OK, I'm sure that for some reading this, as soon as I said the magical words "Harold Bloom," their eyes rolled back and a bit of a snarl emerged from the guttural depths.  He is, after all, somewhat outspoken about books that millions have adored that he found to have little to no redeeming literary value and he said so, quite bluntly.  For these readers, chances are dim that what he has to say here will be considered because they just don't like the man.  In this age of instant communication (and a dearth of reflective commentary), what writers and critics say off-the-cuff tends to be recorded, cataloged, and used to delegitimize the arguments made by that author/critic as well as anyone else who may sympathize with the viewpoints expressed.  Referencing again a single internet forum remark, the puerile argument that a work can be dismissed through ad hominems is frankly ridiculous.

Now with that little obstacle hopefully out of the way, let's look at what Bloom says here.  In these three quotes, two of which are really summations of earlier authors' viewpoints on reading, Bloom argues against a passive reading.  He doesn't say it in quite the words I used above, but he is arguing against a simple consumer approach to literature.  Writings ought not to be boiled down to whether or not they agree with one's own sentiments.  If that were the case, then such a rigid orthodoxy would be established as to make the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition seem tame by comparison.  There has to be room for multiple interpretations.  Conversely, one should not read just to find things to fling against its author.  After all, the Devil may quote Scripture for his own purposes.  To peruse a book just to find condemnatory materials is not reading, but rather prosecuting a work and its author for crimes that may not have been committed. 

In composing this, I thought back to the most recent rounds of discussions surrounding "sacred cows" and "sacred bullshit."  In Paul Smith's article yesterday (the second link of the two in this paragraph), he mentions J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as only a small part of his argument that there should be no sacred cows.  As a test (and to attract more attention to his argument), I relabeled his post title as "Tolkien as a sacred cow of fantasy" and posted it on a forum I frequent.  The responses were illuminating, and I am not being sarcastic in noting this.  It was interesting how detailed of an argument against criticizing Tolkien was made in response to a post that had a far larger scope than just one author.  Perhaps they were misled in part by my more provocative title, but I suspect that for some, as soon as the word "Tolkien" appeared, they felt the need to rush out and "defend" a work that has sold hundreds of millions of copies over nearly 60 years.  Amazing.

The admonition to avoid reading to "find talk and discourse" is an interesting one, particularly in this day and age of book clubs (in-person and online) and social media surrounding books.  It is one that I am not sure I agree with much at all, considering how highly I value discourse, but I think I see the point being raised.  Stories, unless composed to be read or sung aloud, are intended to be digested by individuals.  Perhaps afterward, there can be a discussion with fellow readers (not consumers, mind you), but the purpose of the reading should not be centered around what others have to say in agreement or in argument against.  This I believe ties in to the point Bloom makes that in reading, the story "addresses you as though you share the one nature."  Reading a book, as opposed to consuming a book, is an act of dialogue, one that the reader engages in to see if s/he can commune with the Text that the Author has composed, a communion that is almost as mystical and timeless as the Holy Eucharist is for Catholics and Orthodox.  Dialogues aren't yes/no, agree/disagree axes that a Likert Scale can measure.  They are conversations in which the reader opens him/herself up to what the Text has to say.

This is, I believe, the tricky part in reading.  It is not easy to open one's self up to strangers.  Much easier to maintain a pleasant façade toward strangers, both living persons and ideas found in books, while maintaining a detachment from commitment.  Conversely, sometimes we might fear to delve further, lest something beloved (like Tolkien's work for many) turn out to be not as wondrous as we first imagined.  Last year when I re-read LotR, I certainly found myself having a complex, mixed reaction to the story (and to other Tolkien works that I read).  Perhaps in the near future, I'll distill what I hinted at in those March 2009 essays on LotR into a single post that can be considered by others.

Consideration is the most important point that Bloom raises here.  Everyday, a person has to make thousands of evaluations, considering whether or not to take one course as opposed to another.  Some of these evaluations are well-considered, while others are rash.  In reading a book (again, as opposed to consuming it), a reader ought to weigh and consider the text.  Trust, but verify.  Test it out, kick the tires, if you will.  Then turn around and do the same to yourself. 

Yes, do such weighing and considering to yourself as well as to the text.  You are not an infallible creature.  You may not "get" the text.  You may confuse ignorance for profundity.  You just may be flat-out wrong and just are too mule-stubborn to admit it.  A lot of people are that way and not just about stories.  Get over it.  Admit that you can and often are wrong.  Reconsider, if only after a space of time has elapsed, what you have concluded, perhaps rashly.  You may find that your original take still holds true to you in large part, but likely you will have gained a greater understanding and appreciation for how this occurred.  You may learn how to judge ideas better once you learn how to weigh and judge your own self.  Consideration and testing forge deeper bonds with stories than any book consumption could ever manage.

So, are you a book reader or a book consumer?  I'll let you be the judges of that.  For myself, there is always more to weigh and consider.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Borges Month: Libro de sueños (1976)

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

Dreams.  They are perhaps the greatest mystery for humans.  Every day, billions of people sleep, perchance to dream.  And what dreams come?  Are they dreams that foretell the future?  Dreams that reshape our pasts?  Dreams that make magic out of reality and out of reality nightmares?

In his book Libro de sueños (The Book of Dreams), Jorge Luis Borges collects several of the most famous dream recordings.  Everything from Biblical texts to Greco-Roman myths to Chinese philosophy to works of the past few centuries are fair game here.  Yet oddly enough, two of the most famous dramas that reference dreams, Calderón de la Barca's La vida es sueño (the quote above is the most famous passage from that excellent play) and Shakespeare's Hamlet ("To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause...."), are not included here.  But what is included constitutes a wide and varied quotation of classic works regarding dreams and their influence on human actions and thoughts.

Libro de sueños is not an interpretative work, nor is it a scholarly one.  Simply, it is a collection of interesting recorded dreams that Borges found to be interesting.  The analysis and interpretation of these famous dreams are left to the reader to do.  Perhaps some will find reading a few of these a night conducive for remembering their own dreams.  Maybe some will be inspired to have waking dreams that approach the power of these transcribed dreams.  Regardless if this is the case or not, this book certainly is well worth the read, just a little bit at a time.  Dreams do have funny ways of touching us, after all.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Borges Month: El libro de arena (1975)

El libro de arena (The Book of Sand) was Borges' penultimate short story collection released in his lifetime.  Published in 1975, it contains several stories that build on the strength of his 1970 collection, El informe de Brodie/Brodie's Report.  Some of the fictions, such as "The Book of Sand," read almost as counterparts to stories from Ficciones or El Aleph.  Others, such as "The Other," follow in theme and form his 1960s poetry and El informe de Brodie.

In re-reading these stories recently, I couldn't help but marvel at the depth of emotion that this collection has in comparison to Borges' other short fiction collections.  "The Other" is a very poignant story of an older Borges meeting a younger Borges, full of dreams and sight, and telling that younger self of the horrors that fell upon Argentina after World War II (needless to say, Borges was not a fan of Juan Perón).  The writing is very elegant, with little intertextual play.  It reads as a dialogue between the author's memory (just as Perón had temporarily returned to power in 1973, before being ousted later in 1975) and the author's present.  It is not a cheery tale, but it is a powerful one, told simply, but with a lot to say within those few words.  It is perhaps my third-favorite story in this collection.

My favorite story, "The Congress" is one of Borges' longest solo fiction works.  It is perhaps one of his favorite works, if comments in this collection's epilogue are any indication.  It is a story of a secret, utopic universal congress, where every type and nationality of people would be represented.  Naturally, this raises issues about people who represent more than one entity within themselves, so the Congress expands.  Then issues regarding culture, particularly language and literature are raised, leading to more growth.  The conclusion to this story is ambiguous, as it can be seen as a metaphor for human existence and our desire to create order and yet to avoid having other systems of order imposed upon us.

"The Book of Sand" is a late counterpart to the much earlier "The Library of Babel."  Here, instead of an infinite library, there is a book of infinite pages, with no beginnings or ends.  How the narrator tells this story is what is important here and Borges certainly makes the most out of this outlandish proposal.  "Ulrica" is the story of a romance, based perhaps on a romance that Borges once had (his second wife, María Kodama, has claimed that it's about her, but this, along with other matters surrounding Borges' last decade of life, is a hotly-contested issue).  It is a good story, but it does not move me as the three I mention above.

There is a Lovecraft-inspired horror story in here, "There Are More Things," but it was perhaps the weakest story in this collection, or at least the one I related to the least.  "The Disco" is a clever fiction of barely 1000 words dealing with Odin, but it is relatively light.  The same holds true for the otherwise-solid remaining stories:  "The Sect of the Thirty," "The Mirror and the Mask," "Undr," "Utopia of a Man Who is Resting," "El soborno," and "Avelino Arredondo."  None of these are bad tales, but they are lesser than the three I highlighted above.

Although some of the tales contain references to the usual Borgesian staples of labyrinths, mirrors, and the death-foreboding doubles, the mood of these stories, as I noted above, is rather more reflective and sometimes somber.  It is a collection of stories by an author who knows he is in the evening of his life and yet so much power was put into these tales that hint at the death that was looming over him.  For those who think that Borges' stories were all about puzzles and metaphysics, a reading of The Book of Sand should convince that reader that this is far from the case.  Highly recommended.

David Soares, O Evangelho do Enforcado (The Gospel of the Hanged)

'O pintor é o homem mais solitário do mundo.'  Apontou para os trabalhos em curso e acrescentou:  'Os seus filhos são nados-mortos, coisas para serem penduradas nas paredes - coisas para serem esquecidas.  Tens a certeza que é esta que tu queres?' (p. 90)

"The painter is the loneliest man in the world."  He points to the works in progress and adds:  "His children are still-born, things to be hung up on walls - things to be forgotten.  Are you certain this is what you want?"
Portuguese writer David Soares' recently-released book, O Evangelho do Enforcado (The Gospel of the Hanged would be its title in English)  is perhaps his best work in a career that has spanned a decade now since the release of his first novel, A Conspiração dos Antepassados.  It is, as have his other novels been, simultaneously a history of sorts of Portugal's past and a feverish fantasy that evokes images of the supernatural.  But it is here in O Evangelho do Enforcado that I believe Soares manages to mix these two narrative elements together to create a seamless whole that grabs the reader's attention from start to finish.

The story here spans roughly sixty years, from 1390 to 1450, during the time that the Portuguese royal family, including Prince Henry the Navigator, began to expand Portugal's influence beyond the Iberian peninsula.  It is a story that revolves in part around the mysterious os Painéis de São Vicente (the Panels of St. Vincent), which was made during this time and which may contain several mysteries references to the royal family of Aviz. Soares devotes a lot of narrative space toward making each main subplot believable and yet fresh and exciting as well.

The first section of the novel is set in the last years of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th.  In it, the children of the royal family (Henrique/Henry, Fernando) and the regent Dom Pedro are introduced, as well as the half-crazed painter Nuno Gonçalves, the presumed painter of os Painéis de São Vicente.  In a nice juxtaposition of background and theme, Soares includes a very detailed morality play scene to set up the first extended scene with Nuno, where he is either conversing with himself or possibly with a nefarious entity which calls itself Geronte:

Tu pensas que eu sou um diabo..., disse a criatura atónita.  Aquela atitude supersticiosa, de atiçar o galo, deixara-a boquiaberta.  Cheirou a ave e sacudiu a cabeçorra para um lado e para o outro.  Não tenho medo do canto do galo.  Avançou na direcção do rapaz com passos pesados.  Não tenho medo de nada.

'Meu Deus da minha alma!...'  gritou Nuno, retrocedento.

Deus é uma ideia.  Nada é tão ambíguo quanto uma ideia. (p. 59)

You think that I am a devil... said the creature tonelessly.  That superstitious attitude, of provoking the rooster, leaving it open-mouthed.  It smelled the bird and shook its huge head from side to side.  I am not afraid of the rooster's song.  He advanced in the direction of the boy with heavy steps.  I am afraid of nothing.

 "My God of my soul!..." cried Nuno, retreating.

God is an idea.  Nothing is so ambiguous as an idea.

From here, Nuno's subplot goes through twisted paths, paths where he becomes a talented, admired painter, but also one where he is embittered about how his art is perceived, and he is still afflicted with those voices and conversations with the nefarious Geronte.  Intertwined with this is a look at Portuguese court society and how the future rulers of Portugal during its rise to power.  Henrique's  failed crusade in 1437 against the Moorish city of Tangiers ends up being a disaster, with his younger brother Fernando being sent to the Moorish court as a hostage.  The interactions between the royal brothers and the rest of the court is fascinating, in part because of how well Soares reveals the fault lines of such societies, but also for how adroitly he ties it in to the metaphysical elements he mentions in the opening scenes of the novel.  The thoughts by one of the supporting characters, Maria, is indicative of some of the thoughts that loom large within O Evangelho do Enforcado:

E eu, o que é que eu tenho?, pensou Maria.  Dizem que sou bonita, que todos os homens querem foder comigo...Mas o que é que isso vale na hora da morte?  Não posso comer a beleza.  Abanou a cabeça.  Não há nenhuma boa morte.  A morte dói.  É cruel.  Faz-nos esvair em merda.

Onde é que está a prometida ressurreição?  Ressurgiremos noutro lado?  Um lado mais luminoso que este?  O Céu.  Para quê, se a fome torna a luz insuportável.

Talvez sigamos todos para o Inferno.

Dizem que as putas vão para o Inferno.

Se ele existe, é a putaria, pensou.  Mas como?  Então, é possível ter fome no Inferno?   É esse o castigo para o pecado da luxúria?  Então qual é castigo para a gula?  Fosse eu filósofo, capaz de grandes pensamentos, talvez encontrasse uma resposta para isso, mas não sou filósofo nenhum.  Não sou capaz de pensar grandes pensamentos.  Só quero é encontrar algo para comer. (pp. 235-236)

And I, what is it that I have?, thought Maria.  They say that I am beautiful, that all the men want to fuck me...But what is that worth in the hour of death?  It's not possible to eat beauty.  She shook her head.  There is no good death.  Death hurts.  It is cruel.  It makes us pass away in shit.

Where is this promised resurrection?  We will rise up on the other side?  A side more luminous than this?  Heaven.  So that hunger is turned into an insupportable light.

Perhaps all of us go to Hell.

They say that the whores are going to Hell.

If it exists, it is a whorehouse, she thought.  But how?  Then, is it possible to have hunger in Hell?  Is this the punishment for the sin of luxury?  Then what is the punishment for gluttony?  If I were a philosopher, capable of great thoughts, perhaps I would find an answer for this, but I am no philosopher.  I am not capable of great thoughts.  I only want to find something to eat.

Whether it is a focus on Nuno's increasingly capricious behavior that fuels his artistic genius or if it is a look into the complex relationships between the royal family, there is a sense throughout this novel that the Devil is lurking somewhere in the vicinity.  He may not appear directly, but when, in the guise of Geronte, he does show up, the developments that have occurred take on an aspect that can be frightening at times, especially considering how well he develops his characters and setting.  In many ways, O Evangelho do Forcado is a morality play writ large, using the Portuguese court and its most enigmatic genius, Nuno Gonçalves, as its actors and actresses.  The result is a gripping story that has a broad appeal, whether it be to those who enjoyed the late medieval period pieces of say an Ildefonso Falcones or the historical-slash-metaphysical stories of a Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  Soares is equally comfortable with both the historical and supernatural aspects of this tale and each element blends into the other, creating an exciting story that likely will be featured at the end of the year in my lists of best 2010 novels.  Hopefully, there will be a publisher willing to take a chance and translate this into English, as it is the sort of story that I think can be marketed easily to Americans wanting great, dark historical fantasies.

There are few great books, but even fewer "great readers"

After a month of reading Jorge Luis Borges' essays, poems, and fictions, as well as a few email conversations that I have had with authors, I have been pondering again the Reader side of the Author-Text-Reader triangle.  In those essays and in those conversations, I came across, over and over again, the notion that there has to be some sort of quality in the Reader as well as a quality in the Text to make a book or author "great."  It is not something that I want to ascribe to, but it is also a point that is hard to combat.

Ask someone what he or she considers to be essential for a "good" book and the responses would likely include the following:  exciting or interesting plot, identifiable characters, good pacing, well-written prose.  Ask again what constitutes a "classics" and likely there'd be some repetition of the above, perhaps with the addition of memorable dialogue/action and recognizable themes.  Press a bit harder and ask to identify why a particular work is considered to be a "classic" and chances will increase with the number of people asked that they do not understand why a particular work, say a Ulysses or One Hundred Years of Solitude, is considered to be a "classic" or even a "good" book.

One might be tempted to dismiss this as being matters of taste and perhaps to some extent, personal preferences come into play.  But I would argue that there is something more to this, something that is intrinsic to the Reader-Text portion of the triangle.  Judging by the likely non-representative opinions found online for works such as M. John Harrison's Viriconium stories, it would seem the more a Text (or even its Author, divorced as s/he may be from the Text's semantics) diverges from a Reader's expectations for what a Text ought to do, the more and more likely that Text will be dismissed as being "shoddy" or "poor" and that its Author could even be condemned for being "arrogant" for implying, either inside the Text or in outside commentaries, that the Text has to be read in a different way than what the Reader wants to do.

I've discussed Harrison's work several times over the years, both in threads like that and on this blog, so I'll just mention it as an example and move on, as there are other examples that could be employed, an almost infinite number in fact.  I am reminded of what Umberto Eco said in one of his pieces found in Misreadings.  He wrote a parody of a fictional publisher rejecting classic works from Homer's two poems to Joyce, all because the "audience" would not like them.  Within this parody lurks a very serious message:  so many Texts just are not understood by Readers?

Why is that?  Some of it doubtless is due to barriers such as language and metaphor shifts, references to events that are not part of the Reader's shared cultural understanding, and thematic concerns that may run counter to the Reader's experience.  Yes, each of these can be tough obstacles to overcome, but none is insurmountable.  All it takes is a bit of effort and attempts to understand the Author and the Text while simultaneously understanding one's own self as a Reader.

So whenever I hear complaints about "s/he can't tell a good story!" I think to myself, "Do you even know what a "good" story is in the first place?"  Or whenever I come across a "s/he's just engaging in mental masturbation on these pages!" I respond internally with "Do you even know what you're arguing, or are you parroting what another has said and you just think it sounds good rather than trying to think through your reaction?"  I've learned to question what others have thought on books, because frankly, some readers you would want to trust to know their ass from a hole in the ground, much less be able to discern qualities about a "difficult" Text.

This is not to say that I myself am a "good" or "great" Reader.  If anything, what I've learned over the years is that I am often quite mistaken about a story's qualities.  As I've said before elsewhere, as a teenager, I hated Moby Dick.  I thought it was boring, with a stilted prose style and pointless monologues.  When I was 23, I happened to mention this to a cultural history professor of mine and he urged me to reconsider Melville's book.  I did, and while he did not give me any real pointers on how to read that Text, I did discover quite a few things that I had missed the first time around just because I was not willing (or perhaps trained to do so) to wrestle with the Text and see what I could win from considering it on its own terms rather than just mine.  The same story holds true for several other books.  Perhaps I do need to try this with The Mill on the River Floss and The Member of the Wedding someday soon, since those were the other two books I had to read as a teenager that I hated violently.

But if I had to identify some of the markers of a "great" Reader, it would be someone who is willing to take the Text in on its own terms, rather than trying to push that square peg into the round hole that is one's preconceptions of what constitutes a "good" or "classic" book.  A "great" reader would try to see past the surface, to see what else might lie underneath that even the Text's own Author perhaps did not perceive.  A "great" Reader would be open-minded to the fact that perhaps the Text is still escaping them in places, but that sometimes that is a weakness of the Reader and not the Text and that it is time for that Reader to get back to work educating her/himself. 

Those are some of the qualities that I believe constitute a "great" Reader.  The question now is, who is willing to admit that they could be wrong about a story and try to turn things around and see if it is they who are getting in the way of a "great" Text?

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.

This guy is running for governor in my home state of Tennessee

Well, let's just say he makes for a fine Republican and leave it at that, shall we?

Le Petit Prince Book Porn

Outside of the Bible (13 different translations of either the New Testament or both parts), my collection of translations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince is the largest, at nine now.  Feel free to guess which languages are pictured here and which one arrived today.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Borges Month: El Oro de los Tigres (1972), La Rosa Profunda (1975)

The more I read and re-read Borges' poetry, the more appreciative I've become of them, both from a stylistic and thematic viewpoint.  There is nothing flashy or avant-garde about Borges' poems, as they usually stick to a sonnet or strictly metred verse.  But yet within these familiar patterns, stories begin to develop.  In his earlier poems, which tended to force the point a bit too stridently, Borges focused mostly on his love for his native Buenos Aires.  But in his latter works, after his eyesight had dimmed to near nothing, there is a vulnerability in his story-poems.

In the two poetry collections that I read for today's post, El Oro de los Tigres and La Rosa Profunda, Borges continues some of the explorations that he had begun in Elogio de la sombra (In Praise of Darkness).  There are poems of famous historical figures, such as Hengist, sometimes at their gravesites or in reference to a deed that barely managed to live on after the person had died.  There is more of the wistfulness that I had noted in earlier collections, and even a bit of sadness and regret.  One of my favorite Borges poems is found in La Rosa Profunda, called "El Suicida."  It is an interesting look at the thoughts of an imagined suicide:

No quedará en la noche una estrella.
No quedará la noche.
Moriré y conmigo la suma
del intolerable universo.
Borraré las pirámides, las medallas,
los continentes y las caras.
Borraré la acumulación del pasado.
Haré polvo la historia, polvo el polvo.
Estoy mirando el último poniente.
Oigo el último pájaro.
Lego la nada a nadie.

No star will remain in the night
Night will not remain
I will die and with me the sum
of the intolerable universe.
I will erase the pyramids, medals,
continents, and faces.
I will erase the past's accumulation.
History I will make dust, dust to dust.
I am looking at the last west wind.
I hear the last bird.
I leave nothing for anyone.

Ever since I first read this poem back in 2007, it has haunted me.  It is perhaps the most downbeat and maybe even nihilistic of Borges' writings.  There are no clever references to philosophies of the end or allusions to the entanglements of time, place, and soul.  No, this reads as a poem of anger, of frustration, of a desire to say "Fuck this shit" and then going on to do just that.  And yet there seems to be a bit more about it as well, something that speaks to my own occasional doubts, angers, and frustrations, to that periodic desire to just destroy all and to wander off, angry and frustrated at the totality of life and wishing for it to cease, at least for a moment, until things change.  This is perhaps the poem that reveals just how vulnerable Borges was on occasion and for that reason, poems such as "El Suicidio" have made his early-to-mid 1970s poetry collections cherished reads for me over the past three years.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Borges Month: El Informe de Brodie (1970)

Between the publication of El Aleph (1949) and El informe de Brodie (1970), Borges did not release an all-new, all-short story collection (he did have several stories in the mid-1950s appear in revised editions of El historia universal de la infamia and Ficciones).  In his memoir on Borges, The Lesson of the Master, translator/collaborator Norman Thomas di Giovanni remarked on how non-confident Borges had become after his blindness became near-total, that he thought he was incapable of composing any more prose stories due to the limitations brought on by his blindness.  According to di Giovanni, it could some encouragement from him and others around Borges for Borges to attempt writing a series of prose stories.  But between 1969 and early 1970, Borges wrote eleven stories that form perhaps his most underrated collection, El informe de Brodie/Brodie's Report.

Although some of the staples of Borges' earlier prose efforts appear (knife fights, labyrinths, doubles), the stories here are more reflective in nature, yet several are more direct in their approach and their content than the majority of Borges' earlier fictions.  One thing that is interesting is that two stories, "La intrusa" and "El evangelio según Marcos," contain direct or indirect allusions to passages from the Bible.

A highlight of this collection is the titular "Brodie's Report."  It is a summary of an imaginary account of a second person, Dr. David Brodie, who spent time among the Yahoos.  Here, Borges utilizes one of his favorite narrative modes, the forged encyclopedia/reference report, to explore issues of language, culture, religion, and social relations.  It is as fine of a story as any that might be found in Ficciones or El Aleph, but yet it does not often receive as much acclaim for what it accomplishes.  Perhaps it is because there is some repetition in theme in a few of the other stories.  Maybe it is because it is a "late period" work and such often are dismissed, for whatever reason, when compared to an author's earlier works.  Regardless of the reasons why, El informe de Brodie often is relegated to the back corners of any discussion of Borges' work and that is a shame, considering how solid and sometimes spectacular these stories are.  Highly recommended.

Links to two new reviews of mine, a friend's Borges-related essay, August's themed reviews, and a little something about the Malazan re-reads

Over the past three days, I have written two new reviews for the SFF Masterworks blog.

1)  Fletcher Pratt, The Well of the Unicorn

2)  Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

In addition, a friend of mine, Fábio Fernandes, has written a personal essay on how he discovered Borges while on a spiritual retreat.

Although it will take me at least a week into August to finish off the misleading Borges Month, I would like to let everyone know that for much of August I will be re-reading/reviewing works by Serbian authors that I currently have:  David Albahari, Ivo Andrić, Svetislav Basara, Danilo Kiš, Milorad Pavić, and Zoran Živković.  This should mean near-daily posts on works of theirs.

Oh, and for those of you who might have thought I had abandoned re-reading/reviewing those long series, in particular the Malazan books, there will be some commentaries in the very near future on Erikson's books #5-8, Esslemont's two novels, and maybe the novellas as well.  Do have a little over 600 pages to go in my re-read of the ninth volume, and I'll get that done shortly.   Might also have a bit to say in response to certain arguments I've seen over and yonder about perceived "decline" in quality of the latter novels.  Wait with bated breath!

And finally, lest I forget (like I tend to do with most emails sent to me, unfortunately), there is a new e-book publisher, Wizard's Tower Press, that is co-run by people I know and respect.  Do visit the site and see what you think, okay?

More Moorcock Cover Art, with 100% more Stalin!

Every good fantasy needs a robotic Stalin to scare away the Cossacks, no?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Borges Month: Elogio de la sombra (1969)

Out of all his poetry-only collections, Borges' 1969 poetry collection, Elogia de la Sombra might well be my favorite.  There is a sense of wistfulness in several of the poems, a longing to find a more permanent sense of identity.  It is something that I would need to process much more before I could hope to analyze at length, but for this short appreciation of this collection, I present the eponymous poem.  Pay close attention to how it reads in Spanish:

La vejez (tal es el nombre que los otros le dan)
puede ser el tiempo de nuestra dicha.
El animal ha muerto o casi ha muerto.
Quedan el hombre y su alma.
Vivo entre formas luminosas y vagas
que no son aún la tiniebla.
Buenos Aires,
que antes se desgarraba en arrabales
hacia la llanura incesante,
ha vuelto a ser la Recoleta, el Retiro,
las borrosas calles del Once
y las precarias casas viejas
que aún llamamos el Sur.
Siempre en mi vida fueron demasiadas las cosas;
Demócrito de Abdera se arrancó los ojos para pensar;
el tiempo ha sido mi Demócrito.
Esta penumbra es lenta y no duele;
fluye por un manso declive
y se parece a la eternidad.
Mis amigos no tienen cara,
las mujeres son lo que fueron hace ya tantos años,
las esquinas pueden ser otras,
no hay letras en las páginas de los libros.
Todo esto debería atemorizarme,
pero es una dulzura, un regreso.
De las generaciones de los textos que hay en la tierra
sólo habré leído unos pocos,
los que sigo leyendo en la memoria,
leyendo y transformando.
Del Sur, del Este, del Oeste, del Norte,
convergen los caminos que me han traído
a mi secreto centro.
Esos caminos fueron ecos y pasos,
mujeres, hombres, agonías, resurrecciones,
días y noches,
entresueños y sueños,
cada ínfimo instante del ayer
y de los ayeres del mundo,
la firme espada del danés y la luna del persa,
los actos de los muertos,
el compartido amor, las palabras,
Emerson y la nieve y tantas cosas.
Ahora puedo olvidarlas. Llego a mi centro,
a mi álgebra y mi clave,
a mi espejo.
Pronto sabré quién soy.
Since I am pressed for time, click here for a translation of this poem into English.  It is well worth the time reading it.

Do you feel the rhythms within this poem?  Did you identify with the narrator?  Will you ever, if you have not already, "reach your center, your algebra, your key, and your mirror"?  Do you wish you could read these as Borges himself would have heard, over and over again, in his head?

I hate explaining poems.  May you experience it instead.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Borges Month: The Book of Imaginary Beings (1957-1969)

Most of the time, I have given the Spanish original for Borges' works read.  In the case of this curious bestiary, El libro de los seres imaginarios, I have chosen to list the American title of The Book of Imaginary Beings (despite my having just read the Spanish 1967 edition for this) because it contains four more original stories that were added by Borges and his American translator/collaborator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni.  I am currently awaiting for my copy to arrive sometime in the next week, so I can see which four additions were made.

Too often, Borges is viewed as this mystical genius.  Although there is much truth to this title, there is the connotation that his works are too distant and "tough" for the "average" reader to comprehend.  I always like to hold this amusing collection out as an example that much of Borges' writings were intended for those readers who like to let their imaginations roam free, unhindered by cumbersome elegance that detracts from their ability to enjoy a simple tale.

Most of the entries that appear here (for a better summation, including links to the creatures described, click on this Facebook fan page) are from other stories and legends.  Borges describes them in a matter-of-fact, casual fashion.  After all, haven't you seen a Baldanders or Behemoth roaming the streets of your hometown recently?  It is this combination of seeing these creatures (and I believe in the edition that I ordered, the 1970 American one, there should be illustrations; there are none in the most recent Argentine edition that I currently own) and reading short passages about them that somehow manages to bring a smile to my face.  There is little to be said in way of analysis; Borges was just merely "reporting the facts, ma'am" here, with only a few entries that could be said to be wholecloth inventions.  The Book of Imaginary Beings is simply Borges at play and his play is a beautiful thing to behold.

Borges Month: Borges on Lewis Carroll

I originally posted this as a discussion starter at Westeros, but perhaps this blog would be a better place for this:

I didn't provide context when I pasted a little comment of Borges about Tolkien in order not to color the discussion; that perhaps might not have been the wisest course in hindsight. Now as an offshoot of that wide-ranging discussion, I am going to post two excerpts from longer writings that Borges did on Lewis Carroll. In the last thread, there began to be some discussion in regards to Borges' assertion that Lewis Carroll's writings were "authentic fantasy" and that presumably Tolkien's were not; I suggested that it might be best to do this in a separate thread, one devoted to Carroll and how Borges saw his writings, rather than usurping a thread about Borges' views of Tolkien. Each of the excerpts are rough translations that I did on the fly from two separate books that Borges wrote that reference Carroll at length (Carroll's name appears frequently in Borges' non-fiction and even in "The Circular Ruins," found in FIcciones), so any unclear points or errors are the result of my hasty translation and not those of Borges:

The first passage comes from the 1965 book, Introduccin a la literatura inglesa:

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) was what [Matthew] Arnold was not and what he never wanted to be: an English eccentric. Singularly timid, he fled from the company of adults and sought the friendship of children. In order to amuse a child, Alice Liddell, he wrote under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, the two books which made him famous: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In the first, Alice dreams that a white rabbit is chasing her; the chase brings her, through a forest, to a country of fantastical beings, among which there are kings and queens of a deck of cards, who judge and condemn her, until she discovers that they are nothing more than cards and she awakens. In the second, Alice goes through a mirror and arrives in a region of strange creatures; many are chess pieces which have come to life. Finally, it is revealed that this region is a chessboard and that each adventure corresponds to a chess match. We will never know if Lewis Carroll felt that in that unstable world of figures that dissolve into one another there is nightmare's beginning. 

This is little more than a summation of the work, but there is an emphasis on dreams and nightmares to which Borges returned in 1976 when he wrote a preface to the Spanish translation of Carroll's works. Below is the first half of that preface:

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.

Here I believe Borges reveals just why he found Carroll's writings to be so fascinating. In the writings of such a lonely man, there is a vitality to the narrative where Dream emerges and dominates the story. It is a place that is no places and all places, where time dilates and wraps back around itself, like the worm Ouroboros. It is not a faux history, but rather a place where irrationality is expressed. Having also read the Borges-edited The Book of Fantasy, where so many of the stories revolved around dreams and the fracturing of time, I would suspect that when he said in that one snippet quoted last week that Lewis Carroll wrote "authentic fantasy," that he was referring to an older definition of fantasy that concerned itself with flights of fancy, of mysteries and paradoxes that don't have to have logical conclusions; they just are. Contrast that with a story that is an invented history, largely devoid of delight, and is it any wonder that Borges, more familiar with the older forms of fantasy, would look askance at a setting where the author has detailed so much of its imaginary origins, histories, and thematic expressions?

Perhaps the issue is what types of fantasy are "authentic" at all. Have the Tolkien-inspired, extremely detailed secondary-world fantasies, epic and non-epic alike, with their sometimes-slavish devotion to "worldbuilding", much in common with the older, less structurally rigid flights of fancy that a Carroll or Wilde delighted in?

I suspect answers may vary to a large extent.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Nothing says scary like...

...a balding, graying Satan.

Borges Month: Introducción a la literatura inglesa (1965; with María Esther Vázquez)

Although I've been doing my best to review these works of Jorge Luis Borges in chronological order, I somehow passed over reading/reviewing his 1965 work, Introducción a la literatura inglesa, before reviewing the 1967 companion piece, Introducción a la literatura norteamericana.

There really is nothing much that I can say here that I didn't say in the earlier review of the American lit introductory book.  Borges utilizes a very similar organizational pattern, with short essays on the Anglo-Saxon, medieval, Elizabethan and Jacobean era drama, 17th century writers, 18th century authors (with the very notable exclusions of Richardson, Fielding, and Goldsmith, among others), and shorter bits on the 19th and early 20th centuries.  What Borges had to say about the authors he did cover jibed well with my own impressions of these authors (I have read virtually all the authors he covers in this book).  The encyclopedia-style entries also appear here and for one of my favorites (the other being the entry on Dickens), here is one for Edward Gibbon:

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794).

De estirpe antigua, aunque no especialmente ilustre - uno de sus mayores fue en la Edad Media, marmorarius o arquitecto del rey - , Gibbon nació en las cercanías de Londres. Se educó en la biblioteca de su padre y en Oxford. Ésta y Cambridge se disputan la antigüedad de su fundación; Gibbon escribiría mucho después que lo único seguro es que ambas venerables instituciones exhiben todos los achaques y síntomas de la más avanzada decrepitud. A los dieciséis años, la lectura de Bossuet lo convirtió al catolicismo. Su alarmada familia lo envió a Lausanne, centro de la ortodoxia protestante. El no previso resultado de esta maniobra fue que Gibbon se hizo un escéptico. Como Milton, siempre se supo predestinado a la literatura. Planeó una historia de la Confederación Helvética, pero lo detuvieron las dificultades de estudiar un oscuro dialecto alemán. Pensó también en una biografía de Raleigh, tema del que lo alejó la consideración de que este libro sólo tendría un interés local. En 1764, fue a Roma; entre las ruinas del Capitolio concibió el plan de su obra más vasta, la Historia de la Declinación y Caída del Imperio Romano. Antes de escribir una línea, leyó en su lengua original a todos los historiadores antiguos y medievales y estudió monumentos y numismática. Once años dedicó a esa labor, que concluyó en Lausanne la noche del 27 de junio de 1787. Siete años después murió en Londres.

Dos cualidades que parecen excluirse, la ironía y la pompa, se unen a la obra de Gibbon, que es el monumento más importante de la literatura inglesa y uno de los más importantes del mundo. Gibbon eligió un título que le permitió la mayor amplitud. Su historia abarca trece siglos, desde Trajano hasta la caída de Constantinopla y el trágico destino de Rienzi. Dominaba el arte de narrar. Los más diversos personajes y acontecimientos pasan vívidamente por sus páginas: Carlomagno, Atila, Mahoma, Tamerlán, el saqueo de Roma, las Cruzadas, la difusión del Islam, las guerras orientales, las de las naciones germánicas. Abunda en observaciones mordaces. Los escoceses se jactaban de ser la única nación europea que había rechazado a los romanos; Gibbon observa que los amos del mundo se apartaron con desdén de una tierra áspera, nubulosa y glaciar. Habla de las "batallas nocturnas de la teología," que en el mismo párrafo apoda "ese laberinto eclesiástico." Nietzsche escribiría que el cristianismo fue, en sus orígenes, una religión de esclavos; Gibbon prefiere alabar las misteriosas decisiones de Dios, que encomendó la revelación de la Verdad, no a graves y doctos filósofos, sino a un pequeño grupo de analfabetos. No niega los milagros; censura la imperdonable negligencia de aquellos observadores paganos que, como Plinio, registraron todos los hechos prodigiosos del mundo y no dijeron una palabra de la resurrección de Lázaro ni del temblor de tierra y del eclipse en el día de la crucifixión de Jesús. Desde Tácito, muchos habían ponderado el piadoso fervor de los germanos, que no encerraban a sus dioses en templos y preferían adornarlos en la soledad de los bosques; Gibbon comenta que mal podían contruir templos quienes eran apenas capaces de levantar una choza.

Antes de escribir en inglés, Gibbon lo hizo en francés y en latín; esta disciplina, a la que unió el estudio de Pascal y de Voltaire, lo preparó para la ejeución de su gran obra. Ésta lo llevó a encarnizadas polémicas de carácter teológico, que lo divirtieron muchísimo y en las que siempre fue vencedor.

A la Declinación y Caída del Imperio Romano podemos agregar un tratado sobre los misterios de Eleusis y una admirable auto biografía, que se publicó después de su muerte. (pp. 44-47)

Of ancient lineage, although not especially illustrious – one of his ancestors was in the Middle Ages, marmorarius or royal architect – Gibbon was born in the outskirts of London. He was educated in his father’s library and in Oxford. This and Cambridge dispute the antiquity of their foundation; Gibbon would write much later that the one thing sure is that both venerable institutions showed all the ailments and symptoms of the most advanced decrepitude. At the age of 16, reading Bossuet converted him to Catholicism. His alarmed family sent him to Lausanne, the center of Protestant orthodoxy. The not foreseen result of this action was that Gibbon was made a skeptic. Like Milton, he always knew he was predestined for literature. He planned a history of the Helvetic Confederation, but the difficulties of studying an obscure German dialect stopped him. He thought also about a biography on Raleigh, but the fear that this book would only have a local interest kept him from doing it. In 1764, he went to Rome; among the ruins of the Capitol he conceived the plan for his most vast work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Before writing a line, he read in the original language all of the ancient and medieval historians and he studied monuments and numismatics. He dedicated 11 years to that labor, which concluded in Lausanne the night of June 27, 1787. Seven years later he died in London.

Two qualities which seem mutually exclusive, irony and pomp, are united in Gibbon’s work, which is the most important monument of English literature and one of the world’s most important. Gibbon chose a title which would permit him the greatest room. His history spans thirteen centuries, from Trajan until the fall of Constantinople and the tragic destiny of Rienzi. He dominated the art of narrating. The most diverse characters and events passed vividly through its pages: Charlemagne, Attila, Mohammad, Tamerlane, the Sack of Rome, the Crusades, the spread of Islam, the Eastern wars, those of the German nations. It abounds in biting observations. The Scots boasted of being the only European nation that had rejected the Romans; Gibbon observed that the world’s rulers withdrew with disdain from a harsh, cloudy, and glacial land. He speaks of the “nighty theological battles,” which in the same paragraph he nicknames “that ecclesiastical labyrinth.” Nietzsche would write that Christianity was, in its origins, a religion of slaves; Gibbon preferred to praise the mysterious decisions of God, which entrusted the revelation of the Truth, not to serious and learned philosophers, but instead to a small group of illiterates. He didn’t deny the miracles; he criticized the unpardonable negligence of those pagan observers who, like Pliny, registered all the prodigious acts of the world and said not a word about the resurrection of Lazarus nor of the earthquake and eclipse on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Since Tacitus, many have pondered the pious fervor of the Germans, who didn’t enclose their gods in temples and who preferred to adorn them in the loneliness of the woods; Gibbon comments that those scarely capable of raising a hut could construct temples poorly.

Before writing in English, Gibbons would do it in French and Latin; this discipline, to which he joined the study of Pascal and Voltaire, prepared them for the execution of his great work. This led him to fierce polemics of a theological character, which he enjoyed greatly and in which he was always the winner.

To The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire we can add a treatise on the Elysian Mysteries and an admirable autobiography, published after his death.

As I did with the American volume, I enjoyed this one greatly, for virtually the same reasons I gave in that earlier commentary.  Although it's nothing that native English readers (especially those who have had to endure a year or two of British literature taught by those who have more of a passion for the techniques than for the power of the stories) haven't heard before, when viewed as what a semi-outsider (I say semi, because Borges' grandmother was English and she taught him to read and speak English at the same time he was learning to do the same in Spanish, so he was exposed from childhood to the greats of English literature) would recommend to a non-English-speaking audience, this book certainly was worth publishing.
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