The OF Blog: The wotmania Files: Short reviews of Jorge Luis Borges' collections (2005-2007)

Friday, February 27, 2009

The wotmania Files: Short reviews of Jorge Luis Borges' collections (2005-2007)

Here are a few short commentaries/reviews of some of Jorge Luis Borges' collections that I originally posted at wotmania in 2005-2007. Since I praise Borges on occasion here as being one of the best storytellers that I've read in either English or Spanish, thought I'd post my comments, even if I would have said a lot more here than I did there two-four years ago.

El Hacador/Dreamtigers and Siete noches/Seven Nights

I've just finished re-reading the original Spanish essay collection of Borges, Siete Noches (available in English as Seven Nights) and have waited to review his 1960 collection El Hacedor (Dreamtigers) in English so I could be cheesy and dedicate it to a fellow Borges fan, Mery, who turned 24 today. But there's already a birthday thread for her elsewhere, so back to the blind Argentine writer/poet/essayist, shall we?

Dreamtigers is a story collection that displays Borges at his most surreal and dreamlike best. The stories are indeed, as Shakespeare said in The Tempest "the stuff as dreams are made on" and these fragmented tales contain that mixture of the Real and Unreal that people our dreams. The titular story (in English, that is, as El Hacedor is the namesake title for the Spanish original) is a thing of lost, almost forlorn hope and beauty.

Although I could type out completely without proper citation Andrew Hurley's translation of "Dreamtigers," I will rather attempt to do my own translation, with consultations with the Hurley translation to smooth over rough patches:

In infancy I exercised with fervor the adoration of the tiger: not the spotted tiger [jaguar] of the camalotes of the Paraná and the Amazon wilderness, but instead the striped tiger, Asiatic, real, which only could be confronted by men of war, from a castle on top of an elephant. I would remain, stopping for ages, before one of the cages in the zoo; I ranked the vast encylopedias and books of natural history by the splendor of their tigers. (I always remember these figures: I who cannot recall without error the face or smile of a woman.) Infancy passed, the tigers and my passion for them faded, but always they are in my dreams. In that underground or chaotic pool, they continue to prevail and thusly: Sleeping, I am drawn into some sort of dream and suddenly I know that it is a dream. Then I stop to think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will, and since I have limitless power, I'm going to bring into being a tiger.

Oh, incompetence! My dreams never know how to generate the savage beast I so desire. Yes, the tiger appears, but it is shrivelled or weakly, or with impure variations of form or an unacceptable size or is fleeting in appearance or takes the form of a dog or parrot.

The other stories in Dreamtigers follow along similar paths where 'reality' has interstitial relationships with 'dream.' Another example is the story "Borges and I", for which there is a link to a translation.

If you've ever read and enjoyed Borges' other works or are curious to read stories that touch upon the stuff of dreams, then I would highly recommend Dreamtigers for you to read. Of the books that I have of Borges in Spanish, it is certainly the most poetic of his prose works.

But what if you've read Borges and don't get all of his literary/philosophical references? Or what if you want to know more about what influenced Borges? For those wanting to know more about Borges the essayist, I would suggest a reading of Seven Nights. This is a collection of seven speeches that Borges gave in 1977 dealing with a wide variety of cultural/literary topics including the textual meanings behind Dante's The Divine Comedy (and the roles of Reason and Faith in it); the shaping of Nightmares and how such a word has so many connotations in the various languages in which the concept of an evil, malignant dream exists; The Arabian Nights and the infinitude implied within its alternate title of The Thousand and One Nights; the core characteristics and values of Buddhism; the power of Poetry to capture in a word snapshot the soul's image; the arcaneness of the Kabbalah and the search for that elusive Word to bring life into being; and Blindness as a real and metaphoric condition - each of these elements reflects in part some of the elements present in Borges' stories.

If you want to see a thoughtful look at literature and the development and importance of Ideas, then his Seven Nights will make for an enjoyable read and perhaps will serve to interest you to explore further the topics Borges covers.

El Aleph/The Aleph

It should be no surprise that Jorge Luis Borges is one of my all-time favorite writers. The work he did over a 50 year period is truly remarkable, considering he never wrote a full-length novel. However, his exploration of how words and images connect with our imagination and with our hopes and fears to create a nexus of thought and meaning has had a profound impact on late 20th and early 21st century writing, both within and without the speculative fiction sphere.

Last Wednesday, I posted about his earliest well-known collection of stories, The Universal History of Infamy. I could post now about his most famous work, Ficciónes, but Jake already has covered that in a Book Club review (not to mention that last year I had a thread devoted to discussing some stories from Ficciónes). Instead, I'm going to talk about a work that I think is the equal to Ficciónes, at least in some regards. That work being The Aleph.

This collection of stories was released in 1949 and, to me at least, was a more coherent and focused collection than was Ficciónes. As I was reading these stories in Spanish (and later checking over them with the English translation I have), I kept noticing certain themes. Themes such as the Thirst for Knowledge, the Exploration of the Unknown, the Conflict between Orthodox and Heterodox, and the Search for the Meanings behind Life. In a very real sense, just as Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, "these are the stuff on which dreams are made."

Borges explores these themes in a variety of ways. In "The Immortal," not only is the main character lost in a maze leading to a fabled city, the language used is a labyrinth of meanings as well - what is immortality anyways? For "The Theologians," Borges uses the imagery of people hating and waging conflict from afar over a philosophical/theological truth that is substantially the same, with the action of the story paralleling what occurs on the metaphysical level.

Many of the stories focus on secret knowledge and how life is based upon and reacts to it. "Averroës' Search" is a prime example of this, while "The Zahir" is something else, something verboten in a sense that isn't immediately made clear to the reader. And the titular story, "The Aleph," deals with the Kabbalic knowledge in a way related to the creation of life and meaning from the associations with the first letter of the primordial alphabet.

Each of the stories have their own meanings and I will not delve further at this time (unless someone else who's read some of these stories wants to discuss them with me below?), but I would hold The Aleph up as being the second crowning point (after Ficciónes) of Borges' writing. A simple must-read in order for someone truly to be knowledgable of speculative fiction.

Historia universal de la infamia/Universal History of Infamy

This is the earliest of Borges's collections of fictions, except in this case, it's based on true stories...well, kinda. Written in 1935, The Universal History of Infamy (although Andrew Hurley translates it as The Universal History of Inquity) deals with 7 rather unsavory types and their rises and downfalls. From the 'cruel redeemer' Lazarus Morell to the Widow Pirate to Billy the Kid to a masked prophet who rose up in the years following the Hegira in the Middle East, Borges has taken accounts of real-life people and made them akin to his own creations, with a plethora of possible motives and intentions. Following the History proper comes some of Borges's earliest-known fictional pieces, like the stunning "Man on the Pink Corner" (about a street tough who goes down in a blaze of...well, he goes down in a moving way that needs to be read to be understood in full) or his account of multiple Mohammad's being produced. Each of these tales gives a hint of the cleverness and the twisting narratives that has made Borges not only one of the most important Argentine authors, but also one of the most important writers of the 20th century.

Without a Borges, I don't know if magic realism would have been as important. Without a Borges, I doubt a Gene Wolfe would have been inspired to write Book of the New Sun. Without a Borges, we likely wouldn't see the exact types of stories that a China Miéville or a Jeff VanderMeer or a whole host of others would have written otherwise. And we certainly wouldn't have a direct tribute to Borges written by Rhys Hughes (daringly called A New Universal History of Infamy) that pays homage in a way that is much more than just lifting inspiration and mode from the original.

For those curious as to what Borges is all about and why many of us think he's head and shoulders above virtually all other authors of the past 100 years, start with The Universal History of Infamy. It is perhaps his most accessible work and in it, you can see the seeds begin to germinate into the flowerings such as Ficciónes and The Aleph.

El libro de los seres imaginarios/The Book of Imaginary Beings

As many of you may have noticed recently, I have mentioning a certain blind Argentine writer more and more around here. There is a reason for that, as I believe Borges to be one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, not just in the field of les letres belles, but also in the realm of speculative fiction. Without Borges, I cannot imagine Gene Wolfe's labyrinthical works having that element of twisting mystery and double meaning to them. Without JLB, China Miéville might not have had the inspiration for many of the creatures that appear in the bestiary that is Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, among other works of his. Without Borges's subtle manipulation of Mood, Tone, and Language to create multitude of possibilities within a dreamscape, so many other writers, both Anglo-American and Latin American alike, might not have been moved to write their own works of beauty.

It is with this in mind that I checked out from the library this week El libro de los seres imaginarios (available in English translation as The Book of Imaginary Beings). The book itself is deceptively small, only 210 mass-market paperbook-sized pages with a largish font, but within are contained a plethora of stories and images to ponder.

Borges was an inveterate collector of stories, often taking them, tweaking them just enough to make them his own. As I posted here, Borges took a character from Grimmelshausen's The Adventurous Simplicissimus and made him appear to be a vague menace, one that likely had a direct influence of Gene Wolfe's character of the same name in the Book of the New Sun series. Or Borges would take a legend, say that of the Garuda, and make it new, something spectacular to the point that a China Miéville would consider such a creature for his Perdido Street Station.

But these are just vague references, but how about this little writing of Borges's that appears at the end to the first edition of Miéville's The Tain, the story of the attack from the mirror people. In this story, Borges uses sparse but very descriptive and imaginative language to convey a sense of the surreal, of the fantastic lurking beneath the mundane world in which we purportedly inhabit to the oft-denial of our imaginative selves. It is one of the more remembered short pieces of Borges and indicative of his mastery of style, which thankfully translates rather well into English from the original Spanish.

However, I've been talking around the book, haven't I? In regards to what is included, imagine just about a hundred beings from satyrs to chimeras to leviathans to unicorns to banshees to krakens to basilisks to other fantastical fauna and flora from all across this globe of ours. Borges adds a bit of 'realism' to them, while also revealing in a few short phrases how we tended to view these 'creatures' and their 'place' in 'our' world. It is an amazingly subtle work that can be read on a multitude of levels - a simple bedtime story to a child to a penetrating analysis of our mythologies. It is as if Borges were but a mere presenter and we the interpreters of our own dreams.

The Book of Imaginary Beings is not a novel in the sense of a unified story. Instead, it is a collection, a true bestiary in written form. As such, it might do to read 5-10 of these 1-2 page stories a night before sleeping, perchance to dream. But however you choose to read, do read it. This is beg, borrow, or even steal territory here. So go out and get you some.


"El Sur"/"The South"

The first story I read for this discussion is actually the last one in the combined edition of Ficciónes. Because Mery was curious about why I chose this particular story, I thought I would elaborate on my comments to her earlier.

The story revolves around one Juan Dahlmann, a descendent of a German immigrant and apparent heir to the fatalistic romanticism of his maternal grandfather, Francisco Flores. Enamored with the life of the gaucho, Dahlmann saves the Flores ranch among other things. One day, he is cut by the edge of a metal door and the wound becomes infected. Fever burning, images of the recently-purchased The Thousand and One Nights run through his mind (hmm... anyone want to discuss the symbolism here of this book?). Carried to a sanatorium via a hackney coach, Dahlmann soon finds himself hating his body, infected and as weak as it is at that point. Stoic in front of the doctors, he lapses into crying self-pity.

But an interesting thing happens, not only does he recover, but Borges uses an interesting phrase for it (in English): "Reality favours symmetries and slight anachronisms..." In by hackney, out by hackney, with the putrid images of disease replaced by the clean memories promised by the autumn winds. As he leaves Buenos Aires and enters the true South (a metaphorical place as much as anything physical, apparently), Dahlmann seems to come more into himself, both in thoughts and in dreams. Again The Thousand and One Nights appears, but its fantastical imaginations seem to pale in the wonders and mysteries of a life somehow restored from the brink of a death by infectious rot. Images of peace and wonder flow at this point of the story.

As he travels South (and not just merely south), Dahlmann's perceptions alter subtly. Nothing is quite the same as it was before; things have a taste of "home," or of whatever symbolic (or maybe even real?) virtue that is bestowed upon them by the observing person.

The train stops in advance of his ranch/estancio, but Dahlmann is ready to walk. Small adventure, nothing special, yet very at the same time, as all adventures must seem to those participating in one. Slow walking, breathing in the odors and perhaps more of the grassy, clover-filled lands about him. Again, the juxtapositioning of images with objects, creating an effect of familiar strangeness, if such an effect might be termed that. The scarlet (blood?)-colored general store being one example.

He enters a room filled with gauchos, rough and tough. As he drinks his tart red wine, a Chinese-looking gaucho flings breadcrumb spit balls at him as a sign of contempt, causing the peones to laugh at his apparent weakness. Even a cursory examination of The Thousand and One Nights doesn't resolve anything in his mind or with the situation at hand. Realizing that he isn't well enough to engage in a fight, he attempts to leave when the owner complicates matters by speaking aloud of the situation. Interestingly enough, he seems to know of Dahlmann's name (what could this mean?), which makes the before-apparently anonymous insulting into something more, something akin to a direct attack upon his very name.

This forces Dahlmann, following his own code of honor (apparently gauchos, cowboys, and Appalachians are much the same in this), confronts the peones, especially the Chinese-looking gaucho, who draws his knife and challenges Dahlmann to a knife fight. Dahlmann has no knife, but an old, wizened gaucho tosses Dahlmann his knife and the fight is on.

Realizing that he is going to die, that in his condition, this is little more than justifying murder, Dahlmann feels liberated, much more than he ever did in the sanatorium. This is a death for him, perhaps the only one someone of his particular code could ever accept as "clean" and as being "real."


I annotated my above lengthy summary of the story for a reason. There is much of Borges's style that appears innocuous at first glance, but a more careful re-reading reveals certain clues (and before you ask, Mery, I also read this in Spanish, but I must write from the English edition for the others to understand) on how a reader can be led into interpreting this passage in many ways.

For those raised only in a city far away from a culture akin to that of the gauchos, this might be hard to understand - how can a man take joy in dying? Why the crying in the sanatorium? Why the difference in perceptions as one travels away/toward a destination?

I could try to answer these at some length, I suppose, but I rather not at this time, because there's so much more worth toward people discussing these questions above.

For myself, my own understandings are colored by my own regional perspective. Although my family past is full of relatively important people (as are many people's past), the recent past has been that of a brutal poverty that my grandparents on both sides endured. A poverty of living from one week to the next, hoping that the farm won't be foreclosed, that the cicadas won't emerge that year to destroy the crops, that there won't be devastating rains out of season, that the "creek won't rise." Yet those adversarial conditions bred a contempt for the easy way out. Although I'm of the first generation of my family to be completely raised off the farm, I can't help but have picked up some of that unbending attitude, of a resolution that while shit happens, one just can't be a coward and back down. One has only one's family and maybe friends to depend upon and songs have been written romanticizing this attitude.

So when I read of Juan Dahlmann's journey toward a death of his own liking, I just couldn't help but think of relatives who have refused medication in preference for just dying in a manner most befitting of them. It is not vainglorious, it is just how certain people want to live, as if choosing the manner of their death gives validity to the life that they had just lived to its (hopefully) fullest completion.

"Pierre Menard"

"Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote"/"Autor de Don Quijote" is one of my all-time favorite short stories to read, because as is so often the case with a reader considering what he/she has read from Borges, it is the reader's own attitudes that fill in the blanks to so much of this story.

The story begins with an interesting comment about "the visible works left by this novelist." Much can be read into this, or very little. Such a choice of emphasis. To refer to something visible is to refer not just to one's own perceptions, but also perhaps to the biases and attitudes of those reading the writing, those who will choose to see what he or she will see in the writing, leaving the rest behind. The following reference to omissions by a partisan Calvinist newspaper serves to underscore this particular interpretation of the story, for what is truth and history but how its readers/interpreters choose to tell it? More on this later.

Menard's background as a thinker and a writer, as provided seem to illustrate strong connections to symbolism, of the juxtapositioning of Idea/Form for Matter/Fact in such a way as to create perceptions and shadows to color the viewer/reader's understanding of what has been apparently presented. Poetic vocabularies, ideal objects, essential metric laws, enriching the game of chess - all these are included to develop this notion of transference further.

So by the time we get to Menard's audacious (and dare I say Quixotic?) plan to write anew the Don Quijote of Miguel Cervantes, the reader has been given the opportunity to consider just what is at stake here in this story in terms of interpreting Interpretation (among a great many other things, of course).

The various steps in Menard's struggle are interesting. The first one (dismissed as Menard as being too easy!) is to simply become Cervantes in purposes of language, faith, actions, and understanding of world events. Yet he decides to do this new writing (note my avoidance of the term "rewrite," for this would be a major disrespect to Menard here!) through the experiences of Pierre Menard, a totally different way of approaching the material at hand, even if the words are exactly the same.

Borges then points out (as a precursor to the ending paragraphs) a reading of Chapter XXVI of Don Quijote, which concerns "the nymphs of the rivers, mournful and humid Echo."/"las ninfas de los ríos, la dolorosa y húmida Eco.", which Borges ties into a line from Shakespare: "When a malignant and turbaned Turk." Interesting choice there, especially considering how Shakespeare's own words have taken their own lives independent of the author, his times, and of the poems/plays from which they come. And it is in this that I have chosen to interpret the story of Pierre Menard in the following fashion.

But first, a focus on another seemingly small comment. There is a reference to a philosophical fragment of the German writer Novalis which outlines the theme of total identification with a specific author. The italicized total is very key here, I believe. How do we react when we read this? Do we reject it out of hand, or maybe just a little bit subconsciously? Can we ever identify so much with anything, or do we create our own little spaces for distance, using the guises of Perception and Interpretation?

And then we get to the end part, where Borges interprets Part I, Chapter Nine of Don Quijote: verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir.

(...truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.)

Both Cervantes and Menard wrote this same passage. But how do we interpret this, presuming that Menard has created anew this interesting phrase? Do we try to interpret it via the lens of the early 17th century, perhaps following Ranke's dictum of Wie es eigentlich gewesen - How it truly was, or do we choose to understand matters as it relates to ourselves?

This passage is central here, because the narrator/Borges points out how such a passage surely must have been meant by Cervantes, just as he commentates how Menard's phrase shows an acute understanding of Jamesian ideas regarding the origins of history, full of pragmatism, compared to the poetic rhapsodies of Cervantes's version. One version of the Quixote might be a parody of the chivalric tales of Amadis of Gaul, the other a nihilistic destruction of the idea of Glory as being purposeful.

It is this interesting twisting of words (or is it only a seeming twisting and it's really my own biases doing the warping here?) that fascinated me so much when I first read this story. Now having re-read it in both English and Spanish, I feel like there's even more at stake here and that there are blind spots in my own understanding that could be fleshed out. Anyone want to weigh in with their thoughts on this story and its possible meanings/anti-meanings?

"Funes el memorioso"/"Funes, the Memorous"

"Funes, the Memorious/Funes el memorioso" is in turns an easy and exceedingly difficult story to read. A man trapped in a shell of his body, memory constant never fleeing, such a prison of the structures one makes of the world. When I read the first few pages, I almost immediately thought of Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1939, of a World War I soldier who loses his arms, legs, hearing, eyesight, and voice, yet somehow miraculously lives on (Metallica wrote their famous song "One" based on the movie version of Trumbo's controversial anti-war novel). But Borges goes a totally different path here.

As I've noticed when reading other stories of his, Borges leaves much to the reader's imagination. His stories are pared down to the essential frameworks, which incidentially leaves him plenty of room to place a word in such a way as to make us consider anew what he might have meant whenever we re-read his stories.

Ireneo Funes is a difficult character to comprehend. Uruguayan, young in chronology, his life after a horrible accident is more than just a terror for many of us. Trapped, sealed within his body's cage, Ireneo depends upon others to live. Yet the accident has caused him to have impeccable memory. But what happens when memory is all one is left and experience is taken away?

Perfect reconstructions of conversations, systems of analysis, and languages - yes, Funes is more than capable of those. But change, the moments between which we move uncertainly on our way toward life experiences and ultimately death? Funes seems to be constantly startled, viewing the world in such a way that while at first glance seems to be deep in details, in the end it merely becomes more ethereal and frail than our own forgetful memories of what we have experienced.

This was an incredibly sad tale to read. Funes almost begs for our pity, yet he is so alien as to make it very difficult for any reader to be able to understand even remotely the way he must live his life. It is as if Funes were in a dream within which he could construct a world, but outside his prison/body, he was helpless to do anything.

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius"

This first story of Ficciónes is also one of the longest stories that Borges ever wrote. It appears to take the form of a detective story, albeit one starring a fictional Borges and a fictional Adolfo Bioy Casares, but yet its exploration of an "encyclopedia" of a "vanished" civilization, with its rather unique semantical orderings of time and space, is rather more than what it appears. A clue appears in a footnote in the middle of the story (p. 29 in my Spanish-language edition) that references the belief that in the act of repetition, one becomes all of the so-called others who have ever done the same; one who repeats a line of Shakespeare becomes Shakespeare for at least that instant. There is no real thing as a past or a future, just vague collections or interpretations of that continuous turmoil called the "present."

The story is one of the first to reference mirrors and the "creation" of doubles (or the "abominable" multiplication of beings) and as such, that imagery underlies much of this story. In the "discovery" of the XI volume of the Tlön Dictionary, I believe one can see in the ensuing discussion a mirroring and thus multiplication of ideas concerning the relationships between languages and realities. The Orbius Tertius is portrayed as being some sort of secret society. As the Tlön "languages" are explored, Borges confronts us with imagining one language without any nouns, only suffixes and prefixes to verbs to convey a sense of unrooted action, while another Tlön language employs only modified adjectives that describe while leaving the presumed subject forever in the background, thus making conceptualizations of most, if not all, of our philosophy impossible. How could we portray the world and our hopes and fears if there are no visible subjects/nouns?

In pondering that, Borges, I believe, has us by the short and curlies. The "postscript," dated 7 years into the "future" of the story, reveals a possibly sinister plot by the Orbius Tertius to take over "the" world by introducing a "new" civilization, ungrounded in our concepts of reality and thus not existing in our space but in another space and time. It is this postscript where the mystery mutates and becomes something more than just a mere intellectual exercise and becomes in part (perhaps) an example of how ideas influence reality rather than reality (or the concept of it, rather) influencing ideas. And considering the time (1940) that it was written and considering the place (Argentina) where Borges formulated the notion of an "ordered reality" emerging (perhaps in response to the quasi-Fascist government in place then), perhaps there is more of the then and there to his story than what can be taken from a reading thousands of miles and many decades later. Still, it was a very enjoyable story, one that has grown more chilling with each re-read.

"Las ruinas circulares"/"The Circular Ruins"

This is one of the more dreamlike and fantastical of the stories in Ficciónes and yet one of the more straightforward ones I've yet to read by Borges. It is a tale of a wizard who comes to a place of circular ruins and dreams of creation. He makes a deal with Fire to have his painstakingly realistic dream of a boy come "true," to be able to walk in this world without appearing to be any less real than them. It then continues until the "real" becomes in the end, nothing more than the dreaming of another, perhaps an allusion to the Universal Mind theory of a divine being that "dreams" all of our waking and sleeping moments, dreams of our hopes, fears, and silly goodness and earnest madness. When I read this again just now, I couldn't help but think of Calderón de la Barca's classic play, La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream). In miniature, many of the same motifs of that Golden Era (early 17th century Spanish theatre) appear here in Borges' story. And one writer dreams that of another writer's work, both becoming as real as a boy walking through flames...

The Book of Fantasy (anthology, read in English translation)

This book, full of short stories and excerpts from novels of the fantastic, consists of tales chosen by three famous Argentine writers/critics: Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares (The Invention of Morel being a work that I believe most here should read), and Bioy Casares' wife, Silvina Ocampo. The genesis of this collection began one Buenos Aires night in 1937, when the three started to discuss tales of the supernatural or otherwise fantastic that moved them the most. Since the 1940 original edition, the work was expanded in the 1960s to reach its present length of nearly 400 pages.

I bought this book in English rather than in Spanish because roughly half of the stories available were known to Borges and his friends in either English original or translation. There are many stories that ought to be familiar to readers here, such as Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw." But there are also many South American and Asian writers that are well worth the time to read.

The stories themselves generally tend to have a heightened sense of "otherness." The settings (or if you prefer, the "landscapes," as Moorcock referred to him in his book on epic fantasy) are varied and almost universally vivid in its tone and effect on the characters and the story.

For those that might want to know some of my favorite authors and stories, here is a partial list:

J.G. Ballard, "The Drowned Giant"

Max Beerbohm, "Enoch Soames"

Ambrose Bierce, "The Tail of the Sphinx"

Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"

Ray Bradbury, "The Golden Kite"

G.K. Chesterton, "The Tower of Babel"

Chuang Tzu, "The Dream of the Butterfly"

Julio Cortázar, "House Taken Over"

Herbert A. Giles, "The Man Who Did Not Believe in Miracles"

W.W. Jacobs, "The Monkey's Paw"

James Joyce, "What is a Ghost?"

Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"

Emanuel Swedenborg, "A Theologian in Death"

B. Traven, "Macario"

Evelyn Waugh, "The Man Who Liked Dickens"

Oscar Wilde, "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime"

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, "The Reanimated Englishman"

Plus many, many more that were just merely pretty good.

So I would highly recommend that you do yourself a favor and look for a copy of this book, although it's probably best to buy used online and get a good condition hardcover for around $10. It's more than worth any money paid for it.

Biblioteca Personal/Personal Library

Borges was much more than just a writer of speculative short stories. He was also a poet and a literary critic and in Biblioteca Personal (which is available in multiple languages, including English), he had collected 76 different introductions he had written for Spanish-language editions of works from across the globe.

While reading his takes on the lives and the importance of works by authors such as Julio Cortázar or Oscar Wilde or G.K. Chesterton or Edgar Allen Poe, I couldn't help but be struck by how insightful Borges' comments were. In the space of a mere 2-3 pages, he would almost invariably manage to sum up why the book was worth reading, why the author was interesting/important, and why the reader ought to be paying close attention to what she/he was about to read. Critiques/reviews/introductions do not come as finely as those that Borges provides in this slim 211 page book.

Excuse me while I try, probably in vain, to resist going out to read or re-read those 76 works. That alone should say something about how effective those collected introductions were, no?

El informe de Brodie/Dr. Brodie's Report

I finally managed to read this latter work (1970) of his in the original Spanish. For those who've read Ficciónes, The Aleph, or Dreamtigers and enjoyed that but thought that was about it as to what Borges "was about," then reading a book such as Dr. Brodie's Report might reveal a few new facets to this Argentine author's range of styles.

The stories here are not, for the most part, metaphysical. There are not armies of doubles marching down labyrinths toting mirrors to glean out arcane knowledge. Instead, there are gang fights, violence, and a bit of devolution seen in the title story. The writing is more direct, but no less of an impact upon the reader. Borges reports, we decide - what is it that motivates us as human beings? What drives us to kill, to join up with others, to become more (or less) than what we are now?

I enjoyed reading this collection. Although individually, these stories aren't going to have as an immediate of an impact as may a "Dreamtigers" or "Pierre Menard," they as a whole serve to stand as a testimony that Borges had many notes that he could play to get a reader to think and to react to what was happening in the stories. Highly recommended for those who've already had some exposure to Borges.

La memoria de Shakespeare/Shakespeare's Memory

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 like 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 he's 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 only in favor of the earlier work. One would miss out on the maturation process that took place through the various experimental stages. 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.


Anonymous said...

Wow Larry, thanks for putting this up, it contains such interesting commentary on Borge's works. I have his collected works in English, thanks to your recommendation when i first found this blog (a happy day).I am going to delve into this blog post later, thanks again


Larry Nolen said...

Glad you enjoyed it! Hopefully, I'll get around to writing longer, more substantive reviews of some of his non-fictions later. Those too are worth a read.

Anonymous said...

Borges was a big influence on Umberto Eco as well. This is especially noticeable in "The Name of the Rose" -but also less noticeably in "Foucault's Pendulum"-, with its deconstrution of the detective story -echoes of "Death and the Compass" and the notion of literary texts composed of nothing but fragments of other texts -reminiscence of "The Immortal".
In addition, some of Borges' stories such as "The Zahir" or "The Lottery in Babylon" seem to have set the template for some of Greg Egan's short-stories. Hey, there is even an allusion to "The Library of Babel" in "Wang's Carpets".

Anonymous said...

Borges was a big influence on Umberto Eco as well. This is especially noticeable in "The Name of the Rose" -but also less noticeably in "Foucault's Pendulum"-, with its deconstrution of the detective story -echoes of "Death and the Compass" and the notion of literary texts composed of nothing but fragments of other texts -reminiscences of "The Immortal".
In addition, some of Borges' stories such as "The Zahir" or "The Lottery in Babylon" seem to have set the template for some of Greg Egan's short-stories. Hey, there is even an allusion to "The Library of Babel" in "Wang's Carpets".

Larry Nolen said...

True, plus Borges influenced Roberto Bolaño's writing quite a bit; Bolaño acknowledges this in several of his short stories and novels. I'm planning on writing a Bolaño piece shortly, with some attention given to La literatura nazi en América, which is an homage of sorts to Borges' Historia universal de la infamia.

Anonymous said...

I would also recommend "Textos Cautivos", a selection of the articles and reviews that Borges published in a magazine called "El Hogar" in the 1930's. Among the articles are reviews of "Last and First Men", "Star Maker" and "Out of The Silent Planet", as well as a biographical sketch of Stapledon. The young Borges was a really catholic reader.
Another book of short-stories, "El libro de arena", published in 1975, includes "There Are More Things" -original title in English-, a Lovecraft pastiche, and "Utopy of a Tired Man", the closest Borges ever got to writing a pure science fiction story. I think this story was nominated for the Nebulas.

Larry Nolen said...

While I don't have Textos Cautivos (or at least not under that name), I have read El libro de arena; it just wasn't a book I mentioned at wotmania, I think. I'll try to remember to write a review of it sometime later this year.

viagra online said...

Luis Borges is really one of the best storytellers. i read some documents about him. He is really good. this commentaries or reviews are great.

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