The OF Blog: Borges Month: El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926)

Friday, July 02, 2010

Borges Month: El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926)

If Borges' first collection, Inquiciones, demonstrated how the young Borges at 25 had already begun developing certain techniques in his critical readings of literary texts, his second collection of essays, El tamaño de mi esperanza, published nearly a year later in 1926, covers more topics that later creep into his fictions.  In her introduction to the 1995 Alianza Editorial edition, Borges' widow, María Kodama, shares an interesting anecdote from 1971 that revolves around this particular book:

Un tarde de 1971, después de recibir su Doctorado honoris causa en Oxford, mientras charlábamos con un grupo de admiradores, alguien habló de El tamaño de mi esperanza.  Borges reaccionó enseguida, asegurándole  que ese libro no existía, y le aconsejó que no lo buscara más.  A continuación cambió de tema y me pidió que le contara a esa gente amiga algo más interesante; por ejemplo, nuestro viaje a Islandia.  Todo pareció quedar ahí, pero al día siguiente un estudiante lo llamó por teléfono y le dijo que el libro estaba en la Bodleiana, que se quedara tranquilo porque existía.  Borges, terminada la conversación, con una sonrisa me dijo:  ¡Qué vamos a hacer, María, estoy perdido! (pp. 7-8)

One afternoon in 1971, after receiving his honorary doctorate in Oxford, while we were chatting with a group of admirers, someone spoke of  The Size of My Hope.  Borges reacted immediately, assuring her that the book didn't exist, and he counseled her not to seek it any more.  Next he changed the topic and he asked me to tell this genteel friend something more interesting; for example, our trip to Iceland.  Everything seemed to remain there, but the following day a student called him on the telephone and said to him that the book was in the Bodleian Library, that he could remain tranquil before it existed.  Borges, ending the conversation, with a smile said to me, "What are we going to do, María, I am lost! 

This story is interesting for several reasons.  First, why would Borges deny the existence of his second book of essays?  Second, if Borges was being truly serious (and based on Kodama's following statements, it seems to be more than just a playful denial of a youthful work), then what does this collection contain that cause him to deny its existence in front of a group of admirers?  Finally, could this be related to how many people look back with some embarrassment on their earlier accomplishments?

In reading El tamaño de mi esperanza, I found myself thinking at several points, "Oh, so maybe this is where he first began to explore in his writing some of the concepts that appear in Ficciónes!"  or "Interesting how his viewpoint on the relationships between Word and Idea have shifted somewhat over the years."  Even for an author such as Borges who enjoys playing metatexual games, there seems to come a point where the author would rather the reader to stop trying to suss out the games within the text and just find that darn "Story" and read/interpret it for what it is for them. 

But yet despite this, it is worth reading El tamaño de mi esperanza precisely to discover possible sources for some of his story motifs.  Oh, this is not to say that Borges' essays, particularly his youthful ones, should be used as an interpretative guide (because, as Umberto Eco stated rather baldly in Baudolino, at the heart of stories are a bunch of "lies"), but rather as a way of understanding other facets of Borges' writing career.  I am one of those rare readers, it seems, who enjoys reading non-fiction published by a writer, not because I want to use their non-fiction to interpret their stories, but rather to understand how they approach the art of reading and interpreting other texts, so I could learn more about them as people rather than trying to predict the specific source materials for their fictions.  Borges's non-fiction is invaluable in this regard, as I have covered in my previous review of Inquisiciones.  Here in his second collection, what he covers is of a more metaphysical nature and it is his ideas on Language that interested me the most.

One particular essay that I would like to single out for attention is "El idioma infinito."  Although I will not at this time translate passages from it (in large part because the entire six page essay is so tightly interwoven that it would be much better to summarize than to choose a single bit), I will note that Borges' love of language, which he later covers in a third book of essays, El idioma de los argentinos (which I'll be reviewing this weekend), shines through.  He notes briefly the debate between a regulated language, as embodied by the Real Academia Española, and those who favor a more free-form approach.  Here, Borges is a bit more sympathetic to the slang-loving side, a position that did shift somewhat later in his career.  "The Infinite Idiom" reveals Borges' love of word play and the associations made with adjectives and synonyms.  Perhaps some will see this as the precursor that led inevitably to later fictions such as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," but to me, that seems to be placing Effect before Cause here.  Borges' opinions on issues of language and its application in prose and poetry are still in flux here; more hopefully will be said when I review his next book, El idioma de los argentinos.  

El tamaño de mi esperanza is also of interest to Borgesians due to its treatment of issues such as the matter of angels ("Historia de los ángeles"), of the relationships between Adventure and Order ("La Aventura y el Orden") and his essay on analysis ("Ejercicio de análisis").  These topics, as well as several others covered here (mostly on various poets and writers that Borges was reading at the time), are also treated in later essays, so for now, I will just mention them in order to give some idea of the scope of this particular essay collection.  El tamaño de mi esperanza is, more so than Inquisiciones, a look at the young Borges as Critic.  He is starting to find his "voice" as a literary analyst and if at times he appears to be too strident compared to the older Borges, perhaps that is just as well, as reading and following the evolution of the author as essayist can be an illuminating experience for those of us, such as myself, who look to Borges as one possible model for how to approach the art of wrestling with a text.  For this alone, this collection is worth reading, and for those who I suppose would rather want to see if they can detect where Idea X or Y that is treated in his fictions first appears, this book may be of some value as well.  But for me, El tamaño de mi esperanza reveals much more about how one critic plays with ideas rather than an author who's developing ideas to explore.  It may be a subtle difference, but it is an important one to consider.  Regardless, for those who are fans of Borges' works, this is a recommended collection, even if there are a few underdeveloped ideas in these essays.

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