Thursday, June 14, 2012

`The Pure Merits of His Skill'

One underreported perk of working as a journalist is reading obituaries before they are published. We get a sneak peek at mortality and learn before others of deaths famous and obscure. Here’s a list of people I admire whose deaths I learned of while working on the city desks of various newspapers, monitoring the wire: Glenn Gould, Italo Calvino, R. Buckminster Fuller, Count Basie, Sam Peckinpah, Elizabeth Bishop, Bill Evans, Zoot Sims and Elias Canetti. The one that hit hardest came twenty-six years ago today while I was minding the desk at the now-defunct Knickerbocker News, the afternoon paper in Albany, N.Y. That’s how I heard Jorge Luis Borges had died, on June 14, 1986, in Geneva, Switzerland. 

Most deaths come as a surprise, even the death of Borges who was almost eighty-seven and known to be ailing, but I had discovered him while still in high school, not long after North America learned it shared a hemisphere with a world-class writer who didn’t write in English. Grove Press published A Personal Anthology in 1961 and Ficciones the following year, when New Directions brought out Labyrinths. Also in 1961, Borges shared the first Prix International with Samuel Beckett. By the time I went to college in 1970, Borges was being touted by John Barth and I was assigned to read Labyrinths in a modern fiction class. Only slowly did the range of Borges’ accomplishment become apparent, and it took decades to appreciate him as a major poet. Here, translated by Stephen Kessler, is the sonnet “Things” (Selected Poems, 2000): 

“My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,
The obedient lock, the belated notes
The few days left to me will not find time
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion. How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.” 

Come to think of it, today is an exceptionally sad day for readers, a day of much “vanishing.” On June 14 in 1837 we lost Giacomo Leopardi; and in 1936, G.K. Chesterton. In his obituary for the latter, whose death preceded his own by precisely fifty years, Borges called Chesterton “one of the finest writers of our time, not just for his fortunate invention, visual imagination, and the childlike or divine happiness that pervades his works, but for his rhetorical virtues, for the pure merits of his skill.”

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