Aristoteles speaking to Callisthenes in one of the Imaginary Conversations of Walter Savage Landor is mistaken (though reading is, of course, “silent conversation”). Dr. Johnson relished books and talk, as did Coleridge and Hazlitt. Borges was a heroic reader and talker. In my university library I count seven volumes of his conversations and interviews already translated into English, including the recent 337-page Conversations, the first of three volumes from Seagull Books. Among them I include Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (trans. Katherine Silver, New Directions, 2013), based on transcriptions of the twenty-five lectures Borges delivered at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. Though erudite in content, the lectures are elegantly colloquial in delivery, filled with the digressions, clarifications and spontaneous interjections of most conversation.
In “Class 10,” his lecture on Boswell’s great biography, Borges says Johnson “dedicated his final years …to conversation” and “He preferred to talk rather than to write.” (Neither observation is entirely, or unchangingly, accurate.) Borges contrasts Boswell’s Life with Eckermann’s Conversations of Goethe to the advantage of the former: “The book has something of catechism about it. In other words: Eckermann asks, Goethe answers, the first writes down what Goethe has said…. Eckermann almost doesn’t exist except as a kind of machine that records Goethe’s words.” It doesn’t help that Goethe, at least to most English-language readers, is brilliant but dull. Boswell is often Johnson’s foil. Each is a character in Boswell’s comic drama. They swap roles as Mr. Bones and Mr. Interlocutor. Their roles are dynamic, reflecting the evolution of their relationship and Boswell’s slow and never completed maturation over the years. Wisely, Borges is not a strict constructionist when comes to Boswell’s literalism as his friend’s amanuensis:
“…it is very possible that Johnson was not always as epigrammatic nor as ingenious as he is presented in the work, though undoubtedly, after meetings at his club, his interlocutors retain memories much like that. There are sentences, in any case, that seem to be coined by Johnson.”
My favorite line in Professor Borges, a mere seven words from “Class 8,” is delivered in the guise of an incontestable fact, but is merely Borges animating Johnson’s bluff resolution: “So, Johnson decided to write a dictionary.”