Friday, November 30, 2018

'Dazzled by His Imagination, His Literary Culture'

My middle son, a plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy, has managed to discover, along with boxing, chemistry, calculus, Old English, seamanship and women, the wonder of Jorge Luis Borges. When he was home for three days at Thanksgiving, I gave him some of my Borges collections and suggested the obvious gems: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Library of Babel,” “Funes the Memorious,” “The Aleph” and others. I remember reading Labyrinths (1962) in high school and feeling as though I had discovered another universe. Reading Nabokov around the same time was a comparable experience. Borges offered some of the virtues claimed for science fiction without the pulpy vulgarity and lousy writing. Even in English translation, his prose is a delight. Take this from “The Aleph”:

“I arrive now at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south. (Not in vain do I recall these inconceivable analogies; they bear some relation to the Aleph.)”    

Borges’ accomplishments as a writer are matched by his glory as a reader. He seems to have read everything and remembered it. He is a voluptuary of the book. He writes in 1927 essay, “Literary Pleasure” (trans. Suzanne Jill Levine, On Writing, 2010):

“Our indolence speaks of classical books, eternal books. If only some eternal book existed, primed for our enjoyment and whims, no less inventive in the populous morning as in the secluded night, oriented toward all hours of the world. Your favorite books, reader, are like the rough drafts of that book without a final reading.”

Two women I work with, natives of Argentina, told me that Borges was a standard part of the curriculum in their schools when they were growing up. Neither is a literary person or ambitious reader, but both expressed national pride when I mentioned my son’s recent discovery of Borges and my longtime love of his work. In Sabers and Utopia: Visions of Latin America (trans. Anna Kushner, 2018), Mario Vargas Llosa writes in “Repugnant Laudatory Farce”:   

“In reality, great talents are not ‘produced’ by their countries, and, as such, Borges is not an Argentine ‘product.’ He came out of an almost indiscernible alliance of ideas, images, poems, novels, essays, philosophic and theological systems, coming from many languages and cultures, from the stimulating atmosphere of a family, a group of friends and acquaintances, but, mainly, from a disposition or personal gift, a unique and exclusive one, for dreaming, fantasizing, assimilating great literary creations and ordering Spanish words into phrases, pages, and books of extraordinary precision and unusual beauty. And for this reason, like Shakespeare, Goethe, Cervantes, and so many other eminent creators, Borges belongs not to Argentina but rather to all who read him and are dazzled by his imagination, his literary culture, his elegance, his irony, and his magnificent way of using our language, imposing on it the exactitude of English and the intelligence of French without losing the wild vigor of the Castilian.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

I commend you to that bastion of pulpy vulgarity and lousy writing, Weird Tales. It regularly published Clark Ashton Smith, and when I first read Borges, I realized that Smith, probably without ever hearing of Borges, had written several stories that Borges himself would have been proud to have produced, among them "The Last Incantation", "The Empire of the Necromancers", and especially "The Last Hieroglyph."