I’ve always liked the word “quicksilver,” the archaic term, for “mercury,” but one that I’ve never seen linked to “contamination” or “pollution.” It looks precious but can’t be held easily. “Quicksilver” seems an apt metaphor for the fictions of the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), who, like Vladimir Nabokov, another playful polymath, was always high on the list of those expected to win a Nobel Prize for Literature through the 1970s. Speculation was that their politics were too conservative for the Swedish prize-selectors, though Borges had been outspoken a critic of the Nazis and the Peron dictatorship in Argentina that had reassigned him from a library job to inspecting chickens in the public markets of Buenos Aires.
The fictions of both Nabokov and Borges sometimes seem a hall of mirrors (or fleeting images on the quicksilver as it disperses). Nabokov wrote long, allusive novels, whereas all of Borges’s solo-authored fictions fits in five hundred printed pages (not counting the forewords and afterwords and blank pages between the books that were published separately during Borges’s lifetime). Both had read very widely-though I don’t know that Borges read each Nabokov. “Nabokov” is a name not listed in the index of Borges’s Selected Non-Fiction. (Nabokov professed frustration that Borges’s fictions were all porches with no house behind, that is, for lacking the heft of novels like his own or even Kafka’s.)
Both writers were favorites of mine when I was in my late teens. I discovered Nabokov first, was disappointed when Ada was published, and did not read or reread any Nabokov fiction for nearly three decades after that. I discovered Borges while I was an undergraduate. I would have liked to find someone who could explicate what he was doing, but did not find anyone. I don’t think there were then any books in English about him. I did an independent study project with a humanities professor who was unfamiliar with Borges’s work but willing to read and question what I wrote about Borges. I wish I could find the term paper I wrote, or even my translation of “A yellow rose.” I can’t recapture why I chose to translate that particular work (other than that it was very short!).
During the late-1970s and early 80s, with the boom of later Latin American literature, particularly “magic realism,” Borges became a name recognized by anyone aspiring to basic cultural literacy. Borges’s writings were lauded by Italo Calvino, John Updike, and Latin American writers, invoked by Michel Foucault, etc. The blind, septuagenarian author traveled to appearances on many US university campuses. I managed to miss seeing/hearing him three times as an undergraduate.
I continued to revere his writings of the 1940s, but I didn’t think that Dr. Brodie’s Report (1970) was as good as what was collected in Ficciones (first published in Spanish in1944) and El Aleph (1949). I was even more disappointed by The Book of Sand (1975) and did not pick up the last collection, Shakespeare’s Memory when it was published in 1983. I had the temerity to think that I’d outgrown Borges, or at least I’d consigned him to the archives of former enthusiasms.
For the centenary of Borges’s birth, Viking/Penguin issued a translation of all Borges’s solo-authored fiction done by Andrew Hurley (whose translations of Reinaldo Arenas I had admired), a collection of all Borges’s poetry, and a large selection of Borges’s nonfiction. I decided I had to have the fiction and nonfiction volumes. I read a few of the fictions I hadn’t read before. This confirmed my impression that his later works bordered on being self-parodies. Desultorily, I read through the peculiar fictions in the form of biographical essays of Borges’s first (1935) book, A Universal History of Iniquity without being impressed.
It was more to have something that could (should!) be read in short bursts than to recover or remind myself of adolescent enthusiasms that led me to take the Penguin Collected Fictions with me to what I knew was my mother’s death-bedside. (Incidentally, Borges’s mother lived very long.) I read the contents of Ficciones and El Aleph again (in the new translation by Andrew Hurley) while in the nursing-home room with my father (in contrast to the hours in which I was “in charge”). I mention such excruciatingly specific information about the circumstances of my (re)reading because I was not in my usual mindset ( my so-called “right mind”).
I found Borges’s cool contemplation of death-sometimes deaths ramifying back and forth through time-comforting. There are many stabbing deaths in Borges fictions, and I read them a long ways from any knife fights. There are also a number of dream encounters with a younger or older self, with the narrator unsure whether he is the dreamer or the dreamed. In the very last story, the narrator acquires another’s memory (without losing his own), and one of the most famous of Borges stories is about “Funes, His Memory.” Tricks of recollection and frequent questioning of what is remembered recur in Borges’s fiction.
Borges’s syntax is not complex (else I could certainly not have translated even a short piece when I was an undergraduate!), though the allusions to obscure historical figures and literary texts mix with analyses of lives and texts of Borges’s invention and there is vocabulary I don’t know (in English, not just in my halting Spanish). The time warps and occasional space warps (a labyrinth in Cornwall, the aleph in a Buenos Aires basement, etc.) are good to think in the vicinity of death, and I can recommend Borges fiction for those sunk in anticipatory bereavement.
Of course, that was not the condition in which I first enjoyed these fictions. My admiration in my recent rereading recapitulates my earlier admiration, singling out the 1944 second half of Ficciones, including “Death and the Compass,” which was made into an independent American movie by Alex Cox in 1992).
I was less enthralled by the miniatures (even in the Borges scale) of El Hacedor (“The Maker,” though the earlier American translation took the title of “Dreamtigers”) and wondered about my choice I’d made of one to translate. There were some pieces from Doctor Brodie’s Report that impressed me, including one I disliked but could not forget, the very unsettling, ghoulish “The Gospel According to Mark.” There was nothing that much impressed me in The Book of Sand. Rather than being disappointed anew by those stories, I was pleased that my youthful judgment had been sound (or at least the same!). I thought the title story from Shakespeare’s Memory interesting, but when I reached the end and looked at the table of contents in which I had checked stories for some future rereading, the checks were concentrated in Ficciones, falling off in frequency even in The Aleph, with nothing checked for Doctor Brodie’s Report.
The magic of Borges was strongest in his writings from the 1940s. He didn’t write anything lengthy enough to induce boredom, and there are images and ideas of interest in most everything he wrote. (Over the course of the last few days, I’ve dipped into the nonfiction, which reads very like the fiction and sometimes discusses writers so obscure that their work might as well be among the invented libraries of Borges’s fiction.) If I’d read Borges’s late fiction first, I’d probably have admired it, but I read Borges’s fiction the first time in something approaching chronological order and then read the complete collection in chronological order (ignoring most of the notes that explain the historical characters and events from Argentine and Uruguayan history. Unlike in the nonfiction volume, quotations from French, Italian, and Latin are not translated in the fictions, alas.)
In that the supply is so finite, does this mean that someone new to Borges should read the later, lesser works first, saving the best ones for later? or savor the works from the 1940s expecting that what came before and after is not as good? I don’t know, but I do not regret having read all Borges’s fiction, even though my appreciation for the later work was as stinting as when the later works were first published.
There’s very little romance, no sex, a lot of physical as well as metaphysical violence (including some carefully plotted revenges), a lot of crypto-Muslim philosophy, and the acknowledged influences from what Borges read as a youth in English (Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, G. K. Chesterton, Wilkie Collins, the Icelandic sagas, Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese and Japanese classic) and from the gaucho lore of the frontier in Argentina and Uruguay (indeed, there are many more allusions to Uruguay and its history than I recalled) and rough neighborhoods of Buenos Aires of a century ago.