Borges’s Dark Mirror
In 1961 the directors of six leading Western publishing houses (Gallimard, Einaudi, Rowohlt, Seix Barral, Grove, Weidenfeld and Nicolson) met on the Mediterranean island of Formentera to establish a literary prize that was meant to single out writers who were actively transforming the world literary landscape, and to rival the Nobel Prize in prestige. The first International Publishers’ Prize (also known as the Prix Formentor) was split between Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. That same year the Nobel Prize was awarded to the Yugoslav Ivo Andriå«c, a great novelist but no innovator. (Beckett won the prize in 1969; Borges never won it—his advocates claimed that he was scuppered by his political utterances.)
The publicity surrounding the Prix Formentor catapulted Borges onto the world stage. In the United States, Grove Press brought out seventeen stories under the title Ficciones. New Directions followed with Labyrinths, twenty-three stories—some overlapping the Ficciones, but in alternative translations—as well as essays and parables. Translation into other languages proceeded apace.
Besides his native Argentina, there was one country in which the name Borges was already well known. The French critic and editor Roger Caillois had spent the years 1939-1945 in exile in Buenos Aires. After the war, Caillois promoted Borges in France, bringing out Ficciones in 1951 and Labyrinthes in 1953 (the latter substantially different from the New Directions Labyrinths—the Borges bibliography is a labyrinth of its own). In the 1950s Borges was more highly regarded, and perhaps more widely read, in France than in Argentina. In this respect his career curiously parallels that of his forerunner in speculative fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, championed by Baudelaire and enthusiastically taken up by the French public.
The Borges of 1961 was already in his sixties. The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive, and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, “baroque” pieces. Though he lived until 1986, he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.
In Argentina Borges had by 1960 been recognized, along with Ernesto Sábato and Julio Cortázar, as a leading light of his literary generation. During the first regime of Juan Perón (1946- 1955) he had been somewhat of a whipping boy of the press, denounced as extranjerizante (foreign-loving), a lackey of the landowning elite and of international capital. Soon after Perón’s inauguration he was ostentatiously dismissed from his job in the city library and “promoted” to be inspector of poultry and rabbits at the municipal market. After the fall of Perón he became fashionable again; but his support for unpopular causes (the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, for instance) made him vulnerable to denunciation from the left as well as by nationalists and populists.
His influence on Latin American letters—where writers have traditionally turned to Europe for their models—has been extensive. He more than anyone renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish-American novelists. Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, and Mario Vargas Llosa have all acknowledged a debt to him. García Márquez—poles apart from Borges in his politics—spoke as follows in 1969: “The only thing I bought [in Buenos Aires] was Borges’ Complete Works. I carry them in my suitcase; I am going to read them every day, and he is a writer I detest…. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the violin he uses to express his things.”
For a decade after Borges’s death in 1986, his literary estate remained in a state of confusion as various parties contested the terms of his will. Happily that confusion has now been resolved, and the first fruits we have in English are a Collected Fictions, newly translated by Andrew Hurley of the University of Puerto Rico. This volume brings together Borges’s early stories from A Universal History of Iniquity (1935), the Fictions of 1944 (which includes the stories of The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941), The Aleph (1949), the prose pieces of The Maker (1960), five short prose pieces from In Praise of Darkness (1969), Brodie’s Report (1970), The Book of Sand (1975), and four late stories, collected here under the title “Shakespeare’s Memory” (1983).
Of the hundred-odd pieces in the volume, ranging in length from a single paragraph to a dozen pages, only the last four have not hitherto been available in English. The notes appended by Hurley, while valuable in themselves, are limited in scope, “intended only to supply information that a Latin American (and especially Argentine or Uruguayan) reader would have and that would color or determine his or her reading of the stories.” For the rest, the reader in difficulties with this learned and allusive writer is directed to A Dictionary of Borges by Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Hughes,
a commendable work of reference which, however, fails to rise to the challenge of providing an entry for J.L. Borges, a character—fictional? real?—who appears in the story “Borges and I” and numerous other pieces.
The Collected Fictions—the first of three Borges volumes planned by Viking—is based on the Spanish Obras completas of 1989. As an edition without scholarly apparatus, it does not aspire to rival the French Oeuvres complètes, scrupulously edited for Gallimard’s Bibliothèque de la Pléiade by Jean-Pierre Bernès, which not only attempts to collect the totality of Borges’s writings (including journalism, reviews, and other ephemeral writings) but, more importantly, goes a long way toward tracking the revisions which Borges—himself a fussy editor—carried out on successive printings of his own texts (“[Borges’s] habit of changing texts from edition to edition, of suppressing, or excising, sometimes re-introducing in modified form, words, phrases, lines…has landed any potential bibliographer with a lifetime’s toil,” remarks Borges’s biographer James Woodall).
Jorge Luis Borges was born in 1899 into a prosperous middle-class family, in a Buenos Aires where Spanish—to say nothing of Italian—descent was not deemed a social asset. One of his grandmothers was from England; the family chose to stress their English affiliations and to bring up the children speaking English as well as Spanish. Borges remained a lifelong Anglophile. Curiously for a writer with an avant-garde reputation, his own reading seemed to stop around 1920. His taste in English-language fiction was for Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells; he often referred to himself as “un ser victoriano,” a Victorian person.
Englishness was one part of Borges’s self-fashioning, Jewishness another. He invoked a rather hypothetical Sephardic strain on his mother’s side to explain his interest in the Kabbalah, and, more interestingly, to present himself as an outsider to Western culture, with an outsider’s freedom to criticize and innovate. (Indeed, one might add, to pillage whole libraries for citations.)
In 1914 the whole Borges family traveled to Switzerland in search of a cure for Borges senior’s eye condition (detached retinas—a condition inherited by his son). Trapped in Europe by the war, the children received a French-language education. The young Borges also taught himself German and read Schopenhauer, who exerted a lasting influence on his thought. German also led him to the new Expressionist poets, painters, and filmmakers, and thus to forays into mysticism, thought transmission, double personalities, the fourth dimension, and so forth.
After a spell in Spain, Borges returned to Argentina in 1921 a proponent of Ultraismo, a Spanish version of Imagism. Yet even in his rather conventional youthful radicalism there are flashes of originality—for instance, in his proposal for a language in which one word will stand simultaneously for sunset and the sound of cattle bells.
In 1931 the wealthy patroness of the arts Victoria Ocampo launched the magazine Sur and threw open its pages to Borges. Ocampo’s inclinations were European and internationalist; in his years as chief contributor to Sur Borges worked his way beyond the rather tired issues of Argentine literary debate (naturalism versus modernism, Europeanism versus nativism). The stories that make up The Garden of Forking Paths—the stories that mark the beginning of his major period—appeared in Sur in a burst between 1939 and 1941.
“Pierre Menard,” the earliest of the group, is, as fiction, the least satisfactory: a cross between spoof scholarly essay and conte philosophique. Borges excluded it from his Personal Anthology of 1968. Nevertheless, its intellectual daring is remarkable. Pierre Menard, minor contemporary of Paul Valéry, absorbs himself totally in the world of Cervantes so as to be able to write (not rewrite) Don Quixote word for word.
The ideas on which “Pierre Menard” is built can be found in David Hume (the past, including the age of Cervantes, has no existence except as a succession of present mental states). What Borges achieves is to invent a vehicle (imperfect in this case, but rapidly perfected in the stories that follow) in which the paradoxes of philosophical skepticism can be elegantly staged and followed to their vertiginous conclusions.
The finest of the stories of The Garden of Forking Paths are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “The Library of Babel”—finest in the sense that the philosophical argument folds discreetly into the narrative, and the fiction takes its course with the certainty of a game of chess in which the reader is always a move behind the author. The technical innovation on which these fictions rest, and which allows them their swift pace—the reader is outflanked and overwhelmed before he knows where he is—is that they use as model the anatomy or critical essay, rather than the tale: with narrative exposition reduced to a bare minimum, the action can be condensed to an exploration of the implications of a hypothetical situation (an infinite library, for instance).
In interviews given in the 1960s, Borges suggested that, besides exploring the intellectual possibilities of inventing a world by writing a total description of it, “Tlön” explores the “dismay” of a narrator “who feels that his everyday world…, his past…[and] the past of his forefathers…[are] slipping away from him.” Thus the hidden subject of the story is “a man who is being drowned in a new and overwhelming world that he cannot make out.”
Like all authors’ readings of their own work, this reading has its own interest. But as an account of “Tlön” it misses something important: the excitement, even creative triumph, however somber its shading, with which the narrator records the stages in which an ideal universe takes over a real one, a takeover capped, in a turn of the screw of paradox characteristic of Borges, by the realization that the universe of which we are part is more than likely already a simulacrum, perhaps a simulacrum of simulacra that go on to infinity. Revisiting his 1940 story a quarter of a century later, Borges finds in it an emotional coloring that belongs to his older, more pessimistic self.
Yet to conclude that Borges misreads his story is to miss the Borgesian (or Menardian) point. There is no Tlön, just as there is no 1940, outside the conceptions of Tlön and 1940 that mankind collectively holds in the present. Just as the all-comprehending encyclopedia of Orbis Tertius takes over the universe, our fictions of the fictions of the past take over these fictions. (Gnostic cosmology, in which Borges was deeply read, suggests that the universe in which we believe we live is the work of a minor creator nested within a universe which is the handiwork of a slightly less minor creator who is nested within another creation, and so on 365 times.)
Of the Fictions of 1944, “Funes, His Memory” is the most astonishing. Ireneo Funes, an untutored country boy, is possessed of an infinite memory. Nothing escapes him; all of his sensory experience, past and present, persists in his mind; drowned in particulars, unable even to forget the changing formation of all the clouds he has seen, he cannot form general ideas, and therefore—paradoxically, for a creature who is almost pure mind—cannot “think.”
“Funes” follows the by now familiar Borgesian pattern of pressing a donnée to its dizzying conclusions. What is new in the story is a confidence with which Borges embeds his Funes in a recognizable Argentine social reality, as well as a touch of human pity for the afflicted boy, “the solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentaneous, and almost unbearably precise world.”
It is not hard to see why daringly idealistic fictions about worlds created by language or characters enclosed in texts should have found resonance in a generation of French intellectuals who had just discovered the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, to whom language is a self-regulating field within which the human subject functions without power, more spoken by language than speaking it, and the past (“diachrony”) is reducible to a series of superposed present (“synchronic”) states. What Borges’s French readers found startling—or perhaps just piquant—was that he had found his way to textualité along routes of his own devising. (In fact there is reason to believe that Borges found his way there via Schopenhauer and, particularly, the German philosopher Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923). Mauthner is little read nowadays; there is no entry for him in Fishburn and Hughes’s Dictionary of Borges, despite the fact that Borges alludes to him several times.)
The three collections that comprise Borges’s middle and major period—The Garden of Forking Paths, Fictions, and The Aleph—were followed in 1952 by Other Inquisitions, a mosaic of pieces culled from Borges’s critical writing. The fact that many of these pieces, with their vast erudition in a range of languages, first appeared in newspapers says much for the upper reaches of the Buenos Aires press. Many of the ideas explored in the fiction can be found half-grown here, not yet ready to show their teeth.
Reading the essays side by side with the fictions prompts what is perhaps the central question about Borges: What do the operations of fiction offer this scholar-writer that enable him to take ideas into reaches where the discursive essay, as a mode of writing, fails him?
Borges’s own answer, following Coleridge, is that the poetic imagination enables the writer to join himself to the universal creative principle; following Schopenhauer, he would add that this principle has the nature of Will rather than (as Plato would say) of Reason. “In the course of a lifetime dedicated less to living than to reading, I have been able to verify repeatedly that aims and literary theories are nothing but stimuli; the finished work frequently ignores and even contradicts them.”
Yet it would be obtuse not to hear, in pronouncements like this one, tones of parody and self-parody. The voices that speak the Other Inquisitions are much like the voices of the narrators of the fictions; behind the essays is a persona whom Borges had already begun to call “Borges.” Which Borges is real, which is the other in the mirror, remains dark. The essays allow the one Borges to dramatize the other. Put in other terms, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction used by Viking is open to question (Viking plans to follow the Collected Fictions with a collection of poems and a selection from the nonfiction).
El hacedor (1960) is a compendium of prose and verse, from which the Viking Collected Fictions drops the verse. The title alludes—rather cryptically, for a Spanish-speaking audience—to the archaic English “maker,” or poet, which is the word that Hurley takes over; Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland, in their 1964 translation, retitle the book Dreamtigers. Borges called it “my most personal work, and to my taste, maybe the best.” There is a touch of defiance in this pronouncement, since nothing in the collection measures up to the best of the fictions of the period 1939-1949. But by 1960 Borges had already begun to put a distance between himself and what he would later, disparagingly, call “labyrinths and mirrors and tigers and all that.”
The truth was that the Prix Formentor of 1961 caught Borges in the middle of a long creative slump. His newfound fame brought invitations to lecture, which he was happy to accept. Accompanied by his mother, he traveled widely. From the North American lecture circuit he began to enjoy a steady income. Rarely did he refuse an interview; he became, in fact, garrulous. He searched actively for a wife, found one, and for three years, in his late sixties, suffered an unhappy marriage.
In 1967 Borges met the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni. An association developed: not only did di Giovanni translate, or collaborate with Borges to translate, a number of works and help with his business affairs, but he coaxed Borges back into writing fiction. The fruits can be seen in the eleven stories of Brodie’s Report (1970). The mirrors and labyrinths are gone. The settings are the Argentine pampas or the outskirts of Buenos Aires; the language is simpler, the plots are more conventional (in his foreword Borges points to Kipling as a model). Borges was proudest of “The Interloper,” but “The Gospel according to St. Mark,” in which a student, having introduced the Christian gospel to a backlands gaucho family, is accepted as their savior and solemnly crucified, is as good. With its concentration on jealousy, physical bravery, and laconically treated violence, Brodie’s Report is the most ostentatiously masculine of Borges’s collections.
The Book of Sand (1975) and “Shakespeare’s Memory” (1983) recycle old themes (the Doppelgänger, possession, the interpenetration of universes) as well as exploring Borges’s enthusiasm for Germanic mythology. There is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature.
Borges’s gnosticism—his sense that the ultimate God is beyond good and evil, and infinitely remote from creation—is deeply felt. But the sense of dread that informs his work is metaphysical rather than religious in nature: at its base are vertiginous glimpses of the collapse of all structures of understanding including language itself, flashing intimations that the very self that speaks has no real existence.
In the fiction that responds to this dread, the ethical and the aesthetic are tightly wound together: the light but remorseless tread of the logic of his parables, the lapidary concision of the language, the gradual tightening of paradox are stylistic traces of an ironic self-control that stares back into the abysses of thought without the Gothic hysteria of a Poe.
Under the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it was spinning; then I realized that the movement was an illusion produced by the dizzying spectacles inside it. The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it…. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spiderweb at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London)…saw the circulation of my dark blood, saw the coils and springs of love and the alterations of death, saw the Aleph from everywhere at once, saw the earth in the Aleph, and the Aleph once more in the earth and the earth in the Aleph, saw my face and my viscera, saw your face, and I felt dizzy, and I wept, because my eyes had seen that secret, hypothetical object whose name has been usurped by men but which no man has ever truly looked upon: the inconceivable universe….
Out in the street…all the faces seemed familiar. I feared there was nothing that had the power to surprise or astonish me anymore, I feared that I would never again be without a sense of déjà vu. Fortunately, after a few unsleeping nights, forgetfulness began to work in me again.
Borges has been criticized for falling back on the aesthetic for salvation. Harold Bloom, for instance, suggests that Borges would have been a greater writer if he had exercised a less iron control over his creative impulse—a control whose purpose Bloom sees as self-protective. “What Borges lacks, despite the illusive cunning of his labyrinths, is precisely the extravagance of the romancer…. [He] has never been reckless enough to lose himself in a story, to our loss, if not to his.”
I am not sure that these strictures take into account those stories of Borges’s that focus on the confrontation with death. “The South”—which ends with the hero accepting the challenge of a knife duel he is sure to lose—is the most haunting of these; but there are numerous other more realistic tales of gaucho or hoodlum life in which characters, following an unarticulated stoic ethic, choose death rather than loss of honor, recovering themselves from disgrace and discovering their truth in the same moment.
These stories, laconic in expression and sometimes brutal in content, reveal the attractions of a life of action for their bookish and rather timid author. They also show Borges trying to situate himself more forthrightly in an Argentine literary tradition and to do his bit toward Argentine national myth-making.
The word “camel,” observes Borges in a lecture entitled “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” (1953), does not occur in the Koran. The lesson? That “we can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.”
But his own later stories—particularly those collected in Brodie’s Report—do in fact abound in local color. They represent a tenacious return to the task that Borges, on his return to Buenos Aires in the 1920s, saw before him: to hold on to the density of culture that was part of his generations-old criollo heritage, yet to get beyond mere regionalism and localism. “There are no legends in this land,” he wrote in 1926. “That is our disgrace. Our lived reality is grandiose yet the life of our imagination is paltry…. We must find the poetry, the music, the painting, the religion and the metaphysics appropriate to [the] greatness [of Buenos Aires].”
Set in the seedier Buenos Aires suburbs of the turn of the century, or even further back in time on the Argentine pampas, the Brodie’s Report stories can hardly be claimed to confront the reality of modern Argentina. They embrace a romantic, nativistic streak in Argentine nationalism, turning their back both on the enlightened liberalism of the class into which Borges was born and on the new mass culture and mass politics—represented in his lifetime by Perónism—which he held in abhorrence.
Borges’s prose is controlled, precise, and economical to a degree uncommon in Spanish America. It eschews (as Borges notes with some pride) “Hispanicisms, Argentinisms, archaisms, and neologisms; [it uses] everyday words rather than shocking ones.” In his work up to and including The Aleph, the clear surface is disturbed now and again by unusual, even disturbing verbal collocations. In his late phase such moments are rare.
Although any translator will be challenged to match the simultaneous concision and force of Borges’s Spanish, and to find renderings for his sometimes riddling metaphors, his language presents no irresolvable problems, except on those occasions when it is colored—deliberately, one is sure—by English verbal patterns (such patterns, as soon as they are reproduced in English translation, of course sink into invisibility).
There is a set of difficulties of a more practical nature, however, created by the fact that Borges, late in life, acted as his own (co)translator (of The Aleph and Brodie’s Report, as well as of much poetry), and in the process of translating availed himself of the opportunity to do some revising.
These revisions can be quite sweeping in scale: half a page of rather dated satire is cut from “The Aleph,” for instance. Borges also felt free to work into his English texts information that the protocols of the craft would constrain an ordinary translator to relegate to footnotes: a cryptic mention of la revolución de Aparício, for instance, is expanded to “a civil war…between the Colorados, or Reds, who were in power, and Aparício’s Blancos, or Whites.”
But Borges’s revisions have a subsidiary purpose as well: to tone down his own Spanish. Resounding trademark adjectives of the middle phase, like abominable, enigmático, implacable, interminable, notorio, perverso, pérfido, vertiginoso, violento—are softened: the “violent [violento] flank of the mountain” becomes its “steep slope,” a woman’s “violent [violenta] hair” becomes her “tangled hair.”
The justification offered by Borges and di Giovanni for this toning down, and for the general smoothness of their English versions, is that Spanish and English embody “two quite different ways of looking at the world.” They have tried less to transpose the original Spanish into English, they say, than “to rethink every sentence in English words,” aiming for prose that “[reads] as though…written in English.”
Hurley—correctly, to my mind—ignores the example Borges sets. However, that cannot be the end of the story. The changes that Borges (as the creative partner in the collaboration) introduces in the process of translating himself can be regarded as authorial revisions capable, at least in theory, of being reintroduced into the Spanish text; or, at the very least, as revisions authorially approved for the stories in their English guise.
Hurley does not, in his brief “Note on the Translation,” address this problem. What he might have said—if one may be allowed to put words in his mouth—is that there are times when editors and translators have a duty to protect Borges from himself. Pace the author, the versions of Borges that we want to read are not necessarily those that sound as if English were their native tongue: if there is indeed a degree of grandiloquence in the originals, the reader may prefer to hear that grandiloquence and detect for himself what is authentically Borgesian in it, what native to the Spanish, rather than have the language uniformly muted on his behalf.
There is one respect, however, in which it would be rash not to take Borges’s lead, namely, when he offers privileged access to his own intentions. Borges writes that a character goes home to his rancho. Hurley quite reasonably translates the word as “ranch.” But Borges—going back, one presumes, to the picture he had in his mind’s eye when he wrote the story—uses the less obvious “shack.” Un alfajor can be any of a variety of regional sweetmeats. Which did Borges have in mind? A sugared cake, his translation reveals. Hurley pretends not to know this and calls it, vaguely, a “sweet offering.” If one puts one’s ear against a certain stone column in Cairo, says Borges, one can hear the rumor of the Aleph inside it. “Rumour,” says Hurley, where Borges could have helped with “hum.”
A quick check against Borges-di Giovanni could even have prevented plain errors. The desert nomads need foreigners to do their “carpentry,” says Hurley. The word is albanileria, masonry.
Borges has had distinguished translators in the past, among them Anthony Kerrigan, Donald A. Yates, and James E. Irby, to say nothing of the di Giovanni collaborations. Nevertheless, there is much to be said for an integral retranslation of the whole of Borges such as Viking has set in motion. Hurley’s versions are generally excellent, marked by accuracy of word choice and a confident sense of narrative style.
If there is one weakness to them, it is that Hurley’s feel for the level of formality of English words is not always reliable. Words like “leery,” “rambunctious,” “hornswoggle,” phrases like “a little ways from,” give rise to colloquial effects for which there is no parallel in the original.
Hurley also performs a rather disturbing revision of his own. In “The Circular Ruins,” a story about male generative power and male birth, Borges writes: “A todo padre le interesan los hijos que ha procreado,” “Every father feels concern for the sons he has procreated.” Hurley translates this: “Every parent feels concern for the children he has procreated.”