Borges and I

February 16, 2009

Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings
Jorge Luis Borges (New Directions, 1964)
283 p.  First reading, for the most part.

A Personal Anthology
Jorge Luis Borges (Castle Books, 1961)
220 p.  First reading, for the most part.

Borges first encountered me some years ago, when his book found its way into my hands quite without my contrivance.  It was a happy meeting, if a tentative one.  When the time came for the book to slip away once again, I was left with an admiring, but only slightly comprehending, apprehension of his worth.  Doubly happy, then, am I to have these volumes at my fingertips again.

Borges was a miniaturist, a craftsman on a small scale.  He wrote short stories, essays, and poems; a work of ten pages is, in his ouvre, an epic, yet in a small space he addressed himself to the largest questions, of knowledge, identity, language, time and eternity, God.

His was a tight, terse style, as though each story had been passed over by a critical eye, unnecessary phrases dropped, and then passed over again, and again, until what remained was the potent core of the original, crystallized into elegant but dense prose, each word with its purpose.  His musical doppelgänger would be Anton Webern, whose compositional ideas were compressed into the briefest possible span.  The difference is that where Webern can sound fragmentary and disjoint, Borges is always lucid.

His stories tend to abstraction; his characters are sketched with but a few strokes — though deftly; at times no characters appear at all. His fiction is not always easily distinguished from his non-fiction; both demonstrate a deep concern with the inner life, creativity, and philosophy; certain ideas recur, like echoes and reflections: labyrinths, mirrors, infinite series, permutations, eternal recurrence.  No writer of fiction is more forthrightly erudite; his tales dig deeply into unfrequented corners of history, resurrecting forgotten, and sometimes imaginary, faces.  His literary touchstones are always present: Cervantes, Dante, Shakespeare, Homer. I believe that I can hear in Borges a genuine communion with history, but one is never quite sure.  The possible proximity of irony, deeply understated, unsettles the reader.

Borges poses problems of interpretation.  He is saying something, something of which his stories and parables and poems are an illustration, but what that something is I am unable to articulate.  He wants us to see the world with new eyes, to focus, to examine ourselves, to remember.

For anyone coming new to Borges, I would recommend a few pieces: “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (an ideal companion to a reading of George Berkeley), “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, “The Library of Babel”, “Borges and I”.

Now my volumes of Borges are once again closed, their pages shut up, for a time — if one may properly speak of time in this regard.  For those stories, those men and women, those thoughts remain, both in and out of time, ceaselessly speaking themselves to one another in the darkness.

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