Borges at 80: Conversations
Edited by Willis Barnstone
New Directions, 192 pages, $18.95
Edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis
New Directions, 288 pages, $26.50
Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview
Translated by Kit Maude
Melville House, 176 pages, $15.95
Jorge Luis Borges is a dead, white male. But he isn’t European. So he lacks imperialist cred and isn’t taught among the typical classics. As editor and translator James E. Irby remarks in the 1961 New Directions edition of Labyrinths, “Not being French has undoubtedly also relegated Borges to comparative obscurity in the English-speaking countries, where it is rare that a Hispanic writer is ever accorded any major importance at all.”
A lover of contradictions, he would appreciate the paradox of his current position: he is sometimes overlooked, often mislabeled. Some lazily lump him in with Marquez, with magical realism. Others tie him to dadaism, surrealism, modernism, post-modernism. Borges was a dreamer who described himself as constantly puzzled, stuck in a labyrinth, so perhaps he won’t mind being labelled so haphazardly. Probably aware of the futility of the exercise, David Foster Wallace attempted to classify him more accurately, calling him the “great bridge between modernism and post-modernism.”
He was barely even a writer—more a librarian, a professor of literature and philosophy who just happened to translate and write free verse poetry and brilliant experimental stories. His prose is usually short—compact yet expansive, deeply-rooted in a mixture of traditions yet simple in its fascination with time and eternity. A symbolist, Borges thought in metaphor from the beginning, but turned deeper into his imagination when he began losing his eyesight in his fifties. What results are his story-puzzles of infinite regression and infinite possibility.
New Directions was the first to bring Borges to an English-speaking audience when they published Labyrinths in 1961. That same year he and Samuel Beckett shared the Prix International, awarded by the Formentor Group (created by Carlos Barral). This brought more attention to his work. That collection of stories and short essays remains the essential primer to Borges. Now New Directions has released in short succession Borges at Eighty: Conversations and Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. The former presents the interviews he gave to Willis Barnstone, Dick Cavett, Alastair Reid, and others during a visit to the U.S. in 1980. The latter is a transcription of twenty-five classes Borges gave in 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires. This spate of new material was just barely preceded by Melville House’s Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview, which came out in June, and contains a 1968 dialogue with Richard Burgin, a fantastic discussion with the editors of Artful Dodge, and of course the last interview Borges gave before his death.
In a short meditation written at Borges’ death in 1986, Sven Birkerts called him “the Euclid of the secret orders of time.” Birkerts, writing in the Boston Phoenix, captured the Argentine’s writing in as close to a nutshell as one can: “These are not stories at all. These fanciful narratives are the author’s way of telling us his truth; they are whimsical-looking ciphers in a most serious code.”
Nothing in Borges is superfluous or forgettable. But he was not much interested in character. Borges obliquely addressed this in The Last Interview. Burgin asks about writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald who have (Burgin’s words) “no metaphysical feeling.” Borges says, “They take the universe for granted […] They don’t think it’s strange that they should be living.” His stakes were metaphysical and only somewhat existential. One of his most memorable characters, Pierre Menard, decides to rewrite Don Quixote. To do this he seeks to immerse himself in old Spanish, recover his Catholic faith, and fight some Turks so as to become Cervantes. Menard’s work would be more formidable than the original, because Cervantes had the benefit of living in the sixteenth century. Cervantes had the benefit of being Cervantes. And the story is about identity and authority instead of personality.
In one article-cum-story, Borges invents a world where the spoken language contains no nouns (among other deformities). In the logic of Wittgenstein, the language dominates the world. On Tlön:
…they do not conceive that the spatial persists in time. The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas.
Borges was a poet steeped in Leibniz and Spinoza, with a preference above all for Schopenhauer. He loved Whitman and Stevenson. He admired but also criticized Kafka and was fascinated by Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. He described himself not as an author but rather as an interpreter through which writers of the past were filtered. He found a fascination in mirrors and labyrinths, in the distortions not only of the senses but of the mind. Everywhere he saw tradition, variation, and the fictional hrönir.
Centuries and centuries of idealism have not failed to influence reality. In the most ancient regions of Tlön, the duplication of lost objects is not infrequent. Two persons look for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but closer to his expectations. These secondary objects are called hrönir and are, though awkward in form, somewhat longer. […] Curiously, the hrönir of second and third degree […] exaggerated the aberrations of the initial one; those of fifth degree are almost uniform; those of ninth degree become confused with those of the second; in those of the eleventh there is a purity of line not found in the original. The process is cyclical. (Labyrinths)
Born in Buenos Aires in 1899 to a bookish father and a mother whose forefathers were criollo soldiers, Borges was outspoken against Argentina’s support for Mussolini. Early in his life he took firm liberal stances—especially against the ruling Perón family. He became disenchanted by his home country, or at least he became more careful in public proclamations, which lack nuance. He also became less productive in general when he began to lose his sight. As with Milton, blindness did not end Borges’ writing career. But it slowed him down and hampered his reading of contemporaries, which might have contributed to the complaints that he ignored his country, its literature, and its politics.
Meanwhile he was too shy (and, perhaps, too clever) to fully embody a public persona, presenting himself as humble and apologetic for all the fuss made over his work. In his short essay “Borges and I,” he plays with the duality of his life as both a public figure and a quiet, sociable person. Just read this and shudder:
I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. (Labyrinths)
Twenty-seven years after his death, these new books show how much he affected to prefer the non-writing Borges to the controversial, acclaimed writer. That said, whether at the podium or in an interview, it’s not always clear which one is speaking. Though he says he hopes his work will be forgotten, and that he’d like to become Ellison’s “invisible man,” he seems to enjoy these conversations too much to completely disown the public Borges.
Though Borges tells Richard Burgin in The Last Interview that he hates cameras (because “a camera is a kind of mirror”), Borges clearly enjoyed being interviewed, and evidently also loved to teach, to converse about the writers he felt a closest kinship to—not Marquez or Cortazar or Joyce but Whitman, Shaw, and James. In Professor Borges, he covers a selective history of English literature from kennings to Stevenson, for Spanish-speaking students who have never encountered the tradition before. The main pleasure of this collection is to wade into the mind of a lover of books, the one-time head librarian of the National Library of Argentina. Borges again seems more like a curator of tradition than an inventor of fictions.
In Borges at Eighty, the writer comes alive, touring various universities and the New York PEN Center. Of all places, he is most revealing on The Dick Cavett Show. The discussion ranges from the differences between Spanish and English, to Hitler, to Citizen Kane. When Cavett asks about Argentina’s fascist past, Borges sounds resigned:
Look here. I think the Argentine Republic cannot be explained. It is as mysterious as the universe. I do not understand it. I don’t profess to understand my country. I am not politically minded either.
Borges’ literary games were so much more than clever tricks—they were metaphors through which he conveyed as poetically the strange, lonely world he inhabited. Cavett asks whether they are artistic flourishes or “something alive.” Borges replies:
I am always being baffled, perplexed, so a maze is the right symbol. They are not, at least to me, literary devices or tricks. I don’t think of them as tricks. They are part of my destiny, of my way of feeling, of living. I haven’t chosen them.
In other conversations from Borges at Eighty, he explains why free verse is as difficult as prose, and how either is more challenging than structured verse. He describes immortality as a threat, rejects his early work as too baroque, and explains simply that he never wrote novels because he could not do it. He admits, “I am a bit of a prig,” and expounds on the importance of saving humanism. He bemoans his inability to reason, finding in himself instead a preference for dreaming.
In these new books there is much to like about Borges the dreaming librarian, but, oddly, neither the writer nor teacher seems interested in including women in the library. He will say things like, as he tells Burgin, “I think men are more prone to metaphysical wondering than women. I think that women take the world for granted.” When asked to identify significant women in literature, he offers Emily Dickinson. When asked whether there are more, he says, “Yes of course.” He then suggests Silvina Ocampo, “who is translating Emily Dickinson at this moment.” Sometimes his remarks borders on the condescending. In The Last Interview, he tells Burgin:
I have known very intelligent women who are quite incapable of philosophy. One of the most intelligent women I know, she’s one of my pupils; she studies Old English with me, well, she was wild over so many books and poets, then I told her to read Berkeley’s dialogues, three dialogues, and she could make nothing of them.
It can be argued that Borges’ gender gap is also a gap in the tradition he so loved. Borges might have recognized this flaw, though he did not address it very well. As Colm Tóibín notes when discussing the Menard story, Borges is keenly aware of his difficult role as a writer and “the concept of the writer as a force of culture imprisoned by language and time.” Like many of his compatriots, Borges faced a crisis of identity: embrace Western modernism or turn back to the “gaucho” sensibility and poetic style of the earlier Argentina, exemplified by José Hernández’s poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro. But nothing captures better Borges’ conflict with identity—personal, visual, aesthetic, national, gendered—than the short epilogue to Borges at Eighty, from an interview held at the National Library in 1979. The statement touches on a number of problems with the notion of universality:
Reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? […] I have always advised my students: If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old. […] If a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.”
It is a shame Borges did not recognize his weak position on female writers. His critics either will not forgive him this, or perhaps they do not understand the Argentine’s general appeal to cosmopolitanism. His accepting of an award from Pinochet and professed admiration for Franco did not help either. Such utterances form one contradiction too many for the contradictory universalist.
Of the three new books, The Last Interview stands out in that it brings us the English translation of Borges’ last interview, with journalist Gloria López Lecube. He spoke with her right before his departure for Geneva, where he planned to die. In this “last” interview, he speaks fondly of his mother and describes for López Lecube how he dreams in color. We see a man anticipating his death with the air of a giddy boy who will finally learn how the magic trick worked.
Spinoza says that we all feel immortal, yes, but not as individuals, I assume, rather immortal in a pantheistic way, in a divine way. When I get scared, when things aren’t going well, I think to myself, ‘But why should I care what happens to a South American writer, from a lost country like the Republic of Argentina at the end of the twentieth century? What possible interest could that hold for me when I still have the adventure of death before me, which could be annihilation; that would be best, it could be oblivion…
This is the most interesting thing about these new books, ultimately—not the lectures on Stevenson, but the description of his late solitary walks through Buenos Aires, or the colors of his blindness:
It came like a slow summer twilight. I was head librarian of the National Library and I began to find that I was ringed in by letterless books. Then my friends lost their faces. Then I found out there was nobody in the looking glass. And then things grew dim, and now I can make out white and gray. But two colors are forbidden me: black and red. […] I live in the center of a luminous mist. […] Grayish or bluish, I’m not too sure. It’s far too dim. I would say that now I live in the center of a bluish world. (The Dick Cavett Show)
One of the problems with writing a review of three recent books about Borges is the books do not bring much new attention to Borges’ texts, but rather to his persona. He comes off sounding self-deprecating and amiable, curious and perhaps a bit embarrassed by his fame. Though the books are by no means a definitive take, readers will enjoy immersing themselves in the wandering, conversational writer/non-writer Borges. Professorial dictums and self-deprecating jokes aside, his writing is more important. It must be read, reread, and played with. His work is universal and cosmopolitan in nature, and generally runs shorter than the average New Yorker article. Within a five-page story you will find a new language, a labyrinth, a library.
Tom Faure is an MFA in Fiction student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News, and undergraduate magazines at Columbia University. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Very nice, Tom. This makes me want to put everything down and pick up Labyrinths.
Well-wrought, Tom! Underscores Borges’ role as a thought curator (a term that manages to feel oddly appropriate in this age of bits and bytes while simultaneously making me want to throw up in my mouth a little). Perhaps I need to dust off my cojones and dive back into the bluish world…