As I glance down my blog front page, I realize I’ve been absent for a while, which unfortunately is reflective of the reading in my life as well. Surely with two short story collections on tap for the month, I’d have an easier time making progress? But despite my late spring desire to sink into The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Ficciones, they seem to have spent more time languishing than anything else. True, Holmes has been picked up frequently—the ease of dipping in and out of the stories makes this possible—but often only in two or three paragraph bursts. As for Ficciones, I made the unfortunate mistake of trying to start it on a day unconducive to reading of any sort, and Borges really requires attention.
I don’t often read short stories—in part because I never think of it, and in part because of my notions about their difficulty. Rather than difficult, the Sherlock Holmes stories represent the short story for Everyman–ready entertainment easy to dip in and out of as time allows—while Borges fulfills my preconceptions about short stories, only trebled in magnitude—that short stories are more difficult than novels, requiring more concentration and alertness of the reader, packed as they are with meaning and density.
In fact, finally returning to Borges yesterday, it occurred to me that 1) I think I’m making a poor job of reading these—I almost feel that they are over my head and 2) I think it will be easier to write multiple posts over groups of four or five stories rather than one big post when I’m finished with the set.
Ficciones is an anthology of seventeen short stories by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The first eight were published together in 1941 as El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), to these were eventually added another nine and published under the title Ficciones (1944, 1956, English translation in 1962). The volume is said to be a good starting place for reading Borges, and is in fact my introduction to his work.
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
Alastair Reid, translator
Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world. … Now, in all memories, a fictitious past occupies the place of any other. We know nothing about it with any certainty, not even that it is false.
The longest of the four stories I’ve read so far, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertuis” is divided into two parts. The first relates of a group of men hearing of the mysterious Uqbar and their search to learn more of this unknown land; in the second the narrator discovers an encyclopedia volume from Tlön, an hitherto unknown planet. But are these lands real or the products of the imagination of a group of eccentric scholars?
The most striking element of this story to me is the idea of history rewritten, modified—not just reinterpreted, but past itself changed. This perhaps not the major theme in the story—there are many philosophical discussions, none of which I am familiar with—but it seems to be a theme I have seen over and over again in Latin American literature. Mid-20th century Latin American literature has become known for “magical realism,” or the treating of fantastic as real; perhaps the real question is how can we know the difference, especially when those in control are the ones telling the story.
“The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim”
“El acercamiento a Almotásim”
Anthony Kerrigan, translator
A short piece, this is a book review of The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim. Only The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim doesn’t actually exist. Borges’ “review” however, of a novel set in India and featuring a character in search for the mysterious Al-Mu’tasim, a man from whom clarity must emanate, does succeed in creating within the reader the wish that The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim actually existed.
“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
“Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”
Anthony Bonner, translator
This is my favorite so far, and the story I found most humorous. The conceit is preposterous: the narrator sets out to defend his late friend Pierre Menard who wrote the 9th, 38th, and part of the 22nd chapters of Part I of Don Quixote, not by copying or memorizing, but completely by hard work and concentration. It is an idea almost impossible to wrap one’s head around, that someone by sheer force of will could write the exact same words as another centuries previous but independently, not as a copy. Even more ridiculous, that this “new” work could be “better” or “worse” than the original, even though all the words are exactly the same.
The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.
It is absurd that something “identical” could be “richer”—is this Borges’ criticism of criticism? Or is it a commentary on the nature of the written word, that all work extends from previous works, that all writers are indebted to another?
Several nights ago, while leafing through Chapter XXVI–which he had never attempted–I recognized our friend’s style and, as it were, his voice in this exceptional phrase: the nymphs of the rivers, mournful and humid Echo.
I am reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s discussion on the impossibility of knowing the origins of fairy-tales (in his essay “On Fairy-stories”). Here there is almost a suggestion that it is impossible to know the origins of any story. A delight to read.
“The Circular Ruins”
“Las Ruinas Circulares”
Anthony Bonner, translator
I have seen Borges described as a “fantasy” writer, and this is the first of the stories which I would come close to calling fantasy. (Although, I suppose truth be known, I’m a little vague on the boundaries of the concept. If I take Tolkien’s definition of “fairy-story,” I’m not sure any of the four stories I’ve read thus far would qualify in Tolkien’s view, as any fantastic elements seem to be ultimately explained away.) “The Circular Ruins” tells of a man who arrives at a ruined temple and proceeds to spend many nights and days dreaming, trying to create a man “to impose him on reality” and of what happens when he succeeds.
This seems again to be questioning reality or at least the power of dreams.
I am curious as I read the next set of stories, if I will continue to see the same ideas of memory and history and reality or if every story will touch on something different. For that matter, will I begin to understand them any better?