Completed: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Book cover - The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

For some reason I seem to be avoiding a post about my latest Sherlock Holmes read, albeit subconsciously. Really, I liked it! But I thought, with  R.I.P. VII starting tomorrow I’d better finally post today lest it be mistaken for an R.I.P. read, when I actually completed this selection of short stories earlier this summer.

This is the first set of Holmes short stories I’ve read, and although many seem to prefer the shorter tales to the novels, I find myself unconvinced. I think there are two reasons: 1) they’re so short there’s just not enough of Holmes and Watson  and 2) I’m pretty sure my dad read some of the stories to my brother and me when we were little—and it took away a bit of the excitement when I knew what was coming. True too in some instances, I knew enough of the conventions of mysteries that I could anticipate what was coming, but that’s not quite the same as knowing in advance that the bank’s going to be robbed when a bank hasn’t even been mentioned yet. I believe the received wisdom is that a well-written story—short or long—can be read again and again even though the ending may already be known, even if it is in fact a mystery. I confess myself dubious of this assertion when it comes to a mystery in short story format. There is so much that must be included—the introduction of wronged party, the statement of  the mystery at hand, and the final explanation and resolution—and in such a short space, that there is little room for anything but the mystery itself, and thus my gripe that we don’t see enough of Holmes and Watson. Perhaps I am wrong, and in the hands of a master of the short story a mystery could be created that rewards many readings. In Doyle’s hands, however, the pattern seems to overwhelm the story.

Perhaps this is why one of my favorite of the stories included in this collection is “The Man With the Twisted Lip.” Here we are introduced to the mystery mid-stride, when Watson stumbles across Holmes in the middle of an opium den, in pursuit of information. The investigation underway, we follow along with Holmes. And I find this much more fun than the standard recitation of Watson’s bewilderment. I am spoiled here too by the recent BBC TV adaptation—set in contemporary London, I find that Sherlock gives us a preferable Watson, one who is intelligent, just not in the sphere of Holmes. Doyle’s original seems at times downright dim-witted. Has he not been around Holmes long enough to begin to understand his methods? In the TV series too, we have better opportunity to see the relationship between the character—there is a clear strengthening in the Holmes-Watson friendship over the course of two seasons—which again, I miss in the short stories.

Despite my disappointments, I found the stories perfect for dipping in and out of in spare moments. Some stories contained the element of adventure I enjoyed so much in The Sign of Four. And I should say I didn’t always know the ending! I am still looking forward to the later stories/novels (The Hound of the Baskervilles especially).The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are the earliest stories, so perhaps Doyle develops as a writer sufficiently that I will enjoy the later stories better, or maybe (fingers crossed), they’ll just be a tad longer. After all, my biggest complaint really boils down to “there’s not enough!”

Read as part of The Classics Club and for my Mysteries and Detective Fiction project.

In Progress: Ficciones (1)

Jorge Luis Borges

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?

I am reading Ficciones for Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard, as one of my Classics Club Selections, and for my Libros españoles project list.