Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1523
First translated into English in 1962, Jorge Luis Borges has become the best-known contemporary Latin American author—a man of letters who enjoys worldwide recognition and appreciation. In a career which began early in the century and extends into the 1980’s, Borges has written poems, stories, biographies, and essays; he has lectured widely and served as an editor of several literary magazines. Moreover, he has translated numerous works into Spanish, one of several languages which he speaks. Satire, comedy, polemic, mystery—seldom has Borges maintained allegiance to a single mode or tonality.
The variety and quantity of Borges’ achievement becomes obvious to the nonspecialist with Borges: A Reader, edited by Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid, who, respectively, combine the keen perceptions of a professor of Latin American literature with the fine ear of a poet and translator. Thanks to the selection and arrangement of the volume—complete with editorial commentary, a chronology of Borges’ life and a bibliography of his work—here between covers is a panorama in miniature of the mind and art of Borges.
Borges: A Reader presumes to be nothing more than a selection of writings, representative of Borges’ development. As such it has both the advantages and disadvantages of an anthology. However, any frustration with excerpts and fragments is more than compensated for by the comprehensiveness and accessibility of so many items in one place. Both as an introduction and as a synthesis, Borges: A Reader is informative and enjoyable. For the reader in English, the translations are smooth, almost unnoticeable.
The editors divide the volume into two parts: Borges the Writer, and Borges the Dictator. Long bothered by poor vision, and in spite of several operations, in 1956 Borges was advised by ophthalmologists to cease writing, and thus he began to dictate his work. These compositions were aided by his mother, who acted as his secretary—and by numerous friends, relatives, and other collaborators. Borges has dictated poems, fiction, and essays, and some of his most successful attempts at realistic fiction, such as “The Other,” “Doctor Brodie’s Report,” and “The Intruder,” are the products of this means of composition.
The largest proportion of selections in Borges: A Reader belong to part one: “The Writer.” Found here are several critical essays on American literature, essays almost as provocative in their way and every bit as intelligent as D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, further proof that the literature of the United States lends itself to international perspective and analysis. Also found in this section are biographical sketches and appreciations, book reviews, essays on language and on genre evolution and theory, expositions on Latin American social history and mores, and most significantly, Borges’ fantastic and cryptic fictions, stories ripe for allegorical interpretation, great stories such as “Man from the Slum” and “The Aleph.”
Given the breadth of his writings, each reader will find a favorite Borges, the imaginative artist or the critic, yet the criticism reinforces the fiction and the narratives complement the essays. Thus Borges’ voices ultimately are heard in unison, his ventriloquy discovered at its source. This is one reward of an anthology such as Borges: A Reader. Juxtapositions in genre and mode fuse into one identifiable style and persona, style as the man.
One does not have to read Borges the critic to understand Borges the fictionist, but the themes and techniques with which he is absorbed in his criticism carry over into his fiction. Borges has been influenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G. K. Chesterton, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Miguel de Cervantes, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, and numerous others. Beginning in childhood, Borges’ reading was decidedly world-ranging. Nowhere, however, is Borges the critic more fascinating than in his commentaries on nineteenth and twentieth century American authors: notably Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Henry James, and William Faulkner—both the darker and the more democratically sanguine of American romantics and realists.
In his criticism as in his fiction it becomes apparent that one of Borges’ preoccupations is with life as dream (often nightmare), the world as chaos or labyrinth in which the individual, confronted with double images and shadows, must attempt to find reality’s way. In this sense, literature’s dream, like life’s dream, becomes both a means and an end. It is this typically modernist preoccupation which seems so familiar to contemporary readers of all nationalities.
It is easy to see why Melville and Hawthorne so interested Borges. For him the universe of Moby Dick (1851) represents a vast, inhuman cosmos—a labyrinth not so much malignant as utterly irrational—a view not far removed from the fatalism of Thomas Hardy. Both Captain Ahab and the scrivener, Bartleby, in Melville’s story of the same name, dramatize a nihilistic monomania that eventually affects all those around them. In Borges’ view, the infectious irrationality of one man parallels a pervasive world condition. Seeing Ahab and Bartleby as manifestations of the same theme in similar genres, Borges finds in Melville affinities with Kafka and Charles Dickens.
In one of the longest critical essays in Borges: A Reader, Borges develops his case for Hawthorne as the archetypal American dreamer/writer—a man of images and intuition, says Borges, rather than of reason and dialectic. In his purest of fantasies, his development of dream situations out of which his characters grew, Hawthorne, says Borges, reached his pinnacle—not as a novelist but rather, like Borges himself, as a teller of tales and short stories.
In a remarkable discussion of Hawthorne’s short narrative, “Wakefield,” Borges makes his most cogent points about Hawthorne’s subject and method. Wakefield’s years of self-imposed exile from his wife, his disguises and evasions for twenty years in London, portray the ironies of being lost amidst the familiar haunts of one’s own neighborhood and city, separated from one’s own identity. Losing one’s place, whether at home or in the universe, is not all that difficult. Borges observes that in Hawthorne’s parable mankind enters a world “of enigmatic punishments and indecipherable sins.”
Reinforcing this point, Borges turns next to an analysis of Hawthorne’s “Earth Holocaust,” wherein Hawthorne’s thematic destruction of man’s history, even of the human heart, remains futile given the implications of Hawthorne’s philosophical idealism. In his commentary on Hawthorne’s stories, Borges acknowledges his obligation to Henry James’s monograph on Hawthorne, but Borges adds considerably to the judgments of the Master by means of applying the Jungian assumption that literary creations are by nature oneiric.
Borges sees Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) as an “absolute book . . . a book of books that includes all the others like a Platonic archetype. . . .” He finds in Whitman the image of all men, the group reflected in the individual. Whitman testifies to the truths of poetic license, the truths of imagined “false” facts. As such, Borges believes Whitman eternal.
Mirroring the dreamer’s stances of Melville and Hawthorne, and the microcosmic/macrocosmic interrelationships of Whitman, is Borges’ own classic story of the interconnectedness of literature and life, of illusion and reality, “The Aleph.” Not without a nightmarish, even Gothic quality of its own, the Aleph is the one point in space which contains all other points, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a name chosen for the crystalization of the entire world. In the course of the story the narrator (an analog for Borges the author) is a writer who disbelieves, then believes, then once again disbelieves the existence of such an object; a man who, after seeing the Aleph and being convinced of its magic revelations, soon denies it and forgets.
The narrator, skeptical at first, is drawn to the strange character of Carlos Argentino Daneri, who first saw the Aleph—and, by implication, the mysteries of the universe—in, of all places, his own basement. Daneri is a first cousin to the narrator’s dead friend and feminine ideal, one Beatriz Viterbo. The narrator mocks Daneri and his encyclopedic, fatuous attempts at verse; any interest he has in Daneri’s house or his literary attempts is mainly in homage to the memory of Beatriz.
Soon, however, in a supremely understated version of Dante, the narrator is initiated into the terror and triumph of actually witnessing the Aleph as he descends into the hellish fears of Daneri’s locked, darkened basement. After experiencing the comprehensiveness of the Aleph, he ascends a changed man—at least temporarily—something he never believed possible. Did the narrator merely dream his devotions to the ideals of love and art? The story’s postscript suggests that the only certainty is illusion.
Both in his fiction and in his criticism, Borges is drawn to the fascinating and fantastic interrelationships which exist between life and art, between the artist as man and as heroic quester dreaming his own reality. What Borges: A Reader offers, then, is a handy introduction to the diversity and complexity of an eminent Argentinian writer, who, though he reflects much of his own homeland and its ambience in his stories, also reflects the multiplicity of much wider worlds.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13
Booklist. LXXVIII, January 1, 1982, p. 580.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, October 25, 1981, p. 1.
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