Critical Overview

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Early criticism about Borges centered on his poetry, and when he began to write essays, most critics preferred his poems. His works appeared primarily in the literary magazine Sur, which was a fledgling venture when he first contributed to its pages, but which later emerged as one of South America's most important venues for new Hispanic literature. Surprisingly, Borges gained national attention despite his apparent disinterest in his nation's turbulent political scene, in an era when Argentine writers proved their courage through polemical writing. He was also criticized for his literary games, and the fact that certain of his key phrases, themes, and devices tended to crop up again and again. Fellow Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato facetiously asked, "Will he be condemned from now on to plagiarize himself?" At least one compatriot recognized Borges' groundbreaking technique; Cesar Fernandez Moreno called him "a premature phenomenon of our culture" under whose tutelage the country would one day gain the literary acumen to vie with European writers. An early work of criticism by Ana Maria Barranechea (1957) viewed Borges through the lens of "irreality," thus placing him firmly within the modernist movement. Her view of him is rather dark, seeing in him "the horrifying presence of the infinite and the disintegration of substance into reflections and dreams." It was the European expatriots living in Argentina who ensured that Borges' works were translated into French, Italian, and German, thus exposing him to international criticism with the result in 1961 that he shared the Formentor International Publisher's Prize with Samuel Beckett. John Updike, in his capacity as book reviewer for the New Yorker, hinted in 1965 that in Borges might be found a proposal for "some sort of essential revision in literature itself." In 1967, Colombian novelist and liberal Gabriel Garcia Marquez said of Borges, "He is one of the writers ... I have read most, and yet he is perhaps the one I like least" because he "writes about mental realities, he is sheer evasion." However, in the same year, John Barth found in Borges the inspiration for his essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," published in the Atlantic. Barth's theory comprised the "death of the author," the consequence of all stories having already been told. Barth called this state of affairs "the used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities." Barth cites the story "Pierre Menard" as an example of "the difficulty, perhaps unnecessity, of writing original works of literature." Borges, according to Barth, offered a new literary agenda, to self-consciously imitate what has been written already. Barth himself adhered to this agenda by writing his "Lost in the Funhouse," also published in the Atlantic in 1968. The Borges theme of the labyrinth serves as the central organizing metaphor for Barth's short story.

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Essays and Criticism