Suzanne Jill Levine is a noted translator of creative, innovative, adventurous Latin American Fiction from authors like Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. She’s also a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the general editor and co-translator of Penguin Classics’ five new volumes of nonfiction and poetry from widely respected Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: On Writing, On Mysticism, On Argentina, The Sonnets, and Poems of the Night. Her own book The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction has been recently reissued by Dalkey Archive. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes]
Purely as a reader of Latin American fiction, leaving aside all the issues of translation for one moment, where does Borges reside in the Latin American fiction map in your mind, relating to all the other authors you’ve read?
He has often been called the father of the Latin American novel. Certainly the new Latin American novel, as of the mid-20th century. I think that’s very correct; that’s a good way of putting it. I hate to use biological or patriarchal terms here, but he truly was such an amazing inventor, such an amazing adventurer in the world of literature, that his ideas, his concepts, his way into literature really inspired all these writers. He directly inspired García Márquez, but even the generation before that: Julio Cortázar, Bioy Casares. So many writers were impacted by Borges and his way of dealing with literature and writing.
What’s interesting about him is that he really was first a poet, and always considered himself a poet. I think his approach to writing, no matter whether it’s fiction, poetry, essays, is in some ways poetry. I think that’s what makes the Latin American novel what it was, so special, so innovative. It was how it was dealing with language, how it was renewing language. That’s what made it exciting, bringing in these obviously new genres like magical realism, of which Borges is definitely a precursor.
Borges inspired those older than him, he’s inspired so many younger, he continues to inspire, people haven’t stopped going back to him. He has a bigger audience than ever, arguably. Is it the poetry that causes this? Is it his use of language, specifically, that people find in Borges that draws them to it?
He really is, conceptually, a revolutionary, and I think he just invented a way of looking at literature that was always there, except he made us conscious of it. He made us aware of it. For example, people have said, “Well, Borges invented the World Wide Web.” In a way, you could say he has.
That’s a bold claim.
It’s a bold claim. Borges invented the notion that we are all inside the text. The text is everything and there’s no originality — of course, he’s one of the most original writers there is! He’s also so paradoxical. People are intrigued by the paradoxes that come up time and again in Borges. And yet, his paradoxes are as old as Socrates, and even older. It’s just that he knew how to bring all of culture in to the 20th century. At first, he kind of rejected it. In On Writing, my anthology, the very first statement is the Ultra Manifesto — remember, he was an Ultraist.
Two or three years after being an Ultraist, he rejected the posturing of the avant-garde, but he says here something I really think sums up who he is. He says, “Two aesthetics exist: the passive aesthetic of mirrors and the active aesthetic of prisms. Guided by the former, art turns into a copy of the environment’s objectivity or the individual’s psychic history.” There, of course, he sums up all of realism, no? “Guided by the latter, art is redeemed, makes the world into its instrument and forges, beyond spatial and temporal prisons, a personal vision.” That’s Borges. This idea of this “personal vision”: he says here, “Let’s throw out everything and start anew,” but what he actually discovers is, “Let’s take in it all and start anew!” And that’s why people love him. They can always start from anywhere and start anew. I think that’s what is so Borgesian.
It can sound rarefied to someone who hasn’t read Borges. We talk about how much he’s getting into his works, and what sounds like very intellectual concepts he uses. Yet he touches such a wide range of readers. It seems like the way he uses these ideas and the way he uses these techniques couldn’t be that rarefied. How does he get such a wide appeal?
It’s true; it’s not that rarefied. It’s sort of the way he says things. People are suddenly struck by a new way of looking at things. It’s not so much what he says; it’s how he says it. Another text in On Writing, which nobody has read before in English — and even very few people in Spanish — is this 1926 text. Here, the guy was like 26, he was very young. It’s called “Stories from Turkestan”. He basically announces magical realism way before anybody was talking about it. And in the most concrete terms! This is what makes him delightful.
Look what he says here: “The essence of the stories from Turkestan is generosity, a virtue of the plains and the shepherds.” He goes on to say, “Time, in these chimerical stories of Turkestan, not only expands but has the loose shape of dreams.” It’s the way he makes language so concrete. Even though he’s writing prose, it’s poetry in the way he uses images in such a concrete way. I think he brings home these concepts with his taste for language, his ability to make language speak.
What was your first encounter with Borges’ work?
Way back. I went to Spain when I was a young student, and then when I got back to college my senior year, the professors were talking about Borges. This is, like, in the late sixties. I already was aware of Borges, like many of us who were studying Spanish and Latin American literature. But then I met this wonderful critic who became a very important influence in my early life as a literary critic, as a scholar, and as a writer, really. His name was Emir Rodriguez Monegal. He was a Uruguayan critic, also a professor at Yale, who really brought Borges home to all of us. He was somebody who discovered him at age fifteen. The first book I actually engaged with in a more specific way was an early work of fiction of his called The Universal History of Infamy. Which was hysterical, because it’s this tiny book with seven short stories, and he’s calling it the universal history of crime, basically! You have to be draw to this.
And this is a good point: the book is so small, and that’s true of all his stories. Very ambitious-seeming, and really very ambitious, but they don’t take up a lot of pages. There’s not a lot of ink on there. What do you call this skill of his? Is it compression? Or is it expressing only the necessities? What is he doing here? What metaphor is good for how he gets this into such a small space?
The word “metaphor” is important. It is compression. In another newly translated essay called “On Metaphor”, he talks about how metaphor is the origin of language. He is, in a sense, reinventing prose in his writing in the way he compresses, as you said. That’s what metaphor does: it brings many ideas and things together in an image. That’s really how he writes. It is a very dense, compressed mode of writing. All of infinity is in a very small point, which is very, very vivid to us.
I think of “The Aleph”.
“The Aleph” is an emblem of his writing.
And this, for the listener who hasn’t read it, is a story with a point that contains all viewpoints. Maybe you can put it better than that.
No, very well. It contains all viewpoints. You can see everything in this tiny point.
In the nonfiction in these collections, are these a different Borges than you see in the fictions, or is it all of a piece, to your mind?
Both are true. In some ways, in order to understand, truly, his fictions, you have to look at his nonfiction work as well as his poetry to see where this language is coming from, where these ideas are coming from. What we wanted to do was bring forth to the reader not only the Borges they already know, but also expand their concept of who Borges is. For example, On Argentina is an aspect completely missing from the Selected Nonfictions, which is a wonderful volume. It’s just that that volume wanted to capture, let’s say, a more universal, international, and maybe more Anglo-oriented Borges.
But On Argentina shows you how Argentine Borges was. This really is a revelation. You understand how committed he was, politically, socially, culturally, to his particular country. That’s a part that many people aren’t aware of. It gives them insights they wouldn’t otherwise have about his fictions.
It is kind of, I don’t know if “fraught relationship” is the right term, he has with Argentina. It’s one that develops. You can flip through this book and see change: he’s come more to terms with Argentina. What was the process of his point of view on his country? He didn’t seem to like it very much early on, and at the end he’s still saying, “Here are the things we can’t do in Argentina,” but he’s matured.
It’s a very complex relationship. For me to sum up the history of Argentina and Borges’ ideas on it would be very ambitious, and probably wouldn’t work as well as the reader just picking up this lovely volume and reading the brilliant introduction by Alfred MacAdam, which does tell the story very well, as well as the essays themselves. He loved this culture, but was very pained by limitations, by a sense of a a lack of civic-mindedness, of a lack of, let’s say, political development. In other words, he saw it as a culture that was very rich, but, unfortunately, a country that was in the hands of, as he said, “gangsters.”
Naturally, at the time he was writing, regionalism was a very big movement. It really was a continuation of good old-fashioned European naturalism and realism. He wanted Argentina to find its own voice. He didn’t want writers to feel they had to write about certain subjects in a certain way. The fact of being Argentine was, whatever they wrote, it would be Argentine. This concept of identity was shocking, refreshing, and makes total sense.
In MacAdam’s introduction, there’s a bit contrasting that to English and French writers, wasn’t there? The French decides, “I’m this and I’m this and I’m this and I’m this, and these categories mean I must write this,” and the English saying, “I’ll write, and it comes out as it comes out.” This is somewhere in between that as a point of view, perhaps?
I would say so; that’s a good way of putting it. And certainly, it’s good that you mention those two cultures. Argentina, like most of the southern cone countries, was very much in rebellion against the Spanish, the origin of Spain. They turned against it. They looked to other models for developing their culture and their political and economic life. They looked to France as a model of culture. Certainly England had a big impact, because England, if you’ll remember, was an enormous empire, and Argentina was one of its colonies, economically speaking. All these factors make Latin America a very complex place. That’s another thing: Borges wanted this complexity to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to be explored, to be reveled in.
How accurate would you say the standard line about Borges and nationality is, that he finds himself between the, as they say, “sword and the dagger,” Europe and Argentina, and the becomes a bit of a hybrid of that. Is that true, or is that not the best way of framing it?
It’s a typical way of framing it, and it’s true that the Argentines are considered very European, as Latin Americans, although that’s not true of all of Argentina. It’s true of a perhaps more urban culture. Certainly Buenos Aires, if you’ve ever been, you would feel like you’re having a surrealist experience. Here you are at the very tip of the southern cone, and you say, “This looks like a mixture of Paris, Rome, London — where am I?” That tells you the whole story: where am I? Then, after the city, comes this infinite plain, the pampas, and you can’t distinguish it from the sea. It’s this horizon. Those contrasts are amazing, and that hybridity is there.
The question “Where am I?” is something people might ask when they’re reading Borges’ work. Often, locations are just named: he says, “This person comes from this place.” But at the same time, it is a bit of a dreamscape. I’ve never been to Argentina, but it feels like a surreal dreamscape. It’s as you describe. Describing location in his work, how much of it is strongly rooted in how the place actually is, and how much takes is essential qualities and makes something mythical?
His work is very rooted in Argentina. I got to know Argentina even better, because I didn’t know Buenos Aires when I was doing my research for the biography I wrote of Manuel Puig, who’s the other great and very different Argentine writer to whom I’ve devoted a lot of time. I wrote a literary biography of Puig, who’s the author of Kiss of the Spider Woman. A big counterpoint to Borges, and yet they have interesting things in common, curiously enough, although they seem like such opposites.
What Borges does really find — and that’s why he did have such an impact on all these other writers — is that he really ekes out the myth. In other words, he sees the mythic aspect of Argentina and brings it out in his poetry and his fictions. That’s what sets the path of fantastic literature and magical realism on its way. That recognition of this mythic aspect of this new world that is, in some ways, a compendium of the old world, but something beyond.
He sees the mythic in Argentina. Could we say he sees the mythic in whatever he’s talking about, be it a location, or a concept, or a type of person? Is he drawing the mythic out no matter what?
I would say all fiction writers do that in one way or the other. If there’s not some transcendence, an underlying story they’re telling that doesn’t relate to all of us, then they’re not going to reach out to us.
People say it about him, that his stories have the quality of these primal myths that so connect to a human brain at a low level that — even though the language in translation or in the original is beautiful, it doesn’t matter so much because the concepts behind everything just tap in at a basic level.
I actually think he’s the writer who’s come the closest to portraying, let’s say, the labyrinthine structure of the brain, the way the brain works. His writing is therefore, in a way, super-realist. We are fiction makers. That’s what he tells us; that’s what he’s shown us. Everything we think and do, in some ways, is a fiction. We are inscribed in fictions. In a way, we are myth creators, whether or not we want to be. You just have to turn on the radio or the TV or look at the media, and you’ll see myths being created all over the place, some not very uplifting. But Borges definitely does, as you say, capture the structure of consciousness. In that way, he related a lot to Joyce. He loved Joyce’s invention, the musicality of language, the tangibility of language and how he played with language.
But I think he went beyond Joyce in discovering a narrative form which really does reflect how the brain works. Joyce, of course, was stream-of-consciousness, but very few readers can really deal with that. In the way Borges structures fiction, he gives us what Joyce was also seeking: the brain. What is going on in our consciousness. How the unconscious and conscious are always interplaying. He’s a very psychological writer, in a way. That’s the funny thing: he, on the one hand, rejects Freud, on the other hand, he’s truly psychological in the deepest sense.
We’re talking about real things, but then there’s this book On Mysticism, which shows his interest in mystic concepts. How does a brain like his relate to subjects like you find in here? And this has some of my favorite stories: “Funes the Memorious”, “The Aleph”, which deal with things that seem fantastical. How does it work with him? How does he root it, do you think, in a way that makes it seem less… flaky, for lack of a better term?
In some ways, he’s an agnostic, but also a man of faith. What he has faith in is that there is a beyond, but we just don’t know what it is. We’re always, again, creating fictions about what that might be. He loves religions because he loves the way they try to rationalize, systematize, or find a way of reflecting this beyond. Or portraying it, or bringing it down to us. He loves the stories of religions. He’s also in love with the epic form to begin with, and that you see in many of the themes of his poems as well has his stories. His stories are, in a sense, replays of epics. You see Homer in there; you see all the great epics being replayed in his stories, and the great myths. You find the minotaur, you might find all the great Greek myths — everything is in there. The Bible… to go on would be, again, infinite. I think he’s fascinated by all forms of religion: east, west, et cetera.
He was particularly fascinated by a form of Judaic thinking, the Kabbalah, mainly because he saw it as a deep form of interpretation, a fascinating attempt to find a system of interpretation, a hermeneutics, as it were. He was fascinated by this idea that every thing is coded, that there’s no direct relationship with reality. Again, the fictions that are in between. He was fascinated by Buddhism as well, because he shares the belief that we are something or nothing. We are merely a dream created by another dream, and that’s as good a theory as any other.
I think so. His skepticism, his irony, is truly based , a Kafka-esque way, in the fact that it’s really beyond us, and we’re trying our darned best to make sense of it.
You’ve translated some of the material in these books, and I want to get an idea of the experience of translating Borges. You’ve said in another interview that he is the writer most in need of retranslation. What do you mean by that?
One of the wonderful things we did was to bring out a complete collection of his sonnets, which was another Borgesian paradox. Here you have arguably the father of the postmodern; here he is totally involved with a genre which is so traditional. And yet it was fascinating to see the Borgesian sonnets all gathered in one book, and also to deal with the sonnet in a way that was not prescribed, but in a much freer way, which is the way he also deals with it. In terms of the translating of his prose, especially his early prose of the twenties and thirties — of which very little has been translated, except in these Penguin volumes — that’s where you see the power of his invention. Certainly you could say Borges is allied with the baroque, which, of course, is a very difficult style to translate into English. English was purged of its baroqueness, as it were, a couple of centuries back by the Royal Academy. But let us not forget: there’s Shakespeare, there’s Donne, there was a whole Baroque era.
In a sense, the complexity of reality is reflected in the complexity of his prose. Let’s put it that way. I think it’s important to try to make this alive. He himself rejected that early, very baroque style, and was able to, in his later works, really, truly simplify. Remember also that he went blind by the time he was 60, and that’s also when he returned to poetry. Of course, the sonnet made it relatively easy for him to write, because you can memorize a whole sonnet and dictate it to somebody, whereas you can’t do this very complex kind of prose writing that he was doing earlier on. But what he did was to resume some of his themes in the later stories, and also write them in a plainer style, which is wonderful to see. The early prose is a key to what was truly innovative about his work, and the impact it had for generations to come.
We talked about reading his relationship to Argentina and seeing how it sheds light on his fiction. Reading the poetry, then; is that mostly thematic light shed on the fictions, or is it a linguistic one?
I think it’s both, definitely both. Linguistically, certainly he was trying to be very Argentine when he was younger. He wanted to find an Argentine language, and he was taking the slang of Argentina, of Buenos Aires, the lunfardo, the way Italian and Spanish was mixed, trying to use the language of the gauchos and the compadres and all that sort of stuff and bring that into literary language. But aside from all that, in his poetry you definitely see the history of Argentina being retold in sort of a poetic and often ironic epic tone, but also in homage to Argentina as well. There’s so many aspects to him.
There’s also the autobiographical aspect: the question of his family, the question of his ancestors. Some of them were criollos going back to the 19th century. On the other hands, there was this grandmother who was from England. He’s very Argentine in his themes, of course, in many of the poems and certainly many of the stories, but you see also the language of Argentina, the spoken language of Argentina in his work. Even in his translations; that’s what’s fascinating. For example, he translated the last page of Ulysses, Molly Bloom’s monologue, and he translated it into Argentine. That’s what made it much livelier than any other translation that exists, because it’s in a spoken language. What was she doing? It was a monologue. It was spoken, right?
He has a lot of ideas, a lot of thoughts about translation that you include in On Writing. He seems quite pro-translation. You quote him in an epigraph in The Subversive Scribe saying translation is maybe the more advanced stage of the work. There’s writing, but then the next step forward is translation. He says a lot about what the potential of translation might be. I wonder: does this weigh on you at all, his own thoughts about translation, when you’re translating him? To honor what he thought about it?
Not at all. He thought of translation as creation. It’s totally confirmative of what translation is. It’s a creative act. It’s a mode of creation. Obviously it’s not the same as direct writing, but it definitely is a creative act. One could argue that much of writing is translation. Whether or not writers are conscious of it, they’re often riffing off other texts, whether it’s from another language or their own language. That’s what writing is. Borges is saying time and again, we’re always rewriting. He questions these hierarchies, original versus translation. In some ways, that hierarchy was really established much more rigidly when copyright laws came in.
It’s really more of an 18th, 19th century invention, this rigid distinction between translation and original writing. If you go back to Shakespeare, he was constantly taking other peoples’ texts and rewriting them. In ancient times, the Latin poets were translating the Greeks, et cetera, but they were writing their own poetry at the same time. He’s also showing the relativity of certain kinds of concepts and prejudices we have about issues of genre. He makes us question every category that we presume is written in stone.
I love the line where he said, if it weren’t for the publication deadline, he’d just rewrite forever. That seemed to be a very Borgesian thing to say.
He said the idea of a definitive text really belongs either to religion — which is also an irony on his part, that there would be this one version that was the only version — or, as he says, fatigue. You just give up after a while and hand it in.
And yet he did a lot of rewriting anyway, as I understand it, deadline or no. He just kept going.
Oh, he did. Borges, as you said, wrote very short pieces, but probably about 3,000. There’ll never be a complete Borges. That’s another infinity of Borges. That’s part of what makes it fun.
Is it true what I’ve heard, that he didn’t want any on volume to contain everything? Is that an actual wish he might have had? I’ve heard people say it, but you’d be the one to check it with.
He didn’t have a particular concept, when he did his various books of poetry. He just threw poems in there that he was doing. When he had enough poems, he had a book. He was always writing and rewriting, reanthologizing his own work, recontextualizing it. He refused to say that there was something definitive about any particular book. But there’s no doubt that that certain books, like The Universal History of Infamy, even though it has some sections that definitely don’t quite belong, has a certain unity. He’s always against concepts of totality. Everything’s fragments, in a way.
You’ve translated a lot of great Latin American writers, and purely in the context of translating non-living writers, writers you can’t collaborate with directly. How is Borges different from them?
I have to say that, when I did this project at Penguin, I had the wisdom to choose wonderful co-editors. In other words, I was the general editor of the five volumes, but the people I chose for each of the volumes, particularly Alfred MacAdam who did On Argentina; Steven Kessler who did The Sonnets; Efraín Kristal, very distinguished professor at UCLA, who did Poems of the Night. We worked as a fabulous team, because on the one hand we had a wonderful poet-translator in Stephen, we had Alfred and Efrain who are great scholars and who have a vast knowledge of the meaning in Borges’ work, and myself, who’s had a lot of experience on both ends of those. I think that collaboration was what made this project so successful.
But each writer is really a different story. I am now translating a novel by Donoso, who is a writer I translated when he was a live. It’s a wonderful novel; I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I am going to consult with Julio Ortega, who actually was the critic who found this manuscript and edited it and brought it into publication, because it was a posthumous manuscript found. What I’ll say is that each writer is a world unto him- or herself. For the most part, I have worked with living authors, although many of them are not living now, and that was a tremendously enriching experience for me. But I also am enjoying working with the ghosts as well.
There are a lot of very fascinating and fun accounts in The Subversive Scribe of you working with actual living authors, going back and forth, using the communication means of the day to figure out what they want, what you want — a feedback loop — figuring out puns and whatnot. What advantages or disadvantages are there of translating somebody that you can’t communicate with directly? I imagine there’s a little of both, where things are harder but other things are maybe more freeing?
I can only speak for my own experience. When I first started translating, I was extremely young, and I was working with these brilliant writers like Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig, who knew English very well. They were movie addicts, so they knew Hollywood better than I did, although I was also a bit of a movie junkie myself, which is why we had so much in common. These first translations, for me, were truly like an education. Here I was, exploring my own work with writing but also working with them was truly a learning experience. However, there’s no doubt about it that once I began to translate and publish, once I became older and more experienced, naturally I preferred doing it on my own. But those experiences were invaluable, and without their presence, I don’t think those translations would have been as exciting as they are.
You’ve written about the number of Latin American writers who then really wanted you to translate their books, too. What was it you wanted to offer these authors that made them so want you to do their translations?
I wasn’t offering anything; it’s just that Puig started to tell people how great I was, and then all of a sudden all these other Argentine folks were writing to me, wanting me to translate. Pretty soon, I was getting books from everybody. That happens to people who become well-published translators: you start getting books from everybody, and basically they saw I was a good translator and so they wanted me to translate them. I really have translated relatively few people. I know I’ve done about 20 or 25 books, but Gregory Rabassa has done, what, 100 books? I don’t think I’d have the energy to do that much translation.
I really choose certain writers. I’m drawn to certain features in language and certain approaches. I decided early on that I just was going to translate what I really wanted to translate. So often, I wouldn’t take a book that became a real big commercial success. I decided not to depend upon it for a living. Partly, that’s why I’m a professor. I think it was a good choice, because if not, you’re sort of at the mercy of the market, and I think that’s not good.
These writers you translate — it does feel like they have things in common in terms of their command of language and their command of certain concepts. That’s being very vague about it, but I want to get an idea of whether this is a strain of Latin American fiction you particularly enjoy and enjoy translating, or if this is the kind of fiction in general you like, and that, because you can translate Spanish, that’s what you’re drawn to in that. I don’t know if that question is totally clear, but is this a general type of fiction you like, or is this something to do with specifically Latin American fiction that has drawn you to this place?
That’s a very interesting question, Colin. All of your questions have actually been very interesting. You’re obviously a very careful reader. I would say each writer captures some aspect of language or narrative that I’m drawn to. There’s no doubt that Cabrebra Infante and Sarduy, the two Cuban writers, have a lot to do with my playing with language, my love for the Baroque, for the difficult, for the conceptual, for the playfulness. Almost all the writers, what they share in common is irony and humor.
I believe that irony and humor are very serious. I believe that skepticism and irony and humor are important human qualities, because it’s about us truly reflecting on things, seeing the paradoxes, seeing the tragedies and the comedies, and not thinking inside a box but thinking as independently as we can. I do feel that all these writers reflect a certain strong individuality and intelligence, each one of them in what they’re doing. I therefore believe in them. I would say that’s something they have in common.
I got introduced to Borges in high school, senior year English class, when a teacher I had was very much into Borges and had the whole class read some stories. A lot of my classmates didn’t realize that Borges was funny. How common a problem is that, where people don’t actually pick up on Borges’ humor? I happen to enjoy his writing, and you find the humor if you enjoy his style, but do you find that happens, where people just don’t understand there’s humor in Borges?
Oh, yeah. We also are on the West Coast. They have a different sense of humor out here. But I would say, in general, it’s hard for the younger generations. It’s a kind of humor that is based on parody, on reflecting on other texts in a humorous way. It is a problem, but what therefore I find amazing and really exciting about teaching is when I do see students who suddenly are drawn to this, awakened to this, and see it. It’s like a door has opened up. I just think that’s truly magical. That’s what makes teaching exciting. When I do see a young person who’s so many decades younger than me but suddenly communing with that text and catching the humor, I say, “This is really wonderful.” It’s a really wonderful experience.
Borges, of course, has conceptual humor to him, he has parody, but there’s also something else in terms of his characters. People don’t talk a lot about Borges’ characters, but I think about the story like “The Aleph”, with the point that contains infinite points of view. There’s the narrator, “Borges”, and then the poet, Carlos. These are two studies in lazy vanity that play off each other. There’s a surface humor too, isn’t there?
Oh, absolutely. It’s satire at its broadest. He’s making fun of the pretensions of these poets. He’s also commenting on the whole Argentine poetic scene. It’s also a revenge he’s taking, because one of his early books didn’t get a prize. But then, of course, he realized there was a good reason it didn’t get a prize: it wasn’t that good! He sort of also comments on himself. It’s a way of reflecting: “Well, you know, you’re pretty limited. You have to do a little better.” It’s kind of an expression of humility, and certainly in “The Aleph” it’s a learning experience this character goes through that’s extremely painful, but it’s part of life. It’s an amazing text, because in some ways it sums up Dante’s Divine Comedy, but in, what, five pages?
But with a few very direct references. In this story, for those who haven’t read it, there’s this poet who has the Aleph in his house. He can see everything and tries to write a poem containing everything in the world. I see this thread elsewhere. If I just pick up On Mysticism, there is “Funes the Memorious”, about a guy with another power, who can remember everything, who tries to give each number a distinctive name. In Borges’ fiction, there’s all these characters who have amazing powers, great abilities of perception or whatever else, but they’re too dumb or inexperienced to think of a good ambition for them. Is this theme as strong as I think it is in his work?
Absolutely. He’s saying that we’re reaching for perfection, but we don’t realize that, no matter how much perfection we reach for or even achieve, we’re going to die. We’re pathetic. We’re trying so hard to be immortal, and we’re hopelessly mortal. That’s one of the many things. And we’re always blind, in one way or another. Obviously he was literally blind, but he’s saying that our minds are capable of doing so much, but we don’t sometimes know what’s inside our own damn hearts.
What do you think he saw going on in his world or the world in general that leads him to paint humanity as always aiming in the wrong direction? Rewriting Don Quixote letter for letter? These pointless projects his characters do? It seems like there must be a strong analog that he saw in the world. What do you think it was?
He himself was, on the one hand, an enormously brilliant, erudite, and ambitious writer, but on the other hand he saw that he was so human and frail and had so many limitations, both of a personal nature and a psychological nature, things he didn’t really want to deal with, even. Writers write to exorcise their demons. Let’s face it. It’s because we share the same demons that we’re drawn to them. There’s a certain comfort and consolation in recognition. It’s just the awareness of human frailty. He makes fun of philosophical systems. Why? He actually loved all these systems, but he says they’re so absurd.
Even this idea of trying to find a universal language, which, of course, there were many attempts. Why did that fail, the universal language? First of all, there’s no way you can sum up all of reality in a set of things that then can be universally reflected. And also, you can’t impinge upon people’s freedom. You can’t make everybody use that language. Language is something that is free, always changing. He does, in this way, comment very seriously on totalitarianism, fascism — all these things were going on politically in the world while he was growing up and a writer. All these attempts at total systems he sees as dangerous. The humor is serious. There’s many levels on which you can read him: political, metaphysical, it’s all there.
It just think of the real-live Borgesian moment, where they talk about the, say, Japanese and Argentine speakers of Esperanto who meet at the convention and can’t talk to each other because the languages went too far apart in their separate countries. Maybe he did know about that.
I’m sure he did.
The human frailty he explores, and the he experienced — especially among Borges fans, there’s a lot of temptation to make him into a god, the ultimate writer, nobody can touch him because he did these perfect fictions, these perfect gems. Are there dangers in that?
He’d be the last one to consider himself a god, that’s for sure. If you look at the texts on mysticism, you’ll see this. You’ll see a sense of skepticism that is very deep, and also humility, despite all his supposed wiseguy arrogance. People need to create gods and believe in gods. You need to believe in something. Borges is an example of a writer who reached out and found a universal core people could relate to, like a charismatic actor. We’re drawn to human beings who are exceptional. It doesn’t mean he was only exceptional. He had his totally ordinary side too, and that’s part of why he is exceptional. He just is a human being, but with exceptional aspects.
There was a biography of him in 2004, I believe, that talked a lot about his woman problems. The writer David Foster Wallace wrote a review kind of trashing it — he was like, “Why are you talking about all this?” On the one hand it makes sense, because the man was a writer and the writing is what we care about, ultimately. There’s also a need that maybe can go too far of trying to humanize and make seem a little more fumbling somebody who might be deified.
Of course, of course. People are always fascinated by writers’ biographies, and there’s an over-tendency to interpret. There were interesting aspects to that biography, because it did show, for example, the backdrop of “The Aleph”: the rivalry between the two poets was also over a woman. One poet obviously had more charisma than Borges did. That was a great disappointment for him. But yeah, you can overinterpret. That’s the danger. You’re never going to capture the whole thing.
We can see a lot of what Borges may or may not have believed in these books. This is a rabbit hole you can go down in the fictions, trying to figure out what he believed. To the extent there is a possibility of determining what he believed, what perspective does that give you on the fiction he’s best known for?
Obviously, over the many years I’ve been studying and writing, I certainly have evolved a sense — and I even wrote a dissertation on fantastic literature — of where all the different influences or all the different forms of literature that have somehow been brought into the making of what Borges does. I guess, in some ways, this book On Writing reflects my particular feelings about the different focuses he had, and the different obsessions he had, that really show where his fiction is coming from.
In a way, I’m showing that Borges both as critic and poet gives us, in a sense, the keys to what aspects of narrative he was interested in, what aspects of language he was interested in, and what influences he was able to make use of in transforming him into what became his writing. I suppose that’s what my book reflects. The whole concept of reading as writing is central to that. That’s one of the ways in which he was so universally appealing. He’s talking about how he became a writer out of reading, that reading is one of the most creative acts there is. Then you see the various elements of what he read and how that became part of what he wrote.
You do see that in these books. In the sections of “Borges as Critic,” he reviews a few very well known books. What I found quite interesting is his relationship with Ulysses. He writes a piece in there where he admits, “I haven’t read it all, but obviously this is one of the greatest books ever written.” That seems like a thing he would say. Nobody else could make that make sense to me, but he did. What was his relationship like with that book?
This goes back to Borges as a reader. He was a hedonistic reader. One of his essays is called “Literary Pleasure”, and that really is also why readers love him. There’s an eros of writing, a libidinal aspect to writing and to reading, that Borges is into. Whether or not he was the great lover, the pleasure of the text is very clear in Borges. At the same time, what is fascinating is also the ethics of reading. He brings pleasure, aesthetics, and ethics together. That, again, makes him such a universal and important, maybe godlike figure in the world of writing.
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