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Literature’s Mozart

ISSUE:  Summer 1978
The Book of Sand. By Jorge Luis Borges. Button. $7.95.

You could range back and forth for years through the literature of Jorge Luis Borges in search of the point. That’s not a denigration. Borges is a universe whose center is everywhere. There is no single leitmotiv, no pre-occupation that excludes all others. In short, there is no one part upon which all others depend, no secret lessons, no hidden meanings. The same does not apply to the Borges metaphysical essays: they are impenetrable. If Borges endures, it will be as a story teller.

Borges’s production is slender and slow forthcoming. To use the sort of metaphor he would probably dislike, there is a fine inner quality, the strength of good construction. Andrè Maurois speaks of the Borges stories, of “. . .their wonderful intelligence, their wealth of invention, and their tight almost mathematical style.” This is literature’s Mozart, the Bach of belles lettres. Control and clarity are the words that describe his work most precisely. It was Maurois who declared Borges heir to Franz Kafka, a title in some dispute, but with the Frenchman’s caveat that Borges would have made “The Castle” into a ten-page story “both out of lofty laziness and out of concern for perfection.”

The paradox is not unknown. The languid and obsessive responses are often found in the same person, Borges must be lazy; the evidence for it is his dearth of production. He has also, it is clear, the bloodshot zeal of the perfectionist. He is an incessant polisher. He will allow only the central element of a story to stand, that part that resists the lapidary grinding of his intellect. He despises even his own less-than-perfect work, not to mention the best of many others.(For years he hunted down copies of three books of essays—Investigations, The Extent of My Hope, and The Argentine Language, written in 1925, 1926, and 1929 respectively—so he could destroy them, as they contained views he later abandoned—such as an attack on Walt Whitman, whom Borges came to admire.)

Borges at work reminds me of the sculptor in, was it The Horse’s Mouth?— the one who started with a great block of marble and kept chipping away, carving and recarving the same figure, down, down, ever more diminutively. When the sculptor turns to his friend the loony painter and says, “What does it say to you,” the painter replies, “It says to me, “I keep getting smaller and smaller.”“

Only Borges knows how much he wears away. He carried the story of “The End of the Duel” around in his head from childhood before he finally committed it to paper. He heard it in a favorite vacation town of his near Buenos Aires, Androgue. He used to go there with his father. So many of his stories came to him at an early age, the stories of the knife fighters of Palermo, the suburb of Buenos Aires where he grew up (which today is a middle-class neighborhood at the last stop on the Buenos Aires subway), the street stories of Buenos Aires, the spare, almost clinical, gaucho stories.

It is another paradox that Borges writes about such things. He has no direct experience with the hard edges of life. First, he lives, and has lived, a thoroughly bookish, sheltered, and internal existence, Secondly, he is the product of a long line of oligarchs. There is not a saloon fighter in the family tree. He has never known poverty, not a hint of desperation. He spent his early years in Switzerland and Spain (1914—1922) taking on the lacquered continental education expected of young men of his class. He flirted only briefly with leftist ideology, found it required too much energy, and abandoned it by the time he returned to Argentina.

His politics are reactionary, consistent with those of his forebears. He hated Juan Peron, as his grandfather hated the 19th-century caudillo, Juan Manuel Rosas, the historical prototype for Peron. Borges’s grandfather went against Rosas with a sword and died for it. Borges opposed Peron with his pen. His words were never widely revered by the great majority of Argentines. And while Peron put his more potent adversaries in prison or banished them, for Borges he reserved only contempt. After Peron was overthrown in 1955, Borges was rewarded with an appointment as director of the National Library.

(While Borges is studied by some professional students of Spanish American literature, he is none too popular with many, especially those sympathetic to the opponents of the right-wing dictatorships of Chile and Argentina. Borges, it has been reported, is sympathetic to these regimes. Recently a woman of my aquaintance applied for a fellowship in Spanish American literature at a prestigeous Eastern university. She was urged to write a paper but to avoid Borges because one of the department members—the one who would have the weightiest say on her application—did not like Borges’s politics. So much for academic freedom.)

Jorge Luis Borges is nearing the end of his life. It is at least possible that before he dies, or shortly thereafter, he will be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Borges is surprisingly well received in the English speaking world. It is, I suspect, the anticipation of bestowal that accounts for much of his popularity among American and English readers. I also suspect it is not a genuine popularity. Borges appeals to the quintessential snob. He is slightly exotic, obscure enough that most English-speaking people have never heard of him, and for that reason he offers a certain cachet. And because his output is so slim, he can be taken in small bites, though he is not necessarily easily digested. He appears in The New Yorker, Eight of the 13 stories in “The Book of Sand” were published there, (The others came out in the Antioch Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and Playboy.)

Again, this is not a denigration of the writer. Rather it reflects a suspicion of his admirers. Borges is declared a universal writer, probably because of his vast and surprising erudition, his love of the fog-shrouded northern myths and sagas, of Irish poetry, G. K. Chesterton, Swift, Poe, and H. G. Wells. This seems to be a kind of homage that the master of the Spanish language pays to the English-speaking peoples. It may not be that, actually, but at least that’s how they take it. Thus his English and American readers accept him, honor him even, for what he has in common with them, not for what he can teach them—about the unique culture that thrives in the region of the River Plate, about the Argentine and Uruguayan pampa and the unpolished men who ride there, and especially of the great lighted hive of Buenos Aires. There is a certain insularity evident among many of Borges’s readers, the arrogance of ignorance. Borges, admired for the wrong reasons, is, in a sense, scorned.

Maurois again says that Borges has read everything, especially what nobody else reads anymore, “the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks.” Such is totally unexpected to a Frenchman who lives in the heartland of Western culture, one accustomed to the ceaseless rush of ideas, the insatiable consumption of issues that characterizes Europe or the United States. In Argentina such things are not done. It is a static place, with its own lagging time construct. It is a country, as Octavio Paz might have put it, “in the suburbs of the West, on the outskirts of history.” It remains the place of the cherished personal library, mouldering on an estancia by a river; the quiet gentleman scholar, drowsing over his afternoon wine in the light of a window opening onto the endless steppes of South America. He may still be exploring the Positivists. He has neither time nor life for new schemes and systems. It is not that the old is better; it is simply that its possibilities are not yet exhausted.

So Borges is a national or regional writer after all. He has none of the exuberance, energy, or hot blood of his great contemporaries in Latin America—the novelists Jorge Amado of Brazil or Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia, nor the explosive poeticism of Pablo Neruda, none of the music of Octavio Paz or Cesar Vallejo. What Borges has is a clear grasp of the mystery of Argentina, a general notion of what animates its people. He is closer to Juan Carlos Onetti and Mario Benedetti, the Uruguayans. Borges does not stand apart altogether; he is firmly in the tradition of the River Plate writers—Onetti, Benedetti, Julio Cortazar, and Bioy Casares, Borges’s famous collaborator in the writing of fantastic fiction.

And unlike the many writers outside the River Plate area, with its eternal and unsurprising landscape—those such as Amado, Garcia Marquez, and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, who set their work within elaborate exotic backgrounds—the River Plate writers tend to be more brooding, internal, solipsistic.

(If you contemplate this list for a moment, you might be tempted to the conclusion that much of the best writing these days is coming out of Latin America, A “virtual hegemony of Latin American writers is recognized over most of the literary world. . .” was the way one critic described it. What North American can match Garcia Marquez? He of the Hundred Years of Solitude. Was there a poet in recent memory with the volcanic power of Pablo Neruda? Jorge Amado, who writes of Bahia and the refugees of the Brazilian sertao, reminds me of the John Steinbeck of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.)

Of all the stories in The Book of Sand, “ Ulrike” is the most romantic. It’s about as romantic as a thoroughly cerebral man, as Borges is, can get. It is a haunting story which affirms the power of sentiment against the knife of the intellect. Many men, no doubt, have lived similar experiences with beautiful, unexpected women while travelling. And many have carried with them the warmth that it gave them for long after. To most, of course, it is recalled as a sexual encounter. To some a moment of love. Borges, out of character perhaps, is closer to the latter here.

Perhaps more than any other, “The Other” demonstrates the broad scope of Borges’s imagination. We can all evoke images of ourselves as we were, and as we are, and we are usually wrong in both estimations. But there are a few who are able to divide the same self into two distinct beings, as Borges does here, a young and older self, and demonstrate the contrasts that have developed through the years as well as the elements of the personality that have resisted change. Borges does it in an encounter between younger and older versions of himself. The notion of the double is an eternal theme of literature and one of Borges’s lifelong preoccupations.

By Borges’s own judgement, one of the more complete works of his career is “The Congress,” and it is included in The Book of Sand. It was one of The New Yorker stories. It is long for a Borges story, 23 pages. It sets forth the kind of contrast that may help us understand Borges in both suits, as the universalist and the regionalist.

The congress in question is the Congress of the World. The story is about an assemblage of River Plate intellectuals of varying nationalities and races who gather periodically in Buenos Aires to prepare for an eventual international congress that will be held in neighboring Uruguay—a conference of humanity, an immense gathering at which the representatives of all men will be invited to articulate the needs and desires of their fellows. Before the congress can be held, however, much must be done to collate all the world’s knowledge, to assemble a library appropriate to such an undertaking.

The whole enterprise, of course, is preposterous on its face, and rendered even more preposterous by its location, out there on the frontier regions of the West. But there have been other preposterous, universalist enterprises before.(Esperanto, to name one, ) And perhaps it is the very isolation and distance from the centers of Western culture that encourage those who live there in their efforts to draw us all in together. Perhaps their behavior is quite appropriate, Anyway, here is Borges, in this absurd setting; and, as expected, the society dissolves and disintegrates under the vast ambition of its own purposes. But before it does, we are taken off to Uruguay to La Caldonia, the estancia of don Alejandro Glencoe, an Uruguayan of Scottish descent. He is to be the president of the congress.

The estancia is near the frontier of Brazil, in the purple land so vividly described by W. H. Hudson. Garibaldi fought here, on those lonely plains, stage for interminable 19th-century wars. Borges’s principal character, Alejandro Ferri, and his friend, Fernandez Irala, two dedicated world uniters, are almost stranded there, face to face with the desolation of the place.

The contrast between the civilizing intent of the congress, the purpose which brought them to the estancia (don Alenandro has ordered an amphitheater built on the estancia, and the workmen are carrying out his instructions with the kind of desultory lack of industry that reflects their suspicion that the thing is not to be taken too seriously) and the rustic circumstances of their actual lives on the estancia is most telling. The theme of the civilized city as opposed to barbaric countryside has activated writers since Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo defined Argentina’s history by it. Even today, artistically, literarily, even commercially, Argentina is two countries—the city of Buenos Aires and the rest of the nation.

It is well known that Borges is a devotee of detective fiction, a lover of Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Within The Book of Sand there is a short piece titled, “There are More Things”; it is dedicated to Lovecraft. It is a horror story, in the Lovecraftian style of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward yet with none of the explicitness of that work. But Borges, in imitating Lovecraft, in some ways exceeds him in evoking a sense of horror by suggestion. In the end I was left puzzled as to Borges’s intentions: Was it so much a tribute or was it the master writer performing an exercise, and in executing it outdoing the object of the homage? Was it a small arrogance?

Of the other stories much might be said. There are intriguing examples of Borges’s well-known pseudo-scholarship, as in “The Sect of the Thirty,” of his preoccupation with regal myth and Icelandic and Arthurian legend, as in “The Mirror and the Mask.”

The most perfect story, from my entirely personal point of view, is “Avelino Arredondo,” the tale of the Uruguayan assassin. It is writing of great power and authority. It reveals to us once again that there is no divergence between the internal and the external life, or at least that they are inextricably joined, that what is incubated in the first is ultimately played out in the second.

In “The Book of Sand,” the last story in the collection, Borges again returns to the theme of timelessness. Contributing greatly to Borges’s power as a writer is his sure sense of the concrete. Writing even of the most ineffable things, he relates his meaning by using the most mundane objects. The most mundane object in Borges’s world is the book. His life is constructed for the most part of books—his own, those in the library left him by his father. And so, when Borges reaches to grasp the ethereal, he reaches for the book—the strange book bartered from the mysterious gringo from the Orkneys, the book with no page numbers, with no beginning, no end, that ever changes, a river of mystery, with a weak and meagre flow, like the streams that trickle through the dry Patagonian arroyos that are never exhausted. The metaphor stands begging: Borges is the stream of weak and meagre flow, the river of mystery which cannot be exhausted.


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