Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Memories of a Borges book, and the old Twentieth Century bookshop

I'm pleased with some of the responses to my recent post on Jorge Luis Borges, quoting bits of work that relate in some way to Borges's writing - in fact this proves, as Guiseppe Mazzotta writes in this beautiful piece on Dante, how "all arts are engaged in an endless conversation". With comments like these blogging also becomes a shared endeavour, an endless conversation.

And occasionally a comment happens to jolt one's memory, and things long past return vividly. Yesterday, while responding to a question about Borges, I remembered a book by Borges I'd read many years ago, and a great many other things besides. I thought I'd put up the comment again as a post - it's my personal tribute to Borges.

The Borges book that I like best myself is one that I no longer possess, but often remember with nostalgia.

In the year 1999 I was a college student in Delhi, and two minutes away from our residence in Connaught Place there was a most dusty and smelly bookshop called Twentieth Century Bookshop. (A couple of years later, as if obedient to the boundary line offered by its own name, it shut down, but clearly it was founded at a point when an enormous swathe of the twentieth century stretched out before the proprietor. For him the name was in sync with, even ahead of the times; now it was only a relic of it.)

It was here one afternoon that I joyfully bought, for the sum of fifty rupees, a pink paperback authored by Borges and his longtime friend and collaborator, Adolfo Bioy-Casares, called The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq.

The pompous and gullible H. Bustos Domecq was among the best characters Borges ever created (in fact, his voice always became notably "lighter" when he worked with Bioy-Casares). Bustos Domecq was supposedly a literary journalist, and the book is a collection of highly earnest essays written by him on subjects like modernism, abstract art, and so on.

In truth these pieces were devastating indictments of literary fads and fashions, and in particular the excesses of Modernism. Thrilling things were achieved by the sly wit of Borges and Bioy-Casares, firing away from behind their pedantic and credulous character. I remember this as one of the first books that showed me how much fun could be had with literary criticism, and indeed how literary criticism was itself a branch of literature.

Sadly, in those days I was more youthful, less wise and more kind than I am now, and in zest for somebody to share my enthusiasm for my book I lent it to a friend, who promptly lost it. To my regret I have never been able to find another copy.

I now possess The Chronicles of H. Bustos Domecq only in memory. And often it seems to me as if that book is a symbol of those beautiful days, now lost forever, to use a Borgesian phrase, in the labyrinth of time.


Cheshire Cat said...

Indeed, the lost book is most fondly remembered, like the girl cat that got away or the poem that was never written. Time reified in its passing, or a future never to be realized...

As for criticism as a branch of literature, the first example that comes to mind is "Pale Fire". But also "A Perfect Vacuum", by Stanislaw Lem - a writer whose uncategorizability is a measure of his achievement. On a lighter note, Frederick Crews' funny and gently deflationary "The Pooh Perplex". Others?

anurag said...

A couple of years later, as if obedient to the boundary line offered by its own name, it shut down..

Beautiful post. Thanks

Anonymous said...

* I love the 20th century line too.

* I began reading your blog two days ago, and enjoy your writings on literature, but skip the cricket stuff (Ram Guha is enough :)). I look forward to seeing more of your byline in print.

* I do hope you'll be able to break Pankaj Mishra's stranglehold on reviews of all India/South Asia-related literature for Western publications.

* My favorite Borges story remains The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim, followed by the Library of Babel. Both are faded from memory now; I read them in high school. I found Borges dense, meta-meta and frighteningly beautiful in Ficciones. And then he was witty and wonderful and gurgling in Collected Non-Fictions. But I have not read The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, and neither do I see it on bookshelves here. It's now on my summer reading list.


Falstaff said...

Chandrahas: thanks for the reference. A delightful read, that.

confused said...

A most delightful read.

Like everyone else I loved this line-

''A couple of years later, as if obedient to the boundary line offered by its own name, it shut down..''


Another reason I found it interesting is that because it revealed a more personal side of you. You always seem to weigh each word you write, and I can visualize you as a most careful writer agonizing over each and every phrase. This sometimes, makes your writing a little impersonal, unlike some other equally talented bloggers. You almost always seem to be the detached observer. I am not saying its a wrong thing.

This one seemed to provide a little glimpse in to ''you''.

I don't know If I made any sense at all; just a general observation.

p.s Thanks for the lunch offer. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

It does show, in the beautiful, long, elegiac sentences, when the mind looks back, fondly, over the swathe of time gone by. It is something, an old, old man like me can well understand... Thanks for adding that extra bit of heat to my lately sluggish memory.


Prashansa said...

Dear, dear Chandrahas! It fills my heart with such rapture to find someone so enamoured with Borges! More than five years have passed since you wrote this post, and you may have found the book by now; if you haven't, you may find some of those pieces in this volume: http://www.amazon.com/Jorge-Luis-Borges-Selected-Non-Fictions/dp/0670849472.

Your post reminded me of this stanza in Borges's poem "Limits":

Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.