Sunday, April 23, 2006

Alberto Manguel with Borges

The first thing to note about With Borges is its singularity. The only man who could have written such a book about Jorge Luis Borges has now .

The literary critic and essayist Alberto Manguel not only knows the work of Borges better than anyone else, he was also a close friend and ally of Borges. With Borges brims over with warm details of Borges the writer and Borges the man, but it is also it is also written in a circling, allusive, aphoristic style that shows Borges's own influence on Manguel.

Manguel's friendship with Borges began in a very unusual way. As a boy Manguel used to work after school in an Anglo-German bookstore called Pygmalion in Buenos Aires, and Borges was an ocasional visitor there. By this time Borges, in his late fifties, had become prey to the blindness that ran in his family, and, as someone who lived almost exclusively for books, he was in need of someone to read to him. Manguel didn't know much about him, but he was a bibliophile as well, and when asked if he would read to Borges in the evenings he consented.

For a few years, till the time Manguel left Argentina in 1968, the two would go over the books in Borges's library in the evenings—Dante, Chesterton, and Kipling were among Borges's favourite writers. Manguel would read, Borges would listen closely (he knew many of his favourite works by heart), and then make some observations of "wonderful perspicacity and wit, not only sharing with me his passion for these great writers but also showing me how they worked by taking paragraphs apart with the amorous intensity of a clockmaker". This is not the only occasion in With Borges when the reader feels more than a little envious of Manguel.

Books meant the world to Borges, and not just in the simple sense that he was greatly in love with books and literature. Rather, as Manguel explains, books were Borges's primary reality:

For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogue begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past. 'In time,' he said to me, 'every poem becomes an elegy.' He had no patience with faddish literary theories and blamed French literature in particular for concentrating not on books but on school and coteries….He was a haphazard reader who felt content, at times, with plot summaries and articles in encylopaedias, and who confessed that, even though he had never finished Finnegan's Wake, he happily lectured on Joyce's linguistic monument. His library (which like that of every other reader was also his autobiography) reflected his belief in chance and the rules of anarchy.
"His library, which like that of every other reader was also his autobiography"—in utterances like this we see Manguel's own penchant for provocative Borgesian formulations. Elsewhere Manguel says:

There are writers who attempt to put the world in a book. There are others, rarer, for whom the world is a book, a book that they attempt to read for themselves and for others. Borges was one of these writers. He believed, against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and be believed that happiness could be found in books, even though he was unable to explain why this is so. 'I don't know exactly why I believe that a book brings us the prospect of happiness,' he said. 'But I am truly grateful for that modest miracle.'
With Borges—beautifully brought-out by a relatively new publishing house, Telegram Books—complements another beautiful essay in Manguel's 1999 collection Into The Looking-Glass Wood. That essay is titled "Borges in Love", and it is about Borges's difficult romantic life ("Throughout his almost centenary life, Borges fell in love with patient regularity and with patient regularity his hopes came to nothing."). The irony about this is that Borges produced some of the twentieth century's best poems about love.

And now some links. The universe of Borges's poems and stories—he never wrote a novel, and in fact held the novel form in some disdain—is so rich that a great many readers have been stimulated into producing rich work in response to it; Manguel is just one of many fine interpreters of Borges. Here are two particularly good essays.

One, written by Borges's translator Alistair Reid, is called "Borges Beyond Words", and it deals (in beautiful language, one might add) with the vexing issue of the relationship between reality and the language we use to describe that reality. Reid writes:

There is one quotation which Borges loved--I think it was his favorite quotation in all of English literature. It was from an essay of G. K. Chesterton's on a fairly unknown painter called G. F. Watts. "Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn forest. . . . Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire." In other words, language can never accommodate the enormous reality beyond it....
The second is "Mother's Boy", by the literary critic Algis Valiunas, a writer whose work I admire greatly for its intelligence and verbal beauty. Again, it is contains a beautiful quote from a writer Borges admired—the philosopher FH Bradley, who says "For love unsatisfied the world is a mystery, a mystery which satisfied love appears to understand." (And perhaps one can tell, from Manguel's "Borges in Love", why Borges attached such importance to this remark.) But among the many interesting things in Valiunas's piece is the criticism of Borges's work that he proffers in the closing paragraphs.

And here is Borges's beautiful fable of the life of Shakespeare "Everything and Nothing", a piece that Valiunas takes up at the close of "Mother's Boy".

An extract from With Borges can be found here. The excellent Robert Birnbaum has a long interview with Manguel here. And the American novelist John Barth draws some parallels between the work of Borges and another giant of twentieth-century literature, Italo Calvino, here.

Lastly, an old piece about some poems by Borges, "Chess With Jorge Luis Borges".


Cheshire Cat said...

Excellent post - thanks. You come close to Benjamin's ideal. The Bradley quote reminded me of this masterful poem of Blake:

"What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.

What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of gratified desire."

Perhaps a clue here as to why Borges found such happiness in books. It is in books that the "lineaments of gratified desire" achieve the utmost clarity and significance.

xyz said...

the book sounds very interesting. where did you manage to get your hands on it? is it available in india..?

Space Bar said...

I was going to comment on this statement:

'The irony about this is that Borges produced some of the twentieth century's best poems about love.'

when I read further and found this:

'the philosopher FH Bradley, who says "For love unsatisfied the world is a mystery, a mystery which satisfied love appears to understand." (And perhaps one can tell, from Manguel's "Borges in Love", why Borges attached such importance to this remark.)'

and wondered if I really needed to make a comment at all.

But, put another way, it is in the eternally possible that the erotic resides.

Something about the cover of the book reminds me of the film, Beyond The Clouds by Antonioni and Wenders.

Chandrahas said...

Cheshire Cat, that Blake poem is an excellent amplification of Bradley's remark. Thanks very much. The lineaments of gratified desire indeed.

Shreya, the book's just come out in the UK. So it might be a while before it's available in India. I had the book sent to me as India's eleventh-best Borges expert.

Space Bar - yes, we must get down to writing a whole essay now just on that remark by Bradley, the beginnings of which have already been provided by Cheshire Cat above.

Falstaff said...

Okay, Alberto Manguel just went to the top of my list of people I envy to the point of hatred. Reading to Borges has to be the best job in the world. Aaargghh!

I wonder if the Roth family has any history of blindness?

Anonymous said...

I'm going to give Borges a try once more (I started reading Labyrinths and had to give up for a variety of reasons). Which book of his do you recommend I start with? (something that is not too circling, allusive or aphoristic :) )


Sonia Faleiro said...

Enjoyed this piece thoroughly. Thanks, Hash.

Chandrahas said...

Swami - That is a worthy question, a very worthy question. In fact that question suddenly brings back memories of days of my long-gone youth. Many thoughts come rushing up, and as I am in a grandly loquacious mood, I shall now share them at happy and exorbitant length.

Truth be told, I'm not overly fond of Borges's stories myself - I find them too bookish and musty, and while they are certainly ingenious, I read them with interest rather than delight.

But Borges's poems are another matter altogether. These are some of the most beautiful lyrics you could hope to read, and while the stories often conjure up their own tiny Borgesian universes, the poems appear by contrast to reach out and grasp the whole world. If the stories are a record of Borges's imaginings, the poems are a record of his longings. "Browning Decides To Be A Poet", "History of the Night", "Chess", "The Art of Poetry" ("Sometimes at evening there's a face/that sees us from the deeps of a mirror./Art must be that sort of mirror,/
disclosing to each of us his face") - one could read these poems every day of one's life and not tire of them ever.

So the thing to do might be to buy the lovely paperback edition of Borges's *Selected Poems* published by Viking a few years ago, easily available in India from Strand Bookstall ( It costs five hundred rupees, and I can't think of a better way of spending that sum. (Yet I am such a cheapskate that I haven't bought it yet.)

As for myself, the Borges book that I like the best 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, and for him the name was in with 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 small pink paperback authored by Borges and his longtime collaborator, Adolfo Bioy-Casares, called *The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq*. This is as fine a book as I have ever read, and I will not let anybody speak ill of it.

The pompous and gullible H. Bustos Domecq was among the best characters Borges ever created. He 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 slyness of Borges and Bioy-Casares hiding behind their pedantic and credulous creation, and I remember this as one of the first books that showed me how much fun could be had with literary criticism.

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 possess *The Chronicles of H. Bustos Domecq* only in my 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.

Space Bar said...

'I possess *The Chronicles of H. Bustos Domecq* only in my memory,'

Actually, this anecdote is like a story out of Borges--whether it really happened or not is immaterial! What is more important is the anecdote itself and the questions it throws up about about what is 'real' and what 'really' happened.

And the bookshop that no longer exists, 'as if obedient to the boundary line offered by its own name,' only helps matters along.


Falstaff said...

Bookish? Musty?!! Surely you jest.

I love Borges' short stories. They are, to me, the embodiment of the poetry of ideas, the Blake-ian ideal of seeing a World in a Grain of sand and Eternity in an hour. They are certainly baroque in construction, but running through their careful variations is a deeply human voice, a violin note of emotion and beauty (it's not coincidence that reading Borges always makes me think of Bach). In his best work - Labryinths, Aleph (I recommend the companion piece to the Selected poems, btw - the Collected Fictions) - Borges combines an almost mathematical precision of ideas with a dizzying sense of the infiniteness of possibility. His stories are set in 'Borges world', true, but it is not a "tiny" world, it is a system of alternate universes that open out in every multiplying splendour - and his ability to create those worlds, to make them seem so real, so necessary, in just a few short pages is one of Borges's greatest gifts. His stories are set in other worlds, true, yet for all that they manage to parallel, through a sort of imagist magic, the world we live in, becoming surreal echoes of our own thoughts and concerns (this notion of other parallel worlds, seperated from ours by thin walls that the imagination can easily pierce, is of course, a particularly Borgesian one).

Overall then, I don't see the poems and the stories as being two fundamentally different strains of Borges' writing. They both flow from the same richness of imagination, from the same concern with thought as a way of multiplying, via language, the imagined world. The poems (which I have nothing but admiration for) take the more impressionist route to this end, are more concerned with sensation; it is in the stories the Borges brings the discipline of intellect to bear on that magnificient imagination - and both, I think, are better for it.

Anonymous said...

Wow thanks very much Chandrahas. Luckily for me my library has a copy of "The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq" and I am checking it out right away!!

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

Wow very cool.

Chandrahas said...

Falstaff, those are some good thoughts. But there isn't really that much of a gap between our views. Your assertion that "The poems take the more impressionist route to this end [of multiplying the imagined world through language], are more concerned with sensation; it is in the stories the Borges brings the discipline of intellect to bear on that magnificent imagination" is seconded by me, I think, when I say that "If the stories are a record of Borges's imaginings, the poems are a record of his longings." The only difference is that you privilege one thing and I the other.

But you have good things to say about the stories, and I happily defer to your judgment on these matters.