Borges Without Notes : COLLECTED FICTIONS By Jorge Luis Borges; Edited by Andrew Hurley; Viking: 566 pp., $40 : SELECTED POEMS By Jorge Luis Borges; Edited by Alexander Coleman; Viking: 478 pp., $40 : SELECTED NON-FICTIONS By Jorge Luis Borges; Edited by Eliot Weinberger; Viking: 560 pp., $40
On Aug. 24, Jorge Luis Borges, who died in 1986, would have been 100 years old. So erudite and allusive, Borges seemed always to have been 100 years old. Nevertheless, reading him today we discover that he speaks directly to our postmodern sensibility. Consider a few of his obsessions: Anything expressed in words (religion, philosophy) is fiction; fiction and nonfiction are indistinguishable; meaning is determined by the reader; artists alter the past by making us see it differently; opposites resemble nothing so much as each other.
Viking conceived a fitting centenary commemoration for this Argentine enigma, the Franz Kafka of our age, who is generally read in pieces: A massive three-volume translation of Borges’ fiction, poetry and nonfiction. It isn’t a complete Borges, however, because none exists. The “complete works” that he published in the ‘50s is incomplete: Borges purged it of everything he wished he hadn’t written, rewriting anything he deemed salvageable.
Missing: his juvenilia; the essays published between 1925 and 1928 (“Inquisitions,” “The Extent of My Hope,” “The Language of the Argentines”); the first versions of his poetry collections from the same period (“Fervor for Buenos Aires,” “Moon Across the Way,” “San Martin Notebook”). Consigned to oblivion: his correspondence, prologues and myriad uncollected articles. Borges controlled the content of earlier anthologies published in the United States, but Viking was free to publish anything it chose this time around because Borges’ widow, Maria Kodama, owns the rights to his work.
Viking’s main problem was the sheer mass of Borges’ work--how much of it to include? Borges never stopped writing, beginning, according to his own mythologized self-portrait (which ran as a 1970 New Yorker profile and is inexplicably excluded from “Selected Non-Fictions”), when he was 6 or 7 with a pastiche of “Don Quixote,” which he falsely claimed he read first in English. His earliest publication, when he was 9, was a translation of Oscar Wilde’s “Happy Prince.”
Borges and his family traveled to Europe seeking medical help for Borges’ sight-impaired father in 1914, just in time for World War I, staying in Geneva, where Georgie (as Borges was nicknamed) added French and German to his Spanish and English. Returning to Buenos Aires in 1921, saturated with the European avant-garde (he’d translated German Expressionist poems, published a poem praising the Russian Revolution and had direct contact with Spanish Ultraistas), he could have brought European modernism to Buenos Aires. However, Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West,” published in 1918, convinced him to forsake the avant-garde and instead seek to revitalize native Argentine (or criollo in Borges’ terminology) literary culture as a response to a moribund Europe. He came to place the true Argentine spirit in the chaotic 19th century, when warlords like Juan Manuel de Rosas ruled the nation.
Throughout the ‘20s, he preached that this anarchic spirit should be the foundation of a revivified Argentine literature. The politics accompanying that aesthetic verge on neo-primitivist fascism. In “Inquisitions,” Borges informs criollos: “There are flags in the air; perhaps tomorrow, by force of killing we shall intervene as civilizers of the continent.”
The early Borges is a poet-essayist; he writes virtually no prose fiction until the mid-'30s, when he publishes some flashy vignettes in a Buenos Aires tabloid. Only after 1938, when he almost dies from septicemia--the central event in the autobiographical story “The South"--does he become the Borges we know. Borges reaches the apex of his literary career during the ‘40s when he publishes “Ficciones” in 1944 and “El Aleph” in 1949.
The progressive blindness he’d inherited from his father changed his career. He’d begun writing film reviews during the ‘30s--his note on “King Kong” included in this volume is delightful--but, as his sight failed, he gave up that and, with it, to a large extent, writing fictions. He returned to poetry, which he could “see” in his mind’s eye. There are fine later stories, but they rework his sublime efforts of the ‘40s. Until his death, Borges wrote and lectured, globalizing his personal vision and making it part of the international zeitgeist.
Presenting almost 60 years of literary production is not easy. Nor is translating an author whose style in poetry and prose changed radically over the years. So in addition to selection, Viking had to confront the problems of translation and of enabling the reader to understand that the three volumes contain chronologically parallel efforts in three separate areas. “Borges: A Reader,” an anthology edited by Emir Rodriguez Donegal and Alastair Reid and now out of print, provides a useful model because it constitutes a literary biography with work from all phases of Borges’ career. Endnotes tell when and where the texts first appeared, then briefly explain them and their relation to Borges’ life. Viking simply provides three independent volumes with no general index and allows the translator-editors to annotate as they see fit.
Andrew Hurley’s selection and translation of “Collected Fictions” runs to 566 pages, including a five-page “Note on the Translation,” two pages of “Acknowledgments” and 40 closely printed pages of “Notes to the Fictions.” Hurley attempts to have his cake and eat it too: “Generally, therefore, the notes cover only Argentine history and culture; I have presumed the reader to possess more or less the range of general or world history or culture that JLB makes constant reference to, or to have access to such reference books and other sources as would supply any need there. There is no intention here to produce an ‘annotated Borges’. . .” “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” one of the densest fictions produced in the 20th century, shows how mistaken Hurley’s decision was, because no one has Borges’ “range of general or world history or culture.”
Hurley’s notion of some annotation but not an “annotated Borges” reveals the shaky intellectual foundation of Viking’s good intentions. Hurley attempts to head off clashes with earlier Borges translators (at least one has lambasted him because, inevitably, he would have done things differently from Hurley), insisting that “a new translation is always justified by the new voice given the old work.” Hurley may be the new voice of Borges, but where does he leave his readers?
“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which describes a world where ideas are real and objects figments of the imagination, is a puzzle which Hurley does not elucidate. His notes identify the friends Borges names in the story, but for the reader they are characters with no more reality than Herbert Ashe, the fictitious personage Borges presents as a friend of his father. To assume ordinary humans can fathom allusions to Leibniz, Russell, Meinong and Vahinger is ludicrous, as is the assumption that anyone understands the story’s last sentence: “I go on revising (though I never intend to publish) an indecisive translation in the style of Quevedo of Sir Thomas Browne’s ‘Urne Buriall.’ ”
Borges is a baroque writer, like Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645), whose complex style parallels Browne’s 17th century English meditation on death and immortality. Borges’ narrator is translating one dead language into another. Browne wondered why the Romans preserved the ashes of their dead without inscribing their names on their funerary urns. This marks the autobiographical side of Borges’ story (and his writing in general). “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is Borges’ urn; writing makes him immortal, but his name is now only a word. This story is a verbal vessel that confers ironic immortality on the now nameless man, the “I” whom Borges distinguishes from “Borges” in the vignette “Borges and I.” This unbearably complex tale, with its invented planet where reality is a projection of mind, criticizes the seductive power of language. Written in 1940, with Europe dominated by Germans believing in Hitler’s lies, it is also a self-portrait of Borges the artist metamorphosed into the very words he sought to manipulate. How can anyone read this tale without help?
Hurley’s translations, while generally adequate, are not necessarily superior to those of his predecessors. There is, certainly, a benefit to having virtually all the fiction assembled in one volume, but this translation is not a work of genius. For instance, in one passage of “Tlon, Uqbar,” Borges explains that the literature of the planet Tlon is filled with objects created for poetic effect. Hurley’s rendition reads:
“There are things composed of two terms, one visual and the other auditory; the color of the rising sun and the distant caw of a bird. There are things composed of many: the sun and water against the swimmer’s breast, the vague shimmering pink one sees when one’s eyes are closed, the sensation of being swept along by a river and also by Morpheus.”
Fine, but Borges never mentions Morpheus in the original Spanish. He simply (and ambiguously) refers to the current of sueno--"dream” or “sleep.” Why make Borges more complex?
The translations in Alexander Coleman’s “Selected Poems” are based on the last versions Borges saw through the press in his complete works. Unlike Hurley, Coleman uses extant translations: “The editor has gathered together old and revised translations and has commissioned new versions as an exhibition of diverse voices and tones in translation.” Coleman eschews uniformity for diversity, but the reader who knows Spanish may check the version at hand by consulting the Spanish on the facing page. Annotation is minimal: 18 explanatory notes for 210 poems.
Why did Borges, who had been a poet since boyhood, decide in the late ‘30s to turn to prose? Perhaps he felt that his poetry--elegies, odes, intellectual meditations--could not compete with that of Pablo Neruda, whom he admired, or Federico Garcia Lorca, whom he despised. Borges’ most memorable lyrics are commemorations that intertwine the poet and his subject, as do his stories and essays.
Alastair Reid has memorably rendered “The Mythological Founding of Buenos Aires,” a poem originally published in the late ‘20s: Borges, as if simultaneously contemplating the real city and the city on a Renaissance map, imagines a Buenos Aires in which past and present coexist; the city of his past, of his present and of his imagination: “Hard to believe Buenos Aires had any beginning. / I feel it to be as eternal as air and water.”
In “A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suarez, Victor at Junin,” Borges turns elegy into ode. His great-grandfather led a cavalry charge in the battle of Junin that helped Simon Bolivar defeat the Spaniards. Here Borges, again in Reid’s translation, sketches Suarez’s biography--glory and exile--and then suddenly hears his voice:
“What does my battle at Junin matter if it is only
a glorious memory, or a date learned by rote
for an examination, or a place in the atlas?
The battle is everlasting and can do without
the pomp of actual armies and trumpets.
Junin is two civilians cursing a tyrant
on a street corner,
or an unknown man somewhere, dying in prison.”
The tyrant is Juan Domingo Peron, Borges’ personal nightmare because he was a populist supported by the disenfranchised immigrant masses whom Borges loathed. Borges hated Hitler and Peron, but he praised Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet because he was a “gentleman.”
Edited by Eliot Weinberger, “Selected Non-Fictions” reveals an almost unknown Borges. Unlike earlier anthologists, Weinberger provides the full span of Borges’ nonfiction. In the Spanish-speaking world, Borges’ only rival as an essayist is Octavio Paz. Both are intensely engaged with their respective cultures, which they analyze and define; both are outsiders and are treated as such by their enemies.
Weinberger, the translator of Paz’s poetry, had a daunting task: How much of Borges’ prose, much of it still uncollected, should he include; how many early essays, book reviews, prologues? Weinberger’s Borges is less Argentine and more universal: "[W]ith a half-dozen exceptions, a large portion of Borges’ writing has been neglected here: the hundreds of articles he wrote on Argentine literature and culture. . . . These articles would have required a rich subsoil of footnotes to produce a meager interest.” An unfortunate but, given the quantity of Borges’ nonfiction, comprehensible decision: Too frequently Borges is described as a cosmopolitan without a country, a displaced European.
The exact opposite is true. Ultranationalist during the ‘20s and the scourge of the cosmopolitan poets of the previous generation he said were not sufficiently Argentine, Borges defended the Argentine tradition (especially poesia gauchesca, the poetry written in the vernacular of the gauchos during the 19th century), ultimately celebrating Argentine genius in the magisterial “Argentine Writer and Tradition” (1951). We would have a more balanced view if Weinberger had included Borges’ fiery ejaculations about Argentine culture, his hotheaded dismissal of the poetry of the past in his 1926 prologue to “Indice,” an anthology of contemporary Spanish American verse, or his sentimental musings on the mediocre poet Evaristo Carriego, whose biography Borges wrote in 1930.
These three volumes constitute a paradox. They are either too much or too little. For the “common reader,” they are too massive; for someone seeking the totality of Borges’ writing, they are too scanty: Hurley does provide almost all of Borges’ fiction, though not his collaborations with Adolfo Bioy Casares, published under the name Bustos Domecq. Coleman gives us as much of Borges’ poetry as we will ever need but chooses Borges’ final versions of those poems, when we might have preferred the originals, along with some editorial direction. Weinberger has done Borges’ Anglophone readers an immense service, but he excludes vast quantities of material.
If Viking wanted the “definitive” English Borges, they have not achieved it. If they thought that by keeping annotation to a minimum they would avoid cumbersome pedantry, they are again mistaken: We cannot read Borges without notes. If the three volumes had appeared simultaneously, the problem of annotation might have been obviated by a massive index, one way to show the unity of Borges’ thought. Viking has transformed Borges into his own nightmare, the all-inclusive chaos of the library of Babel.*