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Language speaks, because speaking is its pleasure and it can do nothing else.

Penelope Fitzgerald

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First conversation

Creo que mi amistad con Borges procede de una primera conversación, ocurrida en 1931 o 32, en el trayecto entre San Isidro y Buenos Aires. Borges era entonces uno de nuestros jóvenes escritores de mayor renombre y yo un muchacho con un libro publicado en secreto y otro con seudónimo. Ante una pregunta sobre mis autores preferidos, tomé la palabra y, desafiando la timidez, que me impedía mantener la sintaxis de una frase entera, emprendí el elogio de la prosa desvaída de un poetastro que dirigía la página literaria de un diario porteño. Quizá para renovar el aire, Borges amplió la pregunta:

—De acuerdo —concedió—, pero fuera de Fulano, ¿a quién admira, en este siglo o en cualquier otro?

—A Gabriel Miró, a Azorín, a James Joyce. —contesté.

¿Qué hacer con una respuesta así? Por mi parte no era capaz de explicar qué me agradaba en los amplios frescos bíblicos y aun eclesiástios de Miró, en los cuadritos de Azorín ni en la gárrula cascada de Joyce, apenas entendida, de la que levantaba, como irisado vapor, todo el prestigio de hermético, de lo extraño y de lo moderno. Borges dijo algo en el sentido de que sólo en escritores entregados al encanto de la palabra encuentran los jóvenes literatura en cantidad suficiente. Después, hablando de la admiración por Joyce, agregó:

—Claro, es una intención, un acto de fe, una promesa. La promesa de que les gustará —se refería a los jóvenes— cuando lo lean.

I believe my friendship with Borges stems from our first conversation, which occurred in 1931 or 32, in transit between San Isidro and Buenos Aires. Borges was at that time one of our best-known young authors; I was a boy with one book published in secret and another one pseudonymously. Asked a question about my favorite authors, I took the floor and (defying the shyness which was making it difficult for me to get a coherent sentence out), set off on an unfocussed panegyric in praise of the poetaster who edited the literary supplement of a Buenos Aires newspaper. Perhaps to clear the air, Borges expanded his question:

-- Certainly -- he admitted -- but outside of Fulano, whom do you admire, in this century or some other?

-- Gabriel Miró, Azorín, James Joyce. -- I replied.

What to do with such a response? For my own part, I would not have been able to explain what appealed to me in the cool, spacious, biblical -- even ecclesiastical -- works of Miró, in the rustic tomes of Azorín, nor in the garrulous cascade of Joyce -- even given, as I was taking for granted, like a rainbow in the air, all the prestige of the hermetic, the strange and modern. Borges said something to the effect that only in authors committed to the bewitching effect of the word do young people encounter literature in sufficient quantity. Later, speaking of my admiration for Joyce, he added:

-- Clearly, it's an intention, an act of faith, a promise. The promise that they will like it -- referring here to young people -- when they read it.

An imposing brick of a book arrived in the mail yesterday; it is Adolfo Bioy Casares' Borges, 1,600 pages excerpted (by Bioy Casares' literary executor Daniel Martino, in collaboration with the author at the end of his life and posthumously) from the 20,000 pages of diary left in his estate. Bioy Casares began keeping his diary in 1947; the above is from a brief foreword titled "1931 - 1946" which appears to have been written much later.

I had not realized Bioy Casares was so much younger than Borges; had always assumed they were about the same age. (I have not yet read anything by Bioy Casares either by himself or in collaboration with Borges; I know him mainly from mentions in Borges' stories.) When they met in 1931, Borges would have been in his early thirties and Bioy Casares a teenager -- Borges was a mentor more than a peer -- this totally changes my picture of the dinner at the beginning of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," where Bioy Casares recalls the teaching of a heresiarch of Uqbar, the first intrusion of Tlön into the life of the narrator.

There is a bit of meat in this brief exchange. I'm not sure what to make of Borges' statement about the "bewitching effect of words" -- sounds a bit like hand-waving to keep his young interlocutor from having to explain himself and feel embarrassed. I don't know Miró or Azorín at all; I'm wondering if the trio of authors Bioy Casares names here is meaningful or if it is just the first three names that come to mind as he is struggling to master his timidity. Totally unsure about my reading "like a rainbow in the air," I don't know what the meaning is here. The picture of Borges here is very pleasing; and it's such an exciting thing to imagine this meeting, in 1931, with the whole history of their literary collaboration as yet unborn.

posted morning of March 27th, 2010: Respond
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