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José Saramago

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Saturday, July 23rd, 2005


I am reading now "A Personal Anthology" of Borges' work, a book of which the author says in the prologue, "I should like to be judged by it, justified or reoroved by it." I'm surprised to find so much in it that is new to me -- I knew I knew nothing of Borges the poet; my imagined familiarity with his short stories is being disproved as well. Of the first 7 pieces (2 poems, 5 stories) I knew only 2 and possibly only 1 before now -- "Death and the Compass" seems like something I've read before but I could not say where or when.

So the seventh piece "Funes, the Memorious" is the first that I know well -- and as I read the first paragraph I see something brand new. The narrator remarks parenthetically, "I scarcely have the right to use this ghostly verb," meaning "remember", and suddenly I think about the similarity in form between "remember" and "dismember" and wonder how remembering somebody might involve reassembling the pieces of his corpse into a lifelike mannequin... Is this a false etymology? Let's see... Hm well yes, Etymology Online believes it is -- "member" in "remember" comes from "memor", "member" in "dismember" comes from "membrum". Still a nice conceit to base a poem on. Let's see if anyone has... Hm well somebody wrote an essay about it... somebody else wrote a punk rock album about it...

posted evening of July 23rd, 2005: Respond
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Sunday, July 24th, 2005

It might be interesting to compare the characters of Ireneo Funes and Oskar Matzerath.

posted evening of July 24th, 2005: Respond

Monday, August 4th, 2008


He thought that good literature is common enough, that there is scarce a dialogue on the street that does not achieve it. He also thought that the æsthetic act cannot be carried out without some element of astonishment, and that to be astonished by rote is difficult.
In the interests of understanding The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, I pulled down Borges' Ficciones this evening to reread "An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain" -- one of Quain's works is the misleading detective story The God of the Labyrinth, which Reis is reading early in the novel.

I'm finding this, well, a lot of fun -- the degree of layering of fiction on fiction is really astonishing. (Particularly when Borges admits to having adapted one of his own stories, "The Circular Ruins," from a manuscript by Quain.) I'm waiting for personalities to emerge, but am confident they will; for the time being I'm just enjoying the technical beauty of the composition.

It has been several years since I read any of Borges' stories; his mastery of language is washing over me again. I'm reacting to his voice in a way I never did before, which is to feel like Borges is a control freak who wants me to react to every word of his in a particular way, and is leaving no room for my own reading; not sure how valid this is, it's just a spur-of-the-moment thought.

(According to The Modern Word, Saramago is not the only author to make use of The God of the Labyrinth. In Philip K. Dick's notes for a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, there is mention of Joseph Goebbels reading Quain's book.)

posted evening of August 4th, 2008: 2 responses
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Control and relaxation

In the Gnostic cosmogonies, demiurges fashion a red Adam who cannot stand; as clumsy, crude and elemental as this Adam of dust was the Adam of dreams forged by the wizard's nights.
Seduced further into Ficciones -- "The Circular Ruins" makes me think I was wrong in calling Borges a control freak, though I still think that description might hold some water when talking about "Herbert Quain." Borges' prose is (necessarily) much more tightly circumscribed than Saramago's, there is not the same reliance on rhythm, it is cerebral rather than physical. But that is not at all the same as saying "You are only allowed to hear it in one particular way."

This looks like an interesting web site devoted to "The Circular Ruins".

posted evening of August 4th, 2008: 3 responses
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Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

A different stylistic perspective

"It is said that repentance and atonement erase the past."

"I have heard that too, but I have not found it to be true."

In the thread below, Randolph recommends Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others. I am reading "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" right now, which is available free online (it is not in that collection), and digging it. Very nice -- and Randolph's observation that Chiang mines "some of the same kinds of ideas [as Borges], from a very different stylistic perspective" seems quite perceptive to me -- the story seems like something that would take place in Borges' fictional universe, but the narrative voice and the construction of the story are nothing like Borges. (Bits of the story remind me of The White Castle, but I think only because of the setting -- the similarity is not particularly close.) Making time travel a form of alchemy is just a fantastic idea.

The story is beautifully conceived -- maybe the most satisfying and wisest story dealing with time travel that I've ever read. Chiang really brings out Fuwaad's soul and lets you identify with his longings and his loss, and with his acceptance. Indeed, Chiang is so careful in his characterizations that Hassan and Ajib and Raniya are fully human, though they are two levels of meta-narrative beneath Fuwaad's story. Thanks for hipping me to Chiang's name, Randolph! One quibble: the archaisms in the dialogue and narration sound pretty strained and inconsistent to my ear, particularly in the beginning of the story.

posted afternoon of August 6th, 2008: 4 responses

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Thoughts about Borges

I have been taking a look back at Borges' fictions over the last few days -- very quickly I am again remembering what I love about them, and also seeing some problems with them that I was not conscious of in college. Jorge López' objection that they are "lacking in the emotional area" is particularly on my mind; I must say that the stories in part II, "Artifices," seem more emotionally developed than the stories in part I, "The Garden of Forking Paths." The last line of "The Form of the Sword" really cuts deep on an emotional level. (And yes, I seem to remember liking part I better than part II when I was in college. Make of that what you will.)

I have been reading Ficciones in the 1962 Grove edition, with translations by Anthony Kerrigan, Aleister Reed, Anthony Bonner, and a few others. I'm seeing some issues with the translations and thinking this could probably be a lot better done -- then I see over at Orbis Tertius today, there is a more recent translation by Andrew Hurley, published in 1998. So, I should check that out sometime.

I've also been happy about catching references that I did not get in college -- for instance, in "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" I recognized the title character's name from the op-ed piece I linked on Friday, and knew about "The Colloquy of the Birds" from references to it in Pamuk.

posted evening of August 11th, 2008: 2 responses

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

The temptation to regard Mr. Wallace's suicide last weekend as anything other than a private tragedy must be resisted.
A.O.Scott writes an eloquent essay on Wallace's legacy in today's N.Y. Times, with reference to Wallace's 2004 review of a Borges biography.
He was smarter than anyone else, but also poignantly aware that being smart didn't necessarily get you very far, and that the most visible manifestations of smartness -- wide erudition, mastery of trivia, rhetorical facility, love of argument for its own sake -- could leave you feeling empty, baffled and dumb.

posted morning of September 21st, 2008: Respond
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Friday, February 20th, 2009

El Libro

Of all the diverse tools of man, the most astonishing is, without a doubt, the book.
At the library today I found a lovely little book by Jorge Luis Borges -- it is called Borges oral and is the texts of five lectures Borges gave at the Universidad Belgrano, in Buenos Aires, in the 70's. The topics are "The Book", "Immortality", "Emmanuel Swedenborg", "The Detective Story", and "Time" -- Borges says he "chose topics with which I have occupied my time."

The first lesson is very engaging and fun -- he's talking about how people have looked at the book throughout history, what space it has occupied in cultures, with reference to classical philosophy and to the Old Testament; and to Spengler's Decline of the West. Some of this is over my head but Borges has composed it in such a way as to welcome inquiry -- he is not assuming his students will understand the references but rather that they will be prompted to investigate further.

Very nice to think about the aged author (in his 70s at the time he delivered these lectures) addressing the class. I am wondering now whether these lectures were ever recorded...

posted evening of February 20th, 2009: 3 responses
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Borges as teacher

I was reading the author's preface to Borges oral just now, in which he explains how he chose each of his topics -- of "The Book," he says it is the tool "without which I could not imagine my life, and which is no less intimate to me than my hands or my eyes."

I was very taken with Borges' humble description of his role as a teacher:

Thanks to the listener, who gives me his indulgent hospitality, my classes achieved a success which I had not hoped for, and which I certainly did not merit.

As a lecture, the class is a collaborative work, and those who listen are no less important than he who speaks.

This book contains my personal portion of these sessions. I hope the reader may enrich them as much as they were enriched by the listeners.

posted evening of February 20th, 2009: Respond

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Nostalgia for Earth

A fun passage from the beginning of Borges' lecture "Immortality":

Without understanding [William James'] joke, don Miguel de Unamuno repeats it word for word in his The Tragic Sense of Life*: God is the provider of immortality, but he repeats many times that he wants to go on being don Miguel de Unamuno. Here I don't understand Miguel de Unamuno; I do not want to go on being Jorge Luis Borges, I want to be another person. I hope that my death will be total, I hope to die in body and soul.

I do not know if it's ambitious or modest, or at all justifiable, my pretension of speaking about personal immortality, about a soul which preserves a memory of that which was on earth and which already in the other world corresponds to the previous one. I remember that my sister, Norah, was at my house the other day and said: I'm going to paint a picture called "Nostalgia for Earth", having as its content that which an angel feels in heaven, thinking of earth. I'm going to make it up of elements from Buenos Aires when I was a girl.

It's just really nice to see Borges, whom I've always pictured as a sort of forbidding presence, talking in this down-to-earth manner, having a house and a sister...

Update: fixed a blunder in my translation, after referring to Eliot Weinberger's translation of the lecture in Selected Non-Fictions.

* Jaime Nubiola and Izaskun Martínez of the Universidad de Navarra have written a paper on Unamuno's Reading of The Varieties of Religious Experience and its Context. Nubiola also has an interesting note in Streams of William James, vol. I, #3 (pdf), on "Jorge Luis Borges and WJ", and in vol. III, #3 (pdf), on "WJ and Borges Again: the Riddle of the Correspondence with Macedonio Fernández". Professor Nubiola has confirmed to me by e-mail that as he understands it, "Unamuno is a deep believer and William James is -- at the end of the day -- a non believer, who understands the belief in God as the other side of the belief of immortality."

posted afternoon of February 22nd, 2009: 4 responses
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