Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Language of Jorge Luis Borges

You know me.

I'm a writer of nonfiction. (Though I reverse the right to fiction). Jorge Luis Borges was a writer of fictions. Minimalist fiction. He also wrote nonfiction. He reserved the right to write as he chose. In fact there is very little distinction between his fiction and his nonfiction. I would like to introduce him to you...I recently purchased a copy of his 'Selected Non-Fictions' edited by Eliot Weinberger. It's an interesting read. As interesting as any fiction. In fact, it is not so much a book to read as one that must be read and re-read again and again. It demands that with its intricate language and the almost impossible interconnectedness of its story lines and topics.

Richard Bernstein of 'The New York Times' said, "Borges's uniqueness in 20th-century letter is rooted in an almost monstrous combination: encyclopedic knkowledge, razorlike critical judgement and a ravishing appreciation for the magical and pagan dimension in every situation."This is no easy read, in short. But the works themselves are brief enough to invite a re-reading at any time. (You can pick it up almost anywhere and be as overwhelmed as you would have been by trying to read it straight through). If that hasn't been enough to frighten you off, let's continue.

Inside you will find his early writings (1922-1928) which include, (but are not by any means limited to), 'Joyce's Ulysses', 'Literary Pleasure', and 'An Investigation of the Word'.

The next section is 1929-1936 and includes 'The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader', 'The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights', and 'The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton'.

Next come a whole series of 'Capsule Biographies' of the likes of Isaac Babel, Theodore Dreiser, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, among many others.

Then 'Book Reviews and Notes', including 'William Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom!', 'Two Fantasy Novels', 'H.G. Wells' Latest Novel', and 'Joyce's Latest Novel'.

Next a section about the time of the Second World War 1937-1945, which is followed by 'Nine Dantesque Essays', the period of 1946-1955, and finally 'Dictations' with various lectures, his 'Prologues to the Library of Babel', and 'Prologues to a Personal Library'.

I am only telling you this to let you know what you are getting into if you decide to read this book. (But I consider it a must-read for those who write nonfiction. You will see why if you read it).I have found that I can get bogged down quite easily in any of his writings. The other day I was reading 'The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights'. "At Trieste, in 1872, in a palace with damp statues and deficient hygienic facilities, a gentleman on whose face an African scar told its tale - Captain Richard Francis Burton, the English consul - embarked on a famous translation of the Quitab alif laila un laila, which the roumis know by the title 'The Thousand and One Nights'. Now, I don't know about you, but that is an intriquing opening. So much is packed into a few sentences that I can't help but wonder what Borges will say next. "Lane translated against Galland," he writes, "Burton against Lane; to understand Burton we must understand this hostile dynasty."Now, I'm going going to spoil it by telling you what that hostiel dynasty is, or why it should matter to you. As my English teacher used to have us say at the end of a high school book report, "If you want to know the ending, you'll have to read the book." Actually, I'm not sure that applies in this case. Even if you read the book, you may not be able to make out the ending. Borges has a way of subverting the passage of time, too... But that is quite another story.

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