Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jorge Luis Borges

W. G. Sebald said,
My medium is prose, not the novel.
Which, I can't help thinking, is true also of Jorge Luis Borges. Although, applied to Borges, and if left unaltered, the quote loses some of its punch, given that he never wrote novels. Still, if you don't mind substituting 'short-stories' in the place of 'novels', it makes for an interesting comparison.

It helps, mind you, that Sebald was, overtly, influenced by Borges. One of the pleasures of reading either writer is puzzling over the references to literature, which fill their books. In The Rings of Saturn, Borges is one of Sebald's reference points: the short story, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius", from Ficciones (1956), appears more than once. Indeed, Sebald borrows some actual prose from Borges towards the end of Chapter 3.

Both writers have a style that might be called documentary, although the word is not very helpful for understanding the singular beauty of either. It is difficult, and not necessarily very interesting, to classify either writer. Sebald's style, and, therefore, by extension of my comparison, Borges's style, I think, was well described by James Wood, in his review of The Rings of Saturn, where he also made some unrestrained comments about fact and fiction:
What is remarkable about The Emigrants and about The Rings of Saturn is the reticent artificiality of Sebald's narration, whereby fact is taken from the real world and made fictional. This is the opposite of the trivial "factional" breeziness of writers such as Julian Barnes or Umberto Eco, who take facts and superficially destabilize them within fiction, who makes facts quiver a little, but whose entire work is actually in homage to the superstition of fact. Such writers do not believe deeply enough in the fictional to abandon the actual world. They toy with accuracy; they are obsessed with questions of accuracy and inaccuracy, for even inaccurate facts, to such writers, have a kind of empirical electricity, since they connect us to a larger informational zealousness. This informational neurosis makes their fiction buzzingly unaffecting. Facts are a sport for such writers, a semiotic superfluity, ultimately quite readable.
In an interview, from 1977, recently published online (link), Borges described the relationship between his reading habits and his writing, which, I suspect, may be, inadvertently, relevant:
Encyclopedias have been, I’d say, my life’s chief reading. I have always been interested in encyclopedias. Well, I used to go to the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires — and since I was so shy, I felt I could not cope with asking for a book, or a librarian, so I looked on the shelves for the Encyclopædia Britannica. Of course, afterwards, I had that book at home, by my hand. And then I would pick up any chance volume and I would read it. And then one night I was richly rewarded, because I read all about the Druses, Dryden, and the Druids — a treasure trove, no? — all in the same volume, of course, “Dr–.”

Then I came to the idea of how fine it would be to think of an encyclopedia of an actual world, and then of an encyclopedia, a very rigorous one of course, of an imaginary world, where everything should be linked. Where, for example, you would have, let’s say, a language and then a literature that went with the language, and then a history with it, and so on.
As an aside, I guess that he had recovered from his timidity, by the time he was appointed director of the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires, in 1955.

Three days before he died, in the Autumn of 2001, Sebald gave a fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia. David Lambert and Robert McGill attended and their notes were published by Hamish and Hamilton in the fifth edition of Five Dials (link). Sebald, who shared Borges's writerly affection for encyclopedias, is reported to have told his students,
Look in older encyclopedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
On the matter of fact and fiction, and, more specifically, the role of fact in fiction. His comments echo those of Wood:
It's always gratifying to learn something when one reads fiction. Dickens introduced it. The essay invaded the novel. But we should not perhaps trust "facts" in fiction. It is, after all, an illusion.
His advice, neatly laid out in dot points, is obscure, meandering, wonderful and personal. Everyone dot point is valuable reading material. This quote is one of my favourites:
There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
What's more, the epigraph to The Rings of Saturn, a neat example of Sebald's eye for thoughtful (and somewhat documentary) prose, comes from the Brockhaus Encyclopedia:
The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet's equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.
I can think of two quotes from Borges, which, in my eyes, also ally him with Sebald. Both authors took pleasure in letting memory become fantasy, fantasy become memory.
It is a general rule that novelists do not present a reality, but rather its recollection. They write about real or believable events that have been revised and arranged by memory. (This process of course has nothing to do with the verb tenses that are being used).
My story will be faithful to reality, or at least to my personal recollection of reality, which is the same thing. The events took place only a short while ago, but I know that the habit of literature is also the habit of interpolating circumstantial details and accentuating certain emphases.

I read the second quote, recently, in the opening paragraph of a short story, "Ulrikke", from The Book of Sand, which, I was interested to see (link), can be read at the expense of Argentinian government, provided one drinks coffee at the right places...

Finally, below is Part 1 of a documentary (the rest is also on YouTube) on Borges called The Mirror Man, which is written by Alberto Manguel, no less. Manguel, now a celebrated homme de lettres, worked in the Pygmalion Anglo-German bookshop in Buenos Airesas when he was a young man, where he, famously, read out loud to Borges, who could no longer see, in the 1960s.


  1. This remains me of the epigraph of "Living to Tell the Tale" by García Marque: "Life is not what one lived, but one remembers ahd how one remembers in order to recount it".

    And one of my favourites quote by Georgie-boy: "Many people are proud of the books they have written; I am proud of the books I have read".