My relationship with the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges started some three years ago, when I studied a couple of his short stories. We got on well. I enjoyed his literary company. I liked exploring the (his) universe with him. But the more time I spent with Borges, the more our relationship started to become rocky. I got increasingly frustrated with him. I began to question why I was attempting to analyse him when so many had analysed him so much already. ‘Why,’ I asked myself, ‘do we still bother with Borges?’ A closer look reveals why Borges and his legacy are here to stay.
Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires in 1899. In the time between his first publication and his death, he was the author of over sixty works, comprising of poetry anthologies, essays and short story anthologies, most based around a small selection of recurring themes: infinity, dreams, labyrinths and Argentine identity. Since his death, he has become nothing short of a legacy on YouTube, with recordings of his lectures and interviews racking up many thousands of views.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In June 2011, the 25th anniversary of Borges’s death, academics worldwide gathered in Madrid, still yearning to find out something more about his work, searching, perhaps as I desperately was, for a key that could unlock the heavily barred door to ever fully comprehending his writing. At this forum, held at the Casa de América, entitled ‘Milonga de Arena, Rosa y laberinto: Borges 25 años después’, events included three conferences, from writers Ricardo Piglia, Alberto Manguel and Luis García Montero who broached the subjects of Borges as short story writer, Borges as critic and Borges as poet, respectively.
Perhaps this is where my problems with Borges begin. I like things to be easily classifiable. I like reading a story knowing it is a story. Borges is not easily classifiable. His work is not easily classifiable. In fact, he deliberately challenges classification. Piglio comments that Borges ‘blurred the limits’ between literary genres. He invented the mixing of fiction and non fiction. Manguel went as far as suggesting that there exists two periods, a sort of literary BC and AD: pre Borges and post Borges. Just how and what did Borges write to become what for some represents a Christ-like figure of the literary world?
This blurring of boundaries is most obviously addressed in the short story “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”. In this faux-review, the narrator-cum-critic reviews fictional author Pierre Menard’s rewriting of a couple of fragments of Don Quixote, which is absolutely faithful to the original. Word for word, line for line. If such a thing were lucrative I’m sure a lot more of us would be authors. The story reads as a review. Indeed, thanks to the insertion of footnotes, the reader finishes confused, almost hurt that they are being played with. Is Pierre Menard real? Is it Borges critiquing? Where is Borges? Is it fiction?
Itself blurring the lines between essay and story, realism and fantasy, the story also challenges stasis in another way, that is, how the meaning of a novel morphs with time. This rewriting of the Quixote is not a mere palimpsest, maintains Menard. ‘Why not?!’’ I cry at Borges/Menard/whichever one I am supposed to be addressing. Because the meaning changes almost beyond recognition when read by those in the 20th century as opposed to those reading the Quixote in the 16th century, is the supposed implication.
Not only does meaning change with the course of time, meaning is changed by those who write. In the essay “Kafka and his precursors”, Borges goes as far as to state that ‘…every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.’ According to Borges, each addition to the canon entails a slight shift in the order of interpretation.
For this reason, interest in Borges will never diminish, as his work must, then, morph as more works by other authors are created. And we don’t just simply write about Borges. The exhibition ‘Xul Solar and Jorge Luis Borges: The Art of Friendship’, due to run at the Phoenix Art Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, from September 21 – December 31, 2013, gathers together numerous paintings, first drafts and manuscripts from the days in which Xul Solar, Argentine artist, became acquainted with the young Borges. The exhibition shows us how ideas formed between friends can start to cause a stir in the public sphere.
This year, Borges even made it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and what better place to showcase the talent of such a diverse writer than a festival where hybrid genres are the norm. Idle Motion’s ‘Borges and I’, nominated for the Total Theatre Award, combines a narrative of the life and work of Borges with a romance formed in a book group. The production itself uses over 450 books, not quite the infinite amount of books contained within the ‘Library of Babel’, but a good effort nonetheless.
In fact, the story “The Library of Babel” reminds us that it is becoming even more appropriate to look at Borges’s work the further we drift from the day of his death. In the story, the narrator describes the universe, a library constructed of an infinite number of hexagonal rooms. The library contains every book, every combination of every letter in an alphabet comprising of 23 letters and a few punctuation marks. A group of librarians endlessly trawl the unordered library, hoping to find the book which holds the key to the ordering of the library, that is, the key to understanding the universe. Because of such a glut of useless information, the librarians are in a state of constant despair. Unknowingly, perhaps Borges was predicting the internet, albeit a slightly more intellectual glut of information than a series of pages full of cat memes sprawling into the stratosphere.
Despite Borges still going strong twenty-five years after his death, why, asks the critic Alan Pauls in his essay ‘La Herencia Borges’, why have we not had another Borges? Why has no one since effected such a reaction that Borges did? Because, maintains Pauls, ‘Borges is everything’. He is not a part of a whole, he is the whole. Borges altered the course of history whilst equally predicting the future. With every new day and every new piece of work that is written about his work, and every new piece of work written about the new work about his work, everything written before must make a monumental shift of order to make room for the new.
And, therefore, the more we bother with Borges, the more Borges will continue to exercise his extraordinary ability to bother us.