Borges’s Surprise!

Doctor Brodie's Report

by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Dutton, 128 pp., $5.95

Selected Poems 1923-1967

by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. a bilingual edition
Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 328 pp., $12.50

Jorge Luis Borges is an artist of anxieties, the author of brief, haunting fictions in which safe assumptions and old habits seem suddenly threatened or are shown up as tenuous and provisional. Or he used to be. For the eleven stories in Dr. Brodie’s Report, first published in Spanish in 1970, are offered as just straightforward tales, modeled on those of the early Kipling. His discretion and diffidence, formerly represented by the frequent fussy characters in his fiction, or by the faintly mannered, self-mocking prose, here express themselves as a pretense that the stories somehow got themselves told on their own. The book is full of cautions against literature, against what can happen to good tales in the embellishing and careless hands of literary men; and we are to look for the core, for the myths half-buried in these doubtless belated and falsified versions.

There is a lot of playfulness in this, a lot of private and slightly malicious fun. At the end of the Preface in which he declares his new-found directness and acts the graceful, weary old man (“Now having passed seventy, I believe I have found my voice”), Borges makes a devious joke in a style which is exactly that of his early and middle years: a reference to Quevedo, a seventeenth-century Spanish poet, an enemy of long prefaces who, “careful not to fall into an anachronism which in the long run would have been detected, never read those of Bernard Shaw.”

Borges is a man for whom elegance consists in doing the opposite of what is expected, and these undemanding tales are elegant in just this sense: the reverse of what we expect of the complicated Borges; and better still, the reverse of what we expect of an old master, whose prose, like that of Henry James, is supposed to get more tortuous as he grows older. Borges started with labyrinths when he was young, has James in mind, and means to grow simple—or, since he is too subtle to use the word simple, when he knows that “each thing implies the universe,” he means to strive for a “modest and hidden complexity.”

There is a continuity in such a development too, an extension of Borges’s lifelong war against the emphatic or the obvious in literature. In a story planned with two friends in the late Thirties but never written, Borges imagined a famous French writer, recently dead, who turns out to have published nothing of any value. A younger writer, puzzled by the discrepancy between the fame and the achievement, goes over the dead man’s papers, and finds a mass of brilliant drafts and beginnings, all mutilated, and a set of prohibitions for the writer which effectively make literature impossible. Writers must avoid, among numerous other things: crudely disparate pairs of characters, like Holmes and Watson or Don Quixote and Sancho; distinguishing characters by tics or manias, as in Dickens; idle games with time and space, as in Faulkner and Borges; novels whose plots…

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