The Book of Imaginary Beings
Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges
The Narrow Act: Borges’ Art of Allusion
Among Paul Valéry’s jottings, André Maurois observes the following: “Idea for a frightening story: it is discovered that the only remedy for cancer is living human flesh. Consequences.”
One humid Sunday afternoon during the summer of 1969, in a slither of magazines on a library table, I light like a weary fly upon this, reported by Pierre Schneider: “One of Jean-Paul Riopelle’s stories is about a village librarian who was too poor to buy new books; to complete his library he would, whenever he came across a favorable review in a learned journal, write the book himself, on the basis of its title.”
Both of these stories are by Borges; we recognize the author at once; and their conjunction here is by Borges, too: a diverse collection of names and sources, crossing like ignorant roads: Valéry, Maurois, Riopelle, Schneider—who could have foreseen this meeting of names in The New York Review?
Shaken out of sleep on a swift train at night we may unblind our compartment window to discover a dim sign making some strange allegation; and you, reader, may unfist this paper any moment and pick up a book on raising herbs instead, a travel folder, letter from a lover, novel by Colette; the eye, mind, memory which encounters them as vague about the distance traversed as any passenger, and hardly startled any more by the abrupt change in climate or terrain you’ve undergone.
How calm we are about it; we pass from a kiss to a verb and never tremble; and having performed that bound, we frolic or we moon among our symbols, those we’ve assigned to Henry Adams or those we say are by Heraclitus, as if there were nothing to it. Like the hours we spent mastering speech, we forget everything; nor do our logicians, our philosophers of language, though they may coax us like cats to their fish, very often restore what we once might have had—a sense of wonder at the mental country we inhabit, lost till we wander lost into Borges, a man born as if between syllables in Argentina where even he for many years believed he had been raised in a suburb of Buenos Aires, a suburb of adventurous streets and visible sunsets, when what was certain was that he was raised in a garden, behind a wrought-iron gate, and in a limitless library of English books.
Just as Carriego, from the moment he recognized himself as a poet, became the author of verses which only later he was permitted to invent, Borges thought of himself as a writer before he ever composed a volume. A near-sighted child, he lived where he could see—in books and illustrations (Borges says “short-sighted,” which will not do); he read English authors, read and read; in clumsy English wrote about the Golden Fleece and Hercules (and inevitably, the Labyrinth), publishing, by nine, a translation of The Happy Prince which a local teacher adopted as a text under …