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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 parallel those of earlier works; poems, situations, and characters which the reader identifies with; local color; richness of vocabulary and, inversely, the mot juste; metaphors in general; any kind of anthropomorphism; the pathetic and the erotic in love stories, puzzles and deaths in detective stories, ghosts in ghost stories; vanity, modesty, pederasty, the absence of pederasty, suicide.

There’s very little left, but the point is not that literature must vanish into silence. The point, rather, is that modern literature has to be made out of a sense of its own impossibility and redundance. In the face of creative writers mindlessly duplicating a random world, Borges has asserted that we can’t create, that we are mere mirrors for an aimless universe, reflecting endlessly but never adding to our stock—mirrors and paternity, as one of Borges’s gnostic heretics put it, are abominable. Our only dignity, then, lies in commentary and allusion, only there can we escape mirrors and tautologies. Borges is literature’s ascetic, writing not books but summaries of books, promises of books, projects for books which turn out to be what was projected, skeletons of novels mysteriously complete in a minimum of flesh.

But continuity or not, and however much we may sympathize with Borges’s desire to move away from his old manner now that he has become accepted as a classic writer, and therefore emphatic and obvious himself, the new asceticism represented in Dr. Brodie’s Report is one somersault too many. Borges is out to surprise us by refusing to surprise us, and the result is a long way from simplicity, and very close to boredom. It is inadequate because the old playful tone keeps creeping into the wooden one without taking over, or doing anything other than disturb it. It is also too brutal because if the world is as complex as Borges himself has shown it to be, there is no way back to this kind of uninflected innocence.

Dr. Brodie’s Report repeats certain favorite themes of Borges’s, in rather weak forms: infamy as an obscure variety of honor (“The Unworthy Friend,” “Rosendo’s Tale”); the need that rivals or enemies have for each other (“The Duel,” “The End of the Duel”). The title story is an exercise in Swiftian anthropology, a missionary’s report on the Yahoos which follows a characteristic strategy: a strange place is described in such a way that, while continuing to seem strange, it seems less and less different from the place where we live—the barbarous Yahoos are perhaps no less civilized than we are. Two new stories here (“The Duel,” “The Elderly Lady”) seem settings for the earlier fiction, drearily fashionable or shabbily genteel worlds in Buenos Aires, in which we await the miracles which break into works like “The Zahir” or “The Aleph.” But no miracles break in, and the effect is that of the accompaniment to a song without the song; an interesting effect, but interesting mainly because we supply the missing miracle, I think. Or at least because we miss it, and the stories catch some of the light reflected from its absence.

But there is more in Dr. Brodie’s Report than a change of style and a few echoes. There is a major new meaning; a tired and disappointing one, certainly, but one that is there to be faced. Four out of eleven stories here (“The Meeting,” “Juan Murana,” “The Gospel According to Mark,” “Guayaquil”) have to do with the possession of the present by the past, with a sense that the meanings of our life originate elsewhere, not here, not in the everyday world or the present time.

In the first two of those stories knives are seen to fight and kill in new hands, faithful to their old owners long after their deaths. In the third, a young man reads the gospel to a family of peasants with such success that they crucify him as their savior. In the fourth, two historians meet to decide which of them shall transcribe some documents relating to a meeting between two generals in the early nineteenth century, and then find themselves playing out again that original meeting. Such odd events are not new in Borges, but an absence of speculation about them is, and the result is to make the stories more unequivocal than anything Borges has ever written, straightforward indeed in this sense, suggestions of the way things really are, rather than, as the earlier stories were, descriptions and parodies of the rarefied ways in which we represent things to ourselves.

Borges’s great fiction was about our attempts to make sense of the unknown, about the arrangements we inflict on the “asiatic disorder of the real world,” as he once put it. Of course we have always failed to make sense of the unknown, but Borges’s tenderness went out to the ingenuity we put into our failures. His great theme was that of our ingenuity seen as a unique and fragile consolation, and in his very best stories ingenuity is seen also as a subtle and terminal temptation. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Library of Babel,” “Funes the Memorious,” “Death and the Compass,” “The Immortal” (from Ficciones, 1944, and El Aleph, 1949, 1952) are metaphors for the horrors that lie at the logical end of our favorite fantasies, Piranesi prisons of the intellect representing the state of mind in which pet dreams come true and reveal themselves as nightmare.

In “Tlön,” a sinister symmetry usurps the world, gives us the order and rigor we often long for; but they are the order and rigor of chess-masters, not of angles, and the world disintegrates under their pressure. In “The Library of Babel,” there is a book in the universe (“which some people call the Library”) which explains everything; but Borges’s narrator sadly and faithfully computes the dim chances of finding it in the infinite stacks. In “Funes” and in “The Immortal,” total recall and immortality become terrors when they are granted to forgetful mortals; and in “Death and the Compass” the detective who prefers his theories to reality walks into a labyrinthine trap set by his scheming archenemy, who knows the detective’s taste in theories. The man dies of his scorn for the particular case, for having dreamed that the real world could be relieved of its accidents, entirely submitted to high human intelligence and will.

Ficciones and El Aleph are, I suppose, my major works,” Borges wrote recently. He was being slightly cagey, in case anyone should choose to prefer his poetry, but he was unmistakably right. The center of his work is the short fiction works essentially of the Forties. Some parables follow in El Hacedor (1960), lightweight and self-indulgent pieces of writing which I think have been very much overrated. There were elegant and distinguished essays both before and after the fictions; in both Discussion (1932) and Otras Inquisiciones (1952), Borges is authentic and charming, inventive, literate, diffident, sly, and funny. Whatever else he has done, Borges’s bequest to the century includes two new genres: the summary or project of a story as a form in its own right (the fictions); and the erudite debate as a playful poem of ideas (the essays). But Borges was a poet in verse before he was anything else, published his first book of verse in 1923, when he was twenty-four, and has gone on adding to his collected poems year after year: bringing out fresh editions in 1943, 1953, 1958, 1964, 1966, and 1967. It is from this last edition that the Selected Poems, some 102 pieces, over half of Borges’s output of verse, are taken.

Borges’s poems are a disappointment but perhaps not a surprise. There is something formal about the mere idea of printing a poem that is absent from the blurred and camouflaged appearances a man can make in prose. Borges is an oblique and stealthy writer, and forcing himself into the self-conscious position of the poet, he sheds a large part of his talent. The shedding seems all the more disastrous, of course, in a mighty volume like this one, complete with notes, appendices, precise bibliographical, not to say bibliophile, information, and a ponderous introduction from Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who with Borges is translating a whole sequence of the master’s works. We have the essence of Borges here, di Giovanni tells us—“the Borges who is one of South America’s, and the world’s, best poets.”

This is heavyweight handling of a very lightweight achievement, and does Borges no service. Borges’s ear for rhythms and sounds seems poor, even to my non-native sense of the language. A great deal of his verse is simply flat prose helped out by typography. Some of it is actually doggerel—I’m thinking of the poem “The Golem,” rendered brilliantly into an English doggerel almost as inept as the original by John Hollander—my only worry is whether Borges and Hollander think of it as doggerel. A sample, and the Spanish here is worse:

The cabalist from whom the creature took
Its inspiration called the weird thing Golem—
But all these matters are discussed by Scholem
In a most learned passage in his book.

(El cabalista que ofició de numen A la vasta criatura apodó Golem; Estas verdades las refiere Scholem En un docto lugar de su volumen.)

The most effective poems are the Saxon pieces, Borges’s meditations on and re-creations of Old English days. A stern and tersely eloquent dignity speaks in them, but there is a strong element of pastiche in such poems, and they involve the suppression of all the most interesting features of Borges’s mind. Even the best of the other poems, which are Borges’s own favorites—“Conjectural Poem,” “Poem of the Gifts,” “Limits”—are not only flawed by large amounts of dead language and lines dragged in to supply a rhyme, but also have a studious, sickly, and arid flavor to them even when they are successful.

For example, “Conjectural Poem” tells of the death of a lawyer in a civil war, and has some lines of fine and uncompromising hardness; but those lines are then compromised by moments of linguistic trickiness and triviality, phrases like the “lateral night” (“la noche lateral“), the “inexplicable breast” (“el pecho inexplicable“), the “unsuspected eternal face” (“insospechado rostro eterno“). The last line says perfectly what is happening in the poem: “and across my throat the intimate knife” (“el íntimo cuchillo en la garganta“). I see the instrument of my death acquires a special intimacy, but the phrase doesn’t embody that perception. “The intimate knife” is too clever and too loaded; they are the words of a sedentary man fussing on the fringes of a brutal and innocent world.

Poem of the Gifts” has everything in its favor, some remarkably firm and simple lines and a powerful narrative situation: Borges was made director of the National Library of Argentina as he was going blind; God has given him, he says, at one blow, these books and the night. But even here the poem slips off into pale, literary effects, into images which are not only weary but tepid: blindness as an ash resembling sleep and oblivion. With the amount of cerebration going on behind the work, it comes out like a poem by Donne deprived of Donne’s passion and aggressive technical ingenuity.

Limits” is a better poem, a series of farewells to a loved world—how many things in our life have we already said good-bye to without knowing it. There is a calm dignity about the poem, but then comes a mistaken attempt to hoist it into a cryptic lyricism, we read of the white sun and the yellow moon in a fancy word order in Spanish. This flight from sobriety casts a doubt across the rest of the poem—perhaps the sobriety is just dimness, and the last line, an attempt at grandeur, fails to be fine or ironic, and sounds faintly pompous: “Space, time and Borges now are leaving me.”

The translations here are excellent on the whole—those by Alastair Reid and W. S. Merwin often actually improve on the originals; those by di Giovanni are adequate, although too frequently they become interpretations of the Spanish texts rather than English versions. There are elegant pieces by Richard Howard and César Rennert—a touch too elegant perhaps—and smooth and limpid translations by Mark Strand and Alan Dugan. Ben Belitt’s versions of several of the more famous poems read well in English but often have nothing to do with the Spanish, and sometimes invert its meanings—“In my dream of a library” is just not a translation of “in the libraries of dreams” and “senseless” doesn’t mean the same thing as “insensible” (both instances from “Poem of the Gifts”).

But it is the whole, huge, serious project of translating and presenting Borges as a twentieth-century giant that seems awry to me. He has struggled throughout a patient and dedicated writing career to present himself as slightly less than life-size, and there is a real sadness in the inflationary apotheosis that has overtaken him. There is a sadness in his allowing it to happen too, but that is his privilege; and behind the mask of his fame he no doubt indulges in a devious and complex discretion.

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