May 2006

30 Days with Borges: Day 4, Shakespeare’s Memory, Everything and Nothing

Shakespeare’s Memory was the last story published by Borges. It is often overlooked in reviews of the stories. Some cite that the story wasn’t totally revised and that it should never have been published. Others say that it adds nothing new to his works. However, I like Shakespeare’s Memory.

Shakespeare’s Memory is a good summation of the themes that obsessed Borges – time, chance, identity, memory, and the creative process. The story is rather explicit in stating those thematic points, which is its flaw. But, for the person new to Borges, it might be worthwhile to read Shakespeare’s Memory first before tackling some of the more difficult stories.

“Shakespeare’s Memory” is narrated by a German scholar who is given the opportunity to acquire the complete memory of William Shakespeare. Not an archive of documents or writings but Shakespeare’s actual memory, the thoughts and feelings that inhabited Shakespeare had during his entire life.

When given the memory, the scholar is told, “‘The memory has entered your mind, but it must be discovered. It will emerge in dreams or when you awake, when you turn the pages of a book or turn a corner. Don’t be impatient. Don’t invent recollections. Chance in its mysterious workings may help it along, or it may hold it back.'”

Borges admired the works of the writer Thomas De Quincey and mentions him in an important section of Shakespeare’s Memory:

De Quincey says that our brain is a palimpsest. Every new text covers the previous one, and is in turn covered by the text that follows – but all powerful Memory is able to exhume any impression, no matter how momentary it might have been, if given sufficient stimulus.

Reading Shakespearee’s Memory I cannot help but think about the process of learning, the Internet, and the current vogue of Wikipedia: “The man who acquires an encylopedia does not thereby acquire every line, every paragraph, every page, and every illustration; he acquires the possibility of becoming familiar with one and another of those things.”

The concerns about mortality and the purpose of life that possessed Borges is clearly present in Shakespeare’s Memory: “No one may capture in a single instant the fullness of his entire past….A man’s memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities.”

Towards the end of the story Borges writes, “As the years pass, every man is forced to bear the burden of his memory.”

As usual, when talking about these stories, I will try not to reveal the endings. Borges loved placing a twist at the end, often in the very last sentence.

Shakespeare’s Memory should be read alongside an earlier piece , which is not really a story but more of a reflection, a meditation on Shakespeare and creativity. Borges gave Everything and Nothing its title in English rather than Spanish and with italics. [Note: I don’t have a Spanish copy of Shakespeare’s Memory, so only quoted the English translation by Hurley; in these postings, when I have both Spanish and English versions, I will quote both.]

Borges starts with the great line: “There was no one inside him; [Nadie hubo en él;].”

Everything and Nothing foreshadows in many ways and is the stronger of the two works. Regarding Shakespeare: “The fundamental identity of living, dreaming, and performing inspired him to famous passages. [La identidad fundamental de existir, soñar y representar le inspiró pasajes famosos.]”

Everything and Nothing has a very strong ending and will be probably the only ending from the fictions that I will repeat on this blog:

History adds that before or after he died, he discovered himself standing before God, and said to Him: I, who have been so many men in vain, wish to be one, to be myself: God’s voice answered him out of a whirlwind: I, too, am not I; I dreamed the world as you, Shakespeare, dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, yet no one.

[La historia agrega que, antes o después de morir, se supo frente a Dios y le dijo: “Yo, que tantos hombres he sido en vano, quiero ser uno y yo.” La voz de Dios le contestó desde un torbellino: “Yo tampoco soy; yo soñé el mundo como tú soñaste tu obra, mi Shakespeare, y entre las formas de mi sueño estabas tú, que como yo eres muchos y nadie.”

30 Days with Borges: Day 3, a top 10 list

My favorite stories by Borges keep changing, but here’s a list of my top 10 at this moment (in chronological order):

  1. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
  2. The Circular Ruins
  3. The Garden of Forking Paths
  4. Death and the Compass
  5. The Secret Miracle
  6. The South
  7. The Zahir
  8. The Writing of the God
  9. The Aleph
  10. The Book of Sand

Many people know that I am a librarian and may be surprised that The Library of Babel is not on that list. It’s a great story, but it’s so well-known that I wanted to give it an honorary mention and make room for something else on the list. As I said, my favorites keep changing. Perhaps at the end of these thirty days I will have a new list.

In future postings I’m going to be writing about each of the stories I listed, as well as others.

30 Days with Borges: Day 2, Alberto Manguel, Reading and Learning from Borges

After Borges became totally blind, he would ask a variety of people to read to him. Starting in 1964, one of the people who had that pleasure was Alberto Manguel, who was then a sixteen-year-old working at a bookstore near where Borges lived on calle Maipú.

One day, after picking up a couple of titles, he asked me, if I had nothing else to do, whether I would come and read to him in the evenings since his mother, already in her nineties, became easily tired. Borges would ask almost anyone: students, journalists who came to interview him, other writers. There exists a vast group of those who once read out loud to Borges, minor Boswells whose identities are rarely known to one another but who collectively hold the memory of one of the world’s great readers. I didn’t know about them then. I was 16 years old. I accepted, and three or four times a week would visit in the small apartment he shared with his mother and with Fany, the maid.

Manguel read to Borges for four years and has now compiled his memories of those days in a book, With Borges that will be published in the U.S. in October of this year.

Excerpts of the book have been made available in an article title How I learnt to see from a blind master and in Words Without Borders.

Manguel grew up to write a variety of books himself. A wonderful interview with Manguel by Robert Birnbaum is online at The Morning News.

Manguel, who has lived outside of Argentina for many years, talks about a range of topics including his life in Buenos Aires and his perspective on Argentina today: “When I go back to Argentina now ”“ first of all I don’t really feel I am an Argentine except in some bureaucratic sense. I am Canadian ”“ that’s the nationality I adopted. But when I go back, I go back to a city of ghosts. I go back to a place where everybody I knew is dead.”

When asked about the degree of influence of Borges, Manguel responded:

Everything. Everything. Borges is such a gigantic figure that he infects everything that came before and came after. Simply because he places himself, as a writer, less as the creator of certain books than as a form of looking at the world. And so it’s very difficult for me to read something without hearing the echo of how Borges would have read it or what he would have seen in it. Having met him at a very early age and worked for him, what he had taught about the generosity of the act of reading, about how powerful it is. How our reading changes the text. How we create the books we are reading, and so on ”“ all those are things that stay with you. So, when you find these ideas that weren’t original ideas, but he’s the one who grounded them ”“ when you find them come up again and again in books that you read written after Borges or before, it’s his voice that is there. And it’s very difficult not to simply repeat or disguise that you are repeating certain ideas that you came across in his writing. It’s hard because they are so perfect, so powerful.

I must admit that I’ve never heard of Alberto Manguel until about two months ago. But, he’s clearly a stimulating thinker. Surprisingly, he did not attend university:

I had a very good high school. We were very, very lucky in Buenos Aires. I did my schooling in Buenos Aires ”“ I landed in a high school where they were trying something out which worked very well for my generation, which was that the classes were not being taught by high school teachers but by university professors. And they gave them carte blanche, so what we had were people who were very enthusiastic about their field and who spent the whole year maybe teaching their one particular thing. But what you learn is that if you spend a whole year ”“ instead of studying, say Spanish literature from the Middle Ages to Garcia Marquez ”“ you only study, as we did, Don Quixote, for the whole year, the fact of reading one book in depth opens you up to everything else. So, not only Spanish literature but the literature of the rest of the world. What you learn is something more important than going by an official list of books. You learn how to read. And it was an extraordinary experience. The same was true of chemistry, whatever, mathematics.

If you’re fascinated with Borges, then you’re surely interested in learning and reading. Alberto Manguel seems to have a lot to say on those topics.

More from Manguel about Borges can be found in an article in the Guardian: “What Borges offered his readers was a philosophy, an ethical system, a method (but these words are too mechanical) for the art of reading that is to say, for the craft of following a revelatory thread through the labyrinth of the universe.”

Manguel also writes that English translations have yet to do justice to Borges and recommends that people learn Spanish to fully appreciate Borges. Indeed, there is a lyricism in the Spanish prose of Borges that is missing in the English translations.

30 Days with Borges: Day 1

June 14 will mark twenty years since the death of Jorge Luis Borges. In honor of his writings, I’m starting a new blog series called “30 Days with Borges” that will examine various aspects of his works, life, and his impact on literature and culture.

To get started, you may want to gather some reading material. If you read Spanish, then obviously try to read him in the original. But if not, there are very good translations available. Most times, I will refer to both the Spanish and English text in these postings.

While I will be writing later about some of the difficulties of translating Borges and Borges own thoughts on translations, I will be using the 1999 Penguin Book editions as the text for the English translations:

There are many biographies and remembrances of Borges. I know that more in the process of being published in preparation for the 20th anniversary of his death and I’m sure that the 25th (in 2011) will see an ever larger number of books come out about Borges, just as was with the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1999.

I recommend the biography by Edwin Williamson.

The Tango Singer

A book recently translated into English should be on interest to those who admire Buenos Aires: The Tango Singer is the latest novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez.

It’s a translation of El Cantor de Tango, which came out in Spanish in 2004. The English translation appears already to be available in the UK but is just being released in the U.S. next week.

Tomás Eloy Martínez is most known for his two novels about Perón: Santa Evita and The Peron Novel.

The Tango Singer is about an American graduate student who travels to Buenos Aires to research Borges’ writings on tango. The student learns about a mysterious, hemophiliac tango singer who is supposedly better than Gardel but who has never recorded and only does spontaneous performances at various spots around Buenos Aires. This sets the student off on a search through the city to locate the tango singer.

Tomás Eloy Martínez uses the plot to talk about the history of Buenos Aires and to pay homage to Borges. The student comes to believe that he is staying in a boarding house that is the centerpiece of one of the most important stories by Borges, El Aleph.

In many ways, the book is more about the myths and stories of Buenos Aires than anything else. The plot providing a nice frame for talking about Buenos Aires. But, that should make for a good book to read on those long plane trips down to Buenos Aires.

A detailed review of The Tango Singer is available at The Complete Review, which also links to a number of newspaper reviews available online. A review of the book in Spanish is in Página/12.

The line between fiction and non-fiction is usually very thin in the novels by Tomás Eloy Martínez, whose background is as a journalist. In fact, I believe that the book might originally have been intended as a non-fiction work.

A couple of years ago I closely monitored the Bloomsbury Press web site, which had announced that Tomás Eloy Martínez was writing a book about Buenos Aires for Bloomsbury’s Writer and the City series, in which famous writers talk about their favorite cities. Other books in the series include Edmund White The Flaneur about Paris and John Banville’s Prague Pictures : A Portrait of the City (Writer and the City.). But Tomás Eloy Martínez non-fiction account of Buenos Aires never came out. Instead, Bloomsbury published this novel.

I have to make a disclaimer that I’ve not read The Tango Singer yet. Since I’m completing my own novel set in Buenos Aires, I didn’t want to be subconsciously influenced. But, as soon as I’m done writing, I’ll be reading The Tango Singer.

Feria del Libro

We finally made it out to the Book Fair at La Rural. If you’re in town and not yet been, then there are still a few more days. If you like books, then you should check it out.

The fair has been going on for the past couple of weeks and there have been a number of lectures, discussions, and readings. Being a librarian and would-be writer, I should have been attending a lot of these but I’ve not been getting out much lately.

Anyway, the fair offers a good selection of books, mostly in Spanish, of course. The prices are nothing special. There are a few discount selections but really nothing that can’t be found in the used bookstores along Av Corrientes. Still, it’s fun to go and browse.

We particularly liked the international booths sponsored by local embassies that featured books in a range of other languages – Armenian, Russian, Greek, Japanese, Chinese. A number of countries are exhibiting. Italy featured a number of nice selections.

As with last year, Grupo Clarín has the largest display just within the entrance. Essentially, you can’t get into the book fair without walking through the Clarín exhibition area. But that’s ok. They publish a lot of interesting things. However, they obviously hired models to work the Clarín booths, which seemed to lower the intellectual quality of the whole thing. I didn’t wander through the competing La Nación area, but – from what I could tell from a distance – they seemed to have hired models also … not sure why they thought they had to do that.

Clarín also has a radio station broadcasting live. Someday I need to blog about the enormous popularity of talk radio here. There were a number of spectators standing around the glass walls of the station listening to the commentators. It’s always interesting to put a face with the voice you hear everyday. About one of the talk radio hosts, someone near us said, “He doesn’t sound so fat on the radio.”

There are also a lot of specialty publishing houses that featured works in a variety of areas, such as architecture and design or children’s works.

Again, it’s worth going to the book fair just to browse around. If you read Spanish, then you’re surely to find something. Even if you’re not planning to purchase anything, just wandering among the large number of international exhibitions is interesting.

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