Collected Fictions – Andy gets lost in a maze with Borges and his doppelganger

September 24, 2012

Hor-hay Luis (no surprises there) Baw-hess. Or something. Possibly. If you were wondering.

I read my first Borges short story at uni. For a unit called The Novel, which is kind of funny because of course Borges never wrote a fucking novel. Towards the end of the unit we read The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Suburbs of Hell, both metafictive pieces if ya weren’t aware. To ease our introduction to this particular cul-de-sac of fiction our lecturer (who thought, incidentally, that all fiction was in a cul-de-sac) gave us two short stories, one by Borges, the other by Alain Robbe-Grillet. The latter’s pretty much forgotten these days, although funnily enough it’s his story I remember and not the Borges one. Robbe-Grillet’s was something about a painting, a murdered woman’s body maybe, the last line something about the curling canvas. Anyway. I haven’t read any Robbe-Grillet since, although I did once try to watch Last Year at Marienbad, while I can now proudly say I have read all of Borges’ short fiction. Or at least the stuff that’s been translated into English for this compilation, which does seem pretty comprehensive.

This is obviously not a picture of me.

Borges (Baw-HESS!) is a writer I’m glad I’ve finally read, and read comprehensively. I can’t say I found him easy or enjoyable, although he was sometimes funny (I suspect he would be much funnier if you were an Argentine reading him in Spanish in the mid-20 century). Difficult, dense, learned, obtuse, derivative (but not in a plagiarist way), emotionally removed rather than distant (which sounds contradictory but I don’t think it is, and often much of his humour comes from that distinction), historical, metaphorical, metaphysical, metafictive… And then, once or twice every couple of hundred pages (so yes, only two or three times) tells a stonking great yarn. Which may or may not have been inspired by the 1001 Nights. Or Argentine history. Which therefore makes it possibly derivative (but not in a plagiarist way). And possibly historical. And meta – OK, I’ll stop now.

Big Call: Much of the fiction that followed him would not have been written if Borges had not existed. Bigger Call: At least some of the writers who owe Borges a fictive debt are far, far better writers than he could ever have hoped to be. He is a writer’s writer. not a reader’s writer. And yeah, actually, there’s a bit wrong with that. Not a lot, maybe, but a bit.

Some of this stuff borders on unreadable, specifically the “fictitious” book reviews, and literary essays about writers that Borges has made up. Some of this stuff is pretty turgid. A technique he uses frequently – “This story was told to me…” or “I was given the fragment of parchment…” or variations upon that, a story within a story – was initially interesting but palled a bit towards the end. On the other hand there are a couple of handfuls of stories that are entertaining and memorable. The Circular Ruins is great, and reminiscent of a story of Neil Gaiman’s, of all people. Emma Zunz is terrific, as is The Gospel According to Mark. The two stories in which an older Borges meets a younger version of himself – The Other and August 25, 1983 – are fascinating, and arguably give an insight into Borges’ psychology as he aged and approached death. Some of the “gaucho” stories, the knife fights and duels, were also highlights for me. The Interloper is especially gripping and brutal.

So yes, I’m glad to have finally read Borges. He will never be a favourite writer and this will never be my favourite book. I was slightly taken aback at the bookshop where I bought my copy when the woman behind the counter became effusive in her praise and apparent affection – “Oh, I love him, you’ll enjoy that I’m sure.” How anyone can feel that way about Borges is beyond me. Admirable, and certainly worthy of respect, yes. But let’s not get too carried away.


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