1,001 Laughs

Back in the thirties, Borges worked for an Argentinean womens’ magazine called El Hogar—a magazine of middle-class attitudes and presumptions, roughly similar to Redbook in America today. I hadn’t known about these pieces until a few days ago, when I started reading Selected Non-Fictions, the wonderful volume that Viking has published. Borges’s prose is nutty and funny and unexpected at almost every turn. Here’s an example, a portrait of Theodore Dreiser, the American writer.

Dreiser’s head is an arduous, monumental head, geological in character, a head of the afflicted Prometheus bound to the Caucasus, and which, across the inexorable centuries, has become ingrained with the Caucasus and now has a fundamental component of rock that is pained by life. Dreiser’s work is no different from his tragic face: it is as torpid as the mountains or the deserts, but like them it is important in an elemental and inarticulate way.

Translated by Esther Allen

Here’s the first paragraph of his review of a collaboration between André Breton and Diego Rivera. It’s entitled “A Grandiose Manifesto from Breton.”

Twenty years ago there were swarms of manifestos. Those authoritarian documents rehabilitated art, abolished punctuation, avoided spelling, and often achieved solecism. If issued by writers, they delighted in slandering rhyme and exculpating metaphor; if by painters, they defended (or attacked) pure color; if by composers, they worshiped cacophony; if by architects, they preferred the humble gas meter to the cathedral of Milan. Each, nevertheless, had its moments. Those garrulous sheets (of which I had a collection that I donated to the fireplace) have now been surpassed by the pamphlet that André Breton and Diego Rivera have just emitted.

Translated by Eliot Weinberger

Or how about this one, the first paragraph of a review of an H.G. Wells book. Borges was a tremendous admirer of Wells. I don’t quite understand his opinions, but he states them with such conviction that you almost believe he has to be right.

Except for the always astonishing Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (which the English, equally beautifully, called The Arabian Nights), I believe that it is safe to say that the most celebrated works of world literature have the worst titles. For example, it is difficult to conceive of a more opaque and visionless title than The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, although one must grant that The Sorrows of Young Werther or Crime and Punishment are almost as dreadful…. (In poetry, I need only mention one unforgivable name: Flowers of Evil.) I raise these illustrious examples so that my readers will not tell me that a book with the absurd title Apropos of Dolores must necessarily be unreadable.

Translated by Eliot Weinberger

Here he is reviewing Finnegans Wake in 1939:

Work in Progress has appeared at last, now titled Finnegans Wake, and is, they tell us, the ripened and lucid fruit of sixteen energetic years of literary labor. I have examined it with some bewilderment, have unenthusiastically deciphered nine or ten calembours, and have read the terror-stricken praise in the N.R.F. and the T.L.S. The trenchant authors of those accolades claim that they have discovered the rules of this complex verbal labyrinth, but they abstain from applying or formulating them; nor do they attempt the analysis of a single line or paragraph….I suspect that they share my essential bewilderment and my useless and partial glances at the text. I suspect that they secretly hope (as I publicly do) for an exegetical treatise from Stuart Gilbert, the official interpreter of James Joyce.

It is unquestionable that Joyce is one of the best writers of our time. Verbally, he is perhaps the best. In Ulysses there are sentences, there are paragraphs, that are not inferior to Shakespeare or Sir Thomas Browne. In Finnegans Wake itself there are some memorable phrases. (This one, for example, which I will not attempt to translate: “Beside the rivering waters of, hither and thithering waters of, night.”) In this enormous book, however, efficacy is an exception.

Finnegans Wake is a concatenation of puns committed in a dreamlike English that is difficult not to categorize as frustrated and incompetent. I don’t think that I am exaggerating. Ameise, in German, means “ant.” Joyce, in Work in Progress, combines it with the English amazing to coin the adjective ameising, meaning the wonder inspired by an ant. Here is another example, perhaps less lugubrious. Joyce fuses the English words banister and star into a single word, banistar, that combines both images.

Jules Laforgue and Lewis Carroll have played this game with better luck.

Translated by Eliot Weinberger

And here is Borges writing about Citizen Kane in 1941:

Citizen Kane (called The Citizen in Argentina) has at least two plots. The first, pointlessly banal, attempts to milk applause from dimwits: a vain millionaire collects statues, gardens, palaces, swimming pools, diamonds, cars, libraries, men and women. Like an earlier collector (whose observations are usually ascribed to the Holy Ghost), he discovers that this cornucopia of miscellany is a vanity of vanities: all is vanity. At the point of death, he yearns for one single thing in the universe, the humble sled he played with as a child!

The second plot is far superior. It links the Koheleth to the memory of another nihilist, Franz Kafka. A kind of metaphysical detective story, its subject (both psychological and allegorical) is the investigation of a man’s inner self, through the works he has wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined. The same technique was used by Joseph Conrad in Chance (1914) and in that beautiful film The Power and the Glory: a rhapsody of miscellaneous scenes without chronological order. Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him. Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances. (A possible corollary, foreseen by David Hume, Ernst Mach, and our own Macedonio Fernández: no man knows who he is, no man is anyone.) In a story by Chesterton—“The Head of Caesar,” I think—the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth. We all know that a party, a palace, a great undertaking, a lunch for writers and journalists, an atmosphere of cordial and spontaneous camaraderie, are essentially horrendous. Citizen Kane is the first film to show such things with an awareness of this truth.

The production is, in general, worthy of its vast subject. The cinematography has a striking depth, and there are shots whose farthest planes (like Pre-Raphaelite paintings) are as precise and detailed as the close-ups. I venture to guess, nonetheless, that Citizen Kane will endure as certain Griffith or Pudovkin films have “endured”—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again. It is too gigantic, pedantic, tedious. It is not intelligent, though it is the work of genius—in  the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine