All the Range
Borges was an immensely prolific writer who never wrote anything long, and what he mainly wrote, besides his thousand pages of short stories and around five hundred poems, was nonfiction prose. There are something like twelve hundred pieces of nonfiction: essays, book and film reviews, prologues to hundreds of books, transcribed lectures, notes on politics and culture, brief histories, and capsule biographies. In English these are almost entirely unknown, and even in Spanish only about a third of them are included in his Complete Works; a few hundred more are gathered in another dozen or so scattered volumes; and hundreds still remain to be collected in book form. It seems that every week I come across more of them. They are endless.
Beyond their mass, what is astonishing about them is their range. English-language readers already know about such Borgesian preoccupations as time and eternity, dreams and nightmares, The Thousand and One Nights, nineteenth-century English literature. But these are merely one corner in the Borges library. He wrote extensively, and without snobbism, about pop culture, from Hollywood movies to detective stories to sci-fi. Decades before Cultural Studies, he was studying tango lyrics and the inscriptions painted on horse-drawn carts in Buenos Aires. Contrary to the erroneous image formed in his old age of Borges as an extreme right-winger, he was a courageous anti-fascist and Semitophile in an era when most of his compatriots were decidedly the opposite. (He is one of the very few major writers whose political writings from the thirties and forties can be read today without embarrassment.) He was perhaps the first Spanish translator of Langston Hughes, and was an enthusiast for King Vidor’s all-black silent film Hallelujah. He may be the first Latin American writer to talk seriously about machismo, and he dared to mention its aspect of repressed homosexuality. He could talk effortlessly about mathematics, Dante, gnosticism, American cowboys, Icelandic sagas, medieval theologians, Chinese ghost stories, Chicago gangsters, and German philosophers. In Latin America I’ve often heard people say that the best Borges, or the place where he is consistently at his best, is in the essays.
Even more astonishing than the range is the quality. Almost every page of his nonfictions is a wonder and a delight. The nearly six hundred pages of the book I edited only scratch the surface; I could easily do a few more books of equal size. The idea of a major essayist is unimaginable here, where the essay is mainly represented by certain of its subgenres—personal journalism, memoir, book review, academic criticism—and where the nonfiction work of major writers is usually considered ephemera of interest only to fans and scholars. The kind of free-ranging, nonacademic, intellectual essay that Borges wrote barely exists in this country, and there is nowhere, outside of a few small magazines, to publish such work. Most of Borges’s nonfiction was written for newspapers, as has been the case for most Latin American and many European writers in this century. One might say that, until his fame late in life, Borges was known in Argentina as a poet and a short-story writer, but actually read as an essayist. It’s no coincidence that he started out writing fiction by disguising his stories as essays.
I’m going to read a few pieces from the 1930s, when Borges worked, amazingly, for El Hogar, the Argentine equivalent of Ladies’ Home Journal. Borges worked for this magazine for three years, contributing essays, hundreds of book reviews, and a regular feature of capsule biographies of contemporary writers. Though his style was breezy, his subject matter was by no means modified by his audience. He talked about Benedetto Croce and Ramón Llull, Lady Murasaki and Paul Valéry, as well as the latest mystery novels. And he left his citations from the German, Latin, French and Italian untranslated.
Here is a review of a completely forgotten detective novel called Excellent Intentions, by Richard Hull:
One of the projects that keeps me company, that will in some way justify me before God, and that I do not think I will accomplish (for the pleasure is in foreseeing it, not in bringing it to term) is a detective novel that would be somewhat heterodox. (This last is important, for the detective genre, like all genres, lives on the continual and delicate infraction of its rules.)
I conceived it one night, one wasted night in 1935 or 1934, upon leaving a café in the Barrio Once. These meager circumstantial facts will have to suffice for the reader; I have forgotten the others, forgotten them to the point where I don’t know whether I invented some of them. Here was my plan: to plot a detective novel of the current sort, with an indecipherable murder in the first pages, a long discussion in the middle, and a solution at the end. Then, almost in the last line, to add an ambiguous phrase—for example: “and everyone thought the meeting of the man and woman had been by chance”—that would indicate, or raise the suspicion, that the solution was false. The perplexed reader would go through the pertinent chapters again, and devise his own solution, the correct one. The reader of this imaginary book would be sharper than the detective. . .
Richard Hull has written an extremely pleasant book. His prose is able, his characters convincing, his irony civilized. His solution, however, is so unsurprising that I cannot free myself from the suspicion that this quite real book, published in London, is the one I imagined in Balvanera, three or four years ago. In which case, Excellent Intentions hides a secret plot. Ah me, or ah Richard Hull! I can’t find that secret plot anywhere.
Translated by Eliot Weinberger
This is a review of a book called Personality Survives Death, by Sir William Barrett:
This book is truly posthumous. The late Sir William Barrett (ex-president and founder of the Society for Psychic Research) has dictated it from the Other World to his widow. (The transmissions were through the medium Mrs. Osborne Leonard.) In life, Sir William was not a spiritualist, and nothing delighted him more than to prove the falsehood of some “psychic” phenomenon. In death, surrounded by ghosts and angels, he remains unpersuaded. He believes in the other world, of course, “because I know that I am dead and because I do not wish to believe that I am mad.” Nevertheless, he denies that the dead can assist the living, and he emphasizes that the most important thing is to believe in Jesus. He states:
“I have seen Him, I have talked with Him, and I will see Him again this coming Easter, in those days when you will think of Him and of me.”
The other world described by Sir William Barrett is no less material than that of Swedenborg or Sir Oliver Lodge. The first of those explorers—De coelo et inferno, 1758—reported that things in heaven are brighter, more solid, and more numerous than those on earth, and that there are streets and avenues. Sir William Barrett corroborates these facts, and speaks of hexagonal houses made of brick and stone. (Hexagonal . . . is there an affinity between the dead and bees?)
Another curious feature: Sir William says that each country on earth has its double in heaven, exactly above it. There is a celestial England, a celestial Afghanistan, a celestial Belgian Congo. (The Arabs believed that a rose falling from Paradise would land precisely on the Temple in Jerusalem.)
Translated by Eliot Weinberger
Here’s the first paragraph of a review of Arthur Waley’s translation of The Book of Songs, entitled “An English Version of the Oldest Songs in the World”:
Around 1916, I decided to devote myself to the study of Oriental literatures. Working with enthusiasm and credulity through the English version of a certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: “A man condemned to death doesn’t care that he is standing at the edge of a precipice, for he has already renounced life.” Here the translator attached an asterisk, and his note informed me that this interpretation was preferable to that of a rival Sinologist, who had translated the passage thus: “The servants destroy the works of art, so that they will not have to judge their beauties and defects.” Then, like Paolo and Francesca, I read no more. A mysterious skepticism had slipped into my soul.
Translated by Eliot Weinberger
And finally, a three-sentence essay on those Canadian sensations of the 1930s, the Dionne Quints.
One of the disconcerting features of our time is the enthusiasm generated across the entire planet by the Dionne sisters, for numerical and biological reasons. Dr. William Blatz has devoted a large volume to them, predictably illustrated with charming photographs. In the third chapter, he states: “Yvonne is easily recognizable for being the eldest, Marie for being the youngest, Annette because everyone mistakes her for Yvonne, and Cecile because she is completely identical to Emilie.”
Translated by Eliot Weinberger