”Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him.” and then they wash over the reader.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's n”Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him.” and then they wash over the reader.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews.
Dreamtigers, aka The Maker, is the fifth, published in 1960, and I’m including reviews of two pieces published under the title Museum, and the four prose pieces from In Praise of Darkness, published in 1969.
Brevity and Blindness
These pieces have many of the same elements as previous ones, but are mostly short – very short indeed. Each is a bubble of an idea, rather than a story. They’re intriguing, enticing and thought-provoking as always, but I slightly prefer the longer forms contained in The Garden of Forking Paths, Artifices and the Aleph. Part way through, I thought this collection may get only 4* from me, but the final pieces tipped me over well into 5* territory.
They were published five years after Borges became completely blind, which may be a factor (he never learned Braille), and the loss and confusion of blindness is mentioned explicitly and tangentially in several. Mentions of mortality feel more imminent and personal than in his earlier writings.
The Afterword anticipates that after a lifetime drawing the world, “A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” (Borges lived another 25 years after this, during which time he continued to write and publish.)
The final two pieces in this review almost made me weep at his loss.
The Maker 6*
This is a collection of impressions, like a prose poem describing a prose poem. It’s written in the third person, but like many of Borges' writings, the protagonist is a version of the author – especially as this refers to the (recent) horror of blindness. Although it’s described in unemotional terms, I wanted to shed a tear on his behalf:
“Gradually, the splendid universe began drawing away from him; a stubborn fog blurred the lines of his hand; the night lost its peopling stars, the earth became uncertain under his feet. Everything grew distant, and indistinct.”
Having loved tigers as a child (they're a recurring presence is Borges' writings), he is unable to summon them in his dreams. How much of what we dream of ever comes true? How much of that is fate, and how much our own fault?
A Dialog about a Dialog
A short, recursive discussion, wondering whether suicide is the way to prove (or disprove) immortality.
A paragraph comparing their pointlessness with the fact they will outlive the author. But we all die, so are our lives pointless too?
A childhood fear of mirrors is passed on to another, with sad consequences.
“I knew that horror of the special duplication and multiplication of reality” and especially did not want to dream about them. “The constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me… I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality” – and sometimes they did.
God exists because Borges does not know how many birds he saw! Perhaps.
Nature versus nurture and the trouble of being torn between two cultures. Is it ever possible to fit in anywhere? (view spoiler)[A boy is taken by Indians, and found years later. He’s pleased to recover a knife he hid in his house as a boy, but doesn’t want to live constrained by walls, so leaves, we know not where. “I would like to know what he felt in that moment of vertigo when past and present intermingled.” (hide spoiler)]
This has echoes of Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden (in The Aleph) and The Ethnographer (lower down this review).
A weird scam involving charging people to view a fake body that may be (but is not) Eva Peron!
Delia Elena San Marco
Remembering a dead lover. “Men invented farewells because they somehow knew themselves to be immortal even while seeing themselves as contingent and ephemeral.” I’m not sure I follow the logic of that.
A Dialog Between Dead Men
Thoughts on Argentinian history, comparing fame and their effect on posterity.
“Fate is partial to repetitions, variations, symmetries.” Nineteen centuries after Brutus murdered Caesar, a gaucho is murdered by a godson he fails to recognise. “He does not know that he has died so that a scene can be played out again.” But why is played out again – is it necessary or inevitable?
The innovative conceit about the second part of Don Quixote is that it was published after fraudulent sequels. Cervantes assumes that the original story was true, and that he is writing to set the record straight.
Borges’ piece extends the idea of Don Quixote being real. He imagines finding a missing fragment in which Don Quixote kills someone. But it’s a fragment, and Borges ponders how Quixote would have reacted to such an act.
The Yellow Rose
The impossibility of words to express things – which is even more poignant when you remember Borges was blind by the time he wrote this.
“He realized that it [the rose] lay within its own eternity, not within his words, and that we might speak about the rose, allude to it, but never truly express it, and that the tall, haughty volumes that made a golden dimness in the corner of his room were not (as his vanity had dreamed them) a mirror of the world, but just another thing added to the world’s contents.”
He considers those who may have reached full understanding by death – though he himself, lived another 25 years or so.
When the last witness of an event dies, in what sense does it exist? (The falling tree in the empty forest, again.)
Is that a reason to do less – or more? Borges may not live on through his genes, but his thoughts and some of his memories live on in his writing. He so often pondered immortality, and he’s far closer to it than I will ever be.
Grim glimpses of civil war in Argentina.
“Cross, rope, and arrow: ancient implements of mankind, today reduced, or elevated, to symbols.”
It’s often said that in the 21st century, we live in a very visual age (have those who say it considered Ancient Egypt?). Borges got there first.
“No one knows what sort of image the future may translate it into.”
Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote
“In the beginning of literature, there is myth, as there is also at the end of it.”
Cervantes outlived Don Quixote by only a short time: “For both the dreamer and the dreamed, that entire adventure had been the clash of two worlds: the unreal world of romances and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.”
Paradiso, XXXI, 108
God is fragmented and scattered. Will we recognise God if we see him, or might we misinterpret someone or something else as God?
Parable of the Palace
A poet emperor gets lost in a labyrinth that has possibly magical qualities: “The real merged and mingled with the dreamed – or the real, rather, was one of the shapes the dream took.”
A poem becomes a synecdoche for the entire palace – but what if the world cannot contain two identical things?
Everything and Nothing 6*
Have you ever felt something was missing? An aching emptiness inside? This is an agonising vignette, with a twist.
“There was no one inside him… there was no more than a slight chill, a dream someone had failed to dream.” So “He trained himself to the habit of feigning that he was somebody, so that his ‘nobodiness’ might not be discovered.”
The man meets God and discovers that God has existential issues too: “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, (view spoiler)[Shakespeare, (hide spoiler)] dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, yet no one.”
Coleridge said “We do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream of a sphinx in order to explain the horror that we feel.”
Does that explain how one can dream the return of banished and corrupted gods?
Inferno, I, 32
If you suffer profoundly in life (perhaps by losing your sight?) would knowing there was some higher purpose to your suffering make it more bearable? Even if it did, if you then forgot the revelation, would any comfort from it remain?
These questions are applied to a captive leopard who inspires a single line of a great poem.
Borges and I
Duality and identity. This opens, “It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to” and ends, “I’m not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.”
Museum: On Exactitude in Science
The first of two pieces from “Museum”. A perfect map is unappreciated, thus futile. In this case, it’s a literal (very literal) map, but what about more metaphorical ones? Perhaps we shouldn’t always dig so deep.
Museum: In Memorium, JFK
The second of two pieces from “Museum”. Doom and inevitability: man killing man has happened throughout history and will continue.
In Praise of Darkness, 1969
My edition of the Collected Fictions includes only the four prose elements of In Praise of Darkness, which was evidently mainly poetry.
The Ethnographer 6* (from In Praise of Darkness)
“The secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it.”
A student goes to live with Indians to learn about them and to gather material for his dissertation. The experience changes him. “He came to think in a fashion that the logic of his mind rejected.”
There’s a mystical angle, too: he learns their secret doctrine and returns to university, but resolves never to divulge it: he “could tell it in a hundred different and even contradictory ways… the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.” How can he ever belong anywhere? But if that’s a problem, is the insularity the logical conclusion?! (I hope not.)
This has echoes of Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden (in The Aleph) and The Captive (further up this review).
Pedro Salvadores (from In Praise of Darkness)
“We see the fate of Pedro Salvadores, like all things, as a symbol of something that we are just on the verge of understanding.”
He hides in his cellar – for nine years - while his wife lives openly above.
Legend (from In Praise of Darkness)
“Forgetting is forgiving” and “So long as remorse lasts, guilt lasts.”
Almost unbearably poignant, bearing in mind that Borges was aged ~60 and had gone totally blind about 5 years earlier. He is attempting “a prayer that is personal, not inherited” – a conundrum he doesn’t really solve.
“Asking that my eyes not be filled with night would be madness; I know of thousands of people who can see, yet who are not particularly happy, just, or wise.”
“Time’s march is a web of causes and effects, and asking for any gift of mercy… is to ask for that link to be broken… that it is already broken.” (Shades of Ambrose Bierce’s famous definition from The Devil’s Dictionary: Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.)
“Nor can I plead that my trespasses be forgiven; forgiveness is the act of another, and only I can save myself.”
“Free will is perhaps illusory.”
“I want to be remembered less as poet than as friend.”
“I hope that oblivion will not long delay.” (It did.)
His End and His Beginning (from In Praise of Darkness)
More painful beauty about blindness and imagining (hoping for?) death, and ending with acceptance.
“Familiar faces gradually blurred and faded, objects and people slowly abandoned him. His mind seized upon those changing shapes in a frenzy of tenacity.”
And it gets worse: “He was unable to remember the shapes, sounds, and colors of his dreams… nor were the dreams dreams. They were his reality, a reality beyond silence and sight, and therefore beyond memory.”
For a long time, “He never suspected the truth; it burst upon him suddenly”, but he came to realise “It was his duty to leave all these things behind; now he belonged to this new world, removed from past, present, and future.” He endures various agonies and then realises (view spoiler)[”Since the moment of his death, he had been in heaven (hide spoiler)].
• “He had listened to the complex stories, which he took in as reality – without asking whether they were true or false.”
"People aren't overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within."
I didn't like this book. It comprises a novella (Kitchen) and sho"People aren't overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within."
I didn't like this book. It comprises a novella (Kitchen) and short story (Moonlight Shadow), but I'm not sure how much is the book's fault, and how much can be attributed to being set in an unfamiliar culture (Japanese teens/twenties), possibly bad translation, and that although the atmosphere is contemporary, it was actually written and set nearly 30 years ago.
I was expecting lyrical language, and quirky insights into Japanese attitudes to death and LGBTQ issues. I was sadly disappointed, but kept going because it was short and because I gave up part way through my previous book (something I rarely do).
Language: Teens and Translation
The weaknesses here made me sad. Both stories are narrated by a (different) young woman. The language is often simple, but rather than the spare beauty I vaguely associate with Japanese and Chinese writing, it's mostly just banal and awkward. That may be how angst-ridden, love-up, bereaved Japanese YAs really speak (or spoke, 30 years ago) or it may be the translation, but the result is the same.
After a particularly egregious section of stilted psychobabble, one character says, "What kind of talk is that? Sounds like it was translated from English." I guess the author is aware of how clunky it is. Odd.
"It's amazing how good this is," I said. "Isn't it," said Hiiraji. "Yes, it's delicious. So delicious it makes me grateful I'm alive," I said.
Another: "Why do I love everything that has to do with kitchens so much?... a kitchen represents some distant longing engraved on my soul." Does anyone think like that? (And it doesn't answer the question anyway.)
Metaphors must be hard to translate, but this one is so mixed up, I grudgingly admire it: "The two of us, alone, were flowing down that river of light, suspended in the cosmic darkness, and were approaching a critical juncture."
Maybe YAs would relate to the characters better than I did (I have no idea), but I'd be reluctant to recommend it to them because of the next problem...
Transgender is not Transvestite
The weaknesses here made me cross. Anyone concerned with LGBTQ issues (especially trans ones) may feel the urge to throw this book at the wall. One has to remember it's a different culture, a generation ago, but the trouble is, it doesn't feel like a historical novel.
One young man takes to wearing his dead girlfriend's sailor-suit school uniform. He finds that comforting (and no one would think it odd for a girl to wear a boyfriend's jumper); a female friend is "mortified" to be seen with him, but other girls find it attractive because they assume it means he understands women. Not exactly enlightened views, but plausible, perhaps. However, they're not challenged, which tacitly condones them.
Worse, is the trans character. She's much loved and sympathetically portrayed, but the terminology is muddled and descriptions would raise eyebrows and hackles nowadays. Early on, she is described as having "had everything 'done', from her face to her whatever", but she is often referred to as "really" being a man or a transvestite. Then it turns out that it was only when her wife died that she realised "I didn't like being a man... It became clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman." Really?! Just like that? To be cheerfully muddled?!
Finding Solace after Bereavement
The sudden death of loved ones is a unifying aspect of both stories. They all find awkward support from each other, and one finds solace in kitchens and food, another in jogging (and the river that had divided them, been their meeting place, and was ultimately where they were separated for ever).
"I felt that I was the only person alive and moving in a world brought to a stop. Houses always feel like that after someone has died."
If I had lost a parent, partner or child, maybe I'd have been more engaged with this book, but I suspect my experience would be so different as to be barely comparable. I'm grateful that I'm not in the position to compare.
Still, this helpfully explains that losing a partner is even worse than losing a dog or a bird! So I've learned something.
There were glimpses of something deeper. When overtly self-analytical, I don't think they worked, but some were genuinely poignant and thought-provoking.
Mikage was an orphan, raised by her grandmother: "I was always aware that my family consisted of only one other person. The space that cannot be filled, no matter how cheerfully a child and an old person live together - the deathly silence that, panting in the corner of the room, pushes its way in like a shudder." (The punctuation is a little odd, though.)
Reality, Magical Realism, Dreams
Both stories have a dash of this. In the first, it's a dream that might be a premonition; in the second, there's an ethereal character who (maybe) shows another character a little gap in time.
* "Far off in the pale sky, thin clouds gently flowed, suspended."
* "It was the kind of frozen morning in which mood shadows seem to be pasted on the sky."
* "She was someone whose face told you nothing."
* "The little girl, whose face epitomized 'grandchild'."
* "Her power was the brilliance of her charm" which "condemned her to an ice-cold loneliness."
* "The sound of raindrops began to fall in the transparent stillness of the evening."
* Traditional housewives "had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness".
* "On the deserted bridge, with the city misted over by the blue haze of dawn, my eyes absently followed the white embankment that continued on to who knows where. I rested, enveloped by the sound of the current."
* "I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive." Hmmm.
“Anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of their mind” – even… “a map of Hungary”! Obsession is the unifying th“Anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of their mind” – even… “a map of Hungary”! Obsession is the unifying theme of virtually all these stories, which is apt, because I’m beginning to be a trifle obsessed myself. It is perhaps most central to The Zahir.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the fourth, published in 1949.
The now familiar Borgian tropes are also here in abundance too: time, reality and dreams, immortality, infinity, mirrors and opposites, labyrinths, recursion and circularity, memory.
At this stage of working though Borge’s Collected Fictions, I feel deeply connected. There is still a beguiling, mysterious layer, but it’s not impenetrable by any means, even though I’m very aware that I’m nowhere near as erudite as Borges, so although I know many of the great literary names he drops, I’m not necessarily intimately familiar with their works.
The Immortal 6*
What price immortality? And what an opening premise: a story by a rare-book dealer, found by a princess, in a copy of The Ilyad! The story itself is about a mysterious, obsessive quest to find the secret City of the Immortals.
The journey includes Roman soldiers; escape; loneliness; fear of otherness; extraordinary architecture; finding a way through a labyrinth of caves, ladders, doors and multiple rooms; sinister troglodytes, references to The Odyssey, and much musing on life, death, mortality, and the nature of time. It sounds like a checklist of clichés, but in the hands of this master storyteller, it is fresh, beautiful, profound – and unsettling.
The city is found – abandoned and part ruined. It is beautiful and impressive, but somehow sinister – not an easy combination to describe: “This place is the work of the gods… The gods that built this place have died… The gods that built this place were mad… The impression of great antiquity was joined by others: the impression of endlessness, the sensation of oppressiveness and horror, the sensation of complex irrationality… A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men… the architecture had no purpose.” Its very existence “pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars.”
(view spoiler)[The barely-communicative, primitive troglodytes turn out to be the immortals, who have left their city to live in the labyrinth instead. The one the traveller befriends, and names Argos after the dog in the Odyssey, turns out to be Homer himself.” (hide spoiler)]
The philosophical aspects mainly concern the essence of opposites, and hence, ways and forms of immortality: the “Wheel, which has neither end not beginning, each life is the effect of the previous life and engenderer of the next… Over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men… heads and tails tend to even out… Viewed in that way, all our acts are just, though also unimportant.” Worse, “the notion of the world as an exact system of compensation… made them immune to pity.”
For mortals, it’s different: “Death… makes men precious and pathetic… any act they perform may be their last… Everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrecoverable and contingent.”
The Dead Man
The story is summarised in the opening sentence: a low-life urban hoodlum becomes a horseman and the leader of a band smugglers. His obsession is gaining power.
This is more than 1/3 through the Collected Fictions, and I think this has the first female character who merits more than a sentence (though it’s not a very enviable role).
Of course, it’s really about death. If you’re almost dead anyway, does it matter what happens just before?
A rather dry piece that perks up towards the end. It concerns two sects, each of which thinks the other heretical, compounded by a pair of believers in a doctrine, and one protagonist is obsessed with gaining the intellectual upper-hand. Are they allies (the same) or opponents (opposites)?
If “every man is two men, and… the real one is the other one, the one in heaven… our acts cast an inverted reflection” so by doing bad things on earth, good things can happen in heaven! I’m not sure that would stand up in court. (view spoiler)[The final revelation is one that recurs in Borges: the two men are one and the same man. (hide spoiler)]
Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden
Is “going native” a choice or a necessity? Are contrasting stories essentially two sides of the same story? This is only three pages long, and the story starts halfway through.
This has echoes of The Captive and The Ethnographer (reviewed in The Maker).
A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz
“Any life… actually consists of a single moment - the moment when a man knows forever more who he is.”
There is lots of historical background in the translator’s notes and the conclusion echoes that of The Theologians (view spoiler)[”He realized that the other man was himself” (hide spoiler)].
Emma Zunz 6*
A woman (at last), with clear inspiration from Kafka although Borges says in the afterword that the plot was given to him by a woman (without indicating whether it’s meant to be fact or fiction). It’s a compelling, twisted, and tragic story of bereavement and obsessive revenge, leading to thoughts of justice and truth.
Like the tree falling in the deserted forest, if the condemned man doesn’t know or understand what he’s guilty of, does it matter – is the sentence valid? See Kafka’s The Penal Colony for another approach to the same question. There’s a similar idea in Borges’ “The Secret Miracle”, which is in Artifices
Then what? An unbelievable story may convince everyone if the substance is true. Her “shame was real, her hatred was real… all that was false were the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.”
Plot summary:(view spoiler)[Emma blames her employer for disgracing her father, leading him to commit suicide. She is young, virginal, with “an almost pathological fear of men”, which makes her plan especially painful for her. She picks up a man (“He was an instrument for Emma as she was for him – but she was used for pleasure, while he was used for revenge”), then goes to her boss, shoots him, and claims it was self-defence because he’d just raped her. She tells him why she’s doing it, but probably too late for him to hear and understand. Her story is believed, and the fact of revenge absolves her guilt. (hide spoiler)]
The House of Asterion 6*
The son of a queen lives a strange and solitary life in an empty house “like no other”, with many doors and corridors.
The oddness and sadness only increase when Asterion confides, “A certain generous impatience has prevented me from learning to read”.
He runs “joyously” to greet rare visitors, in part because he can “free them from evil”. Then you realise how, why - and who. (view spoiler)[Asterion is the Minotaur. (hide spoiler)]
The Other Death
Does each choice or change create a new path through time?
Grim but dull memories of a bloody civil war followed by interesting diversions into truth versus memory and the omnipotence of god, encapsulated in the question of whether a hero and a coward with the same name are two people, or two facets of one.
A brave and controversial piece: on the eve of his execution, the subdirector of a Nazi concentration camp sets down his thoughts, so he can be understood (he has “no desire to be pardoned, for I feel no guilt”).
He sees Nazism as “intrinsically moral” in part, because “compassion on the part of the superior man is Zarathustra’s ultimate sin”. That justifies murdering Jews, even a poet he admired: “I destroyed him… to destroy my own compassion”. Chilling.
He engenders no sympathy, but I did, reluctantly, feel the desire to be understood had been partially achieved.
A look at failure and defeat, despite great striving. An Arab physician in Al-Andalus is writing interpretations of Aristotle, but is stumped by the terms “comedy” and “tragedy”.
The Zahir 6*
Head-spinning time. “Idealist doctrine has it that the verbs ‘to live’ and ‘to dream’ are at every point synonymous; for me, thousands upon thousands of appearances will pass into one; a complex dream will pass into a simple one. Others will dream that I am mad, while I dream of the Zahir.
This opens by listing the many meanings of the word, zahir, in different languages and cultures. The one that matters here is an object that can inspire obsession to the extent that the victim loses touch with reality. Perhaps that is why, at the outset, Borges writes “I am still, albeit only partially, Borges”.
All sorts of things have been zahirs in mythology, but this one is an innocent-looking coin that Borges is given in a bar, when drowning his sorrows about a lost, dead love (a woman with an obsession of her own: glamour and perfection). It has the letters N and T scratched on it.
“There is nothing less material than money, since any coin… [is] a panoply of all possible futures. Money is abstract… Money is future time.”
After sleepless nights, confusion, consultation with a psychiatrist and scouring books, Borges learns more about zahirs and resolves to rid himself of the coin in another anonymous bar and to write a fantasy about it.
In Deutsches Requiem, a couple of stories earlier, the idea of being driven to madness by being fixated on a single thing (even a map of Hungary) is mentioned, and that idea is extended here. He tells of a magic tiger that was a zahir, and a fakir who painted “an infinite tiger… composed of many tigers in the most dizzying of ways”. In fact, it contained almost everything (like an Aleph – the final story in this collection). “Tennyson said that if we could but understand a single flower we might know who we are and what the world is” because everything has elements of everything else.
“Perhaps behind the coin is God.”
“The Writing of the God
“Wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity.”
A priest of the god (lower case, no possessive) is in prison, with a tiger/jaguar the other side of a piece of glass. Following on from The Zahir, his growing obsession with this tiger is no surprise.
The priest believes the god created a secret magical phrase that is hidden in creation and can ward off evil. He may have seen it many times, without realizing it, or without understanding it. He trawls his memories of the world and starts to see god and a message in everything – but especially the creature’s markings. The obsession drives him to the brink of insanity.
He has a final revelation, but it was unique to him and it dies with him.
“In the language of a god every word would speak that infinite concatenation of events… A god… must speak but a single word, and in that word there must be absolute plenitude.”
Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth 5*
Cornwall, 1914 (quite a shock, compared with the vague and more exotic locations of most of the other stories), and two men explore a ruined labyrinthine house, while one tells the other its story, involving a north African prince, a slave, a lion, and a prophesy of a murderous dead man.
Walking around “They felt they were being suffocated by the house… through the knotted darkness… the invisible wall, cumbered with ruggedness and angles, passed endlessly under his hand”.
When it was built, the local vicar had condemned it from the pulpit, declaring it “intolerable that a house should be composed of a single room, yet league upon league of hallways… No Christian ever built such a house.” He also told a story – which is the one after this: The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths.
Like a detective, the listener is intrigued but unconvinced: “the facts were true… but told the way you told them, they were clearly humbug”. He unpicks the less plausible aspects of the story, turns it round, and suggests an alternative.
The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths
This is the short tale quoted by the vicar in the previous story: “It is the prerogative of God, not man, to strike confusion and inspire wonder.”
“It is easier to endure a terrifying event that to imagine it, wait for it endlessly.”
According to the afterword, this was “suggested by a true police story”. A man arrives in a new town, wanting to be inconspicuous, using a false name – that of his enemy – even though “he was not seduced by the literary error of imagining that adopting the name of his enemy would be an astute thing to do”.
He keeps to himself, goes out rarely and cautiously, tries to live in the present, and scours the news to discover if the other man has died. (view spoiler)[Instead, his enemy comes to him. (hide spoiler)]
The Man on the Threshold
“One house is like another – what matters is knowing whether it is built in heaven or hell.”
A man sent to quell riots in an Indian city vanished a few years later; the narrator is trying to find him. In the afterword, Borges says he set it in India “so that its improbabilities might be bearable” though it seems no less probable than most of the others.
In “the opaque city that had magically swallowed up a man… I felt… the infinite presence of a spell cast to hide Glencairn’s whereabouts”. Everyone claimed either to have never heard of, let alone seen him, or to have seen him moments ago.
Finally, a very old man seems to know something, though what he knows is obscure and its relevance unclear, especially because he seems to be talking about events many years ago.
The Aleph 6*
This has similarities with The Zahir, earlier in this collection: a man obsessed with a dead woman, and a mysterious object that inspires obsession and seems to contain everything.
Borges visits the house of his love each year, on the anniversary of her death, staying a little longer each time, until he ends up a dinner guest. Her cousin is an obsessive poet, who “planned to versify the entire planet” and delights in reading his epic doggerel to Borges. He lavishly praises his own work, but won’t publish for fear “he might create an army of implacable and powerful enemies”. Borges “realized that the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting the poetry admirable” – which it wasn’t, “a poem that seemed to draw out to infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos”!
The poet’s house comes under threat of demolition, and he is distraught because in his cellar is the Aleph, which he shows to Borges. “An Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all points”, in this case, a disc about three centimetres in diameter. This provides a dizzying effect, wonderfully described (and also explains the poet’s attempt to write about everywhere in the world). “In that unbound moment, I saw millions of delightful and horrible acts… all occupying the same point, without superposition and without transparency… Each thing… was infinite things because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos.”
Those stream-of-consciousness passages are wonderful, but the ending is unexpectedly flat: (view spoiler)[Borges (the one in the story) questions the authenticity and uniqueness of the Aleph and implies he couldn’t see it, thereby suggesting the poet might be mad. The house is demolished, but rather than be broken by Borges' implication, the poet, liberated from his obsession, publishes his poetry – and wins prizes for it. (hide spoiler)].
• “The black shadow – bristling with idolatrous shapes upon the yellow sand – of the City’s wall.”
• “I imagined a world without memory, without time” and “a language that had no nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable adjectives.”
• “All creatures are immortal for they know nothing of death.”
• “Argos and I lived our lives in separate universes… our perceptions were different, but that Argos combined them differently than I.”
• “Like all those who possess libraries, Aurelian felt a nagging sense of guilt at not being acquainted with every volume in his.”
• “The heresies we ought to fear are those that can be confused with orthodoxy.”
• “Her eyes were that half-hearted blue that the English call grey.”
• “The most solemn of events are outside time… the immediate past is severed… from the future because the elements that compose those events seem not to be consecutive.”
• “Tearing up money is an act of impiety, like throwing away bread.”
• “To change the past is not to change a mere single event; it is to annul all its consequences, which tend to infinity.”
• “There is no more cunning consolation than the thought that we have chosen our own misfortunes.”
• It’s hard to follow fashion in war, so “A foreign man she had always had her doubts about was allowed to take advantage of her good will” by sending her hats. “These ridiculous shapes had never been worn in Paris” and “were not hats, but arbitrary and unauthorized caprices”.
• “The predictable ranks of one- and two-story houses had taken on that abstract air they often have at night, when they are simplified by darkness and silence.”
• “A man comes to resemble the shape of his destiny.”
• “Weary of a world that lacked the dignity of danger, the friends prized the solitude of that corner of Cornwall.”
• “The past is the stuff that time is made of.”
• “The notion that there might be parallels between art and life never occurred to him… Unlike people who had read novels, he never saw himself as a character in a book.”
• A very old man “His many years had reduced and polished him the way water smooths and polishes a stone or generations of men polish a proverb.”
• “This ancient little man for whom the present was scarcely more than an indefinite rumor.”
• “Our minds are permeable to forgetfulness” which sounds rather back-to-front.
“He admired verse in drama because it does not allow the spectator to forget unreality, which is a condition of art.”
I have the Collected Fictions (wi“He admired verse in drama because it does not allow the spectator to forget unreality, which is a condition of art.”
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the third, published in 1944.
I’m really getting a feel for Borges now. He doesn’t get easier - he retains his compelling elusiveness – but there’s comfort in familiar themes and a pleasing feeling of glimpses of enlightenment. This is entirely appropriate, given Borges’ recurring themes of… recursion, and struggling through confusing labyrinths of identical rooms, compounded by mirrors and shifting perceptions of reality.
The descriptions of individual stories below include minor spoilers; major ones are hidden with spoiler tags. If in doubt, scroll down to the Quotes section at the end.
Funes, His Memory 6*
If you could recall each day in perfect detail, and you spend a day recalling a previous day, what would your memory of the more recent day be? Nested layers of reality.
Funes is a teenager with the strange ability to know the exact time – until he has a fall that leaves him paralysed, but with a new talent. Paralysis is “a small price to pay now his perception and memory were perfect”. Really, truly and utterly perfect. Which is, of course, far from perfect.
He learned Latin in a few days from a book, but his powers go far beyond mere remembering. Where you or I would see a glass of wine, Funes “perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard… Every visual image is linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on”. He even remembers his remembering.
Bedbound, his mind works furiously. He can’t generalise and has a visceral hatred of ambiguity and polysemy: he wants a unique word for everything – and every part of every number (is there a synaesthetic aspect?). He even wants a different word for the same dog at different times of the same day.
“ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum”, which apparently translates as “so that nothing that has been heard can be retold in the same words”.
In a tragic way, this new brilliance is really just another disability. “To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalise, to abstract”, which he cannot do. Nor will he ever be able to reduce, categorise and number every one of his infinite memories.
The Shape of the Sword
“Whatsoever one man does, it is as though all men did it” - justification of the Fall and the Crucifixion.
A man with a mysterious scar tells Borges how he came by it, by way of “perplexing corridors and pointless antechambers”, ending with a paradoxical twist ((view spoiler)[”It was I? who betrayed the man who saved me” – the narrator inflicted his own scar? (hide spoiler)] ).
The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero 6*
“The idea that history might have copied history is mind-boggling enough; that history should copy literature is inconceivable.”
This is a brilliant story in which the narrator imagines a scenario where life is designed to imitate art (specifically Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth), using a huge cast, mostly unaware of their roles, for political ends. I was reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s remarkable film Synecdoche, New York.
Plot: (view spoiler)[a rebel leader is condemned to die for treachery, but knowledge of his betrayal might damage the cause. So he is killed in a theatrical set-up, and looks like a martyr – even to most of the unknowing participants. (hide spoiler)]
Death and the Compass 6*
A quadrilateral, circular story. A multiple-murder mystery, with a gloriously OTT opening sentence: “Of the many problems on which Lonnrot’s reckless perspicacity was exercised, none was so strange – so rigorously strange, one might say – as the periodic series of bloody deeds that culminated at the Villa Triste-le-Roy amid the perpetual fragrance of the eucalyptus.”
First, a rabbi is found stabbed in a hotel room, with a sheet of paper in a typewriter saying “The first letter of the Name has been written”. This sets the detective investigating Jewish mystical lore about the many (and secret) names of God.
There are more murders, more messages, an anonymous phone call, some harlequins, and a neat (though not entirely surprising) denouement: (view spoiler)[the fourth and final victim is the detective who solves it (hide spoiler)].
The Secret Miracle
We all know the conundrum "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?". Does something similar apply to art or other work that is unseen, unknown, by anyone other than its creator? (There’s a similar idea in Borges’ “Emma Zunz”, which is in The Aleph.)
A Jewish writer is arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad in a few days’ time. He torments himself by imagining hundreds of variants of his death, exacerbated by his despair at his unfinished work. But is it? (view spoiler)[As the firing squad’s bullet is fired, time stops. The man realises god has answered his prayers and he has a year to finish his work. With no pen, paper, or ability to move. He perfects it. Time restarts. He dies, satisfied. No one will ever know of his achievement. (hide spoiler)]
Three Versions of Judas
This is a fairly straightforward, some would say blasphemous, Bible study (verses and all) about the role of Judas in enabling Jesus to accomplish God’s mission to redeem mankind. Authors more recent than Borges have courted controversy with such sentiments, though they’ve taken far more words to do so.
The writer that Borges describes is in some ways a mirror of Judas, in that his investigations simultaneously “justified and destroyed his life”. And Judas is described as a reflection of Jesus, because he made a sacrifice of equal worth to that of Jesus, having “renounced honor, goodness, peace, the kingdom of heaven” and “chosen sins unvisited by any virtue”.
I’m detached from religious belief, but the idea of the damnable Judas being altruistic is intriguing, and the reflections of him in Jesus and the author, add complexity. (view spoiler)[The idea that Judas IS, in some sense, Jesus, is even more startling. (hide spoiler)]
(If you’re wondering about “sins unvisited by any virtue”, they’re “abuse of confidence… and betrayal”. In contrast, “In adultery, tenderness and abnegation often play a role; in homicide, courage; in blasphemy and profanation, a certain satanic zeal”. Worth bearing in mind if you want to pick and choose your sins!)
A story of knife-fighters, derived from the ending of a well-known Argentinian story, according to the translator’s notes. Maybe you have to be Argentinian to appreciate it, because apart from a couple of beautiful sentences (in the Quotes section), it didn’t speak to me.
The Cult of the Phoenix
United by difference and secrets, all are victims and aggressors, so we’re all the same?
If you could choose your death, what would you choose? The passive victim of a surgeon’s knife of the active victim of a knife fight?
This is about the magical power of stories, specifically, The Arabian Knights (not for the first time in Borges), and the mysterious power of knowing someone’s name.
• Chased “through black corridors of nightmare and steep stairwells of vertigo”.
• “Some secret shape of time, a pattern of repeating lines.”
• A hotel tower “notorious for uniting in itself the abhorrent whiteness of a sanatorium, the numbered divisibility of a prison, and the general appearance of a house of ill repute”.
• A suburb where “the city crumbled away; the sky expanded, and now houses held less and less import”.
• “He measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measured him by what he planned someday to do.”
• “From learning to pity the misfortunes of the heroes of our novels, we wind up feeling too much pity for our own.” The opposite of perceived wisdom?
• “The plains, in the last rays of the sun, were almost abstract, as though seen in a dream.”
• “Though blind to guilt, fate can be merciless with the slightest distractions.”
• “Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms.”
• “He and the cat were separated as by a pane of glass, because man lives in time, in successiveness, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.”
“For a book to exist, it is sufficient that it is possible. Only the impossible is excluded.”
Paradoxes abound in this allegory that has aspects of The“For a book to exist, it is sufficient that it is possible. Only the impossible is excluded.”
Paradoxes abound in this allegory that has aspects of The Blind Watchmaker, and especially DNA.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is one of the the longer stories in The Garden of Forking Paths, published in 1941.
The universe is an infinite Library. Maybe the universe is the internet? But Borges’ library is more beautiful: an endless series of connecting, identical, hexagons, and it has - and will - exist for eternity.
Each vestibule has “a mirror which faithfully duplicates appearances”, leading men to infer that the Library is not infinite, otherwise “what need would there be for that illusory replication?”
But it is infinite: the books contain “all that is able to be expressed, in every language”, composed of the same alphabetic elements, and each is unique. But are uniqueness and infinity contradictory?
Most of the books are indecipherable, and “trying to find sense in books” is “a vain and superstitious habit”, likened to palmistry and numerology. Surely that doesn’t apply to this, or does it? (Recursion, again.)
“You who read me – are you certain you understand my language?”
“Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the work of chance or malevolent demiurges; the universe… can only be the work of a god.” That’s “a god”, not “God”.
Who or what made me? Am I real, or just making marks on one of an infinite number of pages that may never be read? ...more
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: CollectI have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the the longest story in The Garden of Forking Paths, and deservedly so, published in 1941.
This is very post-modern, meta, or whatever such term you like, with references to Spinoza and Russell. It’s a first-person narration, mentioning real people, telling of a presumably fictitious group of people who plant clues about an imaginary world in authoritative sources (Orbis Tertius being a more comprehensive work in progress). Nowadays, con-langers or believers in Sherlock Holmes might do the same sort of thing on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet. Alternatively, conspiracy theorists would latch on to every snippet and claim the almost total lack of further evidence was proof of a sinister cover-up by malign and powerful forces.
“Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind.” This is paraphrased in "Hakim, The Masked Dyer of Merv", which is in the previous volume, A Universal History of Iniquity, and is the starting point here. It’s allegedly a saying from Uqbar, but investigation finds no mention of such a place – except in one (and only one) copy of an encyclopaedia, which has several pages about its geography, climate, culture and language. The fact (I use the word advisedly) they have “stone mirrors” and a “literature of fantasy” is pertinent.
“Tlon may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.”
Furthermore, the idea and language of Tlon has infiltrated the real world (or rather, the real world within this piece of fiction penned by Borges), so what is real now? “A fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain.” Is life imitating art, and Earth becoming Tlon?
The final challenge to reality is the “postscript” dated 1947, several years AFTER it was published.
Time and Language
This fascinating aspect has since been echoed by many, including perhaps Alan Lightman in Einstein’s Dreams. Add two-way ref to Einstein’s Dreams.
Tlon is a planet in Uqbar’s mythology: “the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial” and about actions, not objects, so their language is based on verbs, not nouns (examples are given). Some “deny the existence of time… the present is undefined and indefinite, the future has no reality except as present hope, and the past has no reality except as present recollection” (or even false memories of the past).
Even the maths is different; “the act of counting can modify the amount, turning indefinites into definites”, and they have two types of geometry, “tactile geometry” (like ours) and the more important “visual geometry”, which “is based on the surface, not the point; it has no parallel lines… as one’s body moves through space, it modifies the shapes that surround it”.
These philosophical beliefs mean “their fiction has but a single plot, with every imaginable permutation”. ...more
“The basest of art’s temptations: the temptation to be a genius” (from The Approach to Al-Mu’tasm). In this collection, Borges proves that he succumbe“The basest of art’s temptations: the temptation to be a genius” (from The Approach to Al-Mu’tasm). In this collection, Borges proves that he succumbed. And I’m very glad he did.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the second, published in 1941, and this is where Borges starts to blow my mind.
Some of these stories are initially rather opaque, but they’re also short and SO worthwhile: with most, I read once to get a feel for what it was about, then immediately reread it to connect with it in context.
• The first time is gloriously disorienting, almost as it’s in a subtly different dialect from my own; it creates a hypnotic desire to understand.
• The second time, a switch has been flipped, I have the key to the kingdom, and the ideas slot into place, whilst retaining a pleasing degree of elusiveness.
“There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless” (from Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, below). I don’t think Borges himself believed that, and these remarkable stories are a justification of such exercises.
The descriptions of individual stories below include minor spoilers; major ones are hidden with spoiler tags. If in doubt, scroll down to the Quotes section at the end.
A review of a non-existent book (unless someone has since written it), that even notes the differences between the first and second editions. This piece allegedly had one of Borges’ friends try to order a copy from a bookshop.
The book is described as the “first detective novel written by a native of Bombay” and is an epic, sweeping across India, with a huge case, but an “uncomfortable amalgam” of overwrought Islamic allegorical poems and European detective fiction.
The story though, is a recursive meditation on the duality of good and evil. “The object of the pilgrimage was itself a pilgrimage.”
A law student rejects his Islamic faith and end up among the poor, where he “perceives some mitigation of the evil: a moment of tenderness, of exaltation, of silence, in one of the abominable men”. He divines that the goodness must be a reflection from an external source, and sets off to find ever purer connections, via a series of connected rooms: “the insatiable search for a soul by means of the delicate glimmerings or reflections this soul has left in others”.
Each of us is like a stone cast in a lake: those nearest us are most affected, but even far away, there are ripples of who and what and how we are.
Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
A self-referential exploration of the paradoxes of original composition, and the “new technique… of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution”. The last of those is a recurring habit of Borges himself, including in this story, which purports to be about a real writer.
This is a short essay about the great, but unfinished work, of a writer, who “did not want to compose another Quixote” but “the Quixote” by combining the don and Sancho into a single character and by, in some sense, becoming Cervantes. His tactic is to “learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor and the Turk” and forget everything that happened after Cervantes published.
Menard’s other writings are listed, but it’s made clear that Quixote is his only important work, “perhaps the most significant writing of our time”, even though, over the course of his life, he only manages to write just over two chapters! A futile quest, perhaps, like Don Quixote’s own?
It becomes stranger as the reviewer describes Menard’s work as being “word for word” the same as Cervantes’, but also “more subtle” and “almost infinitely richer”, and yet different as well, because it “overlooks – or banishes – local colour” and many other incidents. So is it the same, or different? Is the Emperor naked or clothed?
The Circular Ruins 6*
A circular story about dreaming reality. Pinocchio meets Inception and The Matrix, in Plato’s cave? A man arrives at an abandoned temple to “dead, incinerated gods” with a strange purpose. “The goal that led him on was not impossible, though it was clearly supernatural: He wanted to dream a man… to dream him completely, in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality.” I misread the final phrase, and thought reality would be imposed about the man conjured by dreams. Both ideas are relevant.
It’s a strange and difficult task: “molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake… much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind”.
I’ve never quite had a lucid dream, but this describes something tantalisingly like it: “in the dreaming man’s dream, the dreamed man awoke”. Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy, and the dreaming man wants the same for his “son”. He gradually accustoms him to reality, and erases his early memory because he “feared that his son… [would] somehow discover that he was a mere simulacrum… the projection of another man’s dream” – and what could be worse than that? Seriously, what could be worse? (view spoiler)[The sad irony is that the man himself is another man’s dream. (hide spoiler)]
The Lottery in Babylon 6*
This opens with disorienting paradoxes about the narrator who has led a life of opposites, but also “known that thing the Greeks knew not – uncertainty”. The language and ideas were even more reminiscent of Kafka than some of the other pieces.
“The Lottery is an intensification of chance into the order of the universe… chance should intervene in every aspect.”
We are all subject to the whims of fate, nature versus nurture, chaos and order, faith, justice, and chance. But in Babylon, actual lotteries are involved – to an absurd and alarming degree. Conventional ones lost their appeal, “they had not moral force”, so unlucky draws were added to the positive wins. But gradually the people needed a more powerful hit than that. The Company that runs it becomes increasingly powerful (and secretive - Lottery is drawn in a labyrinth) as every aspect of life, and indeed the draw, is decided by draw.
Although “the number of drawings is infinite”, an infinite amount of time is not required, but rather, “infinitely subdivisible time”.
Does the Company exist – now or in the past – and does it matter?
The Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain
Here, Borges is name-dropping philosophers and writing an amusingly catty review of life and works of a fictitious author, starting by noting the “necrological pieties” in the very short obituary in the Times Literary Supplement. He goes on to say that his first book, The God of the Labyrinth, was good except for “somewhat careless plotting and the hollow, frigid stiltedness of certain descriptions of the sea”! Fortunately Borges was able to salvage one of Quain’s works and turn it into the far superior The Circle of Ruins (see above) – so recursion, about a circle. Neat.
“All things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now.”
Perhaps that’s all that needs to be said about this. But for the record, it’s the confession of a Chinese man, spying for the Germans, and trying to send a crucial message by… thinking out of the box, to use a bit of jargon that is often ghastly, but seems apt here. The ending was a shock! (view spoiler)[The only way to send a secret message about the destruction of a town called Albert was the otherwise motiveless killing of a man called Stephen Albert (hide spoiler)].
In the middle of that, is a more philosophical piece about The Garden of Forking Paths, splits in time, rather than space, so that all possible outcomes occur.
• “No one saw him step from the boat in the unanimous night.”
• “The mirror hovered, shadowing us.”
• “In life… he was afflicted with unreality, as so many Englishmen are.”
• “Those close English friendships… that begin by excluding confidences and soon eliminate conversation.”
• “The aesthetic act must contain some element of surprise, shock, astonishment.”
• “To speak is to commit tautologies.”
• “He who is to perform a horrendous act should imagine to himself that it is already done, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”
• “A keen and vaguely syllabic song, blurred by leaves and distance, came and went on the gentle gusts of breeze.”
• He “did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times.” ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
"Reading... is an activity subsequent to writing - more resigned, more civil, more intellectual" (the closing words to the preface of the first editio"Reading... is an activity subsequent to writing - more resigned, more civil, more intellectual" (the closing words to the preface of the first edition).
I have the Complete Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the first, published in 1935.
I had read several profound and passionate reviews by friends, and felt the building lure of Borges, aided by a growing awareness of how influential he was to many other writers. I came to Borges with high expectations.
I'm glad I had first dipped into several pieces from later volumes (thanks for the suggestions, Steve) before reading these. Although I give this only 3*, I'm assured of greater (much greater) things to come.
This is a collection of semi-fictionalised, but mostly straightforward accounts of exotic and infamous criminals around the world, plus one story that is not based on fact. Borges describes them as Baroque exercises, bordering on self-parody, and partially inspired by G K Chesterton. He defines Baroque as "the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources". They're well-written, and quite original in many ways, but crime fiction and biography are not favourite genres of mine, hence only 3* for my enjoyment.
The Cruel Redeemer of Lazarus Morell
Morell is a poor white man, with a scam to help slaves escape plantations to freedom.
I know that labyrinths recur throughout Borges' work, and the first mention is on the second page, in relation to the Mississippi delta.
The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro 5*
This story reminded me of Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr Ripley. Tom is an opportunist, who with the encouragement of a friend, presents himself as the long-lost son of a titled lady. Part of the plan is that he looks SO unlike the other man, he couldn't possibly be an impostor. "In a few days she had recaptured the recollections her son had invoked."
The Widow Ching - Pirate
Early Chinese girl power and a pirate code (based on a real one) that prohibits rape. Plausible pseudo-history - then dragons (which turn out to be kites).
Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities
A New York gangster, with eventual connections to the Kelly Gang, via "labyrinthine sewers".
The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan
Billy the Kid frequents labyrinths and by 14, kills for mindless thrills (and sometimes other rewards). "He never fully measured up to the legend of himself."
The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette Kotsuké no Suké
For Samuri, honour can mean being "granted the privilege of suicide".
Hakim, The Masked Dyer of Merv
"The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it." (This is paraphrased in the truly wonderful "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", which is the first story of the next volume.)
Man on Pink Corner
This is a first-person story of knife fighters, not based on on a real person, and the translator's notes point out that the "pink" of the title refers to a rough area of Buenos Aires, and the lack of definite pronoun conjures a painting (perhaps Edward Hopper). In the final sentence, the unnamed narrator makes it clear he's telling the story to Borges - an early nod to the way Borges later blends levels of reality.
This section contains even shorter pieces, some of which probably presage later works:
A Theologian In Death A theologian in a mysterious and unfamilar house of many rooms is in denial of his own death. Maybe.
The Chamber of Statues A fairytale-like allegory of death, via series of locked rooms, from 1000 nights.
The Story of the Two Dreamers The power of dreams.
The Wizard that was Made to Wait 5* Fairytale repetition: a wizard teaches magic to a priest on the promise of reward for his son, perpetually postponed.
The Mirror of Ink Visions in a different sort of mirror. Rorschach might approve.
Mahomed's Double Lots of them! In the light of Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo, I'm not sure this would go unchallenged if published for the first time now.
Index of Sources Another layer of fiction, or at least blurring the boundaries.
• “Onto an alluvium of beastlike hopelessness and African fear there had sifted the words of the Scripture.”
• "The female soil, worn and haggard from bearing that impatient culture's get, was left barren."
• Facial "features of an infinite vagueness".
• Writing "free of any scruples as to the way words ought to be spelled".
• Kosher "calves whose throats had been slit with righteousness".
• "History (which, like a certain motion picture director, tells its story in discontinuous images)"
• Leaving a bar "in the drunken dizziness of the tango, like they were drowning in that tango".
Oh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer (Offshore) and that AS Byatt called this "aOh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer (Offshore) and that AS Byatt called this "a masterpiece". I'm baffled.
The prose is plodding - even though it's portraying a poet: short, banal sentence, after short banal sentence. I found the characters, setting and plot hard to imagine, care about or believe in - even though it's based on real life. I forced myself to finish it, thinking there must be something worthwhile to come. I failed to find it. I was just bored. And irritated.
This is a fictionalised account, but it seems to be fairly close to the facts, and some of the diary entries quoted here, are genuine historical documents.
It's set in a noble, pious, Protestant family in Germany, in the late 1700s. It concerns Fritz, who later became a famous romantic and philosophical poet known as Novalis. This book covers the slightly earlier period, around the time he succumbed to a coup de foudre over twelve-year old Sophie. Given the period, it's all very chaste; nothing like Lolita, which is a far more disturbing book, but is beautifully written, and hence powerful and compelling. So no, nothing like this.
Fritz attends university in several towns, studying a variety of subjects and dabbling in philosophy. He meets various people.
Afterwards, he trains to be a salt mine inspector like his father. He meets more people, including Sophie's family. He is welcomed, and spends a lot of time there. It's another large family, but utterly different from his own. Goethe makes an appearance and gives his opinion on the relationship.
The French Revolution is going on in the background. Some are slightly fearful; others vaguely support it.
The brief afterword made me laugh: it was like a satirical summary of a typical operatic plot. Even less appropriately, it reminded me of a scene in comedy sci-fi show, Red Dwarf: (view spoiler)[Holly to Lister, "They're all dead. Everybody's dead, Dave." (hide spoiler)]
The Blue Flower
What a pretty image. It's the title of a novel Fritz starts to write about "unspeakable longings" for such a flower.
This may be another reason the book didn't "wow" me. Blue is my favourite colour, but I wasn't sufficiently awed by the exoticism of a blue flower. It may not be the most common hue, but blue flowers have always featured prominently in my life. Spring is marked by walks to the beech woods to see carpets of bluebells; my mother pots blue hyacinths each year to give to family and friends; my granny grew delphiniums and hydrangeas in profusion, and in more recent years, nearby fields are filled with linseed flowers (so much nicer than the garish yellow of rapeseed).
He first reads this to Karoline, saying he wrote it for her. Then he reads it to Sophie, as if it's for her. The "test" for both is to understand its deep meaning.
Sophie is puzzled:"'Do you not know yourself?' she asked doubtfully." to which he says "Sometimes I think I do".
The two people who are claimed to understand it are Sophie's doctor, and Fritz's younger, precocious brother, The Bernhard, though I can't say I agreed with The Bernhard's interpretation.
The Christmas Reckoning
This was an intriguing and slightly alarming idea. "The mother spoke to her daughters, the father to his sons, and told them first what had displeased, then what had pleased most in their conduct during the past year. In addition, the young Hardenbergs were asked to make a clean breast of anything that they should have told their parents, but had not."
Believabality and Inconsistency
Love is not rational, and sudden infatuation even less so, but if a poet cannot convey the reasons for his passion for a child who is not especially pretty, intelligent or interested, how can the reader believe it?
Fritz's family is large and noble, but poor (nobility are banned from many jobs). Later on, money seems less tight, it's not clear how or why.
He was a sickly and apparently backward child, but then turned into a genius, though there's little evidence of that, in his poetry or vague philosophical musings. He does call Sophie "my Philosophy", though, and also "my spirit's guide".
We're told that as a the child of a large family he keeps a diary rather than talk to himself, then ten pages later... he's talking to himself a lot.
The number and ages of children didn't stack up (Fritz's mother is said to have given birth eight times and later to have eleven children, but no mention of twins, and The Bernhard starts off aged six but is almost adult a few short years later).
Despite the generally leaden prose, there are some nice turns of phrase:
• A shy matriarch “seeming of less substance even than the shadows... no more than a shred.”
• “a short, unfinished young man.”
• “How heavy a child is when it gives up responsibility.”
• A man still feels his older brother “appeared to have been sent into the world primarily to irritate him”.
• “Earth and air were often indistinguishable in the autumn mist, and morning seemed to pass into afternoon without discernible mid-day.”
• “Erasmus would... enroll in the school of forestry, a wholesome open-air life for which so far he had shown no inclination whatsoever.”
• “Jollity is as relentless as piety.”
• “If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.”
• At the fair, “A fine young woman still, what a pity she has no affianced to treat her to a pig's nostril!"
• Mining “is not a violation of Nature's secrets, but a release.”
• In a music room, “the airy space faithfully carried every note, balanced it, and let it fall reluctantly.”
• “the remorseless perseverance of the truly pleasure-loving.”
• “Even in his garden-house, melancholy caught him by the sleeve.”
A quirk, which was unfamiliar to me, was the naming. Sophie is often called Sophgen, Fritz's parents as the Freifrau and the Freiherr, and many others are referred to as "the [something]". When many of the characters are thin, an extra veil doesn't help.
“All stories are about wolves… Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
Atwood doesn’t write sentimental drivel (and I don’t read it), and there are sever“All stories are about wolves… Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
Atwood doesn’t write sentimental drivel (and I don’t read it), and there are several wolves in this stunning book. This is my tenth Atwood, and it’s even better than any of the others I’ve enjoyed. The scope and variety of her work is impressive, but here, she accomplishes that within the covers of a single book: it should be shelved as historical fiction, memoir, espionage/thriller, and sci-fi.
It grabs the reader in the first brief chapter (less than three pages), which would work as a short story: so much is implied, but so little stated, you can’t help but read on, eagerly. This also sets a pattern of foreshadowing: you know many key events long before they “happen”, but have to wait and think to find out how and why.
The pacing is perfect, too. I guessed some crucial elements well before they were revealed, but there was enticing uncertainty, and always another conundrum in the pipeline. This creates a pleasing balance of satisfaction and doubt in the reader.
Matryoshka – stories within stories
The analogy with a nest of Russian dolls applies far more to this than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The different layers constantly switch, but it’s never confusing:
1. Iris, the narrator, is an elderly woman, describing her daily life, with a backdrop of weather, seasons, and fear of losing independence. It's painfully poignant, lightened with waspish and often self-deprecating humour.
2. Iris also tells the story of her life and that of her sister (Laura), from childhood to the “present” day, with a backdrop of two world wars, the Depression, and political/union unrest. Born to wealth and respectability, but lacking parental love, their lives – and relationship with each other - take many turns. This is the main bulk of the story: historical fiction, sweeping most of the 20th century, set in SE Canada.
3. As a young woman, Laura drives off a bridge (not a spoiler; it’s in the first sentence of the book), and a few years later, after going through Laura’s papers, Iris publishes her novel “The Blind Assassin”, excerpts of which are in this book of the same name. It’s the story of a pair of covert lovers, each with secrets and something to lose. He is short of money, constantly on the move. Clandestine meetings in a series of seedy bedsits and borrowed rooms are hard to arrange. The vague politics of this overlap with the specific labour unrest in the main story.
4. Within that novel, the nameless man, a writer of pulp sci-fi, tells stories of planet Zyrcon to the nameless woman. The title of both books comes from the fact that slave children are trained to create beautiful carpets – to the point at which they go blind. Some then go into the sex trade, and some become assassins. This then, is a pastiche, of a "lowbrow" genre, rather than the speculative fiction Atwood often writes, and is meant to echo the politics of its fictional author (are you still following this?).
5. The world of Zyrcon has its own myths, some of which are told. There are parallels with ancient cultures on Earth.
In addition, there are occasional newspaper reports, and the odd letter from a school or doctor.
This is a brave format that could alienate readers who like one style/genre and dislike another, but I think it worked very well, in part because most chapters are short, so you never feel trapped in a style that is not your favourite. I paid a little less attention to the details of what happened on Zycron, but that was mainly because I was so anxious to know what happened to Iris and Laura. On a reread, I would study Zycron more closely, to see the parallels with the stories around it.
Warning to Apatt: Some of the sections use quotation marks and some don’t (it didn’t bother me, though).
Iris is a wonderful creation: old, cranky, lonely, feisty, sharp, and something of an outsider all her life, even from her own family. She grudgingly accepts a modicum of help from Myra and Walter: “I am what makes her so good in the eyes of others”; Iris carries her laundry like Little Red Riding Hood “except that I myself am Granny, and I contain my own bad wolf”. Nevertheless, she resists as much as she can, while painfully noting the effects of time on her body.
“I feel like a letter – deposited here, collected there. But a letter addressed to no one.”
“I yearn for sleep… yet it flutters ahead of me like a sooty curtain.”
“After having imposed itself on us like the egomaniac it is… [the body’s] final trick is simply to absent itself.”
For all that Iris cultivates curmudgeonliness, it’s largely a carapace, and sometimes for entertainment (sarcastic letters to fans of The Blind Assassin, wanting to interview her about Laura); the really nasty piece of work is her arriviste sister-in-law, Winifred.
Laura doesn’t live to be old. She’s an enigma as a child, and more so after death – to Iris and the reader. “Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead… Nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them.”
Iris assembles a series of impressions, but you can never quite grasp her – which is entirely appropriate: Laura was “interested in forms” and “wanted essences”, but not in facts and logic – and yet she was a literalist with “a heightened capacity for belief”.
“Being Laura was like being tone deaf: the music played and you heard something, but it wasn’t what everyone else heard.”
She was “too cozy with strangers… It wasn’t that she flouted rules: she simply forgot about them.” Hence, she “had only the haziest notions of ownership”. She “was not selfless… she was skinless”. Unlike Iris, she had the courage of her (decidedly odd) convictions and didn’t care what other people thought.
There is an essay to be written on what Laura and Iris share - and what they don't. It's not just the obvious things.
Class: Winifred and Richard
Snobbery, especially looking down on new money, is not just a British ailment. Iris and Laura were the granddaughters of a wealthy industrialist who married above himself, gaining respectability for the family.
Iris’s husband, Richard, is very new money. His ghastly sister runs his life (as well as lots of charity committees) and then moulds and controls young, newlywed Iris. “Her [teaching] method was one of hint, suggestion.” So “I seemed to myself erased, featureless, like an avalanche of used soap, or the moon on the wane”.
As Iris matures, she increasingly sees through this and resists or retaliates, and of course she’s telling it with the wisdom of old age. It’s amusingly, but painfully catty. “You could be charming… with a little effort”.
“Avilion [the family home] had once had an air of stability that amounted to intransigence”, but after Winifred and Richard refurbish it, “it no longer had the courage of its pretensions”. Overdoing it somewhat, Atwood adds between those two phrases, “a large, dumpy boulder plunked [sic] down in the stream of time, refusing to be moved for anybody – but now it was dog-eared, apologetic, as if it were about to collapse in on itself”!
Richard is a shadowy (in every sense) figure – something Iris/Atwood acknowledges. “As the days went by I felt I knew Richard less and less… I myself however was taking shape – the shape intended for me, by him… coloured in.” Later, “I’ve failed to convey Richard, in any rounded sense… He’s blurred, like the face in some wet, discarded newspaper.”
In their marriage, “Placidity and order… with a decorous and sanctioned violence… underneath” because he “preferred conquest to cooperation in every area of life”. Chillingly, “It was remarkable how easily I bruised, said Richard, smiling.”
Alex Thomas is classless: his background, even if you believe his own account (child refugee of unknown family) gives no clue. That might enable him to fit in anywhere, but really, he's alien everywhere (not in a literal, lizardy sense).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, red is a recurring colour. Here, it’s green, often for clothing, and occasionally in conjunction with the colour watermelon. However, the symbolism isn’t as clear here as in Handmaid; it’s usually related to coldness, rather than jealousy. A few examples (out of more than twenty!):
• “Her slip is the chill green of shore ice, broken ice.” • “Sober colours… hospital-corridor green” (Laura’s typical attire). • Richard chose an emerald engagement ring (though his sister, Winifred, overruled that, so he proffered a diamond). • Just before a tornado, “the sky had turned a baleful shade of green”. • A bombe desert at dinner was “bright green” and honeymoon salad “tasted like pale-green water… Like frost”.
Quotes – truth, secrets, memory, writing
After years of negligible education, the girls have a fierce new tutor, “We did learn, in a spirit of vengefulness… What we really learned from him was how to cheat” as well as “silent resistance… and not getting caught”. Useful skills.
• “It’s not the lying that counts, it’s evading the necessity for it.” • “The best way to keep a secret is to pretend there isn’t one.” • Secret lovers “proclaiming love, withholding the particulars”. • “It was an effort for me now to recall the details of my grief – the exact forms it had taken – although at will I could summon up an echo of it.” • “Is what I remember the same things as what actually happened?” • “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read… not even by yourself.” • Looking back at her wedding photo, “I don’t recall having been present… I and the girl in the picture have ceased to be the same person. I am her outcome… I can see her… but she can’t see me.”
Quotes – weather, seasons, nature
• “The light like melted butter… trees with exhausted leaves.” • In a park, “disregarded corners… leggy dandelions stretching towards the light”. • “Light filtered through the net curtain, hanging suspended in the air, sediment in a pond.” • When hot and humid, “The words I write feather at the edges like lipstick on an aging mouth”. • “The sky was a hazy grey, the sun low in the sky, a wan pinkish colour, like fish blood. Icicles… as if suspended in the act of falling.” • “Wild geese… creaking like anguished hinges.” • “Grudging intimations of spring.”
Quotes - other
• “Only the blind are free.” A blind assassin “sees through the girl’s clothing with the inner eye that is the bliss of solitude”. • “There’s nothing like a shovelful of dirt to encourage literacy”. I guess EL James proves that. • Tourist trinkets: “History… was never this winsome, and especially not this clean”. • “The other side of selflessness is tyranny.” and “He can’t have found living with her forgiveness all that easy.” • The mother of a difficult baby “lost altitude… lost resilience”, so the sibling found “silence, helpfulness the only way to fit in”. • “She has a soft dense mouth like a waterlogged velvet cushion and tapered fingers deft as a fish.” • “Children believe that everything bad that happens is their fault…but they also believe in happy endings.” • “Dowdy to the point of pain.” • “A black dress, simply cut but voraciously elegant.” • “Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.” • On a virgin’s bed, “The arctic waste of starched white bedsheet stretched out to infinity.” • “Touch comes before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.” • A flashy lawyer's office has “an abstract painting compose of pricey smudges… they bill by the minute… just like the cheaper whores.” • Shaving and plucking to create “A topography like wet clay, a surface the hands would glide over.” • Downtrodden people are “Broken verbs.” • The kettle “began its lullaby of steam”. • In a seedy hotel, “wallpaper, no longer any colour”. • “He killed things by chewing off their roots.” • “Unshed tears can turn you rancid.”
King describes my relationship with this book very well: "His relationship with his father had been like the unfurling of some flower of beautiful potKing describes my relationship with this book very well: "His relationship with his father had been like the unfurling of some flower of beautiful potential, which, when wholly opened, turned out to be blighted inside."
My first Stephen King, and my first proper horror novel will be my last. I certainly didn't expect to be bored, but I was. After 338 pages / two thirds of the book, I decided life's too short to waste on books I don't enjoy.
If you want sinister snow, I suggest The Castle instead.
The basic plot (family alone and cut-off in spooky house) may not be original, but it started off quite intriguingly, with more literal demons of alcohol, cycles of abusive parenting (one physical, one emotional), and a lonely only child trying to understand the perplexities adult world. The fact the child, five-year old Danny, can read minds and has hallucinations and premonitions makes the gap between what he sees/knows and understands all the greater.
The love a child can feel for an abuser is a strong theme early on: "Jack had loved him for as long as he was able, long after the rest of the family could only hate and fear him", and he's terrified of alienating Danny. Similarly, Wendy's troubled relationship with her jealous mother is echoed in the way she envies Danny's closeness to his father.
Jack, is a recovering alcoholic, still struggling to stay on the wagon (I assume he gives in later in the book), and although he's never had any paranormal experiences before, he seems to experience some here. Or maybe it's clinical. What's the difference between paranormal (Danny) and "real" but distorted perception (Jack)?
There were also nods to Alice in Wonderland (indirect) and Bluebeard (explicitly).
All these ideas could be fascinating and disturbing, but they didn't really go anywhere, especially after things started jumping out at them.
Join the Dots
Once the family were alone in the Overlook Hotel, it became increasingly and infuriatingly formulaic: the build up to something scary, then the relief of everyone pulling through with only minor damage, then the next something scary - perhaps a variant on a previous one, or maybe something new - each one just slightly worse than the previous, interspersed with the odd false alarm. The scary things included all the obvious ones and... actually I can't think of any non-obvious ones, but maybe they come in the final third of the book.
All this was interspersed by lazy exposition of what should have been interesting backstory: the dirty dealings in the hotel (organised crime, prostitutes, murder) were revealed by a convenient scrap book, and Jack and Wendy's inner struggles with their own parents and with each other are explained like an introductory psychology primer: Jack wondered if the reason he did X was because Y. SHOW, don't tell!
There were plenty of weak clichés ("His pride was all that was left", a child feeling like a puppet in adult games, Danny being the key to everything - just like the key in a clock) and several weird typos and missing words.
On the other hand, I really laughed at this description of a lift/elevator, that "wheezed vibratoriously up the shaft"!
Danny keeps seeing and hearing this, and he knows it's bad and scary. But it's a Mystery. With a capital M. The revelation of what and why it meant was the final straw for me: such an anti-climax, and it doesn't even make sense in the way it's described.
Why I Read This - and Why I (almost certainly) Won't Read King Again
One of the things I enjoy about GR is the way it has broadened my reading (and deepened it, too). There are many wonderful books I've read purely because friends with similar tastes have raved about them (Stoner in particular).
I gradually noticed quite a few friends whose literary tastes overlap with mine rate King quite highly as a writer. I began to question my avoidance of horror and King, and canvassed advice as to which to read.
I wanted to enjoy this - to find a new writer and genre to enjoy, and to prove I should have read King sooner. Perhaps that's why I stuck with it as long as I did (that, and residual guilt from childhood indoctrination never to give up on a book). Even Jack, who wanted to write a book about the hotel, skimmed the scrapbook, so that mitigates my guilt a little.
I'm still grateful for the advice about reading King. The fact I've confirmed that King isn't for me is useful knowledge, which is an improvement on uninformed prejudice.
* "The bar, where dark shadows sat sampling the tasty waters of oblivion."
* "That commonplace sense of history that anyone can feel glancing through the fresh news of ten or twenty years ago."
* "She recoiled from his hot eyes and tried on a smile that was a size too small."
* "Staring at the door with a kind of drugged avidity."
For the last year or so, I've been working at a film studios.
As I wander around the site, what I find most fascinating is not star-spotting (they te For the last year or so, I've been working at a film studios.
As I wander around the site, what I find most fascinating is not star-spotting (they tend to be shielded from prying eyes anyway) but the many and varied pre-production activities needed to make the magic of cinema a reality: building sets and props; puppet-people in motion-capture suits; food carts for the crews; the whir of industrial generators; cabling for light and sound; the making of costumes, weapons and jewellery. Real, tangible crafts, performed by and for living, breathing people.
Reading Borges' multi-layerd and ambiguous blending of truth and imagination has made me consider what is real, and what is fiction in new ways.
At the studios, there are sets within sets, to tell stories within stories, as well as different versions of the same story.
First, there was a traditional fairytale, then Uncle Walt's team made a blockbuster animation of it, and now they're making a live action version.
That in itself prompts philosophical musings, but there's more to it than that.
Even this "real" version of the story is illusory. The huge and impressive sets are made of cheap timber, plaster, plastic and polystyrene; their beauty is skin deep, and best viewed from a distance.
Blue and green-screen are used for backgrounds and special effects. Maybe audiences will think the sets are CGI as well, so why have builders, carpenters, and sculptors been toiling for months to create the ephemeral palaces of dreams? Would such a misapprehension diminish or enhance the importance of their work? (This question becomes more personal: I write help and user guides for software; if no one reads what I write, is my effort worthless, my job pointless?)
In a few months, the sets will be dismantled, props and costumes repurposed or thrown away. But an impression will live on in the digital realm and people's memories.
Ephemeral - or not? Real - or not?
Last month, I touched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. She's real.
The publications in this volume of Collected Fictions will be reviewed individually, as I finish them: