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Borges Stories - M.R. 2013 > Discussion - Week Six - Borges - A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain

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Jim | 3055 comments Mod
This discussion covers the story, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain


Poor Herbert Quain. Denied his moment of glory by that hack Agatha Christie. Had he lived longer, he would surely have found his place along the Oulipians. Of course, the larger question is did be really die or did he transmogrify into Jorge Luis Borges?


message 2: by Mala (last edited Jun 10, 2013 07:58AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mala | 283 comments A very tongue-in-cheek story,somewhat in the vein of Pierre Menerd–A fake survey of the fake works of a fake writer! From the kind of books,Quain writes,it's hard not to see him as a stand-in for Borges! Isn't Borges taking a dig at himself in these following lines?
"He also believed that the aesthetic act must contain some element of surprise, shock, astonishment—and that being astonished by rote is difficult, so he deplored with smiling sincerity "the servile, stubborn preserva-tion of past and bygone books."

Also Borges' favourite 'labyrinth' & 'mirror' make an appearance alongwith his love of "infinite stories, infinitely branching" as in Quain's book called April March. Many of the ideas in Quain's books are actually quite fantastic ones & have been adopted by various authors– for example,the following has been used in a book, only I can't recall the name!
"The work in its entirety consists, then, of nine novels; each novel, of three long chapters. (The first chapter is common to all, of course.) Of those novels, one is symbolic; another, supernatural; another, a detective novel; another, psychological; another, a Communist novel; another, anti-Communist; and so on."

And who can disagree with this:
"...of the many kinds of pleasure literature can minister, the highest is the pleasure of the imagination. Since not everyone is capable of experiencing that pleasure, many will have to content themselves with simulacra."

As a trivia,I came across one of DFW's most favourite words in the first page : 'Peripatetic'! Also the time-regression theme recalls The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There are many online blogs detailing the inter-connectedness of the two stories– The Circular Ruins & A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain. Borges ended the story by claiming that he 'extracted' his story The Circular Ruins from Quain's story collection called Statements- thus this story playfully parallels Quain's own regressive plot formula in that Circular Ruins is taken from Quain's story, we are reading abt Quain in a story collection which is called The Garden of Forking Paths & Circular Ruins is a part of that!
I shd stop here,I'm getting dizzy now.


message 3: by Zadignose (last edited Jun 14, 2013 01:40AM) (new)

Zadignose | 444 comments My first thought (which I see is an echo of the above... or is echoed retroactively above) was that Borges was teasing the reader and himself by inviting comparisons between Quain and himself. I think Quain is part Borges, part anti-Borges, and part the-thing-Borges-fears-to-be.

The critique of Quain is also self-contradictory, or appears to be so, in describing Quain as passionlessly laconic, yet accusing him of an inordinate desire to thrill (or astonish). Yet these are both criticisms which one could (rightly, or wrongly, or neither, or both) level at Borges himself.

Another thing I noted was the extensive use of expression through negatives. E.g. not a laudatory comment not contradicted and no doubt and no one would have thought inevitable.. no pleasure to the deceased... not that.... This strategy recurs.

I also couldn't help wondering whether If on a Winter's Night a Traveler was partially inspired, consciously or unconsciously by this.


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Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Zadignose wrote: "I also couldn't help wondering whether If on a Winter's Night a Traveler was partially inspired, consciously or unconsciously by this..."

I think anyone who read(s) Borges will be influenced/inspired at least partially.

Did you sense a kind of mild remorse about choosing between what is creative/inspired/innovative versus pandering to the masses à la genre-lit like AC?


message 5: by Zadignose (last edited Jun 14, 2013 03:49AM) (new)

Zadignose | 444 comments I hadn't thought of it at the time, but I see now that there may be some bitterness is acknowledging that the artist's career was overshadowed.

Meanwhile, I appreciated the irony of calling "April March" a "feeble pun." In fact it's not a pun, it's literal enough to be the antidote to stupid puns. If it had been the name of a female protagonist, or the story of a march in April, then that would be a feeble pun, and exactly the kind that popular pandering fiction is guilty of.


message 6: by Jim (new) - added it

Jim | 3055 comments Mod
Mala wrote: " for example,the following has been used in a book, only I can't recall the name!
"The work in its entirety consists, then, of nine novels; each novel, of three long chapters. (The first chapter is common to all, of course.) Of those novels, one is symbolic; another, supernatural; another, a detective novel; another, psychological; another, a Communist novel; another, anti-Communist; and so on."..."


Okay, your assignment, if you choose to accept, is to track down that book because I can't remember the name either. I was thinking maybe something by Queneau or one of the other Oulipoans. I have Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature on my shelf and I think that's where I came across a description of a book similar to April March.


Mala | 283 comments Jim wrote:"Okay, your assignment, if you choose to accept, is to track down that book."

An obvious example would be Queneau's Exercises in Style & from Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature,it would be,Queneau again!– A Story As You Like It.
Readers can google this PDF:
[PDF]Six Selections by the Oulipo

Frame tales also fit the bill,to some extent:
From Wikipedia:
"A frame story is a literary technique that sometimes serves as a companion piece to a story within a story, whereby an introductory or main narrative is presented, at least in part, for the purpose of setting the stage either for a more emphasized second narrative or for a set of shorter stories...An early example of the frame story is The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, in which the character Scheherazade narrates a set of fairy tales to the Sultan Shahriyar over many nights...An extensive use of this device is Ovid's Metamorphoses where the stories nest several deep, to allow the inclusion of many different tales in one work."

But like a typical Borgesian dampener; the book I had in mind was none of these!
It was a collection of satirical stories & a novella in Hindi language where the writer gave multiple endings ( in the formats that Borges mentioned in that story) to his novella- that was my first experience reading something like that so it felt very unique. Sorry,Jim!


Mala | 283 comments Z wrote:"My first thought (which I see is an echo of the above... or is echoed retroactively above) "

On a Borges thread,it's only fair that all commenters shd echo each-other & in true Pierre Menard fashion,each succeeding echo will be better than the previous ones,also as Borges wrote in The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim:
"Plotinus, too, in the Enneads [V, 8, 4], remarks upon a paradisal extension of the principle of identity: "Everything in the intelligible heavens is everywhere. Any thing is all things. The sun is all stars, and each star is all stars and the sun.",so all Borges readers are one & the same– try making sense of that!


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