Jorge Luis Borges
I was told about the case in Texas, but it had happened in another state. It has a single protagonist (though in every story there are thousands of protagonists, visible and invisible, alive and dead). The man’s name, I believe, was Fred Murdock. He was tall, as Americans are; his hair was neither blond nor dark, his features were sharp, and he spoke very little. There was nothing singular about him, not even that feigned singularity that young men affect. He was naturally respectful, and he distrusted neither books nor the men and women who write them. He was at that age when a man doesn’t yet know who he is, and so is ready to throw himself into whatever chance puts in his way — Persian mysticism or the unknown origins of Hungarian, the hazards of war or algebra, Puritanism or orgy. At the university, an adviser had interested him in Amerindian languages. Certain esoteric rites still survived in certain tribes out West; one of his professors, an older man, suggested that he go live on a reservation, observe the rites, and discover the secret revealed by the medicine men to the initiates. When he came back, he would have his dissertation, and the university authorities would see that it was published. Murdock leaped at the suggestion. One of his ancestors had died in the frontier wars; that bygone conflict of his race was now a link. He must have foreseen the difficulties that lay ahead for him; he would have to convince the red men to accept him as one of their own. He set out upon the long adventure. He lived for more than two years on the prairie, sometimes sheltered by adobe walls and sometimes in the open. He rose before dawn, went to bed at sundown, and came to dream in a language that was not that of his fathers. He conditioned his palate to harsh flavors, he covered himself with strange clothing, he forgot his friends and the city, he came to think in a fashion that the logic of his mind rejected. During the first few months of his new education he secretly took notes; later, he tore the notes up — perhaps to avoid drawing suspicion upon himself, perhaps because he no longer needed them. After a period of time (determined upon in advance by certain practices, both spiritual and physical), the priest instructed Murdock to start remembering his dreams, and to recount them to him at daybreak each morning. The young man found that on nights of the full moon he dreamed of buffalo. He reported these recurrent dreams to his teacher; the teacher at last revealed to him the tribe’s secret doctrine. One morning, without saying a word to anyone, Murdock left.
In the city, he was homesick for those first evenings on the prairie when, long ago, he had been homesick for the city. He made his way to his professor’s office and told him that he knew the secret, but had resolved not to reveal it.
“Are you bound by your oath?” the professor asked.
“That’s not the reason,” Murdock replied. “I learned something out there that I can’t express.”
“The English language may not be able to communicate it,” the professor suggested.
“That’s not it, sir. Now that I possess the secret, I could tell it in a hundred different and even contradictory ways. I don’t know how to tell you this, but the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.”
After a pause he added: “And anyway, the secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it. Each person has to walk those paths himself.”
The professor spoke coldly: “I will inform the committee of your decision. Are you planning to live among the Indians?”
“No,” Murdock answered. “I may not even go back to the prairie. What the men of the prairie taught me is good anywhere and for any circumstances.”
That was the essence of their conversation.
Fred married, divorced, and is now one of the librarians at Yale.
(Translation by Andrew Hurley).
Jorge Luis Borges is first mentioned in the sixth paragraph of Roberto Bolaño’s masterful short story “The Insufferable Gaucho.” In this paragraph, the narrator tells us that the story’s hero, an ex-judge named Pereda, believed “the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous.”
Several paragraphs later, Bolaño’s narrator explicitly references Borges’s short story “The South,” the precursor text for “The Insufferable Gaucho.” The reference to Borges is tied again to Pereda’s son, the writer Bebe.
Leaving tumultuous Buenos Aires, basically destitute from the Argentine Great Depression, Pereda heads to the countryside to take up residence in his family’s ancient ranch. Departing the train and arriving to a rural town,
Inevitably, he remembered Borges’s story “The South,” and when he thought of the store mentioned in the final paragraphs his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he remembered the plot of Bebe’s last novel, and imagined his son writing on a computer, in an austere room at a Midwestern university. When Bebe comes back and finds out I’ve gone to the ranch . . . , he thought in enthusiastic anticipation.
Bolaño essentially appropriates the plot of “The South” for his tale “The Insufferable Gaucho” and inserts a version of himself into this revision. Bolaño is “Bebe” here, an author who “wrote vaguely melancholy stories with vaguely crime-related plots,” his name phonically doubling the series of mirrors and precursors that Bolaño, mystery man, leaves as clues: Bebe, B-B, Borges-Bolaño, Belano-Bolaño. (Is this too wild a conjecture, dear reader? Mea culpa).
And Pereda then? A stand-in for Borges’s Juan Dahlmann (hero of “The South,” who “considered himself profoundly Argentinian”), surely, but also, maybe also—a stand-in for (a version of) Borges.
What I mean to say:
Bolaño, displaced Chilean, writes “The Insufferable Gaucho” as an intertextual love letter to his displaced father, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. Read More
Fascinating story today at The Paris Review about a first edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s early poems stolen—and then returned (perhaps?)—to the National Library of Argentina. Forgeries, facsimiles, and book thefts! The following paragraph points out that Borges himself was once director of the library:
The National Library is as old as Argentina: it was created in 1810, together with the first national government, and its first director was Mariano Moreno, one of the greatest national heroes and the founder of the country’s first newspaper. The library was, at one point, something to be proud of, and Borges’s name is inextricably linked to its history; he was its director for eighteen years, between 1955 and 1973. By then, books were already disappearing from its shelves. When asked whether this was true, he replied, in typical fashion, “I can’t tell whether books are being stolen, because I’m blind.”
Haven’t read Rafael Dieste (one of his books shows up in Bolaño’s novel 2666—Amalfitano hangs it in his backyard).
The Borges poetry collection matches nicely with these.
A poem by JLB:
Landmarks, newish from Two Lines Press, collects poetry and prose in English translation. The collection features over a dozen languages and includes a special selection on the Arab Spring. I snacked on this book over the past few weeks, reading it at random whenever a nook of free time presented itself. There are still a few selections I haven’t gotten to yet, but most of what’s collected here is superb, thanks to editors Susan Bernofsky (who you probably know from her Robert Walser translations) and Christopher Merrill.
Two Lines’ blurb:
The premiere anthology of international literature returns for its 20th anniversary with stellar new prose and poetry, headlined by a collection of writing dedicated to the Arab Spring.
Coedited by leading German translator Susan Bernofsky and celebrated poet and translator Christopher Merrill, Landmarks gives us never-before-seen work from over 20 nations. Lauded Argentine author Juan Jose Saer, widely considered the heir to Jorge Luis Borges, transforms a photo of Earth from space into a tense, alcohol-fueled meditation on emptiness. Scholastique Mukasonga’s heartbreaking story ponders how so many of her fellow Rwandans could participate in a bloody genocide. And the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms is found among the volume’s many poets, alongside Yehuda Amichai—widely considered Israel’s greatest modern bard—and the up-and-coming Brazilian Ana Martins Marques.
In a special section of vital new work from the Middle East, ten writers provide an artist’s insight into the momentous events of the 2010 Arab Spring. Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan reveals haunting, everyday images from his nation. Ali Al Jallawi, twice imprisoned for critiquing of Bahrain’s political regime, ponders his relationship to God. And in Egyptian writer Mona Elnamoury’s surrealist story, images of torture and terror give way to a spectacular dream beneath the folds of an otherworldly quilt.
A truly a global education, Landmarks continues two proud decades of exploring the riches of world literature and making connections between the abundance of amazing work being produced around the world.
Maybe the best feature of Landmarks is the rich insight it offers into translation. Each selection is prefaced with an introduction that offers context for the writer and the conditions of the writing, as well as the translation process itself. The poems are printed in two languages as well—the original on the left, the translation on the right. (Prose selections only feature the first page of original language printed alongside the translation). Being able to see the form and contours of the poem next to its translation is fascinating. Even if the poem was composed in an alphabet utterly foreign to me, being able to see it in its original form still offers a sense of its rhythm. Great stuff.
Two from Ahmatjan Osman, translated from Uyghur by Jeffrey Yang:
IN THIS RIFF:
Stories published between 1956 and 1959:
“The Concentration City”
“The Waiting Grounds”
I first read J.G. Ballard in high school. I found his work, somehow, after reading Burgess, Burroughs, and Vonnegut. I devoured many of his novels over the next few years, as well as several short story collections. One of these, The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard was particularly important to me. That collection—which I loaned to a friend who thought enough of it to never give it back—offers a concise overview of Ballard’s development as a writer, from the pulp sci-fi of his earliest days (“Chronopolis”) to his later evocations of ecological disaster and dystopia (“Billenium,” “The Terminal Beach”) to his more experimental work from The Atrocity Exhibition, stories that pointed toward one of his most famous books, Crash.
I hadn’t returned to Ballard since reading Super-Cannes when it came out a decade ago; at the time I recall being disappointed in the novel and filing it away with William Gibson’s recent efforts, which I found dull.
I’d been reading Donald Barthelme’s wonderful and strange short stories, and, rereading “Glass Mountain,” a story composed in a list, I remembered Ballard’s brilliant story “Answers to a Questionnaire” (from 1990’s War Fever). I tracked the story down in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, read it, read a few more at random, and then decided to start at the beginning.
I’ll be reading and riffing on all 98 stories in the collection over the next few months—giving myself breaks for other stuff, of course (although Ballard’s stuff, especially the early stuff is really easy to read).
2. Another introduction
Martin Amis writes the introduction to the 2009 edition and of course manages to bring up his father Kingsley almost immediately. He talks about the times he (Martin) got to spend with Ballard. He points out that Ballard possessed “a revealingly weak ear for dialogue.” He suggests that Ballard could have been the love child of Saki and Jorge Luis Borges. He describes Ballard as “somehow uniquely unique.” He reminds me of why I usually skip introductions.
3. And Ballard’s introduction, from the 2001 first edition of the book
He situates his hero, his contemporary, and his forbear in the first paragraph:
Short stories are the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit. At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination.
He also tells us,
Curiously, there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.
I agree, except for the adverb there.
Did Ballard’s sensibilities gel with the sci-fi fans who read the pulp mags his early stories were published in?
I was interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred.
In the final lines of his introduction he describes his oeuvre and addresses criticisms that there’s so much damn analog tech in his stuff:
Vermilion Sands isn’t set in the future at all, but in a kind of visionary present – a description that fits the stories in this book and almost everything else I have written. But oh for a steam-powered computer and a wind-driven television set. Now, there’s an idea for a short story.
Vermilion Sands, the strange resort town where Ballard set over a half-dozen of his tales, is the setting of the first and fourth tales in the collection.
4. “Prima Belladonna” (1956) / “Venus Smiles” (1957)
Ballard already had a distinct setting in mind to play out his future-nowisms. That early stories “Prima Belladonna” and “Venus Smiles” are both in set in Vermilion Sands is maybe the most interesting thing about them. “Prima Belladonna” is never better than its first line:
I first met Jane Ciracylides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully through ten unforgettable years, and I suppose that may have had a lot to do with what went on between us.
Ballard has the good sense to leave that cryptic reference to “the Recess” unexplained, or at least underexplained throughout the story—exposition is usually the worst aspect of pulp sci-fi. Still, the story is hardly one of his best. I’m guessing Roger Corman must have read it though, as his film Little Shop of Horrors (1960) seems to owe it a certain debt.
“Venus Smiles” is also set in Vermilion Sands, and it also takes music—sound—as its major motif (several of Ballard’s early stories do). Ballard strives to do too much in the story—he wants to criticize public attitudes about art, sculpture, music, etc., and also name drop John Cage to bolster his avant garde bona fides. Both stories drag, weighed down by Ballard’s clunky similes and bad dialogue (dear lord I’m agreeing with Amis here!). What’s most frustrating is knowing that Ballard is just a decade away from finding a rhetorical style to match the content of his ideas.
5. “Escapement” (1956)
The story of a man who realizes he is stuck in a time loop, repeating the same actions, “Escapement” is particularly frustrating. The stakes are incredibly low—the domestic scene of a married couple watching TV on a couch begs for darker treatment—and the reader figures out what’s going on way before the narrator. Time is clearly a major motif for Ballard, but his earliest published treatment of it is not especially inspiring. (I realize writing this what an ass I sound like: look, I know this is early work, pulp fiction—my frustration is that I want it to be better—or at least more abbreviated.
6. “The Concentration City” (1957)
“The Concentration City” finally sees Ballard in stronger territory, here exploring one of his favorite dystopic tropes—overpopulation—via one of his favorite conceits—the intrepid and intellectually curious young man. “The Concentration City” also showcases some early experimental touches in its opening paragraphs:
Noon talk on Millionth Street:
‘Sorry, these are the West Millions. You want 9775335th East.’
‘Dollar five a cubic foot? Sell!’
‘Take a westbound express to 495th Avenue, cross over to a Redline elevator and go up a thousand levels to Plaza Terminal. Carry on south from there and you’ll find it between 568th Avenue and 422nd Street.’
‘There’s a cave–in down at KEN County! Fifty blocks by twenty by thirty levels.’
‘Listen to this – “PYROMANIACS STAGE MASS BREAKOUT! FIRE POLICE CORDON BAY COUNTY!”
‘It’s a beautiful counter. Detects up to .005 per cent monoxide. Cost me three hundred dollars.’
‘Have you seen those new intercity sleepers? They take only ten minutes to go up 3,000 levels!’
‘Ninety cents a foot? Buy!’
The story follows up on these early notes, using the initially-estranging material to tell the story of a seemingly-infinite city; our young hero of course wants to bust out. Ballard also gives us an early prototype of what will be one of his major conventions: the green-zone/danger-zone split:
‘City Authority are starting to seal it off,’ the man told him. ‘Huge blocks. It’s the only thing they can do. What happens to the people inside I hate to think.’ He chewed on a sandwich. ‘Strange, but there are a lot of these black areas. You don’t hear about them, but they’re growing. Starts in a back street in some ordinary dollar neighbourhood; a bottleneck in the sewage disposal system, not enough ash cans, and before you know it a million cubic miles have gone back to jungle. They try a relief scheme, pump in a little cyanide, and then – brick it up. Once they do that they’re closed for good.’
7. “Manhole 69″ (1957)
Despite its unfortunate name, “Manhole 69″ is perfect early Ballard. The story follows three men in an experimental group who have undergone a surgery that eliminates their ability to sleep. The story is precise and concise; Ballard seems comfortable here (“comfortable” is not a very Ballardian word, but hey…)—he sets up his experiment and then lets his principals carry it out. The story’s heavy Jungian vibe resurfaces a few years later in Ballard’s early novel The Drowned World.
“Manhole 69″ is the first of the 98 stories here I’d put in a collection I’ll tentatively call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
8. “Track 12″ (1958)
While “Track 12″ is hardly perfect, its concision and focus do it many favors. Again, we find Ballard playing with sound—particularly something called “microsonics”:
Amplified 100,000 times animal cell division sounds like a lot of girders and steel sheets being ripped apart – how did you put it? – a car smash in slow motion. On the other hand, plant cell division is an electronic poem, all soft chords and bubbling tones. Now there you have a perfect illustration of how microsonics can reveal the distinction between the animal and plant kingdoms.
As is often the case, Ballard has an idea that fascinates him (“microsonics,” here) and simply constructs a story to deliver that idea. Or, rather, rips off a story—and Ballard has the good sense to steal from the best. “Track 12″ is a fairly straightforward Edgar Allan Poe ripoff, a revenge tale recalling “The Cask of Amontillado,” and if the reader seems to guess where everything is going before the victim, well, it works here.
9. “The Waiting Grounds” (1959)
Ballard is better at inner space than outer space. “The Waiting Grounds” seems like a bait and switch, or at least I imagine many meat and potatoes SF fans might have felt that way. Ballard has his hero head to some distant planet, only to spend most of that trip in his own mind. And oh what a trip! The story’s central set piece anticipates the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as Ballard sends his hero through “deep time”:
Deep Time: 10,000,000,000 mega–years. The ideation–field has now swallowed the cosmos, substituted its own dynamic, its own spatial and temporal dimensions. All primary time and energy fields have been engulfed. Seeking the final extension of itself within its own bounds the mantle has reduced its time period to an almost infinitesimal 0.00000000… n of its previous interval. Time has virtually ceased to exist, the ideation–field is nearly stationary, infinitely slow eddies of sentience undulating outward across its mantles.
The frame Ballard builds to deliver his idea is clunky, but I suppose in those days one could make a sort of living writing stories for magazines, and maybe more words meant more moolah. Again, this story points to the Jungian themes that Ballard would explore in greater depth in The Drowned World.
10. “Now: Zero” (1959)
Here is the first paragraph of “Now: Zero,” the last story of Ballard’s to be published in the 1950s:
You ask: how did I discover this insane and fantastic power? Like Dr Faust, was it bestowed upon me by the Devil himself, in exchange for the deed to my soul? Did I, perhaps, acquire it with some strange talismanic object – idol’s eyepiece or monkey’s paw – unearthed in an ancient chest or bequeathed by a dying mariner? Or, again, did I stumble upon it myself while researching into the obscenities of the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Black Mass, suddenly perceiving its full horror and magnitude through clouds of sulphurous smoke and incense?
No doubt, dear reader, you immediately detect Edgar Allan Poe all over this piece, and you’re not wrong. The story is mostly interesting as a style exercise—namely, Ballard doing Poe—but its cheesiness and predictability drowns out any humor. But again, these are the complete short stories—not just the perfect exercises.
11. On the horizon:
The early 1960s! “Chronopolis”! “The Overloaded Man”! “Billenium”! You are encouraged to play along.
I was lucky enough this past Friday the 13th to pick up two Borges volumes, lovely twins with tactile covers, running over 500 pages each—they swallow a lot of Borges books I already own (although curiously leave out entire collections). I found a heartfelt note from mother to son in one the nonfiction collection, where she explains the difficulty she had with the book. I have my own Borges anxieties. Two from the collections: first, from the fiction and then the start of a list from the nonfiction.