Borges/Calvino (Books acquired, 23 June 2021)

I’m a huge sucker for Avon-Bard massmarket paperbacks, so I couldn’t pass up Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. (The conversations are with the late writer Richard Burgin.) I also picked up a nifty 1976 paperback of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.

Here’s one of those cosmicomics, “All at One Point” (English translation by William Weaver):

“All at One Point”

by

Italo Calvino


Through the calculations begun by Edwin P. Hubble on the galaxies’ velocity of recession, we can establish the moment when all the universe’s matter was concentrated in a single point, before it began to expand in space.

Naturally, we were all there, —old Qfwfq said, — where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?

I say “packed like sardines,” using a literary image: in reality there wasn’t even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were. In fact, we didn’t even bother one another, except for personality differences, because when space doesn’t exist, having somebody unpleasant like Mr. Pber^t Pber^d underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.

How many of us were there? Oh, I was never able to figure that out, not even approximately. To make a count, we would have had to move apart, at least a little, and instead we all occupied that same point. Contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability; I know, for example, that in other periods neighbors called on one another; but there, because of the fact that we were all neighbors, nobody even said good morning or good evening to anybody else.

In the end each of us associated only with a limited number of acquaintances. The ones I remember most are Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, her friend De XuaeauX, a family of immigrants by the name of Z’zu, and Mr. Pber^t Pber^d, whom I just mentioned. There was also a cleaning woman — “maintenance staff” she was called — only one, for the whole universe, since there was so little room. To tell the truth, she had nothing to do all day long, not even dusting — inside one point not even a grain of dust can enter — so she spent all her time gossiping and complaining.

Just with the people I’ve already named we would have been overcrowded; but you have to add all the stuff we had to keep piled up in there: all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe, now dismantled and concentrated in such a way that you weren’t able to tell what was later to become part of astronomy (like the nebula of Andromeda) from what was assigned to geography (the Vosges, for example) or to chemistry (like certain beryllium isotopes). And on top of that, we were always bumping against the Z’zu family’s household goods: camp beds, mattresses, baskets; these Z’zus, if you weren’t careful, with the excuse that they were a large family, would begin to act as if they were the only ones in the world: they even wanted to hang lines across our point to dry their washing.

But the others also had wronged the Z’zus, to begin with, by calling them “immigrants,” on the pretext that, since the others had been there first, the Z’zus had come later. This was mere unfounded prejudice — that seems obvious to me — because neither before nor after existed, nor any place to immigrate from, but there were those who insisted that the concept of “immigrant” could be understood in the abstract, outside of space and time.

It was what you might call a narrow-minded attitude, our outlook at that time, very petty. The fault of the environment in which we had been reared. An attitude that, basically, has remained in all of us, mind you: it keeps cropping up even today, if two of us happen to meet — at the bus stop, in a movie house, at an international dentists’ convention — and start reminiscing about the old days. We say hello — at times somebody recognizes me, at other times I recognize somebody — and we promptly start asking about this one and that one (even if each remembers only a few of those remembered by the others), and so we start in again on the old disputes, the slanders, the denigrations. Until somebody mentions Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 — every conversation finally gets around to her — and then, all of a sudden, the pettiness is put aside, and we feel uplifted, filled with a blissful, generous emotion. Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, the only one that none of us has forgotten and that we all regret. Where has she ended up? I have long since stopped looking for her: Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, her bosom, her thighs, her orange dressing gown — we’ll never meet her again, in this system of galaxies or in any other.

Let me make one thing clear: this theory that the universe, after having reached an extremity of rarefaction, will be condensed again has never convinced me. And yet many of us are counting only on that, continually making plans for the time when we’ll all be back there again. Last month, I went into the bar here on the corner and whom did I see? Mr. Pber^t Pber^d. “What’s new with you? How do you happen to be in this neighborhood?” I learned that he’s the agent for a plastics firm, in Pavia. He’s the same as ever, with his silver tooth, his loud suspenders. “When we go back there,” he said to me, in a whisper, “the thing we have to make sure of is, this time, certain people remain out … You know who I mean: those Z’zus …”

I would have liked to answer him by saying that I’ve heard a number of people make the same remark, concluding: “You know who I mean … Mr. Pber^t Pber^d …”

To avoid the subject, I hastened to say: “What about Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0? Do you think we’ll find her back there again?”

“Ah, yes … She, by all means …” he said, turning purple.

For all of us the hope of returning to that point means, above all, the hope of being once more with Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0. (This applies even to me, though I don’t believe in it.) And in that bar, as always happens, we fell to talking about her, and were moved; even Mr. Pber^t Pber^d’s unpleasantness faded, in the face of that memory.

Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0’s great secret is that she never aroused any jealousy among us. Or any gossip, either. The fact that she went to bed with her friend, Mr. De XuaeauX, was well known. But in a point, if there’s a bed, it takes up the whole point, so it isn’t a question of going to bed, but of being there, because anybody in the point is also in the bed. Consequently, it was inevitable that she should be in bed also with each of us. If she had been another person, there’s no telling all the things that would have been said about her. It was the cleaning woman who always started the slander, and the others didn’t have to be coaxed to imitate her. On the subject of the Z’zu family — for a change! — the horrible things we had to hear: father, daughters, brothers, sisters, mother, aunts: nobody showed any hesitation even before the most sinister insinuation. But with her it was different: the happiness I derived from her was the joy of being concealed, punctiform, in her, and of protecting her, punctiform, in me; it was at the same time vicious contemplation (thanks to the promiscuity of the punctiform convergence of us all in her) and also chastity (given her punctiform impenetrability). In short, what more could I ask?

And all of this, which was true of me, was true also for each of the others. And for her: she contained and was contained with equal happiness, and she welcomed us and loved and inhabited all equally.

We got along so well all together, so well that something extraordinary was bound to happen. It was enough for her to say, at a certain moment: “Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!” And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough, her bosom leaning over the great mound of flour and eggs which cluttered the wide board while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows; we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the fields to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields, and the grazing lands for the herds of calves that would give their meat for the sauce; of the space it would take for the Sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat; of the space for the Sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn; of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet, and at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed, at the same time that Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0 was uttering those words: “… ah, what noodles, boys!” the point that contained her and all of us was expanding in a halo of distance in light-years and light-centuries and billions of light-millennia, and we were being hurled to the four corners of the universe (Mr. Pber^t Pber^d all the way to Pavia), and she, dissolved into I don’t know what kind of energy-light-heat, she, Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, she who in the midst of our closed, petty world had been capable of a generous impulse, “Boys, the noodles I would make for you!,” a true outburst of general love, initiating at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, scattered through the continents of the planets, kneading with floury, oil-shiny, generous arms, and she lost at that very moment, and we, mourning her loss.

“Mutations,” a very short tale from Jorge Luis Borges

“Mutations”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


In a hallway I saw a sign with an arrow pointing the way, and I was struck by the thought that that inoffensive symbol had once been a thing of iron, an inexorable, mortal projectile that had penetrated the flesh of men and lions and clouded the sun of Thermopylae and bequeathed to Harald Sigurdson, for all time, six feet of English earth.

Several days later, someone showed me a photograph of a Magyar horseman; a coil of rope hung about his mount’s chest. I learned that the rope, which had once flown through the air and lassoed bulls in the pasture, was now just an insolent decoration on a rider’s Sunday riding gear.

In the cemetery on the Westside I saw a runic cross carved out of red marble; its arms splayed and widened toward the ends and it was bounded by a circle. That circumscribed and limited cross was a figure of the cross with unbound arms that is in turn the symbol of the gallows on which a god was tortured—that “vile machine” decried by Lucían of Samosata.

Cross, rope, and arrow: ancient implements of mankind, today reduced, or elevated, to symbols. I do not know why I marvel at them so, when there is nothing on earth that forgetfulness does not fade, memory alter, and when no one knows what sort of image the future may translate it into.

“Ulrikke” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Ulrikke”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Hann tekr sverthtt Gram ok leggri methal their abertVolsunga Saga, 27

My story will be faithful to reality, or at least to my personal recollection of reality, which is the same thing. The events took place only a short while ago, but I know that the habit of literature is also the habit of interpolating circumstantial details and accentuating certain emphases. I wish to tell the story of my encounter with Ulrikke (I never learned her last name, and perhaps never will) in the city of York. The tale will span one night and one morning.

It would be easy for me to say that I saw her for the first time beside the Five Sisters at York Minster, those stained glass panes devoid of figural representation that Cromwell’s iconoclasts left untouched, but the fact is that we met in the dayroom of the Northern Inn, which lies outside the walls. There were but a few of us in the room, and she had her back to me. Some-one offered her a glass of sherry and she refused it.

“I am a feminist,” she said. “I have no desire to imitate men. I find their tobacco and their alcohol repulsive.”

The pronouncement was an attempt at wit, and I sensed this wasn’t the first time she’d voiced it. I later learned that it was not like her—but what we say is not always like us.

She said she’d arrived at the museum late, but that they’d let her in when they learned she was Norwegian.

“Not the first time the Norwegians storm York,” someone remarked.

“Quite right,” she said. “England was ours and we lost her—if, that is, anyone can possess anything or anything can really be lost.”

It was at that point that I looked at her. A line somewhere in William Blake talks about girls of soft silver or furious gold, but in Ulrikke there was both gold and softness. She was light and tall, with sharp features and gray eyes. Less than by her face, I was impressed by her air of calm mystery. She smiled easily, and her smile seemed to take her somewhere far away. She was dressed in black—unusual in the lands of the north, which try to cheer the dullness of the surroundings with bright colors. She spoke a neat, precise English, slightly stressing the r’s. I am no great observer; I discovered these things gradually.

We were introduced. I told her I was a professor at the University of the Andes, in Bogotá. I clarified that I myself was Colombian.

“What is ‘being Colombian’?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “It’s an act of faith.”

“Like being Norwegian,” she said, nodding.

I can recall nothing further of what was said that night. The next day I came down to the dining room early. I saw through the windows that it had snowed; the moors ran on seamlessly into the morning. There was no one else in the dining room. Ulrikke invited me to share her table. She told me she liked to go out walking alone.

I remembered an old quip of Schopenhauer’s.

“I do too. We can go out alone together,” I said.

We walked off away from the house through the newly fallen snow. There was not a soul abroad in the fields. I suggested we go downriver a few miles, to Thorgate. I know I was in love with Ulrikke; there was no other person on earth I’d have wanted beside me.

Suddenly I heard the far-off howl of a wolf. I have never heard a wolf howl, but I know that it was a wolf. Ulrikke’s expression did not change.

After a while she said, as though thinking out loud: “The few shabby swords I saw yesterday in York Minster were more moving to me than the great ships in the museum at Oslo.”

Our two paths were briefly crossing: that evening Ulrikke was to continue her journey toward London; I, toward Edinburgh.

“On Oxford Street,” she said, “I will retrace the steps of DeQuincey, who went seeking his lost Anna among the crowds of London.”

“DeQuincey,” I replied, “stopped looking. My search for her, on the other hand, continues, through all time.”

“Perhaps,” Ulrikke said softly, “you have found her.”

I realized that an unforeseen event was not to be forbidden me, and I kissed her lips and her eyes.

She pushed me away with gentle firmness, but then said: “I shall be yours in the inn at Thorgate. I ask you, meanwhile, not to touch me. It’s best that way.”

For a celibate, middle-aged man, proffered love is a gift that one no longer hopes for; a miracle has the right to impose conditions. I recalled my salad days in Popayán and a girl from Texas, as bright and slender as Ulrikke, who had denied me her love.

I did not make the mistake of asking her whether she loved me. I realized that I was not the first, and would not be the last. That adventure, perhaps the last for me, would be one of many for that glowing, determined disciple of Ibsen.

We walked on, hand in hand.

“All this is like a dream,” I said, “and I never dream.”

“Like that king,” Ulrikke replied, “who never dreamed until a sorcerer put him to sleep in a pigsty.”

Then she added: “Ssh! A bird is about to sing.”

In a moment we heard the birdsong.

“In these lands,” I said, “people think that a person who’s soon to die can see the future.”

“And I’m about to die,” she said.

I looked at her, stunned.

“Lets cut through the woods,” I urged her.

“We’ll get to Thorgate sooner.”

“The woods are dangerous,” she replied. We continued across the moors.

“I wish this moment would last forever,” I murmured.

“Forever is a word mankind is forbidden to speak,” Ulrikke declared emphatically, and then, to soften her words, she asked me to tell her my name again, which she hadn’t heard very well.

“Javier Otárola,” I said.

She tried to repeat it, but couldn’t. I failed, likewise, with Ulrikke.

“I will call you Sigurd,” she said with a smile.

“And if I’m to be Sigurd,” I replied, “then you shall be Brunhild.”

Her steps had slowed. “Do you know the saga?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “The tragic story that the Germans spoiled with their parvenu Nibelungen.”

I didn’t want to argue, so I answered: “Brunhild, you are walking as though you wanted a sword to lie between us in our bed.”

We were suddenly before the inn. I was not surprised to find that it, like the one we had departed from, was called the Northern Inn.

From the top of the staircase, Ulrikke called down to me: “Did you hear the wolf? There are no wolves in England anymore. Hurry up.”

As I climbed the stairs, I noticed that the walls were papered a deep crimson, in the style of William Morris, with intertwined birds and fruit. Ulrikke entered the room first. The dark chamber had a low, peaked ceiling. The expected bed was duplicated in a vague glass, and its burnished mahogany reminded me of the mirror of the Scriptures. Ulrikke had already undressed. She called me by my true name, Javier. I sensed that the snow was coming down harder. Now there was no more furniture, no more mirrors. There was no sword between us. Like sand, time sifted away. Ancient in the dimness flowed love, and for the first and last time, I possessed the image of Ulrikke.

“The Sect of the Thirty” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Sect of the Thirty”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


The original manuscript may be consulted in the library at the University of Leyden; it is in
Latin, but its occasional Hellenism justifies the conjecture that it may be a translation from the Greek. According to Leisegang, it dates from the fourth century of the Christian era; Gibbon mentions it, in passing, in one of his notes to the fifteenth chapter of The Decline and Fall.

These are the words of its anonymous author:

…The Sect was never large, but now its followers are few indeed. Their number decimated by sword and fire, they sleep by the side of the road or in the ruins spared them by war, as they are forbidden to build dwellings. They often go about naked. The events my pen describes are known to all men; my purpose here is to leave a record of that which has been given me to discover about their doctrine and  their habits. I have engaged in long counsel with their masters, but I have not been able to convert them to Faith in Our Lord.

The first thing which drew my attention was the diversity of their opinion with respect to the dead. The most unschooled among them believe that they shall be buried by the spirits of those who have left this life; others, who do not cleave so tight to the letter, say that Jesus’ admonition Let the dead bury the dead condemns the showy vanity of our funerary rites.

The counsel to sell all that one owns and give it to the poor is strictly observed by all; the first recipients give what they receive to others, and these to yet others. This is sufficient explanation for their poverty and their nakedness, which likewise brings them closer to the paradisal state. Fervently they cite the words Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap: which neither have storehouse nor barn: and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? The text forbids saving, for If God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven: how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind.

The prescription Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart is an unmistakable exhortation to purity. Still, many are the members of the Sect who teach that because there is no man under heaven who has not looked upon a woman to desire her, then we have all committed adultery. And since the desire is no less sinful than the act, the just may deliver themselves up without risk of hellfire to the exercise of the most unbridled lustfulness.

The Sect shuns churches; its teachers preach in the open, from a mountaintop or the top of a wall, or sometimes from a boat upturned upon the shore.

There has been persistent speculation as to the origins of the Sect’s name. One such conjecture would have it that the name gives us the number to which the body of the faithful has been reduced; this is ludicrous but prophetic, as the perverse doctrine of the Sect does indeed predestine it to extinction.

Another conjecture derives the name from the height of the Ark, which was thirty cubits; another, misrepresenting astronomy, claims that the name is taken from the number of nights within the lunar month; yet another, from the baptism of the Savior; another, from the age of Adam when he rose from the red dust. All are equally false. No less untruthful is the catalog of thirty divinities or thrones, of which, one is Abraxas, pictured with the head of a cock, the arms and torso of a man, and the coiled tail of a serpent. I know the Truth but I cannot plead the Truth. To me the priceless gift of giving word to it has not been granted. Let others, happier men than I, save the members of the Sect by the word. By word or by fire.

It is better to be killed than to kill oneself. I shall, therefore, limit myself to an account of the abominable heresy. The Word was made flesh so that He might be a man among men, so that men might bind  Him to the Cross, and be redeemed by Him. He was born from the womb of a woman of the chosen people not simply that He might teach the gospel of Love but also that He might undergo that martyrdom.

It was needful that all be unforgettable. The death of a man by sword or hemlock was not sufficient to leave a wound on the imagination of mankind until the end of days. The Lord disposed that the events should inspire pathos. That is the explanation for the Last Supper, for Jesus’ words foretelling His deliverance up to the Romans, for the repeated sign to one of His disciples, for the blessing of the bread and wine, for Peter’s oaths, for the solitary vigil on Gethsemane, for the twelve men’s sleep, for the Son’s human plea, for the sweat that was like blood, for the swords, the betraying kiss, the Pilate who washed his hands of it, the flagellation, the jeers and derision, the thorns, the purple and the staff of cane, the vinegar with honey, the Tree upon the summit of the Hill, the promise to the good thief, the earth that shook, and the darkness that fell upon the  land.

Divine mercy, to which I myself owe so many blessings, has allowed me to discover the true and secret reason for the Sect’s name. In Kerioth, where it is plausibly reputed to have arisen, there has survived a conventicle known as the Thirty Pieces of Silver. That was the Sect’s original name, and it provides us with the key. In the tragedy of the Cross (and I write this with all the reverence which is its due) there were those who acted knowingly and those who acted unknowingly; all were essential, all inevitable. Unknowing were the priests who delivered the pieces of silver; unknowing, too, was the mob that chose Barabbas; unknowing the Judean judge, the Romans who erected the Cross on which He was martyred and who drove the nails and cast the lots. Of knowing actors, there were but two: Judas and the Redeemer. Judas cast away the thirty coins that were the price of our souls’ salvation and immediately hanged himself. At that moment he was thirty-three years old, the age of the Son of Man. The Sect venerates the two equally, and absolves the others.

There is not one lone guilty man; there is no man that does not carry out, wittingly or not, the plan traced by the All-Wise. All mankind now shares in Glory.

My hand fails when I will it to write a further abomination. The initiates of the Sect, upon reaching a certain age, are mocked and crucified on the peak of a mountain, to follow the example of their masters.

This criminal violation of the Fifth Commandment should be met with the severity that human and divine laws have ever demanded. May the curses of the Firmament, may the hatred of angels …

The end of the manuscript has not been discovered.

“Who Needs Poets?” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Who Needs Poets?”

by

Jorge Luis Borges


The poet’s trade, the writer’s trade, is a strange one. Chesterton said: “Only one thing is needful–everything.” To a writer this everything is more than an encompassing word; it is literal. It stands for the chief, for the essential, human experiences. For example, a writer needs loneliness, and he gets his share of it. He needs love, and he gets shared and also unshared love. He needs friendship. In fact, he needs the universe. To be a writer is, in a sense, to be day-dreamer–to be living a kind of double life.

I published my first book, Fervor de Buenos Aires way back in 1923. This book was not in praise of Buenos Aires; rather, I tried to express the way I felt about my city. I know that I then stood in need of many things, for though at home I lived in a literary atmosphere–my father was a man of letters–still, that was not enough. I needed something more, which I eventually found in friendships and in literary conversation.

What a great university should give a young writer is precisely that: conversation, discussion, the art of agreeing, and, what is perhaps most important, the art of disagreeing. Out of all this, the moment may come when the young writer feels he can make his emotions into poetry. He should begin, of course, by imitating the writers he likes. This is the way the writer becomes himself through losing himself–that strange way of double living, of living in reality as much as one can and at the same time of living in that other reality, the one he has to create, the reality of his dreams.

This is the essential aim of the writing program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. I am speaking in behalf of the many young men and women at Columbia who are striving to be writers, who have not yet discovered the sound of their own voices. I have recently spent two weeks here, lecturing before eager student writers. I can see what these workshops mean to them; I can see how important they are for the advancement of literature. In my own land, no such opportunities are given to young people.

Let us think of the still nameless poets, still nameless writers, who should be brought together and kept together. I am sure it is our duty to help these future benefactors to attain that final discovery of themselves which makes for great literature. Literature is not a mere juggling of words; what matters is what is left unsaid, or what may be read between the lines. Were it not for this deep inner feeling, literature would be no more than a game, and we all know that it can be much more than that.

We all have the pleasures of the reader, but the writer has also the pleasure and the task of writing. This is not only a strange but a rewarding experience. We owe all young writers the opportunity of getting together, of agreeing or disagreeing, and finally of achieving the craft of writing.


This essay, adapted from a lecture Borges delivered at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, was published in the 8 May 1971 issue of The New York Times

“Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Weary of his land of Spain, an old soldier of the king’s army sought solace in the vast
geographies of Ariosto, in that valley of the moon in which one finds the time that is squandered by dreams, and in the golden idol of Muhammad stolen by Montalbán.

In gentle self-mockery, this old soldier conceived a credulous man—his mind unsettled by the reading of all those wonders—who took it into his head to ride out in search of adventures and enchantments in prosaic places with names such as El Toboso and Montici.

Defeated by reality, by Spain, don Quixote died in 1614 in the town of his birth. He was survived only a short time by Miguel de Cervantes.

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.

They never suspected that the years would at last smooth away the discord, never suspected that in the eyes of the future, La Mancha and Montici and the lean figure of the Knight of Mournful Countenance would be no less poetic than the adventures of Sindbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.

For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also in the end of it.

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (First Riff: Introductions + Stories 1956-1959)

jgb_complete_ss400

IN THIS RIFF:

Introductions

Stories published between 1956 and 1959:

“Prima Belladonna”

“Escapement”

“The Concentration City”

“Venus Smiles”

“Manhole 69”

“Track 12”

“The Waiting Grounds”

“Now: Zero”

Introduction

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).

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.

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.

“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.

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“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.

“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.

“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.’

No exit!

“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

“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.

“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.

“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.

On the horizon:

The early 1960s! “Chronopolis”! “The Overloaded Man”! “Billenium”! You are encouraged to play along.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]

“Avelino Arredondo” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Avelino Arredondo”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

translated by Andrew Hurley


The incident occurred in Montevideo in 1897.

Every Saturday the friends took the same table, off to one side, in the Café del Globo, like
the poor honest men they were, knowing they cannot invite their friends home, or perhaps escaping it. They were all from Montevideo; at first it had been hard to make friends with Arredondo, a man from the interior who didn’t allow confidences or ask questions. He was hardly more than twenty, a lean, dark-skinned young man, a bit on the short side, and perhaps a little clumsy. His face would have been anonymous had it not been rescued by his eyes, which were both sleepy and full of energy. He was a clerk in a dry goods store on Calle Buenos Aires, and he studied law in his spare time. When the others condemned the war that was ravaging the country and that the president (so general opinion believed) was waging for reprehensible reasons, Arredondo remained silent. He also remained silent when the others laughed at him and called him a tightwad.

A short time after the Battle of Cerros Blancos, Arredondo told his friends that they wouldn’t be seeing him for a while; he had to go to Mercedes. The news disturbed no one. Someone told him to watch out for Aparicio Saravia’s gang of gauchos; Arredondo smiled
and said he wasn’t afraid of the Whites. His interlocutor, who had joined the party, said nothing.

It was harder to say good-bye to Clara, his sweetheart. He did it with almost the same
words. He told her not to expect a letter, since he was going to be very, very busy. Clara, who was not in the habit of writing, accepted the condition without protest. The two young people loved each other very much.

Arredondo lived on the outskirts. He had a black servant woman with the same last name as his; her forebears had been slaves of the family back in the time of the Great War. She was a woman of absolute trustworthiness; Arredondo instructed her to tell anyone asking for him that he was away in the country.

He had picked up his last wages at the dry goods store.

He moved into a room at the back of the house, the room that opened onto the patio of packed earth.

The step was pointless, but it helped him begin that reclusion that his will imposed on him.

From the narrow iron bed in which he gradually recovered his habit of taking an afternoon siesta, he looked with some sadness upon an empty bookcase. He had sold all his books, even the volumes of the Introduction to Law. All he had kept was a Bible, which he had never read and never managed to finish.

He went through it page by page, sometimes with interest and some-times with boredom,
and he set himself the task of memorizing an occasional chapter of Exodus and the last of Ecclesiastes. He did not try to understand what he was reading. He was a freethinker, but he let not a night go by without repeating the Lord’s Prayer, as he’d promised his mother when he came to Montevideo—breaking that filial promise might bring bad luck.

He knew that his goal was the morning of August 25. He knew exactly how many days he
had to get through. Once he’d reached his goal, time would cease, or rather nothing that happened afterward would matter. He awaited the day like a man waiting for his joy and his liberation. He had stopped his watch so he wouldn’t always be looking at it, but every night, when he heard the dark, far-off sound of the twelve chimes, he would pull a page off the calendar and think One day less.

At first he tried to construct a routine. Drink some mate, smoke the black cigarettes he rolled, read and review a certain number of pages, try to chat a bit with Clementina when she brought his dinner on a tray, repeat and embellish a certain speech before he blew out the lamp. Talking with Clementina, a woman along in years, was not easy, because her memory had halted far from the city, back in the mundane life of the country.

Arredondo also had a chessboard on which he would play chaotic games that never managed to come to any end. A rook was missing; he would use a bullet or a coin in its place.

To pass the time, every morning Arredondo would clean his room with a rag and a big broom, even chasing down spiderwebs. The black woman didn’t like him to lower himself to such chores—not only because they fell within her purview but also because Arredondo didn’t really do them very well.

He would have liked to wake up when the sun was high, but the habit of getting up with
the dawn was stronger than his mere will. He missed his friends terribly, though he knew without bitterness that they didn’t miss him, given his impregnable reserve. One afternoon, one of them came around to ask after him but was met in the vestibule and turned away. The black woman didn’t know him; Arredondo never learned who it had been. An avid reader of the news, Arredondo found it hard to renounce those museums of ephemera. He was not a thinking man, or one much given to meditation.

His days and his nights were the same, but Sundays weighed on him.

In mid-July he surmised he’d been mistaken in parceling out his time, which bears us along one way or another anyway. At that point he allowed his imagination to wander through the wide countryside of his homeland, now bloody, through the rough fields of Santa Irene where he had once flown kites, to a certain stocky little piebald horse, surely dead by now, through the dust raised by the cattle when the drovers herded them in, to the exhausted stagecoach that arrived every month with its load of trinkets from Fray Bentos, through the bay of La Agraciada where the Thirty-three came ashore, to the Hervidero, through ragged mountains, wildernesses, and rivers, through the Cerro he had scaled to the lighthouse, thinking that on the two banks of the River Plate there was not another like it. From the Cerroon the bay he traveled once to the peak on the Uruguayan coat of arms, and he fell asleep.

Each night the sea breeze was cool, and good for sleeping. He never spent a sleepless night. He loved his sweetheart with all his soul, but he’d been told that a man shouldn’t think about women, especially when there were none to be had. Being in the country had accustomed him to chastity. As for the other matter… he tried to think as little as possible of the man he hated. The sound of the rain on the roof was company for him.

For the man in prison, or the blind man, time flows downstream as though down a slight decline. As he reached the midpoint of his reclusión, Arredondo more than once achieved that virtually timeless time. In the first patio there was a wellhead, and at the bottom, a cistern where a toad lived; it never occurred to Arredondo that it was the toad’s time, bordering on eternity, that he sought.

As the day grew near he began to be impatient again. One night he couldn’t bear it anymore, and he went out for a walk.

Everything seemed different, bigger. As he turned a corner, he saw a light and went into
the general store, where there was a bar. In order to justify being there, he called for a shot of cane brandy. Sitting and talking, their elbows on the wooden bar, were some soldiers. One of them said: “All of you know that it’s strictly outlawed to
give out any news about battles—formal orders against it.

Well, yesterday afternoon something happened to us that you boys are going to like.

Some barracks-mates of mine and I were walking along in front of the newspaper over there, La Razón. And we heard a voice inside that was breaking that order. We didn’t waste a second going in there, either.

The city room was as dark as pitch, but we gunned down that loose-lipped traitor that was talking.

When he finally shut up, we hunted around for him to drag him out by the heels, but we saw it was a machine!—a phonograph they call it, and it talks all by itself!”

Everyone laughed.

Arredondo had been listening intently.

“What do you think—pretty disappointing, eh, buddy?”

Arredondo said nothing. The uniformed man put his face very near Arredondo’s.

“I want to hear how loud you can yell Viva the President of our Country, Juan Idiarte
Borda!”

Arredondo did not disobey. Amid jeers and clapping he gained the door; in the street, he was hit by one last insult: “Nobody ever said cowards were stupid—or had much temper, either!” He had behaved like a coward, but he knew he wasn’t one. He returned slowly and deliberately to his house.

On August 25, Avelino Arredondo woke up at a little past nine. He thought first of Clara, and only later of what day it was. Good-bye to all this work of waiting — I’ve made it, he said to himself in relief. He shaved slowly, taking his time, and in the mirror he met the same face as always. He picked out a red tie and his best clothes. He had a late lunch. The gray sky threatened drizzle; he’d always pictured this day as radiant. He felt a touch of bitterness at leaving his damp room forever. In the vestibule he met the black woman, and he gave her the last pesos that were left. On the sign at the hardware store he saw some colored diamond shapes, and he realized it had been more than two months since he’d thought of them. He headed toward Calle Sarandi. It was a holiday, and very few people were about.

It was not yet three o’clock when he reached the Plaza Matriz. The Te Deum had been sung; a group of well-dressed men, military officers, and prelates was coming down the slow steps of the church. At first glance, the top hats (some still in their hands), the uniforms, the gold braid, the weapons, and the tunics might create the illusion that there were many of them; the truth was, there were no more than about thirty. Though Arredondo felt no fear, he did feel a kind of respect. He asked which of the men was the president.

“The one there walking beside the archbishop with the miter and staff,” he was told.

He took out his pistol and fired. Idiarte Borda took a few steps, fell forward to the ground, and said very clearly, “I’ve been killed.”

Arredondo gave himself up to the authorities.

“I am a Red and I’m proud to say so. I have killed the president, who betrayed and sullied our party. I left my friends and my sweetheart so they would not be dragged into this; I didn’t read the newspapers so that no one could say the newspapers incited me to do this. I alone am responsible for this act of justice. Now try me.”

This is how the events might have taken place, though perhaps in a more complex way; this is how I can dream they happened.

I am on kind of a Borges kick (Thomas Pynchon)

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More Thomas Pynchon letters here. Via Reddit user Forest Limit.

“The Shape of the Sword,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Shape of the Sword”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


His face was traversed by a vengeful scar, an ashen and almost perfect arc that sliced from the temple on one side of his head to his cheek on the other. His true name does not matter; everyone in Tacuarembó called him “the Englishman at La Colorada.” The owner of the land, Cardoso, hadn’t wanted to sell it; I heard that the Englishman plied him with an argument no one could have foreseen—he told him the secret history of the scar. He had come from the border, from Rio Grande do Sul; there were those who said that over in Brazil he had been a smuggler. The fields had gone to grass, the water was bitter; to put things to right, the Englishman worked shoulder to shoulder with his peons. People say he was harsh to the point of cruelty, but scrupulously fair. They also say he liked his drink; once or twice a year he would shut himself up in the room in the belvedere, and two or three days later he would emerge as though from a battle or a spell of dizziness—
pale, shaking, befuddled, and as authoritarian as ever. I recall his glacial eyes, his lean energy, his gray mustache. He was standoffish; the fact is, his Spanish was rudimentary, and tainted with the accents of Brazil. Aside from the occasional business letter or pamphlet, he got no mail.

The last time I made a trip through the northern provinces, high water along the Caraguatá forced me to spend the night at La Colorada. Within a few minutes I thought I sensed that my showing up that way was somehow inopportune. I tried to ingratiate myself with the Englishman, and to do so I seized upon patriotism, that least discerning of passions. I remarked that a country with England’s spirit was invincible. My interlocutor nodded, but added with a smile that he wasn’t English—he was Irish, from Dungarvan. That said, he stopped, as though he had let slip a secret.

We went outside after dinner to have a look at the sky. The clouds had cleared away, but far off behind the sharp peaks, the southern sky, creviced and split with lightning, threatened another storm. Back in the dilapidated dining room, the peon who’d served dinner brought out a bottle of rum. We drank for a long time, in silence.

I am not sure what time it was when I realized that I was drunk; I don’t know what
inspiration or elation or boredom led me to remark on my host’s scar. His face froze; for several seconds I thought he was going to eject me from the house. But at last, his voice perfectly ordinary, he said to me:

“I will tell you the story of my scar under one condition—that no contempt or condemnation be withheld, no mitigation for any iniquity be pleaded.”

I agreed. This is the story he told, his English interspersed with Spanish, and even with Portuguese: In 1922, in one of the cities of Connaught, I was one of the many young men who were conspiring to win Ireland’s independence. Of my companions there, some are still living, working for peace; others, paradoxically, are fighting under English colours, at sea or in the desert; one, the best of us all, was shot at dawn in the courtyard of a prison, executed by men filled with dreams; others (and not the least fortunate, either) met their fate in the anonymous, virtually secret battles of the civil war. We were Republicans and Catholics; we were, I suspect, romantics. For us, Ireland was not just the Utopian future and the unbearable present; it was a bitter yet loving mythology, it was the circular towers and red bogs, it was the repudiation of Parnell, and it was the grand epics that sing the theft of bulls that were heroes in an earlier incarnation, and in other incarnations fish, and mountains. … One evening I shall never forget, there came to us a man, one of our own, from Munster—a man called John Vincent Moon.

He couldn’t have been more than twenty. He was thin yet slack-muscled, all at once—he gave the uncomfortable impression of being an invertebrate. He had studied, ardently and with some vanity, virtually every page of one of those Communist manuals; he would haul out his dialectical materialism to cut off any argument. There are infinite reasons a man may have for hating or loving another man; Moon reduced the history of the world to one sordid economic conflict. He declared that the Revolution was foreordained to triumph. I replied that only lost causes were of any interest to a gentleman…. Night had fallen; we pursued our crosspurposes in the hallway, down the stairs, then through the vague streets.

The verdicts Moon handed down impressed me considerably less than the sense of unappealable and absolute truth with which he issued them. The new comrade did not argue, he did not debate—he pronounced judgement, contemptuously and, to a degree, wrathfully. As we came to the last houses of the city that night, we were stupefied by the sudden sound of gunfire.

(Before this, or afterward, we skirted the blind wall of a factory or a gaol.) We turned down a dirt street; a soldier, huge in the glare, burst out of a torched cottage. He shouted at us to halt. I started walking faster; my comrade did not follow me. I turned around— John Vincent Moon was standing as motionless as a rabbit caught in one’s headlights eternalized, somehow, by terror. I ran back, floored the soldier with a single blow, shook Vincent Moon, cursed him, and ordered him to come with me. I had to take him by the arm; the passion of fear had stripped him of all will. But then we did run—we fled through the conflagration-riddled night. A burst of rifle fire came our way, and a bullet grazed Moon’s right shoulder; as we fled through the pine trees, a weak sob racked his breast.

In that autumn of 1922 I had gone more or less underground, and was living in General Berkeley’s country house. The general (whom I had never seen) was at that time posted to some administrative position or other out in Bengal; the house was less than a hundred years old but it was gloomy and dilapidated and filled with perplexing corridors and pointless antechambers. The museum-cabinet and huge library arrogated to themselves the entire lower floor—there were the controversial and incompatible books that are somehow the history of the nineteenth century; there were scimitars from Nishapur, in whose frozen crescents the wind and violence of battle seemed to be living on. We entered the house (I think I recall) through the rear. Moon, shaking, his mouth dry, mumbled that the events of the night had been “interesting”; I salved and bandaged him, then brought him a cup of tea. The wound was superficial. Suddenly, puzzled, he stammered:

“You took a terrible chance, coming back to save me like that.”

I told him it was nothing. (It was the habit of civil war that impelled me to act as I acted; besides, the imprisonment of a single one of us could imperil the entire cause.)

The next day, Moon had recovered his composure. He accepted a cigarette and subjected me to a harsh interrogation as to the “financial resources of our revolutionary party.” His questions were quite lucid; I told him (truthfully) that the situation was grave. Deep rumblings of gunfire troubled the peace of the south. I told Moon that our comrades were waiting for us. My overcoat and revolver were  up in my room; when I returned, I found Moon lying on the sofa, his eyes closed. He thought he had a fever; he pleaded a painful spasm in his shoulder.

It was then that I realized he was a hopeless coward. I clumsily told him to take care of himself, then left.

I was embarrassed by the man and his fear, shamed by him, as though I myself were the coward, not Vincent Moon. Whatsoever one man does, it is as though all men did it. That is why it is not unfair that a single act of disobedience in a garden should contaminate all humanity; that is why it is not unfair that a single Jew’s crucifixion should be enough to save it. Schopenhauer may have been right—I am other men, any man is all men, Shakespeare is somehow the wretched John Vincent Moon.

We spent nine days in the general’s great house. Of the agonies and the rays of light of that dark war I shall say nothing; my purpose is to tell the story of this scar that affronts me. In my memory, those nine days form a single day—except for the next to last, when our men  stormed a barracks and avenged, life for life, our sixteen comrades fallen to the machine guns at Elphin. I would slip out of the house about dawn, in the blurred confusion of first light. I would be back toward nightfall. My comrade would be waiting for me upstairs; his wound would not allow him to come down. When I look back, I see him with some book of strategy in his hand—F. N. Maude, or Clausewitz. “The weapon of preference for me,” he confessed to me one night, “is artillery.” He enquired into our plans; he enjoyed criticizing or re-thinking them. He was also much given to deploring “our woeful financial base”; dogmatically and sombrely he would prophesy the disastrous end. “C’est une affaire flambée,” he would mutter. To show that his physical cowardice was a matter of indifference to him, he made a great display of mental arrogance.

Thus passed, well or not so well, nine days.

On the tenth, the city fell once and forever into the hands of the Black and Tans. Highsitting, silent horsemen patrolled their beats; there was ash and smoke in the wind. I saw a dead body sprawled on one corner—yet that dead body is less vivid in my memory than the dummy that the soldiers endlessly practised their marksmanship on in the middle of the city square…. I had gone out when dawn was just streaking the sky; before noon, I was back. Moon was in the library, talking to someone; I realized from the tone of his voice that he was speaking on the telephone. Then I heard my name; then, that I’d be back at seven, and then, that I’d be arrested as I came across the lawn. My rational friend was rationally selling me out. I heard him demand certain guarantees of his own safety.

Here my story becomes confused and peters out a bit. I know that I chased the snitch through black corridors of nightmare and steep stairwells of vertigo. Moon knew the house well, every bit as well as I.

Once or twice I lost him, but I managed to corner him before the soldiers arrested me.

From one of the general’s suits of armor, I seized a scimitar, and with that steel crescent left a flourish on his face forever—a half-moon of blood. To you alone, Borges—you who are a stranger—I have made this confession.

Your contempt is perhaps not so painful.”

Here the narrator halted. I saw that his hands were trembling.

“And Moon?” I asked. “What became of Moon?”

“He was paid his Judas silver and he ran off to Brazil. That evening, in the city square, I saw a dummy shot by a firing squad of drunks.”

I waited vainly for the rest of the story. Finally, I asked him to go on.

A groan made his entire body shiver; he gestured, feebly, gently, toward the curving whitish scar.

“Do you not believe me?” he stammered. “Do you not see set upon my face the mark of my iniquity? I have told you the story this way so that you would hear it out. It was I who betrayed the man who saved me and gave me shelter—it is I who am Vincent Moon. Now, despise me.”

Read “The Yellow Rose” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Yellow Rose”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


It was neither that afternoon nor the next that Giambattista Marino died— that illustrious man proclaimed by the unanimous mouths of Fame (to use an image that was dear to him) as the new Homer or the new Dante—and yet the motionless and silent act that took place that afternoon was, in fact, the last thing that happened in his life. His brow laureled with years and glory, the man died in a vast Spanish bed with carven pillars. It costs us nothing to picture a serene balcony a few steps away, looking out toward the west, and, below, marbles and laurels and a garden whose terraced steps are mirrored in a rectangular pool. In a goblet, a woman has set a yellow rose; the man murmurs the inevitable lines of poetry that even he, to tell the truth, is a bit tired of by now:

Porpora de’giardin, pompa de’prato,
Gemmadi primavera, occhio d’aprile…

Then the revelation occurred. Marino saw the rose, as Adam had seen it in Paradise, and he realized that it lay within its own eternity, not within his words, and that we might speakabout 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.

Marino achieved that epiphany on the eve of his death, and Homer and Dante may have achieved it as well.

“The Mountebank” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Mountebank”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


One day in July, 1952, the man dressed in mourning weeds appeared in that little village on the Chaco River.* He was a tall, thin man with vaguely Indian features and the inexpressive face of a half-wit or a mask. The townsfolk treated him with some deference, not because of who he was but because of the personage he was portraying or had by now become. He chose a house near the river; with the help of some neighbor women he laid a board across two sawhorses, and on it he set a pasteboard coffin with a blond-haired mannequin inside. In addition, they lighted four candles in tall candleholders and put flowers all around. The townsfolk soon began to gather. Old ladies bereft of hope, dumbstruck wide-eyed boys, peons who respectfully took off their pith hats—they filed past the coffin and said: My condolences, General. The man in mourning sat sorrowfully at the head of the coffin, his hands crossed over his belly like a pregnant woman. He would extend his right hand to shake the hand extended to him and answer with courage and resignation: It was fate. Everything humanly possible was done. A tin collection box received the two-peso price of admission, and many could not content themselves with a single visit.

What kind of man, I ask myself, thought up and then acted out that funereal farce—a
fanatic? a grief-stricken mourner? a madman? a cynical impostor? Did he, in acting out his mournful role as the macabre widower, believe himself to be Perón? It is an incredible story, but it actually happened—and perhaps not once but many times, with different actors and local variants. In it, one can see the perfect symbol of an unreal time, and it is like the reflection of a dream or like that play within a play in Hamlet.

The man in mourning was not Perón and the blond-haired mannequin was not the woman Eva Duarte, but then Perón was not Perón, either, nor was Eva, Eva—they were unknown or anonymous persons (whose secret name and true face we shall never know) who acted out, for the credulous love of the working class, a crass and ignoble mythology.

“Herman Melville” — Jorge Luis Borges

“Herman Melville”

by

Jorge Luis Borges


 

He was always surrounded by the sea of his elders,

The Saxons, who named the ocean

The Whale-Road, thereby uniting

The two immense things, the whale

And the seas it endlessly ploughs.

The sea was always his. By the time his eyes

First took in the great waters of the high seas

He had already longed for and possessed it

On that other ocean, which is Writing,

And in the outline of the archetypes.

A man, he gave himself to the earth’s oceans

And to the exhausting days at sea

And he came to know the harpoon reddened

By Leviathan and he rippled sand

And the smells of nights and mornings

And chance on the horizon waiting in ambush

And the happiness of being brave

And the pleasure, at last, of spying Ithaca.

The ocean’s conqueror, he strode the solid

Earth out of which mountains grow

And on which he charts an imprecise course

As with a sleeping compass, motionless in time.

In the inherited shadows of the gardens

Melville moves through New England evenings,

But the sea possesses him. It is the shame

Of the Pequod’s mutilated captain,

The unreadable ocean with its furious squalls

And the abomination of the whiteness.

It is the great book. It is blue Proteus.

(English translation by Stephen Kessler)

“A Problem,” a three-paragraph story by Jorge Luis Borges

“A Problem”

by Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Let us imagine that a piece of paper with a text in Arabic on it is discovered in Toledo, and that paleographers declare the text to have been written by that same Cede Hamete Benengeli from whom Cervantes derived Don Quixote. In it, we read that the hero (who, as everyone knows, wandered the roads of Spain armed with a lance and sword, challenging anyone for any reason) discovers, after one of his many combats, that he has killed a man. At that point the fragment breaks off; the problem is to guess, or hypothesize, how don Quixote reacts.

So far as I can see, there are three possibilities. The first is a negative one: Nothing
in particular happens, because in the hallucinatory world of don Quixote, death is no
more uncommon than magic, and there is no reason that killing a mere man should disturb one who does battle, or thinks he does battle, with fabled beasts and sorcerers. The second is pathetic: Don Quixote never truly managed to forget that he was a creation, a projection, of Alonso Quijano, reader of fabulous tales. The sight of death, the realization that a delusion has led him to commit the sin of Cain, awakens him from his willful madness, perhaps forever. The third is perhaps the most plausible: Having
killed the man, don Quixote cannot allow himself to think that the terrible act is the work
of a delirium; the reality of the effect makes him assume a like reality of cause, and don Quixote never emerges from his madness.

But there is yet another hypothesis, which is alien to the Spanish mind (even to the Western mind) and which requires a more ancient, more complex, and more timeworn setting. Don Quixote—who is no longer don Quixote but a king of the cycles of Hindustan—senses, as he stands before the body of his enemy, that killing and engendering are acts of God or of magic, which everyone knows transcend the human condition. He knows that death is illusory, as are the bloody sword that lies heavy in his hand, he himself and his entire past life, and the vast gods and the universe.

Errors on Walt Whitman (Jorge Luis Borges)

whitman

“Covered Mirrors,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“Covered Mirrors”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


Islam tells us that on the unappealable Day of Judgment, all who have perpetrated images of living things will reawaken with their works, and will be ordered to blow life into them, and they will fail, and they and their works will be cast into the fires of punishment. As a child, I knew that horror of the spectral duplication or multiplication of reality, but mine would come as I stood before large mirrors. As soon as it began to grow dark outside, the constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me. One of my insistent pleas to God and my guardian angel was that I not dream of mirrors; I recall clearly that I would keep one eye on them uneasily. I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality; other times, that I would see my face in them disfigured by strange misfortunes. I have learned that this horror is monstrously abroad in the world again. The story is quite simple, and terribly unpleasant.

In 1927, I met a grave young woman, first by telephone (because Julia began as a voice without a name or face) and then on a corner at nightfall. Her eyes were alarmingly large, her hair jet black and straight, her figure severe. She was the granddaughter and greatgranddaughter of Federalists, as I was the grandson and great-grandson of Unitarians, but that ancient discord between our lineages was, for us, a bond, a fuller possession of our homeland. She lived with her family in a big run-down high-ceiling’d house, in the resentment and savorlessness of genteel poverty. In the afternoons— only very rarely at night—we would go out walking through her neighbor-hood, which was Balvanera.  We would stroll along beside the high blank wall of the railway yard; once we walked down Sarmien to all the way to the cleared grounds of the Parque Centenario. Between us there was neither love itself nor the fiction of love; I sensed in her an intensity that was utterly unlike the intensity of eroticism, and I feared it. In order to forge an intimacy with women, one often tells them about true or apocryphal things that happened in one’s youth; I must have told her at some point about my horror of mirrors, and so in 1928 I must have planted the hallucination that was to flower in 1931. Now I have just learned that she has gone insane, and that in her room all the mirrors are covered, because she sees my reflection in them—usurping her own—and she trembles and cannot speak, and says that I am magically following her, watching her, stalking her.

What dreadful bondage, the bondage of my face—or one of my former faces. Its odious fate makes me odious as well, but I don’t care anymore.

“The Disk,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Disk”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


I am a woodcutter. My name doesn’t matter. The hut I was born in, and where I’m soon to die, sits at the edge of the woods. They say these woods go on and on, right to the ocean that surrounds the entire world; they say that wooden houses like mine travel on that ocean. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never seen it.

I’ve not seen the other side of the woods, either. My older brother, when we were boys he made me swear that between the two of us we’d hack away at this woods till there wasn’t a tree left standing. My brother is dead now, and now it’s something else I’m after, and always will be. Over in the direction where the sun goes down there’s a creek I fish in with my hands. There are wolves in the woods, but the wolves don’t scare me, and my ax has never failed me. I’ve not kept track of how old I am, but I know I’m old—my eyes don’t see anymore. Down in the village, which I don’t venture into anymore because I’d lose my way, everyone says I’m a miser, but how much could a woodcutter have saved up?

I keep the door of my house shut with a rock so the snow won’t get in. One evening I heard heavy, dragging footsteps and then a knock. I opened the door and a stranger came in. He was a tall, elderly man all wrapped up in a worn-out old blanket. A scar sliced across his face. The years looked to have given him more authority than frailty, but even so I saw it was hard for him to walk without leaning on his stick. We exchanged a few words I don’t recall now. Then finally the man said:

“I am without a home, and I sleep wherever I can. I have wandered all across Saxony.”

His words befitted his age. My father always talked about “Saxony”; now people call it England.

There was bread and some fish in the house. While we ate, we didn’t talk. It started raining. I took some skins and made him a pallet on the dirt floor where my brother had died. When night came we slept.

It was toward dawn when we left the house. The rain had stopped and the ground was covered with new snow. The man dropped his stick and he ordered me to pick it up.

“Why should I do what you tell me to?” I said to him.

“Because I am a king,” he answered. I

thought he was mad. I picked up the stick and gave it to him. With his next words, his voice was changed.

“I am the king of the Secgens. Many times did I lead them to victory in hard combat, but at the hour that fate decreed, I lost my kingdom. My name is Isern and I am of the line of Odin.”

“I do not worship Odin,” I answered. “I worship Christ.”

He went on as though he’d not heard me.

“I wander the paths of exile, but still I am king, for I have the disk. Do you want to see it?”

He opened his hand and showed me his bony palm. There was nothing in it. His hand was empty. It was only then that I realized he’d always kept it shut tight. He looked me in the eye.

“You may touch it.”

I had my doubts, but I reached out and with my fingertips I touched his palm. I felt something cold, and I saw a quick gleam. His hand snapped shut. I said nothing.

“It is the disk of Odin,” the old man said in a patient voice, as though he were speaking to a child. “It has but one side. There is not another thing on earth that has but one side. So long as I hold it in my hand I shall be king.”

“Is it gold?” I said.

“I know not. It is the disk of Odin and it has but one side.”

It was then I felt a gnawing to own the disk myself. If it were mine, I could sell it for a bar of gold and then /would be a king.

“In my hut I’ve got a chest full of money hidden away. Gold coins, and they shine like my ax,” I told the wanderer, whom I hate to this day. “If you give the disk of Odin to me, I will give you the chest.”

“I will not,” he said gruffly.

“Then you can continue on your way,” I said. He turned away. One ax blow to the back of his head was all it took; he wavered and fell, but as he fell he opened his hand, and I saw the gleam of the disk in the air. I marked the place with my ax and I dragged the body down to the creek bed, where I knew the creek was swollen. There I dumped his body.

When I got back to my house I looked for the disk. But I couldn’t find it. I have been looking for it for years.