“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)

Three Books

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Baudolino by Umberto Eco. First edition hardback by Harcourt, 2002. English trans. by William Weaver. Jacket design by Vaughn Andrews, featuring a detail from the lefts side of Piero  della Francesco’s fresco Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes

I bought this in the last days of 2002 from the dollar table at the Barnes & Noble store near my parents house. I was 23 and had just moved home after living in Japan. I had no plans and was kind of depressed. I really can’t remember what I read around that time, but I know it wasn’t Baudolino. I didn’t get to it until the summer of 2011. It’s a fun, propulsive, sloppy quest narrative—bawdy, rich, a picaresque take on the (not-so-secret) mythological backgrounding of medieval Europe. It kind of unravels at the end.

I had initially planned this Sunday’s Three Books post to feature three Eco titles as a sort of tribute to our deceased semiotician, but alas I only have two here at the house (The Name of the Rose is the other one). I lost my copy of Foucault’s Pendulum over a decade ago, and I gave a colleague my copy of Misreadings just a few months ago (she had expressed a certain distaste for The Prague Cemetery). My copy of On Literature is in my office (although if I’m being honest, I use a samizdat digital copy more often as a reference point). Eco was a sort of gateway drug though to his spiritual brothers, Calvino and Borges. I actually read both of them before Eco, but understood them better when approached after Eco. I don’t know if that makes any sense (and I don’t think it has to make any sense).

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Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges. An irregularly shaped trade paperback by E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970. English translation by Mildred Boyer (prose) and Harold Morland (poetry). Cover design by James McMullan. I love the cover and hate that a bookseller decided to mark out the original pricing with ugly Sharpie ink.

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Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Harvest/HBJ trade paperback; no year given. English trans. by (Eco’s translator) William Weaver. Cover design by Louise Fili, employing a 17th-c. woodcut of a drawing screen. I first read Invisible Cities in 2002, in spots and places around Thailand. I read my friend’s copy; he had brought it with him to meet me there. He was the same guy who took my copy of Foucault’s Pendulum and never returned it.

Look at Borges (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)

In the days of the gauchos, my country was a blank piece of paper. The pampas stretched as far as men could imagine, inexhaustible, fenceless. Wherever the gaucho could ride, that place belonged to him. But Buenos Aires sought hegemony over the provinces. All the neuroses about property gathered strength, and began to infect the countryside. Fences went up, and the gaucho became less free. It is our national tragedy. We are obsessed with building labyrinths, where before there was open plain and sky. To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet. We cannot abide that openness: it is terror to us. Look at Borges. Look at the suburbs of Buenos Aires. The tyrant Rosas has been dead a century, but his cult flourishes. Beneath the city streets, the warrens of rooms and corridors, the fences and the networks of steel track, the Argentine heart, in its perversity and guilt, longs for a return to that first unscribbled serenity… that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky…

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

“Limits” — Jorge Luis Borges

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“I know of two kinds of writers” — Jorge Luis Borges

I know of two kinds of writers: those whose central preoccupation is a verbal technique, and those for whom it is human acts and passions. The former tend to be dismissed as “Byzantine” or praised as “pure artists.” The latter, more fortunately, receive the laudatory epithets “profound,” “human,” or “profoundly human,” and the flattering vituperative “savage.” The former is Swinburne or Mallarme; the latter, Celine or Theodore Dreiser. Certain exceptional cases display the virtues and joys of both categories. Victor Hugo remarked that Shakespeare contained Gongora; we might also observe that he contained Dostoevsky…Among the great novelists, Joseph Conrad was perhaps the last who was interested both in the techniques of the novel and in the fates and personalities of his characters. The last that is until the tremendous appearance of Faulkner.

From Borges’ 1937 review of William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!. Originally published in the Argentine magazine El Hogar, part of Borges’ “The Literary Life” column. Republished in Selected Non-Fictions.

Does Borges believe in God?

Osvaldo Ferrari: Many people still ask whether Borges believes in God, because at times they feel he does and at times that he doesn’t.

Jorge Luis Borges: If God means something in us that strives for good, yes. If he’s thought of as an individual being, then no, I don’t believe. I believe in an ethical proposition, perhaps not in the universe but in each one of us. And if I could I would add, like Blake, an aesthetic and an intellectual proposition but with reference to individuals again. I’m not sure it would apply to the universe. I remember Tennyson’s line: “Nature red in tooth and claw.” He wrote that because so many people talked about a gentle Nature.

From Conversations Volume I, a newly-translated collections of radio discussions between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari. Read the rest of the excerpt at NYRB.

“On Acquiring an Encyclopedia” — Jorge Luis Borges

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“To Whoever Is Reading Me” — Jorge Luis Borges

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“Browning Resolves to Be a Poet” — Jorge Luis Borges

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“The Ethnographer” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Ethnographer”
by
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).

“The Brawl” — Michelangelo Antonioni

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Get Your Borges Timer Now!

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“His romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death” | Bolaño and Borges

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. Continue reading ““His romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death” | Bolaño and Borges”

“A Reader” — Jorge Luis Borges

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Jorge Luis Borges, Forgeries, and Book Theft

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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.”

Read the essay.

Borges/Dieste (Books Acquired, 1.04.2014)

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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:

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Landmarks, A Remarkable Anthology of Poetry and Prose in Translation (Book Acquired, 11.15.2013)

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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:

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