Nicolas Shumway enjoys the non-fictions of a great storyteller
Jorge Luis Borges is widely regarded as one of the 20th century's most significant and original writers, largely because of his brilliant, quirky stories and parables. Less known are his equally remarkable poetry and essays. This is unfortunate, not only because of the inherent quality of these lesser-known works, but also because they offer different perspectives on themes Borges develops in his stories. Borges discovered his major subjects early in life. The limits of human knowledge, our inability to separate perception from reality, the extreme partiality of memory and history, the fictions of individual and collective identity, the arbitrariness of all systems of categorisation - these are issues to which Borges returns often, regardless of the genre he happens to be using at the moment. We must therefore be particularly grateful for this splendid new anthology of Borges's essays, the last in a three-volume series, the first two tomes being dedicated to his stories and poetry. All translations are new, and several selections appear in English for the first time. Borges once remarked that one could write multiple biographies of the same individual without ever repeating a single detail and that only the most perceptive readers might recognise the same person in the several narratives. A similar problem confronts editors of anthologies: given the richness of a particular literature, many collections are possible, and each runs the risk of appearing to represent something quite different from the others.
Borges's oeuvre is a good case in point. As the editors of this collection indicate, although Borges "never wrote anything long", he did in fact write a great deal. The lamentably incomplete Obras Completas provide a fairly comprehensive list of his poetry and short stories. Yet, what the editors call "non-fictions" (essays, forewords, book and film reviews, transcribed lectures, thumbnail biographies, encyclopedia entries,and short notes on politics and culture) will probably never be collected in their entirety. Indeed, only a third of these short pieces appear in the Obras Completas. Although the term "non-fictions" has no equivalent in Spanish, its non-specificity signals how frequently Borges's short pieces transgress traditional notions of genre, what with stories that pretend to be essays and essays that occasionally cite works existing only in Borges's imagination. Borges once claimed that writing a book is such an onerous task that one would do better to pretend that the book was already written and then merely cite it in a lengthy footnote. He was not above following his own advice.
While the editors' decision to organise their selections chronologically might suggest a failure of imagination, no alternative system seems practicable. A typical Borges text can point to myriad ideas (what Ronald Christ called "Borges's art of allusion"), making a thematic organisation as unlikely as finding truth in Borges's nightmarish "The Library of Babel". Other factors further complicate the selection process. In each successive edition of the collections Borges made of his own work - for example, Discusion and Otras Inquisiciones - he eliminated some articles and added others, thus "authorising" whatever he happened to publish the last time round. His first three collections of essays from the 1920s were not republished in Spanish until 1994, well after his death. Nor did he attempt to collect the introductions that he wrote for hundreds of books, not to mention countless short newspaper and magazine articles. Add to these his lectures, written and transcribed, and the chronological order chosen by the editors seems the only viable possibility.
Which is not to say that it is without problems. By seeking to represent each period of Borges's life equally, the editors omit several essential pieces. While they can rightly answer that a single volume cannot include everything, it is doubtful that anyone familiar with Borges's work will agree entirely with their selection. My advice: buy this volume, but also try to locate translations of Discusion and Otras Inquisiciones .
Despite the omissions, however, the editors deserve high praise for offering for the first time in English translation several of Borges's youthful essays. These texts present formidable translation problems against which the translators wage a worthy if not always successful battle. By his own admission, Borges's early style, as found in the 1925 collection Inquisiciones , sought inspiration in the ponderous prose of the Spanish baroque master, Francisco Quevedo. Only months later, he embraced a nationalist style written in a popular/populist dialect that he later found embarrassing. Not until the 1928 collection, El Idioma de los Argentinos , do we find essays written in the compact prose of the mature Borges - which of course is still fiendishly difficult to render into English. Despite these difficulties, the translators have done admirable work.
While this collection gives a good sense of most of Borges's major themes,I regret the editors' decision to exclude essays on Argentine literature, politics and culture, allegedly because "these articles would have required a rich subsoil of footnotes to produce a meagre interest". This decision strikes me as misguided for two reasons. First, while Borges conversed with world literature on a scale found in few writers, he was also intensely involved with his own country. Indeed, the essays on fascism and anti-Semitism included in this collection are not so much a critique of European versions of these odious doctrines as an attack on their Argentine derivations. Similarly, his claims in the 1946 essay "Our Poor Individualism" that Argentine individualism undermines collective, state-led endeavours were contradicted daily by the Peronist masses whose rallies clogged Buenos Aires's streets and clearly showed how Argentine individuality had collapsed under the sway of a charismatic, and in Borges's view, diabolical leader. Readers unaware of this context will make little sense of these essays.
Second, what Borges most disliked about his youthful essays - and the reason he never allowed their republication during his lifetime - was not so much their style as their political content. After returning from a war-devastated Europe to the youthful, optimistic and prosperous Argentina of the 1920s, Borges ardently embraced nationalist positions. He claimed that Argentines should seek their own roots and pay less attention to Europe. He supported the 1928 presidency of Hipolito Yrigoyen - a man widely denounced by Argentina's cultural elite for his populism and "vulgarity". Borges was also befriended by men who later moved towards fascism, and he actually wrote the foreword to Arturo Jauretche's El Paso de los Libres , a 1934 poem praising a populist rebellion against upper-class authority. Borges distanced himself from the nationalism of his youth as he saw that movement in the 1930s become increasingly identified with the Spanish Falange, the Axis powers and anti-Semitism. Yet, this experience of embrace and subsequent disillusionment left an indelible mark on his thinking. His much-observed scepticism regarding all authoritarian systems - be they philosophical, linguistic, political or theological - came no doubt from many sources. But I believe it also came from the disappointment of a man whose youthful politics not only failed but turned into something quite awful. The editors' selections and fear of footnotes make it difficult to discern this essential point.
The editors deserve highest praise for items that have never before appeared in English. Two sections deserve special mention. Between 1936 and 1939, Borges wrote regularly for the women's weekly El Hogar short pieces that provide witty yet insightful commentaries on writers drawn seemingly from all parts of the globe. Equally laudable is the inclusion of the first English translation of Borges's Nine Dantesque Essays. Borges once claimed that he was a hedonic reader who never tried his luck twice with a disagreeable writer. The reverse is also true: he frequently returned to writers like Dante, whom he liked. While Borges disavowed being religious himself, his idiosyncratic yet perceptive comments on Dante's masterwork indicate how much religion never ceased fascinating him.
So far as I can tell, this edition is identical to its American counterpart in everything but the title. The American version bears the prosaic name of Selected Non-Fictions whereas this volume draws its name from a Borges essay, "The Total Library". In this essay, Borges broaches one of his favourite topics: that humans are fated to search unceasingly for a truth they can never find. Borges sometimes portrays this destined yet futile search as tragedy or nightmare. But he also hints that it is our salvation, for finding truth would be a terrible disaster. With truth in hand, what would we talk about? The total library, then, is the inexhaustible library - the library that lets us keep looking and have a lot of fun in the process. Given the unending pleasure these essays allow, the editors could not have chosen a better title.
Nicolas Shumway is professor of Spanish American literature, University of Texas at Austin, United States.
Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986
Editor - Eliot Weinberger
ISBN - 0 713 991 9
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 559
Translator - E. Allen, S. J. Levine and E. Weinberger