Borges in Another Métier
With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time. Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization. Although literary fashions come and go, he is always there, endlessly rereadable by those who admire him, awaiting rediscovery by new generations of readers.
One tends to think of Borges as the writer of a dozen or so classic stories, such as "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "The Circular Ruins," "The Lottery in Babylon," "The Secret Miracle" and--my favorite--"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," where the author imagines a parallel universe. This idiosyncratic, mind-altering fiction was mostly written in the late thirties and forties (Ficciones, his central collection, appeared in 1944, gathering most of his best stories to date). Yet Borges was well-known as a poet long before he tried his hand at fiction.
Now a generous volume of his poetry has been published by Viking, edited by Alexander Coleman and translated by various hands, including Alastair Reid, Mark Strand, W.S. Merwin and Robert Fitzgerald. This follows Collected Fictions, which appeared last September in a matching edition, translated by Andrew Hurley. Next fall a third volume, containing Borges's essays, will appear, thus making available in English virtually all of his important work.
Reading the stories, poems and essays side by side, one sees that it makes no sense to think of him as a writer constrained by genre; if anything, his work as a whole interrogates, even ridicules, the very notion of genre. In the famous Prologue to Ficciones, he wrote: "The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary." Thus, his stories were born of critical commentaries, much as his poetry is deeply involved in the fictions, as one discovers in reading through his Selected Poems, where his abiding themes (the puzzle of identity, the illusory nature of the physical universe, the alluring yet maddening nature of love) and symbols (the mirror, the labyrinth, the tiger, the game, the double) are summoned and repossessed.
Even the sacred boundary between writer and reader is blurred, as in the introduction to Borges's first book of poems, where he wrote: "If in the following pages there is some successful verse or other, may the reader forgive me the audacity of having written it before him. We are all one; our inconsequential minds are much alike, and circumstances so influence us that it is something of an accident that you are the reader and I the writer--the unsure, ardent writer--of my verses."
The author of Borges's early poems does seem ardent, but there is little unsureness. In "Truco," in which a card game becomes a metaphor for art, the poet seems astoundingly self-assured as he writes:
A furtive slowing down
keeps all words in check,
and, as the vagaries of the game
repeat and repeat themselves,
the players of that evening
reenact ancient tricks:
An act that brings to life, but very faintly,
the generations of our forefathers
who bequeathed to the leisure of Buenos Aires
truco, with all its bids and its deceptions.
That first volume, published in 1923, was called Fervor de Buenos Aires, and the title suggests the nature of the poems: feverish evocations of the city where Borges was raised and spent much of his life. The young poet soon became a key figure in a literary movement called Ultraísmo--a version of Surrealism--although its effects, in the poems, consist of little more than a residue of inventiveness in lines such as "Light roams the streets inventing dirty colors" or "The street's end opens like a wound on the sky." (There is also that Surrealist penchant for the prose poem, at which Borges excelled throughout his long writing life.)
Whitman was, as Borges often noted, his earliest model, but the poet of the twenties was obviously reading widely in English, French and Spanish poetry. He was already obsessed by "the enigma of Time," which in "Year's End" he regards as
that, though the chances are infinite
and though we are
drops in Heraclitus' river,
allows something in us to endure,
Late in life, Borges wrote: "The fate of a writer is strange. He begins his career by being a baroque writer, pompously baroque, and after many years, he might attain if the stars are favorable, not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity."
The early poems do occasionally exhibit a touch of baroqueness, with their elaborate conceits and symbols, but nothing like in the major stories, where baroqueness occasionally overwhelms other effects. Having cast himself in Whitman's shadow, Borges as poet was saved from a certain kind of excess; in "Boast of Quietness," there is a wonderful blend of Borgesian hermetics and Whitmanesque openness:
Time is living me.
More silent than my shadow, I pass through the loftily covetous multitude.
They are indispensable, singular, worthy of tomorrow.
My name is someone and anyone.
I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away he doesn't expect to arrive.