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.”