Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Inescapable Labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges

The Inescapable Labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Jorge Luis Borges, the archetypal blind librarian
As a young fiction writer I was once talking with a professor about a story that I was writing about a library, and she immediately knew that I was thinking of the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. She said, “There are certain words you can’t even utter without bringing Borges to mind: library, labyrinth, infinity—even the word vertiginous.” Another professor read a story of mine and said, “You’re trapped. Stop reading Kafka and Borges so much.” Her advice: “Re-read Proust. He’ll set you free.” It was excellent advice, but the labyrinths of Borges continue to haunt and to draw me back.

Jorge Luis Borges was born Buenos Aires in 1899, and he received a world-class education in Europe that brought him into contact with many influential writers and thinkers who by comparison now exist as mere footnotes to Borges, because what he brought to his learning was a mind so searching, so curious, and so infinitely agile that he was seemingly capable of anything. He became a master of who-knows-how-many languages, and one of my favorite personal stories he tells is how he came to learn Italian: He slowly read an annotated bilingual edition of the Divine Comedy on the train to and from work, and when he was finally finished he found that he could speak Italian fluently. Another favorite anecdote is that when he met novelist Anthony Burgess they laughed over having the same last name and then proceeded to converse with each other in Old Norse.

Borges started as a poet and essayist, and he continued to pursue these forms brilliantly throughout his life—his essays are in fact some of the best and most illuminating of the twentieth century—but it’s as a short story writer that he made his most indelible mark on world literature. His early work, especially his non-fiction, is tentative at best and tedious at worst and points to a precocity in need of a direction, but then in the 1940s two things happened that radically altered his consciousness and approach. One is that he had a near-death experience that he later brilliantly transformed into the unforgettable story “The South.” The other thing was that he translated Franz Kafka into Spanish.

The result of his brush with death was to give him a relentless drive in a direction that he’d never been so determined to pursue, and the result of translating the intricately strange and obsessively precise short stories of Kafka was that he discovered the infinite possibilities that the form afforded him to pour his vast imagination and erudition into.

His greatest and most groundbreaking work was Ficciónes (Fictions), which he published in two parts, in 1944 and 1946. In this mind-boggling collection Borges wrote of endless libraries, infinite memories, circular time, false histories that supplant real ones, mimetic writers whose word-for-word re-creations surpass the originality of original writers, and arcane but profoundly immediate false histories and invented ideas that are simply stunning in their ability to move the reader. These concepts and themes and approaches supplied Borges with an inexhaustible groundwork that he explored over one of the longest and most fertile literary careers of the twentieth century.

Perhaps his two most celebrated stories are “The Library of Babel” (from part one of Ficciónes) and “Funes the Memorious” (from part two). In “The Library of Babel” the narrator describes his universe: a (perhaps) infinite library whose endlessly symmetrical rooms are all filled with the same number of books, which all contain the same number of symbols, but no two books are exactly the same, and the universe’s librarians search the stacks their entire lives trying to find meaning to the books and to their existence. “Funes the Memorious” recounts a narrator’s encounter with a young man whose riding accident results in a memory so infinite that he can remember not just every leaf on every tree he’s ever seen, but every time he’s ever thought of or remembered thinking of each leaf. The young (but seemingly age-old) Funes learns Latin by reading a few borrowed books, and his mind becomes an inexhaustible repository for all memory. He was paralyzed by his accident, however, and so he spends his days remembering and his nights trying to fall asleep, which he can only do by imagining remote areas that he’s never seen with his own eyes.

These stories are both infinitely expansive and terrifyingly claustrophobic, and no reader walks away from Borges’ writing unchanged. His work began being translated into English in the 1960s, and the effect was momentous. Postmodernism seemed to spring almost directly from Borges—his influence and presence in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is substantial—and his influence has only multiplied now that most of his work has been translated. For the serious devotee, Viking published his Collected Fictions, Selected Non-Fictions, and Selected Poems around the 100-year anniversary of Borges’ birth. These books are simply invaluable. I first encountered Borges in the early 1990s, however, in the collection Labyrinths, and I still think that this is the best place to start. Although Labyrinths omits the crucial story “The South,” it culls most of his best fictions, essays, and parables. Be warned, however: Even this 250-page collection will warp your mind forever. And if you’re a fiction writer, you will have a hard time escaping the event-horizon of Borges’ vertiginous pull.

—David Wiley