Sunday, September 1, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges’ Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature

A Review of Jorge Luis Borges’

Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2013

Professor Borges
A Course on English Literature
Jorge Luis Borges
Edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis
Translated by Katherine Silver
New Directions ($24.95)

Someone should have had a tape recorder on Jorge Luis Borges at all times. Unlike his great contemporary, Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote out every word of his university lectures and insisted on composing all of his interviews in solitude, Borges had a great gift for conversation and for spontaneous connection with his readers and students. Two books of interviews attest to his simultaneously warm and dazzling engagement with ideas, with language, and with the people who flocked to his accessible and welcoming brilliance. The essay collection Seven Nights transcribes seven extraordinary lectures that he delivered without notes or preparation in 1977, and the book (and accompanying four-CD set) This Craft of Verse preserves a series of talks he gave on the art and craft of poetry. Each of these is a goldmine. With almost any other author, all of these posthumous publications would have caused a glut, but Borges’ library-of-babel erudition made it so that his every public utterance offered some invaluable insight or reflection worthy of scriptural copyists. The newest release, Professor Borges, transcribes an entire course he gave on English literature, and while some may scoff at the Borges industry for heaving more laundry lists and toenail clippings at his adoring public, this may be the most brilliant and revealing offering yet.

In addition to heading Argentina’s National Library, Borges was a professor of English and North American literature at the University of Buenos Aires, despite never having received a university degree himself, and the present volume comes to us via students who taped and transcribed the lectures for a course he gave on English literature in 1966. The process of editing this book for print is like a Borges story in itself. While each transcription bore the religiously scholastic phrase “a faithful version” at its end, the students’ outrageous and often hilarious mishearings of author names and etymological discussions and foreign terms made for a truly Borgesian hunt on the part of editors Martín Arias and Martín Hadis in their quest to nail down a genuinely faithful text. So far-flung are Borges’ casual references that many of the students’ phonetic spellings led to unfathomable amounts of research in trying to come up with the correct medieval place-name or Anglo-Saxon kenning. The editors’ work serves the reader well, and they augment their faithful version with extremely helpful and fascinating endnotes, which will undoubtedly create very long reading-lists for even the most erudite of Borgesians.

Like almost all of the blind Borges’ talks, these twenty-five lectures were given without notes and simply followed the internal logic of Borges’ own curiosity that day. The first seven classes focus on the origins of English literature, starting with the Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf and progressing through Caedmon and the Christian poets and then to the Icelandic sagas and the Battle of Hastings. Given Borges’ special interest in Old English and Old Norse, these lectures are simply thrilling in their illumination of what Borges loves about each subject. He was possibly as great a talker as he was a writer, and his explications swerve from peak to peak and then swoop in to pause upon all the most poignant and mind-bending moments of literature and language and history, and all with a density of specific detail and reference that would outshine any composed narrative by any other imaginable scholar. Imagine Noam Chomsky as an epic poet singing a song of songs, and you have an idea.

After leaving King Harold dead on the battlefield with his discarded lover Edith Swaneshals (Edith “Swanneck”) searching to identify his body, Borges incomprehensibly leaps in a few swift paragraphs to Samuel Johnson, resuming the course with Rasselas and slowly making his way in the subsequent lectures from the late eighteenth century to around the time of his own birth in 1899. It’s not at all clear why Borges would skip the three greatest writers in the English language—Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, each of whom he loved profoundly and could explore and unfold to no end—let alone pass over the flowering of the English Renaissance and the Metaphysical Poets and the first English novelists, but such is the whim of a great mind. Perhaps some other professor covered those years.

Through Borges’ vivid and detail-filled lens, the reader encounters a Johnson and Boswell who are as rich and as full of life and as inextricably linked as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and then it’s on to the Romantics, who Borges treats as characters as much as he does as authors. As with modern readers’ conception of Borges himself, every author he talks about in these lectures has a unique drama that heightens the pleasure of the works, with Borges giving frank and forgiving assessments of each writer’s successes and failures, both artistic and personal. Coleridge in particular comes across as a lost soul, but Borges lovingly focuses on his few magical early works, leaving an impression on the reader that’s nearly as sharp and as affecting as the poems themselves.

The book bogs down a bit in the last third, however, with ten of the twenty-five lectures dedicated to the Victorians—and with five of those spent on just two of the Pre-Raphaelites. Borges’ close readings offer sparkling observations, but as he gets closer and closer to these minor writers’ work, the deep focus seems aimed in a direction that misses many much more profound riches. With Borges casually examining every intricate aspect of English literature that his mind comes across, these lectures could have gone in any direction, and here the reader wishes for that focus to have passed its eye across Paradise Lost or Gulliver’s Travels instead. Being born in 1899, the seemingly eternal Borges is here locked in his era, which itself is a lesson in literature. Even more than Seven Nights and This Craft of Verse, the lectures in Professor Borges give us the clearest picture yet of the man in his own words, because here he’s at his most deliberate and generous and lovingly idiosyncratic.

– David Wiley