A Review of Jorge Luis Borges’
Originally published in the
Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2015
Conversations, Volume 1
Jorge Luis Borges & Osvaldo Ferrari
Translated by Jason Wilson
Seagull Books, $27.50
In his prologue to the newly translated Conversations, Volume 1, Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “the best event recorded in universal history happened in Ancient Greece some 500 years before the Christian era, namely, the discovery of dialogue,” adding that, “remote in space and time, this volume is a muffled echo of those ancient conversations.” Borges as a short-story writer, essayist, and poet often posited himself as the only real character in his work—he himself was the lonely cosmic librarian, the vast rememberer, the existential detective, and the sole repository of awful knowledge—but in a very happy paradox, he was also a brilliant conversationalist who could engage in genuine dialogue with anyone lucky enough to be in his presence. Starting in the spring of 1984, Borges appeared on a weekly radio show with fellow poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari to discuss anything that came to their minds, ranging from literature and philosophy to history and culture to politics, travel, the tango, and far beyond, and the result is a three-volume series of conversations that are just now being translated into English.
Conversations, Volume 1 collects the first forty-five of these conversations, begun when Borges was nearing eighty-five, and the series presumably covers a bit less than a year per volume until his death in 1986. Consequently, the ideas and reflections and conjectures documented in these pages are a kind of last word from one of literature’s true sages. Borges had been blind for three decades at this point, and so his speech is wholly unprepared by any kind of agenda or notes and follows a discursive route that often strays far from the chosen topic that Ferrari springs on him each week. Answering a question about a particular poet or book or idea, Borges spirals out from the intricate particulars of the person or volume at hand to address metaphysical conjectures about authorship to Buddhism to Japanese customs to the fact that the Old English and Old Norse poets had read and were trying to write their own Aeneid, zeroing in on the exact three lines from Beowulf that are direct translations of Vergil—and almost never back again until Ferrari repeatedly imposes his refrain, “to return to the idea of….”
As a master lecturer and raconteur, Borges invariably shapes his narrative arcs in the form of parabolae rather than hyperbolae and carefully plots how to curve back to the initial inspiration as he brilliantly creates each looping outward thread, but unfortunately these radio conversations have temporal limits that rarely allow him to complete the full texture of his thoughts. Battling time, Ferrari too often pulls Borges back to the original topic and thus retards the full bloom of what Borges was trying to create with him. Other interview collections, such as Richard Burgin’s two books of conversations with Borges—one featuring a wide variety of interviewers, and the earlier, better collection featuring just him and Borges—offer a much freer range of play that more fully captures Borges’ dazzling but warm conversational sparkle. Ferrari also often tends to agree with his master too quickly, rapidly justifying and synthesizing whatever Borges says in a way that sometimes seems sentimental, as if the two poets were maudlin old codgers talking their way toward peace with the world. At other times he simply seems to be trying to rein the old coot in.
To be fair, the still young Ferrari has a seriously impressive range of specific and general knowledge and is almost always able to react with genuine understanding and insight into whatever ancient or modern poem Borges happens to be reciting from memory. He recognizes everything Borges brings to light and often offers exceptionally well pointed examples from his own immersion in poetry and philosophy, serving if not as a perfect foil for Borges, then at least as a worthy sparring partner. He tends too much toward philosophy and generalization to match Borges’ full rainbow genius and is clearly unable to reconcile the inherent battle between conversational depth and real-time radio space, but despite these limitations he throws so much more into the mix than most other interviewers that at times the two actually do approach the ideal of Platonic dialogue. It’s also important to reflect that in today’s impoverished media landscape, these conversations could never happen, especially as a popular weekly feature, and that confronted with the paucity of intelligence on modern radio waves, Ferrari would come off as Borges himself.
Gazing up at Borges’ towering mind through the lens of these stereoscopic conversations, one of the sad truths that this volume reveals again and again is that genius in not democratic. All writers are not created equal, and although Borges’ profound humanity mostly employs his innate status among the .001% of the world’s intellectual elite for the purpose of exceptional good, he can also fall victim to its myopia and prejudice. Compared to the disdainful snobbery of, say, Vladimir Nabokov, Borges is entirely gracious and thoughtful, but he nevertheless has old-fashioned biases about the relationship between culture and virtue and occasionally speaks quite regrettably in these conversations about “the people” and “the poor.” He makes an excellent case against ignorance, however, advocating for learning as a way of banishing evil, and so even though this collection won’t make him any more attractive to readers who consider him “too academic,” his own example of putting his gifts to good use is utterly inspiring. As a Latin American, Borges invigorated an entire literature and brought it to the world stage, and while he may profess a modest cluelessness about his influence in these conversations, his reflective dialogue with Ferrari repeatedly points out how he rewrote the rules of literature and how countless other writers have been illuminated and inspired to create in ways that had not existed before him, illustrating the fact that art is not a zero-sum game. Borges in his dotage may not be a model citizen for all to emulate, but in these dialogues—as in any other genre he attempted—the fundamental unfairness of his outrageous talent is almost always a wonder and a delight.