I’m slowly, carefully reading my way through Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions, a complete (I think) collection of his short stories, translated by Andrew Hurley. I’m about a third of my way through it, and I realized almost immediately that if I waited until I finished the entire book, not only would my blog post be about five thousand words long (does WordPress even permit that?) but my brain would probably collapse into a small, hot, compact star from all the fabulous and delightful thinking these stories make you do. So I decided to take a leaf out of Teresa’s book and write about them as I go. No one wants me bending light over here; that job belongs of course to Borges.
So far, I’ve read the stories in the books A Universal History of Iniquity, The Garden of Forking Paths, and Artifices. I think all of Borges’s stories that I had heard of prior to reading them — with the possible exception of “Shakespeare’s Memory,” which comes at the end — have been in these collections, so I’ve had the odd but beautiful experience of reading stories I’ve often heard described or read snippets of but never immersed myself in.
One of the first things that struck me, moving through these early collections, was the sheer variety. Many short-story writers, particularly in the 20th century, are genre writers. Think of Alice Munro, John Cheever, Raymond Carver: their stories are often beautiful and insightful, but there can be a certain sameness to them. But Borges moves swiftly from Western to literary essay to detective story to fantasy to travelogue to literary biography. The form of the story is subordinate, the setting for what he turns it toward, but it’s not subliterary: it’s experimental, crucial to his craft. The detective story is metaphysical. The literary essay reviews imaginary books. The anthropological essay of a strange and ancient people’s ritual slowly reveals a common act. The library is the universe.
Another mechanism that struck me was the way Borges constructs his fictional (and metafictional) world so that it has heft and substance even when it is obviously unreal. One story refers to another — mentions a minor character or a book a previous character was reading — mentions in passing a place-name that was crucial in a previous story. Everything is interwoven and interdependent and completely aware of its own fictionality. These small shocks of pleased recognition made me feel that, as with Nabokov and Calvino, the real reading of Borges would be the re-reading. As carefully and slowly as I am going through this time, I know I am missing dozens of these details of delight.
While the stories are, wonderfully, stories that can be read straightforwardly with a great deal of pleasure in the fractal, branching plots and the beautiful language, I also notice that they are soaked in philosophy. Not long ago, I read Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, that presented Enlightenment philosophy from the premise of a young nobleman living in the trees of his estate in Italy. These stories do something similar: they take a given philosophy seriously (when does that happen?) and present the story from inside the philosophy, with all its strengths and limitations. So the marvel and wonder that is “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” presents a world (Tlön) in which everyone conceives reality as a product of the mind. Its language has no nouns, because there are no objects to which nouns could refer:
For example, there is no noun that corresponds to our word “moon,” but there is a verb which in English would be “to moonate” or “to enmoon.” “The moon rose above the river” is “hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö,” or, as Xul Solar succinctly translates: Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.
Here, Borges is gleefully showing us the linguistic results of philosophical idealism. Here is a real world, one that’s produced an encyclopedia, one that can have real effects on our own world, that lives according to the precepts of idealism. What now? This sense of the vivid, the singular, and the wonderful that inhabits philosophy permeates Borges’s work.
I mentioned in my first paragraph that Borges bends light. It strikes me that it wasn’t such an awkward metaphor after all. These stories prefigure scientific and technological discovery (more on that, perhaps, in another post); they realize philosophy; they make the fantastic both believable and more fantastic than before. He takes a single idea and makes it branch out to the infinite, into combinations and ideas never before imagined. Some minds that bend light are black holes. His is a prism.