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Borges: Recommendations from a life of lectures and essays (laphamsquarterly.org)
148 points by drdee on Nov 29, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 35 comments

One thing that surprised me when I first learned about Borges was the weight he gave to his English lineage, intellectually and culturally. Argentina has a fraught relationship with the UK, especially since the Falklands, but there are many historical events that link the two countries. The Welsh settlements in Patagonia being just one... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patagonian_Welsh

Fun fact: Due to isolation, welsh spoken here is pretty much identical to welsh spoken 150 years ago.

Source: Born and raised in the area (I don't speak welsh, unfortunately, but have friends that do).

> Borges even christened the car Rocinante and fancied their getaway as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a Scottish literary pilgrimage. They stayed at the Crusoe hotel in Lower Largo, where Borges tasted a pint of Export – by stirring the foam with his fingers and licking them – for the first time in his life. In Dunfermline, he licked the spine of a Walter Scott novel inside a library. In the Cairngorm mountains, he slipped down a slope while screaming out lines from King Lear in a thunderstorm. At Loch Ness, he fell out of a boat while trying to recite Beowulf in the middle of the lake. In Inverness, he set out to meet one Mr Singleton, with whom he had been corresponding for years on Anglo-Saxon riddles. But when Parini called the number on the slip of paper Borges handed to him, they discovered that Mr Singleton lived in Inverness, New Zealand.

Borges´ paternal side of the family had strong British roots. His grandmother was called Frances Haslam - she was born in Staffordshire in 1842.

In 1871 she married Colonel Francisco Borges in the Argentine province of Entre Ríos. But the colonel died (or rather, deliberately got himself killed to prove his honor) in the Battle of La Verde (1874), final skirmish of a fruitless insurrection.

The couple had two children: Francisco Eduardo (who was to follow the military career of his late father) and Jorge Guillermo (who instead followed the bookish tradition of his British ancestors, and would eventually become the writer´s father)

After the colonel´s death, his widow, Frances Haslam was left to fend for herself - without ever having learned to speak proper Spanish.

British, Borges´ father was thus raised in a fully British atmosphere. His mother only spoke to him in English and he grew up reading reading English literature.

Colonel Borges´ premature death thus had the effect of duplicating his British widow´s British influence on coming generations. Even though Borges´ father was half "criollo" and half British, he was raised in a fully English household reading English literature.

He then passed this British tradition on to his son, the writer. Borges clearly states in his Autobiographical Essay that he first heard poetry in English and that his first acquaintance with literature was in English. He even remarked, that he first read that most famous of Spanish-language novels, Miguel de Cervantes´ Don Quijote, in English. And when he finally had the chance to read it in Spanish, he deemed the Spanish edition to be a poor translation from the English "original"

He may have said that about Don Quijote, but it may well have been just another humorous comment by him. He was known for his dry humor and deadpan delivery. He was extremely learned, no doubt about it, but the reader has to keep in mind that about half of the elaborate citations and detailed references he uses in his writings were simply his fabrications, his way to play with the reader's ability to make out reality from fiction. He loved labyrinths, and putting people in them. Source: born and raised in Argentina, having a Literature professor as mother and another one as wife.

>And when he finally had the chance to read it in Spanish, he deemed the Spanish edition to be a poor translation from the English "original"

Fascinating. Did he say which translation he read?

Surprised not see Chesterton and Poe not included. Father Brown stories were a major influence, see for example https://www.jstor.org/stable/1345414.

His story "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero" opens thus:

"Under the notable influence of Chesterton (contriver and embellisher of elegant mysteries) and the palace counselor Leibniz (inventor of the pre-established harmony), in my idle afternoons I have imagined this story plot which I shall perhaps write someday and which already justifies me somehow."

Tangentially, Bertolucci adapted this story for the film The Spider's Stratagem.

It would have been more Borgesian for every book on this list to be a completely made up citation, backed with excerpted quotes and a brief biography of the fictional author, sprinkled with actual facts so that you can't quite tell if it's real or not.

FWIW, I liked the book Professor Borges, which is (or purports to be) notes from an English literature class he taught. Whether it's accurate or not, it has a lot of what feel like the kinds of observations he would make.

Glad you liked Professor Borges!! I can vouch for its authenticity. There should be a foreword explaining this (lest it has been removed in the English edition) The book is based on transcripts made from actual recordings of his lectures. The text is thus completely unaltered, there´s no significant difference between reading _Professor Borges_ and actually attending Borges´lectures back in the late ´60s It´s due to this that I always say it´s not just a book: it´s also, in a way, a time machine.

This is also the reason for the quote before the foreword:

"I know, or rather I should say that I'm told, for I am certainly unable to see it, that my classes are increasingly crowded, with more and more students attending, and that many of them are not even registered in the course. I thus think we can safely assume that they want to listen to my lectures, right?"

When he says above that many students are attending without being even registered he means that they´re attending in spite of his course not being a requirement for them. They´re attending as listeners, regardless of their earning no credit for it, out of sheer pleasure and genuine interest.

In Spanish: "Yo sé, o más bien me dicen, porque desde luego yo no puedo verlo, que mis clases se llenan cada vez más de alumnos, y que muchos no están ni siquiera inscriptos en la materia. De modo que debiéramos suponer que quieren oírme, ¿no?”

Stanisław Lem has explored this idea in "A Perfect Vaccuum".

I really liked “Borges and Me” by Jay Parini about a somewhat true road trip with an elderly Borges.

These lectures by Borges are seriously under-appreciated: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSLV7t9DvN8

The fact that Borges was, apparently at this point blind and doing these lectures essentially from memory is just mind boggling to me.

Borges´ memory was famously prodigious. But just as exceptional was his appetite for books. If you read his lectures or transcribed dialogues, you will feel that he has read everything He could cite the most obscure writers of any epoch and region by heart. Persian myth, medieval German writers, ancient Japanese poets or monks, Scottish folklorists, theologians and heresiarchs, belonging to antiquity, the Middle Ages or recent times. You name it. And then he would relate all of those with daily occurrences. He would hear a rhyme from a street peddler, find in it an implicit philosophical paradox and recite a verse from ancient Carthage or a medieval Chinese tractate to provide a solution. He also had a penetrating intuition, and his conclusions, reached by himself through personal intuition and later woven into his stories, often turn out to be confirmed by later scientific research. It´s hard to understand how he managed to grasp reality with such depth. It really seems as if his mind was of a greater order of complexity than that of mere mortals. In a way similar to Einstein´s.

I love these lectures, his sonorous, lilting voice and surprisingly acute comedic timing, like a native english speaker. Never never quite realised it until you put it down like that, just how he weaves a whole cloth out of these cross cultural threads.

If there are any other hidden gems, these dialogues for example, please do share!

The site forbids access from my IP. If you are in the same situation, follow this link:


I'm a huge Borges fan.

For other Borges fans, I'll mention the book: The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. It references countless of Borges' stories.

Any recommendation of a one of his works in particular to get into Borges? I've heard a lot about him but no clue where to start.

The thing I love about Borges is that he is both a big-idea sci fi writer and a poet. and his poetry definitely shows through in his sci fi. For example, as in "The Zahir". The thought of a person obsessing about the beauty of the shadow of a rose really does it for me.

But I like his big idea stories too. Absolutely "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" may be his masterpiece. But it's dense for an introduction to the author. Contrast this with "The Secret Miracle" which also has a beautiful big idea, but it's so elegantly small. in a sense the whole story fits into just one second.

Finally, I went overboard and calculated the number of books on the shelves in "the library of babel". I remember distinctly that the story made our very real universe feel small for the first time in my life. and to think, I barely scratched the surface. a whole book was published about the math in that one story alone: "The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel" by William Goldbloom Bloch.

Labyrinths [0] has selections from his best works.

If you like the stories within, their original collections are exceptional (esp. The Aleph and Ficciones).

I still remember reading "The House of Asterion" (two pages) [1] and falling in love with Borges.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labyrinths_(short_story_collec...

[1] https://klasrum.weebly.com/uploads/9/0/9/1/9091667/the_house...

The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths is a page long, and you can find it online (html). It is a small example of his style. If you like that one, then you will probably like his other stories. Of his short stories, my personal favorite is The Secret Miracle (it is included in his book Fictions). He also wrote poetry. My personal favorite is The Golem (included in the book The Other, the Self).

The recommendations you´re getting are right on spot: Fictions (1944) The Aleph (1949) The Book of Sand (1975) I have to say, however, that not all stories in those books are equally palatable for newcomers. If you´d like more specific recommendations on which stories to read first, let me know. I have written a full page with recommendations for beginners on how to start.

You could get his _Selected Fictions_ Then read The library of Babel Funes the Memorious The God´s Script The Book of Sand The Garden of Forking Paths

The above are enjoyable for beginners - even though of course there are many more layers of meanings than are first apparent in those stories. But that deeper enjoyment can come later. They´re formidable narratives in their own right.

I'd recommend anyone new to Borges to begin with "The Garden of Forking Paths." It's a sort of spy thriller story but also includes his trademark meditations on time and infinity.

The first short story of his I read was “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. It remains my favourite of his, and I probably read this story and handful of his others once a year or so.

Fictions is, in my opinion, the best. Second that comes close is The Aleph. They can be found in a single volume, at least in Spanish.

Paul Theroux describes here visiting Borges and reading to him, I always think of this when I think of Borges.


Two more reading lists by Borges: "The Library of Babel" and "A Personal Library" [0].

Expansion on "The Library of Babel" [1]

"A Personal Library" is one of my favorite books list. Here's Borges own introduction:

> Over time, one's memory forms a disparate library, made of books or pages whose reading was a pleasure and which one would like to share. The texts of that personal library are not necessarily famous. The reason is clear. The professors, who are the ones who dispense fame, are interested less in beauty than in literature's dates and changes, and in the prolix analysis of books that have been written for that analysis, not for the joy of the reader.

> This series is intended to bring such pleasure. I will not select titles according to my literary habits, or a certain tradition, or a certain school or nation or era. I once said, "Others brag of the books they've managed to write; I brag of the books I've managed to read." I don't know if I am a good writer, but I think I am an excellent reader, or in any case, a sensitive and grateful one. I would like this library to be as diverse as the unsatisfied curiosity that has led me, and continues to lead me, in my exploration of so many languages and literatures. I know that the novel is no less artificial than the allegory or the opera, but I will include novels because they too have entered into my life. This series of heterogenous books is, I repeat, a library of preferences.

> Maria Kodama and I have wandered the globe of land and sea. We have visited Texas and Japan, Geneva, Thebes, and now, to gather the texts that are essential to us, we have traveled through the corridors and palaces of memory, as St. Augustine wrote.

> A book is a thing among things, a volume lost among the volumes that populate the indifferent universe, until it meets its reader, the person destined for its symbols. What then occurs is that singular emotion called beauty, that lovely mystery which neither psychology nor criticism can describe. "The rose has no why," said Angelus Silesius; centuries later, Whistler declared, "Art happens."

> I hope that you will be the reader these books await.

[0] http://sonic.net/~rteeter/grtborges.html [1] https://therumpus.net/2009/08/06/searching-the-library-of-ba...

I can only help saying that someone in this thread is a renowned Borges specialist who has written 5 books, is a professor, researcher and writer.

For Borges, “the meaning is irrelevant, the suggestion of little value.” One should appreciate a kenning on different terms than those of modern figurative language: “They neither stir the imagination nor call up images or emotions…Their pleasure—their sufficient pleasure—lies in their variety, in the unexpected linking together of the words.”

I admit that there is a certain awe for anyone becoming the kind of literary figure that can be quoted as saying such things, such ridiculous things, as if they are profound.

shameless self promotion: ML-music / Borges' lyrics + DISCO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeldeY0RaNA

James Joyce is the "Emperor's New Clothes" of literature. People revere his writings and sing its praises but no one wants to admit they don't understand a damn thing.

With the exception of Finnegans Wake I don't think that's true at all. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are both fairly conventional books, nothing wildly different from the books that had come before. Ulysses, while very dense and difficult, is not incomprehensible. You don't have to understand every literary reference to appreciate the sheer mastery of language in that book. Finnegans Wake... well that's a bit different, I think probably one in a hundred people who finished Ulysses got to the end of that one. It's better suited to reading a random page or two at a time than reading from start to finish.

Nicely said, although Dubliners was different enough that the editor didn't want to publish it. The complexity of Ulysses is like Dante's Comedia, and both demonstrate the individual's creative personality in response to a strong ideology. Borges is similar in that regard.

That's the result of a survey, is it?

He went off the deep end later but he showed he had chops first. Dubliners, Portrait...

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