Another Borges book. Another 5 stars.
I mean this man is so brilliant I’m starting to turn into a dithering fanboy when reading his books.
Now, I’ve only actually owned this book for a couple of days, and to be honest I’ve only read a few of the hundred plus essays in here, but this isn’t exactly a book to be read from beginning to end. In fact that seems like a pretty pointless exercise. You can gain so much from reading so little of Borges’ writing that it seems like I may as well write a review now.
To get an idea of the spectacular diversity of his interests let me give you a quick list of some of the most intriguing essay titles:
A History of Angels
The Duration of Hell
Narrative Art and Magic
A Defense of the Kabbalah
A History of Eternity
On the Cult of Books
Personality and the Buddha
And if that seems a bit heavy for some people there’s also things along the lines of:
The Art of Verbal Abuse
A History of Tango
But of course, essays make up only a part of this collection, there are also book reviews, film reviews, biographies, prologues and lectures – my favourite being simply titled ‘Immortality’ (I mean how can you not love this guy? It requires some serious audacity for an 80 year old man to give a lecture on the art of living forever…)
I think the reason why I immediately fell in love with this book was because of the way Borges manages to analyse a huge variety of infinitely complex themes using his trademark short, concise style. The minimalism of his fiction writing translates excellently into his non-fiction. In fact, many of these are essentially pieces of writing you can pick up and read in the space of 5 minutes, yet you could probably read the same piece a hundred times and still gain something from it. Borges will always find a way to surprise you.
Another reason for the 5 star rating is that from reading it you really get a sense of getting to know the author, from his wicked sense of humour to his (almost) overly critical view on the role of literature and film. You find out, for example:
1. He doesn’t like King Kong.
‘his only virtue, his height, did not impress the cinematographer, who persisted on photographing him from above rather than from below’.
2. He thinks Aldous Huxley, although writing with ‘almost intolerable lucidity’ is highly overrated.
His Stories, Essays and Poems being dubbed ‘not unskillful, … not stupid, … not extraordinarily boring, they are, simply, worthless’.
3. He loves Kafka.
He argues Kafka’s work shows us that ‘each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.’
4. And from a young age he was a huge fan of James Joyce.
‘I will always esteem and adore the divine genius of this Gentleman, taking from him what I understand with humility and admiring with veneration what I am unable to understand’.
That last quote pretty much sums up my Borges fanboyism. I’ll never claim to fully understand, down the last details, every aspect of Borges work, yet at the same time I take huge enjoyment in trying to figure out the labyrinthine puzzles of his fiction and get to grips with the mystifying depth of his non-fiction.
In short, if you’re a Borges fan, or have any interest in some of the things mentioned above, buy this book. Considering the length of the majority of the essays it will keep you entertained for hours just skimming through the pages and finding something that grabs your fancy. I may change my mind on it after reading through it a bit more but somehow I find that pretty unlikely!
What a quote about Kafka: “each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future”. That’s so true. It’s rather like the way that the Romantic poets rediscovered Shakespeare, so that following generations cannot imagine English literature without his plays, despite the fact that they had fallen out of favour during the 18th century.
Yeah it’s fascinating. I really recommend reading the essay ‘Kafka and his Precursors’ if you can find it online somewhere, it’s pretty short. I seem to notice the idea that a great writer creates his precursors everywhere since I’ve read it. Especially Borges and Kafka. My life seems to be constantly infiltrated by Borgesian and Kafkaesque themes!
I’ll dig it out. I live in Spain and I read Borges in the original which is great. His Spanish is so clear and succinct, which makes it a joy to read. There are not many Spanish authors whose work I find so straightforward to read in the original (i.e. because my Spanish is far from fluent!).
Ah I wish I could read him in the original. I started trying to learn Spanish a while ago but got out of the routine. Apparently Borges himself said that one of the best things you can do in life is become bi/multi-lingual.