“What else remains for an 85-year-old to do but repeat himself?” asks Jorge Luis Borges in the first volume of these conversations between the author of Ficciones and the poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Still playful a mere year before his death in 1986, Borges then offers a sly nod to the listener of these radio dialogues that can now reach English readers: “Or try variations, which comes to the same thing.” Such a remark recalls a classic Borges piece like “The Library of Babel,” with its intricately intertwined ideas of repetition and variation, and in his preface Ferrari even alludes to Borges’ “zenithal perception of everything,” suggesting that the author of “The Aleph” or “The Zahir” might resemble his own creations. Detecting such subtle intersections between page and personality can certainly serve as one entertaining way into this newly released—and both occasionally and charmingly repetitive—third volume of radio conversations published by Seagull Books. But these pages become truly fascinating as we encounter not one Borges but many: the poet, the critic, the writer of fictions that tend toward the philosophical, and, perhaps most importantly, the attentive reader capable of discovering some delight or insight on every page.
As one repeated anecdote in this volume reveals, fostering similarly enjoyable experiences for other readers was what characterized Borges the teacher. With only slight variations, he describes in detail on two separate occasions what he considers not only a crowning achievement of his pedagogical work but also “one of the most pleasant facts of my life.” In his telling, a young boy once stopped the surprised writer in the street to express his gratitude to the aging author for introducing him to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson. “For that alone,” Borges explains, “I felt justified.” In these conversations, he sometimes attempts to impart similar lessons as he becomes a masterful, animated, and occasionally domineering conversationalist who can switch, at a moment’s notice, from discussing the history of Argentine literature to analyzing schools of Western philosophy. In doing so, he demonstrates what he had famously affirmed in the essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”: that the Argentine tradition was synonymous with that of the entire West.
This early view, which Borges had initially presented as a lecture in 1951, now finds an even stronger formulation some thirty years later as he outlines a broader ethics of reading that soon becomes an ethics tout court. “The more traditions we have the better,” argues Borges. “The more we owe to different countries not excluding Spain the better. Why not accept all possible countries and cultures? Why not spread out to be cosmopolitan? There is no reason for the contrary.” A later remark exhibits a similar sentiment as Borges professes his faith in people rather than institutions: “a person is more or less ready to read a book of whatever country, of whatever epoch, he is not continually closing himself. But governments are…It seems to me that governments, compared with their countries, correspond to epochs obsolete or backward.” Borges famously benefited from such openness since his international career was largely launched by the French Prix Formentor in 1961, and here it seems he intends to return the favor by encouraging others to do the same.
In addition to this prescription for an ethical reading characterized by cosmopolitanism, Borges describes something that readers have long noted: the marked shift from an almost baroque style in his early works to a more concerted and subsequent effort to attain a sort of classical simplicity that might be considered a more ethical form of writing. “Now I cherish that modest ambition: to be legible,” he explains. “I try to make what I write seem simple, and I take a fundamental precaution: to avoid words that may suggest to the reader that he consult a dictionary.”Borges elsewhere offers a more succinct phrasing: “to write is a way of dreaming, and one has to try to dream sincerely.”For maximum effect, then, the oneiric and the lexicographic should avoid any sort of overlap.
Apart from occasional infelicitous phrases that preserve traces of the original Spanish in terms of either syntax or diction, Anthony Edkins has rendered these conversations in a lively, accessible way that often makes the page feel nearly radiophonic. (Those interested in hearing Borges speak in English about similar topics can listen here to the recordings of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that he delivered at Harvard in the late ‘60s and that were later compiled as This Craft of Verse.) Having this work available in English is invaluable since dialogue was, for Borges, a crucially important form—one that allowed him to explore new ideas with his intellectual masters, among them his father, the Argentine writer Macedonio Fernández, and the Spaniard Rafael Cansinos-Asséns. As these conversations amply attest, he evidently learned his lessons well, for, as Ferrari informs us in the prologue to the second volume, Borges did not wish to know beforehand which topics would be discussed yet still seems unfailingly ready to address any and every idea. Indeed, he observed that “Ferrari and I tried to let our words flow through us, perhaps despite ourselves,” and the resulting extemporaneity is frequently revealing.
Age, for instance, has not dulled Borges’ taste for the provocative. Concerning poetic form, he suggests in a quick aside that “[i]f you do not take the precaution of being, well, Whitman or Carl Sandburg, what is called free verse is really bad prose typographically disposed as verse.” Elsewhere, he proposes the idea that “Christ is, among so many other things, a literary style,” and, when referencing the quickly identifiable prose of Joyce’s Ulysses, he believes “it’s as if it were a kind of reductio ad absurdum of all literature, including the realist novel.” Most damningly, he claims that “[w]e don’t even know if sociology exists or if it’s an imaginary science. To judge by the results it has given, it doesn’t exist.”
Borges the cosmopolitan could therefore occasionally clash with a Borges who possessed a somewhat conservative view of culture, but we might do well to heed another of the maxims that appears in these conversations: “It’s perhaps convenient to exaggerate in any affirmation, or in any negation, so that it can be more effective.” In a story like “Funes the Memorious,” which considers the effects of truly total recall, Borges would put this principle to the test of narrative, but we come across an example that better captures this idea of performative hyperbole when he later mentions how “[w]e could exaggerate and say that the only way to be emotionally in a place is not to be there physically.” Reading can consequently occupy a privileged position because of its ability to address questions of absence and difference.
Articulated by a blind bibliophile, such a view seems unsurprising, and elsewhere Borges refines it when describing how Latin Americans have tended to approach works from France and Spain. “What happens with Spanish literature is that it costs us to admit the different and the same,” he explains. Alternatively, “if we expect something completely different, and we find it is not so different but that it’s very close, and that it’s free, moreover, then, well, we are grateful for that.” The act of reading offers the possibility of performing the role of the cosmopolitan—“Our duty,” Borges affirmed in the first volume, “is, as far as possible, to make that ancient Greek dream come true”—and this point, which he makes many times across the various volumes, is undoubtedly one worth repeating.
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