borges on illustration & henry james

BURGIN: I don’t know if I believe in pictures with a book. Do you?

BORGES: Henry James didn’t. Henry James didn’t because he said that pictures were taken in at a glance and so, of course, as the visual element is stronger, well, a picture makes an impact on you, that is, if you see, for example, a picture of a man, you see him all at once, while if you read an account of him or a description of him, then the description is successive. The illustration is entire, it is, in a certain sense, in eternity, or rather in the present. Then he said what was the use of his describing a person in forty or fifty lines when that description was blotted by the illustration. I think some editor or other proposed to Henry James an illustrated edition and first he wouldn’t accept the idea, and then he accepted it on condition that there would be no pictures of scenes, or of characters. For the pictures should be, let’s say, around the text, no?—they should never overlap the text. So he felt much the same way as you do, no?

BURGIN: Would you dislike an edition of your works with illustrations?

BORGES: No, I wouldn’t, because in my books I don’t think the visual element is very important. I would like it because I don’t think it would do the text any harm, and it might enrich the text. But perhaps Henry James had a definite idea of what his characters were like, though one doesn’t get that idea. When one reads his books, one doesn’t feel that he, that he could have known the people if he met them in the street. Perhaps I think of Henry James as being a finer storyteller than he was a novelist. I think his novels are very burdensome to read, no? Don’t you think so? I think Henry James was a great master of situations, in a sense, of his plot, but his characters hardly exist outside the story. I think of his characters as being unreal. I think that the characters are made – well, perhaps, in a detective story, for example, the characters are made for the plot, for the sake of the plot, and that all his long analysis is perhaps a kind of fake, or maybe he was deceiving himself.”

(Richard Burgin, Conservations with Jorge Luis Borges (1968), pp. 69–71.)

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