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.)

jorge luis borges, “doctor brodie’s report”

Jorge Luis Borges
Doctor Brodie’s Report
(trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni & Jorge Luis Borges)
(Bantam Books, 1973)

Continuing my re-reading of Borges: this is the original translation of his penultimate volume of short stories, here published as a lurid paperback while he could still be referred to on the cover as “one of the world’s great living writers.” It’s odd, somehow, to think of reading Borges while he was still alive, especially when he could have been read in paperback; it seems like Borges has always been dead, his corpus of works petrified and preserved, a feeling encouraged by generally seeing him now in the context of his complete fiction, which one tends to assume is a consistent whole. Borges in paperback seems like something different: this collection of short stories can be judged as a book. It’s strange to realize that, chronologically, the religious fantasia of “The Gospel According to Saint Mark” is might be seen as reminiscent of Gaddis’s The Recognitions rather than the other way round. It’s also odd to realize that at the point in time when this was published Cortázar was publishing better collections of Borges-influenced short stories.

The two stories that I remember from this are the title story and “The Gospel According to Saint Mark,” which I think I re-read a couple years ago for reasons I do not remember. Those two, as it turns out, are the standouts of this volume; as with The Book of Sand, this is decidedly minor Borges. The majority of the stories here do not come off as especially Borgesian, something those in The Book of Sand would actively attempt: here, there’s little preoccupation with paradox, and most of these are almost straightforwardly realistic, albeit depicting an imagined Argentina (and Uruguay – there’s a lot of Uruguay in this book) that may or may not have existed. There’s a great deal of knife-fighting, and if you’re not interested in knife-fighting much of this book may be lost on you. In his introduction, Borges notes that he was attempting to mimic the late short stories of Kipling, which I haven’t read; maybe some brave soul out there is making the case for Kipling today, but this seems like a strategy not likely to win many admirers. These stories of Kipling, he declares in his preface, “doubtless surpass” those of Henry James and Kafka; they are “laconic masterpieces” conceived when young but written when old. Henry James, meanwhile, is explicitly pastiched in “The Duel”; but the characters in the story, ostensibly about two female painters in Argentina of the 1960s, seems ludicrously unbelievable, as might perhaps be expected to be the case for a blind man writing about contemporary art. This might not be so bothersome if the story weren’t so mundane and the characters didn’t seem like they could have been borrowed, without changes, directly from James: perhaps Borges is trying to claim that Buenos Aires in the 1960s was the same as Boston or London in the 1880s, which seems bizarre to the point where this reader, at least, lost faith in the writer.

What might be most interesting about this particular book is the translation: this is the original translation of this book, which is out of print. Penguin evidently brought out a version of this; they’ve replaced it with the Andrew Hurley version from the Collected Fiction. This is something of an odd choice, given that this particular edition was translated with the collaboration of Borges: it includes a forward cosigned by Borges and di Giovanni, as well as an afterword by Borges that don’t appear in the Collected Fiction; I assume they don’t appear in the new Penguin Brodie’s Report. The foreword explains how this volume came to be:

One difference between this volume and the last lies in the fact that the writing and the translation were, except in one case, more or less simultaneous. In this way our work was easier for us, since, as we were always under the spell of the originals, we stood in no need of trying to recapture past moods. This seems to us to be the best possible condition under which to practice the craft of translation. (p. viii)

It’s odd that this translation should appear to be deprecated; as a translation, I think it’s substantively better than the Hurley version. (As I don’t have a Spanish edition, I can’t make any arguments about which is more correct; but given Borges’s seemingly direct involvement in this one, it seems like it would be difficult to argue that the earlier translation swerved from Borges’ intention.) Compare the final paragraph of “The Gospel According to Mark,” first in the Hurley translation:

The three of them had followed him. Kneeling on the floor, they asked his blessing. Then they cursed him, spat on him, and drove him to the back of the house. The girl was weeping. Espinosa realized what awaited him on the other side of the door. When they opened it, he saw the sky. A bird screamed; it’s a goldfinch, Espinosa thought. There was no roof on the shed; they had torn down the roof beams to build the Cross. (p. 400 in Collected Fictions.)

Here’s di Giovanni:

The three had been following him. Bowing their knees to the stone pavement, they asked his blessing. Then they mocked at him, spat on him, and shoved him toward the back part of the house. The girl wept. Espinosa understood what awaited him on the other side of the door. When they opened it, he saw a patch of sky. A bird sang out. A goldfinch, he thought. The shed was without a room; they had pulled down the beams to make the cross. (p. 13)

Neither of these is without its infelicities: I don’t entirely understand why di Giovanni would use “mocked at him” rather than “mocked him”; “Bowing their knees” is a little strange; and “the back of the house” is better than “the back part of the house.” But on the whole, the di Giovanni seems much better to me: the “of them” in the first sentence seems extraneous; “stone pavement” is better than “floor”; “mocked” is better than “cursed”; “shoved” better than “drove”. “The girl wept” seems better than “The girl was weeping” as it brings to mind “Jesus wept.” The italics for Espinosa’s thought is unnecessarily distracting, and di Giovanni’s handling of these two phrases works better. Goldfinches don’t “scream,” they “sing.” And the capitalization of “Cross” makes it seems like a machine to be “built” rather than something made by human hands.

There are numerous differences between these two editions, some seemingly more serious than others. In the Preface, for example, “The Gospel According to Mark” is attributed to “a dream of Hugo Rodríguez Moroni” in the di Giovanni but “Hugo Ramírez Moroni” in the Hurley; a Google search reveals Spanish hits for both, and a note in Hurley suggests that he hasn’t found an antecedent for this Moroni; in the next paragraph “Paul Groussac” in the di Giovanni” turns into “Paul Grossac” in the Hurley, which makes one wonder. David Brodie, protagonist of the title story, loses the “D.D.” that he’s given in the di Giovanni translation; perhaps Hurley decided that he wasn’t a real doctor. In the same story, a book is cited in di Giovanni as “one of the volumes of Lane’s Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839)”; in Hurley this becomes “the first volume of Lane’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights (An Arabian Night’s Entertainment, London, 1840). A few sentences later in the story suggests the difference in tone – first the Hurley:

Their food is fruits, tubers, and reptiles; they drink cat’s and bat’s milk and they fish with their hands. They hide themselves when they eat, or they close their eyes; all else, they do in plain sight of all, like the Cynic school of philosophers. (p. 403)

Di Giovanni’s version of the same:

They take their nourishment from fruits, root-stalks, and the smaller reptiles; they imbibe the milk of cats and of chiropterans; and they fish with their hands. While eating, they normally conceal themselves or else close their eyes. All other physical habits they perform in open view, much the same as the Cynics of old. . . . (p. 135)

I like di Giovanni’s version much better, not least because he uses “chiropterans” rather than “bats”; but his version feels more like the ersatz nineteenth-century document that this story purports to be. Perhaps it’s less accurate; but it reads much better than the current translation. I don’t think this is an essential volume of Borges, but if it is to be read it deserves to be read in the original translation.

jorge luis borges, “the book of sand and shakespeare’s memory”

Jorge Luis Borges
The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory
(trans. Andrew Hurley)
(Penguin Classics, 2007; originals 1975 & 1983)

One of the happy accidents of my youth was discovering the short stories of Borges, in the old Dutton editions translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in the Rockford Public Library. This undoubtedly had something to do with his name being near the start of the alphabet; still, good luck is good luck, and I made my way through all the Borges they had, as he’s exactly the kind of writer a certain sort of high school student could get extremely excited about. The books I remembered liking most were, for whatever reason, the late ones: The Book of Sand and the one that was then titled Dr. Brodie’s Report (now, having lost its rhythm, retitled Brodie’s Report). I’ve had a copy of the hardcover Collected Fiction for a while; but aside from dipping into that for reference from time to time, I don’t think I’ve really read Borges since high school. Seeing The Book of Sand displayed at a bookstore in Amherst, the first time, I think, that I’d seen a copy of the book on its own since first reading it, I bought a copy; it had been a long time, and I was curious whether there was something to be gained from re-reading Borges. This edition is, as it turns out, exactly the same as the text in the collected edition; it does add a seven-page introduction by the translator.

I don’t know. Re-reading Kafka a few years ago I was struck by how much I’d missed when I was in high school because I was so taken by the central conceits of his narratives: there are things that are more lastingly interesting than absurdity. The conceits of some of these stories are still familiar (others I’d forgotten entirely); while it’s nice to renew acquaintance, I found myself wondering about the execution, whether the concept of the story might not be more interesting than the story itself. Perhaps this is minor Borges: “The Other,” “The Congress,” and “The Book of Sand” seem to be fully fleshed out, but some of the others come across almost as Borges-by-numbers. Here’s a tiger; here’s a knife-fight; here’s a version of Gnosticism. It’s hard to tell what would have impressed me so much about this book when I was 15: read now, this seems very much like the work of an old man, an old man who comes across as a crotchety reactionary with some frequency. I don’t know that I’ve ever read the four uncollected stories in Shakespeare’s Memory before: “Blue Tigers” is pleasant enough, if not necessarily deep, but I don’t know that I’ve been missing out by not reading them before now.

I’m not sure about this translation; something seems off to me, and I can’t quite tell what it would be. The language doesn’t grab me as I remember it doing, and I wonder whether that’s due to the new translation or if it’s because I’ve changed as a reader; maybe it’s both. (I do find myself arrested by the first sentence of “The Other”: “The incident occurred in February, 1969, in Cambridge, north of Boston” – has anyone ever thought to explain Cambridge by saying it’s “north of Boston”?) I don’t love the language; a few times, I found myself confused about what was going on, though whether that was due to unwieldy syntax or a bus from Amherst with shoddy breaks I’m not entirely sure. I’d like to look at the di Giovanni version of The Book of Sand: but somehow that’s become bizarrely expensive: the cheapest used paperback on Amazon goes for $26, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The new translation does seem to have had some machinations behind it, which might be hinted at by the fawning appreciation of Borges’s widow in the introduction, which doesn’t explain directly why a new translation was called for. A piece by J. M. Coetzee in the NY Review of Books explains some of this in diplomatic fashion, and points to problems with Hurley’s other translation of Borges. The two books here Coetzee dismisses: “There is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature”; probably, when taking Borges’s work as a whole, this is true, though I’m not entirely willing to sign off on that.

I do wonder about the choices made in the notes: the notes explicitly set out to only notate what an Argentine reader would have known in the stories, but a great deal is thus left out. “Ulrikke,” for example, has an epigraph from the Völsunga Saga: it’s given as “Hann tekr sverthis Gram ok leggr i methal theira bert,” though it should be “Hann tekr sverðit Gram ok leggr í meðal þeira bert”: this is left untranslated, though the reader who goes to find out what exactly that means will find it does bear directly on the text, as does the reference to De Quincey at the start of “The Rose of Paracelsus” which Hurley does explain. Read with the Internet at hand, many of the unannotated references are easily explained (John Wilkins, for example, who comes up a few times); but one wonders why an editor didn’t do this. The lack of notes comes off as deliberate obscurantism: maybe that’s something that I would have liked when I was young, but it does little for me now.

It’s possible that what I liked about this book when I was younger was the sheer novelty: simply how different his writing was from anyone’s that I’d previously encountered. The idea that things can be entirely different from what you’re used to is powerful when you’re young; but that revelation isn’t necessarily one that leads to better reading. Paradoxes are exciting when first encountered: but when encountered again and again, as in a book of stories, the device loses force. There are some stories here worth going back to; read individually, they’d almost certainly fare better. I’ll track down a copy of the di Giovanni Dr. Brodie’s Report: I’d like to see how the old translation stands up.