Reading to Borges
by Nicholas Shakespeare
THROUGH a series of strange circumstances, I had the opportunity as a British schoolboy to read aloud to Jorge Luis Borges. I was 16 when I first climbed the staircase to his small, dark drawing room in Avenida Maipu, in a flat that he shared with his mother.
The adolescent who made his way up those six flights of stairs had not read any Borges – this was in the days before the internet, and it was difficult at short notice to get hold of a translation of Borges’s work in Buenos Aires – not least, I suspect, because his old enemy Juan Peron was back in the Casa Rosada.
My father had arranged this meeting and described Borges simply as a great writer, who was blind and who had the intriguing belief that if you spoke a line of Shakespeare you “became” Shakespeare. I was not able to grasp this concept, instead thinking that in that case you’d be advised to stay away from Mein Kampf.
Back at school in Britain, together with a few friends I had started a magazine. My schoolfriends were more widely read than I and enthusiastic to publish something by Borges. My main idea that morning in Buenos Aires was to ask Borges if he would contribute a piece to “The March Hare”, as our magazine was called, and then take him out to lunch.
I had never met a blind man before and was struck by the expression in his eyes. As Graham Greene said, “They did not look blind at all. They looked into themselves in some curious way, and they had great nobility.”
Borges described writing as “sincere dreaming”. I have forgotten whether the events I am about to relate took place then or in the future, over the course of half a dozen conversations.
It’s a warm, bright morning. The curtains are drawn against the sun. Vivid in my mind is a glass-fronted cabinet in which he stores his favourite texts, and from which he asks me to take out a volume of Kipling’s poetry. He wants me to read his favourite Kipling poem, “The Harp Song of the Dane Women”. Hands clasped on walking stick and leaning forward in his chair, he listens to my nervous voice, and I can picture the anticipation in his face as I prepare to read what he said was his favourite line: “Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughter.”
The poem was about the Vikings, but Borges, I suspect, saw it as a commentary on his military ancestors. I didn’t realise then how huge was his appetite for violence.
What Borges talked about that morning to an ignorant and shy sixteen-year-old, he no doubt repeated to every inquisitive visitor from Britain. One remark, though, did stand out: he said that he rather wished Argentina had been colonised by the British, “because then we’d be like Australia”.
He talked of his affection for the English language which had almost been the language of his birthright thanks to his grandmother, Fanny Haslam, who came from Staffordshire, and spoke to the young Borges only in English, as well as introducing him to Kipling and Stevenson, Wells and Chesterton, his earliest household gods.
Borges was, as he put it, “rotten with literature”. When I mentioned I’d grown up in Cambodia, it was a cue for him to talk about Conrad, “the outstanding novelist of all novelists”, and how Lord Jim, hero of Conrad’s novel partly set in Cambodia, was a more interesting character than the gaucho Martin Fierro, because, Borges said, “a man pursued by an act of cowardice is more interesting that a man who is merely brave”. When I told him of my ambition to travel one day to Petra, he recited the line of British poet John Burgon: “rose-red city half as old as time”. Borges said, “Now, had he written ‘as old as time’ he would have written nothing at all, but ‘half as old’ gives it a magic precision.”
It was Shakespeare whom Borges really wanted to talk about – the master of magic precision. Despite Borges’s belief that anyone could become Shakespeare by the mere act of quoting a line, it seemed I had a more compelling claim than most. He was curious to know the origin of my name. The shameful truth was, I had read almost as little of Shakespeare as of Borges. Even so, I had come prepared and was able to tell him of my descent from the poet’s grandfather, via Shakespeare’s cousin John, a constable and aletaster who was master of the Shoemakers Guild; and how we were the directest Shakespeares bearing the poet’s name and allowed to wear his coat of arms.
Borges was visibly excited, so much so that he wanted me to meet his 98-year-old mother who, to judge from the sounds coming from next door, had disappeared into the bathroom.
I am almost certain it was while we waited for his mother to re-emerge that Borges asked if I would pick out from the cabinet the complete works of Shakespeare. He wished me to check a quote from Hamlet. Borges remembered the line as: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” I discovered that Shakespeare had in fact written: “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Borges contemplated the extra word and said. “My version is better. Memory has made it better.”
One could also say that a failure of memory had made it better. Borges had improved the sentence by forgetting a superfluous, inconvenient, unrhythmical word.
I later came to understand that this tendency towards memory lapse, which is anathema to the historian, is often the very tendency that allows the novelist to go wild. “The thing that allowed me to write,’” Barry Lopez once remarked, “is that I can never remember anything.”
Borges, too, I was to discover, had an a la carte attitude towards what he could remember and forget. On another occasion, I told him that my favourite of his stories was The Immortal. He gazed into my face with an enigmatic expression. “Remind me,” he said, “what is that about?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and mumbled something to the effect that The Immortal was about a secret city in the North African desert where everyone lives forever. The story explored an idea dear to Borges that no one is anyone; also, that one single man could be all men that if you live forever then all things will happen to you: we will each of us know what it is to be Shakespeare or, in this case, Homer; and, conversely, Homer, over a boundless period of time will have forgotten who he was, even that he wrote the Odyssey.
After I attempted to describe his own story to him, Borges smiled and said: “I forgot I wrote that.”
I have the feeling that Borges’s mother was still in the bathroom when I finally mustered the audacity to ask if he would contribute to “The March Hare”. Without any hesitation, he promised to organise for his translator to send a poem. I wondered what his thoughts were on being translated. He pondered a moment: “I think my work as translated from Spanish into English by Norman Thomas de Giovanni is better than the original.” Then paused. “Norman Thomas de Giovanni thinks so too.”
By now, it was getting on. At last, Borges stood up and called out through the bathroom door to say that we had to go now. So I never met his mother.
Outside in the street, he held on to my arm. We walked along the footpath, and now and then someone would approach and grab his hand to shake it. Once, he halted before some railings. Their tops recently had been been painted gold, and he could dimly make out the shapes of fleurs de lys. He said he was able to see the colours yellow and orange, otherwise just light and shadow.
On someone’s advice, I had booked a table at an Italian restaurant that I was told he liked. Borges proceeded to order a plate of spaghetti. To my consternation, I watched him raise a fork to his lips _ only for the spaghetti to fall back onto the plate. He repeated the motion and the same thing happened. After following a third time his empty fork to his mouth, I began to worry that we would never get to the end of the meal. Just at that moment the waitress bustled up and with brisk familiarity chopped his spaghetti into smaller and smaller and ever smaller pieces.
I am reminded of that lunch each time I come across his description of Zeno’s paradox about infinity; how like that Sysyphean spaghetti meal, like this lecture, it ought to be impossible for us to reach the end, even of 14 minutes, “because first seven minutes must pass, and before seven, three and a half, and before three and a half, one and three quarters, and so on infinitely to the end, the invisible end, through tenuous labyrinths of time.”
That I was too informed to be conscious of Borges’s impact on me was demonstrated a few days afterwards, when I met his friend, editor Victoria Ocampo, in the offices of the literary magazine Sur. Borges nicknamed Ocampo Queen Victoria and considered her excessively bossy, which was only a mild description of this formidable woman. As it turned out, I was visiting Ocampo on the afternoon of Borges’s birthday. His arrival was imminent at a tea party she was throwing. She had invited a few of his friends, and I was welcome to stay on, as she put it, “to meet Borges”. She had intimidated me so much, all I wished to do was leave, but it makes me shudder when I recall my answer. “No, thank you,” I said. “I’ve already met him.”
The truth was, I was too without contours to realise that what had taken place was more than a meeting; and that something imperceptible –ultimately even life-shaping – had been absorbed.
The next time I read to Borges was a year later; I had spent eight months as a cowhand on an estancia near Hortensia, not far from Carlos Casares. He asked me to read some Chesterton and also a passage from Beowulf, and was interested to hear of my experiences on the campo as a peone a caballo: he said that pampa and gaucho were just literary terms.
I told him how useless I was at riding, always falling off; and that because I had been issued with a British leather saddle I had to rub sorghum whisky on my pulverised backside. What held his attention, though, was my description of a terrifying Saturday night I’d experienced in a bar in Hortensia. I was eating in a corner when a man in a squat black hat, hearing that I was British and with the injustice of the Falkands rising in his gorge, shambled up to where I sat and, jerking his knife, drunkenly ordered me outside.
My account stirred up in Borges two distinct memories from his own past – from the period when his eyes had been able to see. It spooled him back to when he was a stammering, short-sighted 13-year-old being bullied at school, and his father taking out the silver Spanish dagger that he kept in his writing desk and handing it to him, urging him to go and prove himself. And it reminded him of a bar in Uruguay, where, as a young man, Borges had witnessed a bodyguard killing a drunk, shooting him twice; then seeing the killer again next morning at the same table, sipping his customary drink.
It was not for another few months, back in Britain, that I read for the first time “The South”, and had the peculiar sensation of finding my own predicament reflected – or prefigured, as Borges might say – in pages that were written before I was born. Borges’s story, which he judged his best, and which Ocampo had first published in her magazine, was about a convalescent librarian from Buenos Aires who is travelling south, presumably to Patagonia, when, in a remote bar, he falls into an argument with a pair of bullying gauchos, is challenged to a fight and is tossed a naked dagger. On a sudden, the feeble librarian is overcome by a fatal nostalgia for his military ancestors and their impossibly romantic fate: “to die in a knife fight, under the open sky and going forward to the attack …” Firmly clutching the knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, he steps outside.
I hasten to add that I did not pick up any knife. In stark horror, I stammered “No hablo espanol, no hablo espanol” until, as I recall it, the bar owner grabbed the drunk man’s wrist and packed him through the tethered horses out onto the mud street. But even today, across a distance of 35 years, I can summon the vertigo I felt.
In “The South” the journey south is also a metaphorical journey that stands for the hazardous act of writing. The librarian, who boards his train clutching a copy of the Arabian Nights, is hoping to regenerate himself in Patagonia; but he is travelling as well into a perilous terra incognita of the imagination. Borges writes: “It was as if the South had resolved that [he] should accept the duel.”
The last time I saw Borges was in London and he consented to take part in a televised discussion I was involved with, about South American literature. The two other writers on the panel were Bruce Chatwin, who had written, to my mind, the book of books on Patagonia, and Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
I remember standing beside Borges, about to lead him onto the set, and listening to Chatwin introduce him. “He’s just a genius,” Chatwin enthused. “You couldn’t go anywhere without packing a Borges, it’s like taking your toothbrush.”
To which Borges modestly muttered: “How unhygienic.”
Chatwin continued: “Just to read a few paragraphs of Borges is to set your head spinning with ideas. It’s often said that all the culture of the world somehow drifts to Argentina and stays there, and it seems to have fixed itself in the genius of Borges. What is so wonderful is the compression and elegance of his thought. One is just left marvelling.”
Vargas Llosa as a student had passionately championed Jean-Paul Sartre over Borges, and I have to say he looked a little uncomfortable. “Oh, I agree entirely with Bruce,” he said quickly.
For much of his professional life, Borges worked in a subordinate position at the Miguel Cané Library in the southern suburbs of Buenos Aires, where his fellow librarians, instead of busying themselves with books, passed the long hours gossiping or reading the sports pages. On one occasion a giggly colleague pointed out the name Jorge Luis Borges in an encyclopaedia, and remarked on the similarity of their names.
Borges called man “the imperfect librarian’”. Another imperfect librarian was poet Philip Larkin. With the parochialism that diminishes certain British writers of his generation, Larkin once asked: “Who is Jorge Luis Borges?”
In reply, Borges might have argued that he was capable of being anyone, even Larkin himself, subject to the operation of time. For Borges, “the abysmal problem of time” was the urgent subject, as well as the most vital problem in metaphysics. Swayed by Bishop Berkeley and Schopenhauer, Borges was attracted to the notion that time did not move only in one direction, forwards to the future; it could move backwards, even in circles. If that was so, then personal identity signified not much more than a succession of discontinuous mental states in an endless procession. Given an infinite period of time, sooner or later all men will do and know all things – as in the story of Homer in “The Immortal”. Given an infinite period of time, we will become our own opposites: Homer the oral poet turns into a dumb, snake-eating troglodyte; Judas into Christ; the Irish nationalist hero John Vincent Moon into the very person who betrayed and scarred him.
In his best fiction, Borges plays games with time and infinity. In one of my favourite stories, the 70-year-old Borges meets his 20-year-old self on a bench beside a river in Boston. Their 50 years difference has left two bookish men of diverse tastes with no common ground. “We were too different yet too alike. We could not deceive one another and that makes conversation hard.” In a story told from a different perspective, the 64-year-old Borges arrives late at night at a country-house hotel, only to discover that another guest with his name has already signed the register. He climbs the stairs to room 19 where he finds a much older man on a narrow bed gazing mournfully at the plaster mouldings on the ceiling: and soon realises this is his future self on the eve of his death. They talk, and the older man discloses that his subsequent career is nothing but a series of drafts gnawing at the same topics, the same memories: “The labyrinths, the knives, the man who thinks he’s an image, the reflection that thinks it’s real, the tiger that stalks in the night, the battles that are in one’s bloodship made with the fingernails of the dead, Old English repeated in the evening.” And there comes this wonderful moment when, to test if what they say is true, they agree to confess the most terrible moment of their life. “I leaned over him and the two of us spoke at once. I know that neither of us spoke the truth.”
At the other end of the spectrum to Homer, who has forgotten everything, is the haunting example of Funes, the 19-year old cowhand who, out riding one day, is knocked on the head – as once happened to Borges – and when he comes to, remembers everything, down to the most unimportant and distant memories: “He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on April 30, 1882 and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once, and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising.” The pressure of this intolerably precise world drives Funes to an early grave.
Borges is as adept at compressing the whole universe into a single nutshell that you can hold in your palm, as he is at expanding it into a mirror-sided labyrinth in which the narrator is unendingly reflected without ever knowing which of the multiplied images, if any, is the true reflection. He writes: “There is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say ‘the tiger’ is to say the tigers that begot it, the deer and turtles devoured by it, the grass on which the deer fed, the earth that was the mother to the grass, the heaven that gave birth to the earth.”
Probably the most famous example of this phenomenon is the Aleph, described by Borges as a small disc, two or three centimetres in diameter, that is set into the 19th step of the stairs leading down to the cellar under the dining room of Beatriz Viterbos house in Calle Garay. The Aleph, which seems to share many features of the modern computer disk, is a point in space that comprises all space, “where without confusion all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist”.
Virtually anywhere you look in Borges’s fiction there is an equivalent to the Aleph, something that promises “the bliss of understanding greater than the bliss of imagining or feeling’”. Nor is it necessary to travel the earth to find this secret mirror into the mysteries of the universe: it may be present in the tiniest object at our feet, as in the flower evoked by the poet Tennyson. “If we could understand a single flower,” believed Tennyson, “we should know what the world is and what we are.”
For Borges the librarian, the flower inevitably is a verbal one. In his story, “The God’s Script”, Borges writes of the Kabbalistic belief that “God on the first day of creation wrote a magical sentence with the power to ward off the evils of devastation and the ruin caused by time”. In one version, God’s sentence is composed of 14 random words; in another, the sacred formula is written in spots on a jaguar’s fur. In yet another version, the answer is suggested during a dream in which a librarian wearing dark glasses asks the narrator what he is looking for. “I am looking for God,” he says. The librarian replies: “God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine library in Prague … I have grown blind seeking it,” and removes his glasses, for the narrator to see that his eyes are dead.
Borges often remarked that the chief event in his life was his father’s library, and that his fate was never to have escaped it. To an unusual extent, he was a writer who enjoyed paradoxes. Even so, the trajectory from his father’s library in Palermo to the Miguel Cané municipal library via a brief stint as inspector in Peron’s bee-keeping department to finish up as head of the National Library of Argentina, must have represented for him both a paradise and a solipsistic hell. By 1955, Borges had become so blind he couldn’t read the title even of a single book, let alone the 900,000 volumes for which he was responsible. Small wonder that he likened hell to an infinite library of books, composed of unintelligible letters thrown together by chance or perversely repeated, but sometimes containing one reasonable sentence.
By way of illustrating how time travels backwards as well as forwards, Borges famously wrote that all writers create their own precursors. He cites the example of Franz Kakfa, finding traces of Kafka in books written by Lord Dunsany and Leon Bloy long before Kafka ever published. “But if Kafka had never written a word, we would not perceive this quality; in other words it would not exist.”
In the stories Borges wrote in the 1940s and 50s he anticipated a world that has since come into being. What is the iPad or iBook if not the promise of a readers ticket to a universal library? We open our screen as once we opened a book, as once we opened our diary, our Filofax, our photo album, our record cupboard. Even the words used to describe the never-ending galleries and stacks have a borrowed ring: Photo Library, Music Library, Wikipedia.
In fact, as far back as 1942, in his story “The Garden of Forking Paths”, Borges had proposed a world of virtual memory in which all plot twists are explored, all forks taken.
Exactly as in the Koran there is no mention of camels, so in Borges’s stories you find noticeably little in the way of love. But love for Borges, as his fine biographer Edwin Williamson argues, is the great theme, and just because it appears to be missing, it doesn’t mean that the pressure of its absence isn’t there. As Borges tells us in a poem, “I go on/Seeking though the afternoon time/The other tiger which is not in verse.”
Virtually the first philosophical concept Borges responded to was this idea by British philosopher F.H. Bradley: “For love unsatisfied, the world is a mystery, a mystery which satisfied love appears to understand.” The promise held out by the Aleph, by the Zahir, by Tennyson’s flower, even by Shakespeare’s memory, is also the promise of loving another who is not your solipsistic self or double.
That’s why it is such a terrific thing that in his last years Borges found with Maria Kordama; a happiness that had long, and sometimes catastrophically, eluded him.
Borges was a fervent believer that anything suggested is more effective than anything laid down. He asks us to remember a line of Emerson: “arguments convince no one”. Borges adds: “But when something is merely said, or better still hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination. We are ready to accept it.’”
So, too, with Borges’ philosophical games: we accept them because we are made to want to think about them through the device of fiction. Metaphysical terms like “infinity” and “time” are too abstract to appeal to the imagination. Borges recruits Walt Whitman to his cause as another who found the idea of reasons unconvincing: “I think Whitman says somewhere that he finds the night air, the large few stars, far more convincing than mere arguments.” Borges takes philosophical arguments out into the night air, under the stars, cloaks them with details of magical precision, gives them gleaming knives _ and forces them to duel. The result is we remember them.
Borges belief in the virtual power of the imagination, our capacity to imagine even God, is not an enterprise, I would argue, which has yet passed its sell-by date. On the contrary, it puts us back in touch with primitive magic. Far from being marginal, Borges’s habit of injecting the fantastical into suburban Argentine life is an ancient form that can still be arrestingly modern. (Surely I’m not alone in perceiving his influence in that amazing film “Pan’s Labyrinth”). Borges plunders philosophy, history, even theology, for narrative treasure _ and then delivers it to us in the guise of a detective story. His stories are a triumph over time in a way that history and philosophy cannot hope to emulate, ever having to be updated as new facts emerge or are subsumed into new theories. For a Borges character, though, as for a Borges reader, it will always be the present tense. The world will always be experienced afresh. The convalescent librarian will always be leaving that bar in Patagonia, clutching the knife he may not know how to wield.
If you are too enslaved by fact or theory there is no way you can write good fiction – witness the plotless meanderings that enervate the modern European novel. But good fiction can help us to engage with history. Why else if we wish to experience the authentic flavour of, say, the Napoleonic Wars do we keep returning to Tolstoy? Likewise, if we want to understand the Dominican dictator Trujillo or the artist Paul Gauguin or the Irish nationalist Roger Casement, then we do best to read the work of this year’s Nobel laureate, Vargas Llosa.
Borges never won the Nobel Prize, something he has in common with Greene, who also is buried in Switzerland. But as Greene once remarked: “Borges speaks for all writers.” Chatwin, fired by his example, wrote a novel of ideas called The Songlines, about Aboriginal dreaming paths, one of the most original and ambitious works by a British writer in the past 30 years. In a pleasing symmetry, Vargas Llosa reviewed it, writing that “The Songlines defies any conventional literary classification. Erudition and fantasy, documentary and delirium, humour and science, invention and research all fuse inextricably, thanks to the tremendous efficacy of a prose that brings it all together: a prose of clockwork precision, fluent, rich in texture, delicate, elegant and meticulous.” He concluded: “To pass off fiction as reality, or to inject fiction into reality, is one of the most demanding and imperishable of human enterprises – and the dearest ambition of any storyteller.” Chatwin’s book reminded Vargas Llosa of none other than Borges to whom, on the day after he won the Nobel Prize, he paid this tribute: he had come to a realisation that in all the vehement arguments he’d had as a student championing Sartre over Borges he was wrong – and his friends in championing Borges over Sartre quite right.
Borges had a marvellous phrase that I’ve never forgotten. I’m sure he said it to me, or perhaps he wrote it somewhere, or perhaps I dreamed it. The phrase was, “Five minutes of anyone’s life is worth more than all of Shakespeare.” How I wish I could have told him of the old fisherman I met in Tasmania, where I live. I was fishing on the otherwise deserted beach when this white-bearded fellow started talking to me and after a while asked my name. I told him and he was unable to conceal his excitement. “I don’t believe it,” he said, “You can’t … can’t possibly be related to the family who make fishing rods?”