A New Book from Jorge Luis Borges (sort of)

I’ve been getting drawn into A Course on English Literature in spite of myself.  The book is a transcription of lectures given by Borges in 1966, published in Spanish in 2000, and released in English by New Directions last year.  Borges died in 1986, but I think it will be a long time before readers of English have access to all of his works, or even get a real sense of them.  (I do read Spanish, but I haven’t read Borges much in the original.  In Argentina I was daunted by the many editions of his work and by the appearance of a colossal (Boswellian?) memoir by his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares.)

I may be giving myself too much credit but I think there is something essentially hard to grasp about Borges’ work.  I began to read the short stories more than ten years ago.  More recently I’ve read a small number of his essays.  Along the way I picked up This Craft of Verse (a series of lectures given at Harvard) and Seven Nights.  Still, every time I pick up one of these books, I find myself lost, apart from a very few really iconic stories: “The Library of Babel”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “The Aleph”, “Funes the Memorious”, “Pierre Menard”, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.  The stories, reviews, and essays all blend together.  I actually read a good bit of Seven Nights, a book of interviews, without realizing I had read it years before under a different title.  That may not sound like praise, but it was the book’s evocation of the streets of Buenos Aires, of Borges learning Italian by reading Dante on the streetcars, that sent me to Argentina.

The main reason I was skeptical of A Course on English Literature is that it seemed likely to cover a lot of the same ground as This Craft of Verse.  While it’s true that the section on Anglo Saxon poetry in the new book uses many of the examples already familiar to me (he must have been very fond of “whale road” and maere tungol, “that famous star”), A Course is more thorough and I’m finding a lot that’s worthwhile.  The comparison of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas with Candide is really interesting.  And he’s actually making me want to read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which is saying something.

I wish, of course, that I could say just what it is that makes Borges’ work at once beguiling and ungraspable.  It has something to do with his way with allusion.  His stories teem with great works and authors.  Certainly his famous self effacement could be a way of handling a technique that usually has the subtlety of a blunderbuss, but it also leaves one wondering what, if anything, has been said.  I still recommend This Craft of Verse and I count Borges as a major, though in some ways dubious intellectual influence.

Two Early Americans

Continuing my early American kick, I read The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper.  I’ve also taken out a volume of Washington Irving so I can finish Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which I started listening to on a long trip.

The Last of the Mohicans takes place in upstate New York, so I was surprised to encounter local names I remember from my elementary school days in South Jersey, notably those of the Lenni Lenape and Unami tribes.  The eponymous hero of the novel is one of them, far from his homeland and caught up in the wars of the British, French and Iroquois that I only dimly remember, if at all.


The woods (my photograph)

As a reminder of those times when the upper Hudson was practically the edge of the Anglo American world, The Last of the Mohicans was interesting.  It’s fascinating to think that when Cooper published this in 1826, the native people and landscapes of the Southwest, now such an integral part of our literature, were a different country.  The appearance of an old chief named Tamanend, said to have negotiated with William Penn and to have later attained to the status of the patron saint Tammany, is another welcome reminder that American history has been going on for a lot longer than I sometimes remember.  Otherwise, Cooper’s plotting is clunky and the 1992 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis seems to me to make some improvements.

Knickerbocker’s History of New York is similarly reorienting, with the added complication that it’s also outrageous satire.  Dietrich Knickerbocker is Irving’s invented Dutch historian, harking back with pompous nostalgia to the days of sleepy patroons, smoking, dozing, growing fat on oysters and donuts, and founding the greatest city on Earth while the Yankees closed in around them.

I’m confident that Irving will merit another post; whether I can put it together is another question.  I’ve begun to read the newly published course on English literature by Jorge Luis Borges and I’m an insignificant sixty pages into Tony Judt’s huge Postwar.  On the other hand, the spring warbler migration should be tapering off, so maybe I’ll spend more time writing.