Alberto Manguel, With Borges (Thomas Allen & Sons, 2004, $19.95 HB)
I misbehaved badly when Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges died in 1986, calling him “the quintessential academic dilettante” a “schmarmy little library wart” and opining that I was “glad the horrible bug-eyed mole is dead”. I was responding not so much to Borges or his work, but to the cult of fatuous academic imitators and followers who had turned his bookishness and asymmetrical erudition into writing strategies for themselves that were without risk or, as far as I could see at the time, artistic merit. The truth was that I’d read and enjoyed Borges’ unique intellectual puzzles from the time I started reading seriously in my teens, and that Borges was a part of my intellectual equipment I was rejecting to pursue what seemed higher risk and higher output writing strategies.
My stupid remarks about him, along with a couple of other ill-considered stunts I pulled around that time, likely made a permanent enemy of Alberto Manguel, who is a remarkable polyglot intellectual force, a fine writer, the planet’s most articulate and generous reader, and a man with a startling vein of cosmopolitan common sense informing virtually all his judgments. My loss, in other words.
I’d have apologized to Manguel if I’d been given the opportunity, but such an opportunity never appeared for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that has Manguel drifted away from Canada to Europe, and, well… maybe not, eh? I’d have ended up apologizing for being a Visigoth, and one cannot, in the end, make excuses for one’s origins. For me that would be to apologize for what has engendered my intense craving for cosmopolitan civilization. Even if you’re a Visigoth that has doffed the horned helmut, it stays in your travel trunk to remind you of how much you prefer where you are.
But the publication of Manguel’s 99 page memoir of reading to Borges as a 16 year old seemed the appropriate occasion to reconsider what I’d said about Borges 15 years ago, and to read some of Manguel’s effortless prose on a subject that is intimately close to its wellsprings. If nothing else, it would be an opportunity to make amends, even if only within my own mind.
I read most of With Borges sitting on my front porch in the early summer evenings, forcing myself to read as slowly as I’m able, with the gentle breezes wafting through the trellises, a glass of decent red wine on the table beside me, my ratty, loptailed golden retriever alternately lounging nearby trying to scratch her permanently infected ears with her arthritis-crippled hind legs or, stricken by her regular anxiety attacks at five minute intervals, pacing about in front of the screen door wondering if someone might be fooled into feeding her again. On the streets, the usual traffic was passing, coloured by various ethnic flags from the nations competing in the European Soccer Tournament, or whatever it’s called. Since the tournament’s beginning I’d been for whichever teams had the smallest number of local citizens because that meant they were less likely to drive their flag-festooned cars into a crowd of innocent bystanders. As each of my preferred teams was knocked out of the tournament, it filled me with a mild but familiar distress at civilization’s failure to punish its jackasses.
The other night, as I was finishing Manguel’s book, I had to stop reading because Portugal, of whose partriots this neighbourhood is filled, had won its game, and the streets were jammed with hooting, horn-blowing morons eager to make sure no one was ignorant of their proxy triumph.
I offer all this detail to illustrate how different the world seems to me than it did to Borges or does to Manguel. Both of them seem to live in worlds within which reading could be an undistracted paradise where all words lie within the grasp of understanding. By nature and by circumstances that paradise is denied to me.
Still, read and finish the book I did, and with a deliberate egolessness that was quickly invaded by a friendly envy, and then, alas, raided by irritation and some of the same questions that used to arise whenever I read Borges.
Borges’ tastes in English literature were, as Manguel carefully admits, er, asymmetrical. Borges believed that Robert Louis Stevenson was a great English writer on the scale of William Shakespeare. He also admired, with a lack of perspective that seems at best naïve, the stories of Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton and H.G. Wells. Borges’ admiration for these writers leaves me with the unpleasant choice of whether to question his grasp of the English language or his understanding of the literature of the English-speaking world. It is a choice I elude by echoing V.S. Naipaul’s judgment that Argentine culture is the planet’s most peculiar, and that it has its own rules, impenetrable to outsiders. The unease I feel whenever I execute this manoeuvre likely reflects my uncertainty about my own country’s culture: does it distort the world to a similar degree?
About 2/3rds of the way through With Borges, I stopped to reread a half dozen of Borges’ famous intellectual puzzles to see if they read as I remembered them: “Funes the Memorious”, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”; “The Babylonian Lottery”; “The Library of Babel”; “Borges and I”; "The Captive”—all but the last two written before the end of the Second World War. They were better than my memories held them: pure products of a very pure intelligence, one that was unclouded by anything but its private reading of the world. I experienced a further rush of the same rancourless envy Borges invoked in me when I was a younger man: if only there were no other things in life to navigate than possibilities…
Manguel’s little book is well worth the $20 price of admission on any number of accounts. A private one for me was that it fills me with the same sort of envy Borges provokes. When I poke at it a little, part of the envy is because I will never write a 100 page book. I understand the elegance and the relevance of such an elision from everything, but for me, “everything” is in the present moment of thought and composition. Everything sticks together, and must be, willy-nilly, considered and written about together: my crappy, neurotic dog; the Portuguese flag-wavers in their careening cars; my lovely seven-year-old daughter wandering by to alight in my lap for a few seconds before she flits off, butterfly-like, to her next curiosity; the war in Iraq; the civil war within Canada’s governing Liberal Party and how that may affect the local quality of life and my country’s ongoing struggle to avoid being smothered by the United States; the poetry reading I missed a few nights ago; the upcoming public appearance I agreed to that has been rescheduled for the evening of my daughter’s birthday; what I’m cooking for dinner; the slow growth of my tomato plants this summer and the nightly assaults by slugs on the rescued Yugoslav pole beans that are now named after me in seed catalogs; the rest of the what-does-it-mean maelstrom of human life.
My private agreement is with all nine of the Muses at once, and it requires me to exclude no subject from my consideration when thinking and writing, no element of the human condition/mix-master. In the face of this private agreement I have made with the world, even a few hours with minds like Borges and Manguel seems a holiday in a paradise that somehow doesn’t seem particularly artificial. With Borges, like the best of Borges, is filled with wondrous anecdotes of human grace and its awkward specificities, including, in Manguel’s book, one utterly hilarious one that has Borges trying to console a close friend whose beloved dog has died with the notion of a “Platonic dog beyond all dogs”. (Borges was told by the furious friend where to stuff “The Dog”).
Predictably, I do have one small canard to float in the direction of this volume: the polyglot Manguel sees no reason to translate the Spanish language quotes from Borges and others, and the editors have not offered translations via footnotes. In several places these untranslated—and thus incomprehensible—passages deny unilingual readers like me what appear to be essential insights into Borges. Of course I could muddle through to make my own translations, but doing so contaminates both the reading and the intellectual space one must artificially create in order to follow the shape of Manguel’s narrative, which is, as with all good writers, extrarational.
This failure to translate foreign language passages, which occur elsewhere in Manguel’s opus and was, I’m told, the author’s deliberate choice rather than the publisher’s laziness, is uncharacteristic for a writer who is otherwise deeply courteous and civil toward readers. If it is an unconscious arrogance or the obliviousness of the gifted, I do wish he’d get over it.
Still, it’s a minor quibble. Amid the myriad distractions that is my life and the literary field I choose to cultivate, I am happy to report that Jorge Luis Borges has rejoined the sanguine distractions.
1500 w. July 3, 2004