Reaction: Ficciones (2)

The second half of Fictions, entitled Artifices, consists of nine stories, six of them written immediately after The Garden of Forking Paths; the remaining three were not composed for another decade. Although most of the stories were written within three years of those of the first volume, we are promised in the foreword that these stories shall be “less clumsily executed” than those that came before, but that otherwise they will be no different.

Funes, His Memory (better known as Funes the Memorious) is the first of the new stories, and if not less clumsy in execution is certainly a change in style and conception – again, the same semi-philosophical ponderings, but here expressed with more subtlety, and, dare I say it, even with a touch of human emotion, as the story is told through glimpses of a human life, not merely detached narration. The ideas themselves are not that new or interesting, but are given legitimacy by their placement in the human world – we see people caring, and we care accordingly.

The next three stories are closely connected in style – all three draw from a particular mode of writing in which the detective, the spy, the adventurer and the discoverer of ghosts could all equally feature if the author chose – a melodramatic style of puzzles and twists and brightly daubed colours – much the same style that we saw earlier in the outer story of The Garden of Forking Paths itself. The Shape of the Sword is the simplest and most forgettable of the three, being an extremely standard (and, disappointingly, extremely predictable) twist story about Irish conspirators*. Nonetheless, it is well told, though brief. The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero is considerably more clever, although not, I note, beyond the limits of the wilder historical ‘documentaries’ we have inflicted upon us (the plot, with its connexion to the death of Julius Caesar, is only one step beyond what some now suggest is the truth behind Caesar’s murder, however exotic an idea that might seem). Only at the end does the musing hit that certain emotive note of disconcertation and beauty. Unfortunately, Borges tells his story metafictionally – and not even, this time, by reviewing a fictional book as though it were real, but as, self-admittedly, a recitation of a plot that he has thought of. I dislike this idea in Borges that the book is an irrelevance that offers nothing more than can be gained from a few minutes recitation – his plot is a fair enough plot, and if it were in a book, with prose, and characters, and minor things like that, it might be affecting and powerful, but as it is it is only a few pages of a man saying “here’s a great idea I’ve had” – he limits himself to appealing solely on an emotional level, like a magician who does not deign to perform magic tricks, but instead just tells you what you would see if he were to perform the trick. Consequently, the story is flat and unengaging, without even the ironic amusement of the metafictional games he played in Al-Mu’tasim and Herbert Quain.

The third of the trio, Death and the Compass, is the most important of the three, and like The Garden of Forking Paths it combines a melodramatic tale (in this case a detective story with a twist) with musings about labyrinths; this time, however, the two are fully integrated. The balance has been shifted considerably toward the narrative side, with the labyrinths minimised; frankly, I was glad of it. As it is, the musings seem a little detached – almost as though as he neared the end of his story Borges realised that he had to throw in a “Borges-feature” to keep his reputation for labyrinths – but nonetheless engaging, perhaps precisely because they are touched on tangentially, not lectured on as in the earlier story (although, contrariwise, there is less of lasting interest here). The detective part of the story is fair enough, although personally I find the high-irony maximum-melodrama style to be somewhat grating – I’ve seen so many parodies (intentional and unintentional) of that type of murder mystery that the Borgesian pastiche is neither amusing ironically nor enthralling directly. This said, I did like the story overall – it’s short enough that the grating style could be overlooked, and (like Funes) it shows a promising trend to try to integrate his own preoccupations into a matrix of human life.

The Secret Miracle demonstrates this trend perfectly, and is itself a perfect story – and more ambitious than The Library of Babel, in that it combines many preoccupations. It takes the secret labours of Tlön, and the ubiquitous labyrinths, and adds them to yet another metafiction – but this time, the text does not simply stand, frozen, as it is described, but lives and changes – the creative process is addressed, as in Menard (and in the process links the theme of secret labour with the theme of hermeneutics) – and there is the strange, magical or surreal, intrusion of fantasy. But more importantly than all this, it is willing to talk about reality. The setting is real and important (there is a wonderful line about the Nazi need for administration), and the protagonist is genuine, and pathetic, in the sense of the word that denotes our position about him, and not his own qualities. In this story, the two sides of Borges, the wonder and the pondering (one might say, the magic and the science) are brought together and given a context of emotion. For once, I care about what he’s saying.

Three Versions of Judas is another strong story, at least in my view, although it denies all I have praised before – it is a plain metafiction with little emotive content or connexion with reality that concerns itself with semi-philosophical fancies. This time, however, there is something both profound and active about his themes. On the one hand, as in The Secret Miracle, he addresses Nietzschean themes (with clear overtones of Kierkegaard and Wilde), not of impersonal Time and Thought and Meaning, but of life, and death, and renunciation and iniquity; asceticism and glory and their paradox. On the other hand, he remains preoccupied with hermeneutics, but does not simply (as in, for instance, Quain) talk about hermeneutics, saying how different meanings could be construed – this time he shows different meanings being construed. This time, he does hermeneutics. Recall Wittgenstein: philosophy is not a theory but an activity (and Nietzsche, likewise).

The final three stories were written a decade later than those we have discussed, and reading them this is no surprise, as they have a distinct style of their own. Following on from Judas, Borges is now practicing hermeneutics rather than discussing it, and in the same vein he is infusing his stories with greater pathos and tension – he is, in essence, finally telling stories, rather than mentioning them. At the same time, there is a certain loss of clarity here, a loss of audacity. The End is a simple tale; a retelling, I am told, of an episode from a famous Argentine story, with a different ending and a new perspective. As a story, it is well told, but my distance from its cultural resonance makes it to small a story to have my attention. The Cult of the Phoenix is more intriguing – rather than, as Borges often does, starting in an ordinary place and driving into strangeness, it begins in strangeness and returns to mundanity (as, through the gradual recognition of the parent tale, The End presumably does to an Argentine reader). It does this by seeming at first to describe something strange and bizarre, and then to gradually make plain that it is something ordinary and familiar. This is an implementation of his hermeneutic preoccupations – a familiar story is told from an entirely new perspective. Readers of philosophy will be familiar with the technique from Wittgenstein. An additional level is added to the mirroring by the fact that Borges leaves the riddle unsolved – while we may think the answer is clear, it is always possible to consider other solutions. Hence, not only can each story be told in a different way, but each telling can be a telling of more than one story. It should also be said here that although Phoenix is told in much the same sort of discursive style as, say, Lottery, it is clear that his writing ability has increased over the years – I felt genuine tension as the riddle was built up, despite the impersonal and distant nature of the topic. On the other hand, like many intellectual exercises, I was left somewhat cold (in an apathetical, rather than horrified, way) by the ending.

The final story is The South, which Borges believed to be his best. I’m not so sure. The Nietzschean mode is alluring, though the petty thought intrudes that Borges, like Nietzsche himself, seems always inauthentic when regaling us with gauchos and knife fights. That said, there is more pathos in this simple story than in any other in the collection; unfortunately, that’s not saying much. In translation, the story is unspectacular – sufficient, perhaps elegant, but not remarkable or greatly moving. If there is any secondary meaning, as Borges suggests, I failed entirely to divine it, beyond the obvious philosophical/ethical considerations, which have been a continual, if secondary theme in this book (all the way down from the secret labours of Tlön). I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading the story, but I do enjoy reading stories. Somehow, it manages to be human, yet to remain sterile. [A problem, I must confess, I find in almost all short fiction].

Regarding Artifices as a whole, I agree with Borges that it surpasses The Garden of Forking Paths in execution, and in general contains the better stories. At the same time, a degree of vitality and ingenuity is lost in the progression from the earliest stories to the latest – or is that a function of reading too many of these stories consecutively? I think… not entirely – there is little new in the second half for those who have read the first half.

Fictions is certainly a book worth reading if you haven’t read Borges – particularly if you don’t read much philosophy, as Borges is to a degree a populariser of philosophy into a literary context. Some of the stories are brilliant. Pierre Menard, The Library of Babel, and The Secret Miracle should be read by everyone; I would collect these three with Al-Mu’tasim, Funes, Three Versions of Judas, The Cult of the Phoenix and The South for a an excellent collection half the size of this. Even those I didn’t like greatly often had some appeal.

The chief thing on offer in this stories is ideas – from the central gimmicks (and they often feel like gimmicks) of the stories themselves down to incidental remarks that cast common things in a new light. Unfortunately, even those ideas that may have been broadly innovative at time of writing will now feel familiar and worn to the modern reader. Few are explored or explained with any depth or nuance; at his best, Borges shapes his stories into brilliant little gemstones – hard, brittle, small, self-contained, alluring, of little function. Those looking to be intrigued, to be thrown about by unheralded images and interpretations, to be enchanted in, and educed from, labyrinths would be better served reading genuine philosophy. His voice is inventive – perhaps distractingly, hubristically so in places; the prose of the translation has a few great moments, and is continually readable, although exotic – whether this is Borges, or an intention of the translator, or the translator’s ineptitude I cannot say (and I’ve heard all three explanations) – but I had no problem with it. Its excesses tend toward an unusual variance in register, an unusual use of usual words, and a certain degree of archaism and stiltedness – all stylistic techniques I enjoy.

Marks!

Adrenaline: 1/5. Borges does not seem interested in exciting the reader (and in these short, often very short, stories would have little room to build up pace even if he wanted). There are a few stories where my heartbeat rose, particularly in the second half, but not enough to raise this score.

Emotion: 2/5. Some stories had no emotional aspect whatsoever. Many, I should say. Some had glimpses. Some of the later stories did have a genuine element of pathos, which is why this has more than a one, but it would be lying to say that this was not a less-emotional-than-average read.

Thought: 4/5. Too familiar, and too cursory, to score a 5 – and please remember that this is being judged as art, not for its place in the history of art, and so contingent facts of subsequent fashions must be considered where they impact on the reader’s perceptions, even when they are not the fault of the author. This probably would have been a 5 in 1945 or even 1960; it isn’t now.

Beauty: 4/5. Some elegant phrases; some ugly ones. Lifted above average because some of its ideas are themselves beautiful in my opinion.

Craft: 3/5. A strange score for a master, but hard to escape. The prose is not notable – it is only a translation, after all. There is no large-scale construction to praise, because they are (almost entirely) independent short stories. The stories themselves vary greatly in their elegance of form – some are shaped perfectly, others feel unbalanced or over-rough.

Endearingness: 3/5. Intellectually, I find Borges amenable. His voice, I find the voice of a friend or ally (in most cases). Even if some stories evoke no more admiration than a brief bark of laughter, that’s still a reaction that disposes us well toward a book in our opinions. On the other hand, this hasn’t been a book I’ve come back to repeatedly. It has a certain escapist value for its playfulness and shear disregard for normal concerns, but by and large it is too cold, too inhuman, too baroque, to truly warm the heart.

Originality: 4/5. Nobody could say that Borges was only average in originality. That said, I don’t believe it’s a 5. Remember that ‘originality’ here is not a historical fact, but the issue of how easy I feel it would be for me to have written the same stories, or equivalent ones (talent and execution aside) – and I rarely felt stunned by them. I rarely thought ‘I could never have thought of that – how did he?’ Or to put it another way – how unique is this book among others? Unusual, but much of the same ground has been covered in places, even if the style itself has rarely been imitated. The best of the stories – yes. There, a peak of originality is reached. Overall – not really.

Composite Score: 3.00

Overall Score: 5/7. Good

I was expecting a higher score, to be honest, but the stories just don’t have enough power. It should also be noted that this is lowered by the uneven nature of the collection – had I considered only my favourite few stories, they would have unproblematically been Very Good – at least on a par with Leibowitz. I have briefly considered that the excellence within the collection justifies raising the overall score – but this, I think, would be unfair. This score reflects my experience of the book as a whole – and many books have great passages within them. That said, interested readers may find the rumoured presence of great quality within the volume a greater incentive to find it and read it, and so I wanted to make it clear.

*And it’s frustrating, incidentally, that Borges couldn’t pay a little more attention to his setting. He places the action in Connaught in 1922, when the Revolution is fighting for its life against the Black and Tans, who at one point are said to capture a city ‘once and forever’… except, of course, that the Truce came into effect in July 1921, the Treaty was signed in December, and the Black and Tans began their withdrawal in January. By March, the War of Independence was long past, and the Civil War had begun.

Does any of this matter? Not particularly – just read it as 1921 instead. Nonetheless, it irritates. A consistent compliment given to Borges is his immense ‘erudition’, which I find it difficult to be impressed by at the best of times – and a man of famous ‘erudition’ ought to be able to spend thirty seconds looking in a book to research his setting for at least the most egregious errors.

[I’m also extremely sceptical about the role of communism he imagines for their ‘revolution’ that has been destined to be victorious – it rather feels as though he’s just importing Latin American revolutionary modes into the Irish context – but I can let that be]

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3 thoughts on “Reaction: Ficciones (2)

  1. […] Fictions – Jorge Luis Borges (reviewed in two parts: HERE and HERE) […]

  2. […] Luis Borges – Fictions (review pt 1, review pt 2) […]

  3. “As a story, it is well told, but my distance from its cultural resonance makes it to small a story to have my attention.”

    I truly love “El fin” (The end) but yes, you should be argentine to fully understand. I forgive you.

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