Friday, January 05, 2007

Think of something else !

In Our Time this week does Borges.

Turns out to be not quite something else because they are staight in there with how he used his failed love affair with Nora Lang. "How he translated his experiences immediately into literature....".

Sure Lord Bragg won't mind me posting here the contents of his post-prog email newsletter he sends out to us In Our Timers:


I think that some listeners may have had a bit of a problem this morning because it seems to me, thinking back on the programme, that we dived into the middle of the labyrinth of Borges without attempting to describe the layout. There was a bit too much taken for granted. The fact that he is often described as "a writer's writer" and "an intellectual among writers" means that those who are engaged in studying his work have an enormous amount of fun, great theoretical possibilities and are deep into what is undoubtedly a forest of ideas.

Those of you who like novels with characters, plots of real suspense,situations which are recognisable and therefore engaging, in short, I suppose, the tradition of the realistic or historical novel as developed from
Shakespeare (our first historical novelist) and Defoe might find it unusual tobe faced by a writer who can often seem much more of a crossword puzzle setter or a theorist himself. Nevertheless, there's no doubting his influence on an enormous number of writers from the middle of the century onwards, nor of their appropriation of many of his ideas. So he was more than worth doing.

Here are a few excerpts from the programme's research notes. First from Edwin Williamson, the great authority on Borges and author of a recent life. He talks about how Borges saw himself:

"In truth, it seems Borges did not hold a high opinion of himself. In interviews he is consistently self-deprecating and compares himself unfavourably to other writers he admires. In many of his short stories Borges presents a version of himself (sometimes even using his own name), usually in a somewhat derogatory light, someone who is a vague, bumbling 'wannabe' writer. Alternatively, he depicts himself as someone who has suffered a mysterious and strange disappointment in life and views the past in a romantic and nostalgic light. In his work, Borges tends to excuse himself for not being more enthusiastic about life. He cultivated this persona, this retiring and apologetic man with a sense of other-worldliness about him. He once proudly confessed that "people say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."

He then goes on to talk about Borges' literary style:

"Borges is sometimes referred to as a writer in the "magic realism" style, but strictly speaking, although Borges influenced the development of magic realism by legitimizing the use of fantasy and transposing narrative models taken from genre fiction (such as detective stories and science fiction) into fantastical situations, his work and style differs greatly from that of "magic realist" writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. In his essay The Art of Narrative and Magic, written in 1931, Borges questioned the premises of literary realism. His basic contention was that fiction did not depend on the illusion of reality; what mattered ultimately was an author's ability to generate "poetic faith" in his reader. This was Borges' theoretical justification for the "magic realism" movement. The story should exist in its own autonomous sphere and on its own terms. It may or may not present a realistic image of the world we live in, but it retained a logic of its own. As Borges explained, fiction did not hold up a mirror to reality, rather it constituted "an autonomous sphere of corroborations, omens and monuments" that was best illustrated by the "predestined Ulysses of Joyce." Not only did Borges throw off the constraints of realism, he called into question the preeminence of the novel in the hierarchy of modern literature. He was drawn
to modes of storytelling that had long preceded the novel-fable, epic, parable, and folktale."

Efraín Kristal who is a leading authority on Borges as a translator had this to say about translation in the sense of its being the creative process.

"The fact that translation is central to Borges' creative process and to the very fabric of his stories with most of his protagonists' translators themselves derives from Borges' deep sense of what literature itself is about.
Borges saw us only as re-users and re-cyclers of ideas, stories and metaphors and he once said that 3000 years after the Iliad and the Odyssey it was unlikely that any new literary themes or metaphors would come about that had not been tried before. In this way we are, in Borges' eyes, condemned to translate, or to edit, or change emphasis or combine.

Borges once reflected on whether anything he had ever written was original: 'perhaps one thing', he wrote in a comment before his poem called Limits, 'perhaps this is the only work in which I have invented an idea: the idea of someone who has done something for the last time without knowing it, or someone who does not know that they will never experience something and doesn't know because they do not have the vantage point of death.'. Borges considered this perhaps his only original idea."

Borges positively encouraged translations of his own work and was delighted whenever people made their own changes. Similarly writing by other authors which he translated himself became his work in a sense. When Efraín interviewed a man in Buenos Aires who had translated Hesse with Borges he questioned him about their methods. Apparently they had wilfully added references to Hesse's text which simply were not there in the original, and were quite accustomed to remove or add a couple of syllables to a line. Apparently the fellow translator did not even understand German: Borges would simply call him on the telephone and dictate the translation.

Ephrain added that Borges seemed to have a photographic memory and once blind he would give poetry readings where he would say 'and now I'm going to read the following poem' and then he would read as if reading from a piece of paper in front of him. In fact he was reading, but from his mind.

I can't fail to take something from Evelyn Fishburn whose enthusiasm and depth of knowledge were again so profound that she found it, as the others did, difficult to encompass their finest thoughts in the time allotted. Here are her reflections on what she calls reality and nihilism:

"We might worry, with all this uncertainty and paradox, that Borges could leave us with nothing left to believe in at all, or even believing that there is nothing at all. Borges wrote a very long and intricate essay called the New Refutation of the History of Time in which he argues that time is an illusion and that all reality is an illusion. As the essay comes almost to a close he suddenly continues launching a whole credo on realism. Realism is not proved in the essay but Borges is certainly not a nihilist writer - he is more interested in showing that we simply do not know or that we are not able to know. A deity might have a view of the truth of things but we ourselves are not able to know and Borges, whilst expressing his deep scepticism about our ability to know, is also keen to explore the value of wondering."

Finally, I particularly liked a reference she made which brings in Shakespeare:

"Borges' work is populated with references to real people and to real works of literature. He uses these in a particular way, almost as a shorthand. When he talks about Shakespeare, Shakespeare is not unlike God who creates myriad creatures and then loses his whole personality in those creatures from everything to nothing. Borges often uses literary and cultural references in his work as a kind of adjective. In this way he might mention Schopenhauer, for example, and it will be a particular aspect of Schopenhauer that he is honing in on which sheds a particular kind of light over his work."

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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