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Borges and Bolaño

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JLBorges_and_RBolaño.jpg
In a prior post, I speculated about possible reasons for Roberto Bolaño's propensity to create writer characters whose oeuvres remain opaque to the audience.  By depriving these writer characters of an oeuvre, Bolaño isolates them from the possibility of literary dialogue with other authors and texts.  I conjectured that Bolaño might conceive of such a writer character as a symbol of mortality.

Now, however, I have a new theory.  I think Bolaño's oeuvre-less writers are a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges, after all, is the author who (as I highlighted in another prior post) eschewed composing actual novels in favor of imagining them and then commenting on them.  Borges' short stories, moreover, overflow with texts that we don't see (e.g., John of Pannonia's tract against the heresy of the Monotoni in "The Theologians"; Borges' own fantasy tale about the serpent Fafnir in "The Zahir"), and with texts that we don't see completely (e.g., Benjamin Otálora's tale in "The Dead Man"; Christopher Dewey's tale in "The Man on the Threshold").  Without too much mental gymnastics, one could truthfully describe Borges as a novelist who, instead of having an oeuvre, merely has a commentary on his own imaginary oeuvre.

By his own account, Bolaño loved Borges.  In The New York Review of Books, Francisco Goldman quotes Bolaño saying, "I could live under a table reading Borges." 

Knowing of Bolaño's reverence for Borges, and now having read some of Borges' work, I'm inclined to see the protagonist of Bolaño's novel, 2666, the enigmatic writer, Benno von Archimboldi (a/k/a Hans Reiter), as a Borges-like figure.  Like Borges, von Archimboldi is a man with a split identity (see Borges' short story, "Borges and I"); like Borges, von Archimboldi is withdrawn from the world; like Borges, von Archimboldi writes imaginary novels; like Borges, others (especially critics and criminals) see von Archimboldi as a figure of power and redemption; and like Borges, von Archimboldi hasn't won the Nobel Prize.

Goldman interestingly cites Bolaño's observation that, "[his] life . . . has been infinitely more savage than Borges's."  Benno von Archimboldi's life, however, has seen its share of savagery.  Perhaps, in Benno von Archimboldi, Bolaño was offering his mentor - who'd always been cagey about his identity as "Borges" - another identity, one less bookish and less focused on the 19th century, one more infused with the lessons that Bolaño had learned from his own life.  In Bolaño's hands, Borges could be everything he wasn't in life: a physical presence, a soldier, a killer, a lover - everything, in fact, but a writer with an oeuvre of novels. 

Even a novelist with an extensive oeuvre like Bolaño's, it seems, has some limits.   

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from Maud Newton; image of Jorge Luis Borges from Wikipedia

Jorge Luis Borges, book blogger

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Jorge_Luis_Borges.jpgExplaining why he'd never written a novel, Jorge Luis Borges remarked,

It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.
Not just books, or imaginary books, either.  Borges is a compulsive summarizer and commentator.  No text, real or imagined, seems too short to merit this treatment.  He opens his six-page story, "The Dead Man," by saying, "I do not know the full details of [Benjamin Otálora's] adventure; when I am apprised of them, I will correct and expand these pages.  For now, this summary may be instructive."

Nor does he restrict his commentary to a sentence here and there.  More than half of his barely five-page page, "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," is commentary on an anecdote about a barbarian who switched sides while sacking Rome.  And while Borges' commentary constitutes the story in the foregoing example, his commentary seems to reverse the meaning of the story in the case of "Averröes' Search," transforming the tale from one of discovery into one of failure.

Borges offers a potential rationale for his inveterate commenting in, "The Immortal," at the end of which he appends a "postcript" [sic] to a text allegedly slipped into the last volume of Pope's Iliad.  Acknowledging that the text's veracity has been questioned because it quotes or plagiarizes from other texts, Borges remarks:

To my way of thinking, that conclusion is unacceptable.  As the end approaches, wrote Cartaphilus [the author of the text found in Pope's Iliad], there are no longer any images from memory - there are only words.  Words, words, words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men - those were the alms left him by the hours and the centuries.
What else is commentary but "words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men"?  To quote the words of other men (or the imagined words of other men) and "mutilate" them by placing them in another context, arguing with them, juxtaposing them against other words, complicating their meaning, burnishing or adding to their facets, is to engage in the act of commentary.  And for Borges, the raw materials for that commentary - the words - were "the alms left him by the hours and the centuries": his inheritance from history.

At this juncture, I'd like to offer my commentary on Borges' habit of commenting: his impulse is not so much like that of a fiction writer, but of a blogger.  Fiction writers are interested in stories: plots and characters.  Borges is interested in analysis.  Borges - because he's Borges - manages to make stories out of analysis, but his success doesn't transform his approach from one of a commentator into one of a fiction writer.  Nor does that fact that Borges is sometimes commenting on or analyzing imaged texts make his methodology suitable for fiction: just as a law student arguing a moot court case is practicing legal techniques, not fiction writing, so Borges is acting the part of commentator, not author.  

As Rivka Galchen says in her New York Times essay on Borges,

he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading. . . . To love a text: isn't that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?
"[W]riting . . . [as an] intensely engaged way[] of reading" - that's why I blog about books.  When I finish a book, I want to deepen, heighten, round-out and complete the experience by writing about it.  "[H]elplessly casting about for something to say in return" to a book is a good description of my blog.   

In this light, Borges' stunning innovation is that he appears to have invented book blogging before blogs existed.  Not that this technological gap really matters.  If Cartaphilus can chat with Homer eleven hundred years after he wrote the Odyssey, then Borges can blog before blogs - or the Internet, or even personal computers - were invented.  In my analysis, Borges' stories, properly understood and contextualized, are blog posts.  Likewise, Borges' books are compilations of his posts - he may be the world's first blogger to have landed a publishing contract.  

And in this post, I am imagining Borges' blog and (imaginarily) hyper-linking to it.  Check it out, folks: once you read his posts, you'll want to leave a comment.

(Image of Jorge Luis Borges from The New York Times

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Dead Man category.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden is the previous category.

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