Tag Archives: jorge luis borges

Interlude 4: Borges, always Borges.

8 Jun

(I’ve read three writer’s biographies recently, on Chester Himes, Raymond Chandler, and Jorge Luis Borges. Himes is a bizarre creature, weirdly overlooked by tastemakers but probably overpraised by genre buffs, and Chandler remains one of the great writers who remained loyal to a character and type of storytelling he outgrew. But Borges has, over the years, become more relevant, not less, more influential. Below is a sample from James Woodall’s Borges: A Life.)

“In Britain, post-colonial fiction was hidebound by an obstinate naturalism. German writers were left to lick the wounds of their country’s horrifically exposed psyche. Spain and Italy, whose languages and cultures might be said to have much in common with Borges’s, not unnaturally took him on board to chart a course out of relative literary emptiness.

“For literature everywhere, Borges was a way out. His intellectual rigor, decorated with that twinkling veneer of comic playfulness, was both a reflection of, and an answer to, the fractured cultures of Europe. Borges’s stories, moreover, were entertaining. It was a relief to find a world-class writer who did not insist on strictly representational fiction, on a primordial psychological seriousness. After Borges, it seemed, writers could return, to a new, knockabout narrative freedom.”

Yes, Woodall nails it, Borges is an essential figure to 20th century literature, a hinge, a way forward. He remains an enchanting, beguiling figure, almost a character—like Kafka—that Borges himself would have created.

But Borges is also a dead-end. No one else can really write like him—his essays read like fiction and his fiction reads like essays and it’s all bound together by a warm, but ironic and wry heart—and people who try often fail spectacularly. Even his more talented progeny (Barth and Barthelme are two examples) are often too enamored with polyglot word games and narrative sleight of hand, missing out on the fun of it all, the japery, the hijinks. Borges was indeed one of the first anti-novelists (even through he only wrote short stories) always collapsing his narratives in on themselves. But he was erudite and clever, a scholar with an abiding passion for tales. His children and grandchildren are more aggressive; they often intentionally cancel out the pleasure of reading, the pleasure and the escape.

More on Borges at some future point, for we always come back to him, in one way or another.


Best short stories ever written, and when Simone can read them

18 Jun

Quick: think about the best short stories you’ve ever read.

I went to a teaching conference last year where a speaker named Alfred Tatum explained his method of using literature as therapy. What he does is this: he asks students—usually inner city males—to write down all of the important stories, novels, poems and movies that have shaped them. He would then teach a number of stories and novels that he felt spoke to the urban male’s experiences. And he claimed anyway that the males he taught came out of his class better writers and better people. This moved me, so I spent the rest of the lecture writing down every novel, short story, and non-fiction book that matters to me.

These are the stories I hope to share with Simone, although that’s probably a few months away. I’ve forgone the usual summary/response/reflection to let these stand alone, instead opting for the age when I think she’ll understand them. If you have any stories you think need to be added, drop me a line.

“Holy Quarrel” by Philip K. Dick (artificial intelligence gone awry; age 6)

“Faith of Our Fathers” by Philip K. Dick (amnesis and the discovery of awful reality of life, and perfect encapsulation of everything that makes PKD so great; age 7)

“In the Park” by Herbert Huncke (young boy loses innocence; age 50)

“The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway’s one shot at a crime story; age 10)

“A Good Man is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor (Best short story ever; age 3)

“Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor (philosophy of nothingness; age 4)

“Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe (carnival in face of apocalypse; age 12)

“Two Fragments: Saturday and Sunday, March 199-“ by Ian McEwan (disturbing exploration of dystopian weirdness; age 13)

“The Universe in Miniature in Miniature” by Patrick Somerville (wacky tale of graduate students studying dada style nonsense; age 15)

“The King In Yellow” by Robert Chambers (early horror about a book that will drive you mad; age 16)

“The Immortal” by Jorge Luis Borges (Memory, time, identity loops, Borges; age 18)

“Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolaño (A boy sees the complexity of his father; age 2)

“Delicate Prey” by Paul Bowles (Ghastly revenge tale in the Sahara; age 30)

“Dragged Fighting From His Tomb” by Barry Hannah (Offbeat story of Civil War with my favorite line of all time: “Tell me the most exquisite truths you know”; age 15)

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill (Story of a editor of horror anthologies who falls into the plot of a horror story; never quite shook it; age 45)

“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner (Studied it in college, never shook it, hard-nosed father seeks constant revenge; age 11)