The first story I read by Borges, at the age of eighteen, was Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis. Although the name would have meant nothing to me at the time, the translation was by Alastair Reid. Forty years later, I get to meet the man, now 88 years of age, a little frayed around the edges, but alert and bright eyed as a moorland bird. He lives in New York but spends part of every summer in the Dumfries and Galloway region where he was born and raised. I have been advised that Alastair would prove an invaluable repository of experiences and anecdotes for my researches into Latin American literature, concerning, among others, Borges, Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom he knew well – Borges, best of all. And so it was that one bright July morning I set out with my friend Tom Pow across the Dumfries countryside towards our rendezvous.
I have yet to transcribe the recording, but two things stood out in our conversation. Neither of them will be surprising to those who are familiar with the work of Borges, but they are fascinating to me nonetheless.
Translating Borges was, according to Alastair Reid, at times like re-translating something that had originally been written in English, and subsequently translated into Spanish. This, apparently, was due to Borges’ own familiarity and long use of the English language (he had an English grandmother, was brought up bilingual, and learned to read in English at an early age). The task of the translator, then, felt like rendering the story back into its original language, which Alastair described as a somewhat unsettling or daunting experience, and quite unlike translating other Spanish language writers.
The other thing that stood out for me in our talk was Alastair’s insistence that for Borges everything was a ficción, a fiction. As he puts it in his essay ‘Fictions’ (in the wonderful collection Outside In): ‘Borges referred to all his writings – essays, stories, poems, reviews – as fictions. He never propounded any particular theory of fictions, yet it is the key to his particular lucid, keen, and ironic view of existence.’ I was dimly aware of this, but not to the extent that this infiltrated his approach to literature and the world. In his essay, Alastair Reid elaborates:
A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.
Reality, that which is beyond language, functions by mainly indecipherable laws, which we do not understand, and over which we have limited control. To give some form to reality, we bring into being a variety of fictions.
A fiction, it is understood, can never be true, since the nature of language is utterly different from the nature of reality.
And so on.
Alastair Reid’s essays contain so many observations and aperçus about the writers he has worked with (the 1976 essay ‘Basilisk’s Eggs’ is another gem) it would do them little justice to summarize. And that is only half the story: some of Reid’s most impressive writing concerns his own reflections on travel and identity: on the one side his Scottish beginnings, or ‘roots’ (a word he treats with caution), on the other the years of wandering. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Notes on being a Foreigner’ in which the author makes astute and (to my mind) accurate observations on that state or condition – one that a person is probably born to – as opposed to, say, a tourist or an expatriate.
‘Tourists are to foreigners as occasional tipplers are to alcoholics – they take strangeness and alienation in small, exciting doses, and besides, they are well fortified against loneliness . . .
. . . An expatriate shifts uncomfortably, because he still retains, at the back of his mind, the awareness that he has a true country, more real to him than any other he happens to have selected. Thus he is only at ease with other expatriates . . .
. . . The foreigner’s involvement is with where he is. He has no other home. There is no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him. He is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, form outside in.’
As for being ‘properly lost’ – this is a theme to be continued ( if I make it back to Wales).
In Borges’ story The Lottery in Babylon, narrated by an exile from that place, we learn that there had once been a regular lottery in Babylon, in which only the winners were announced, but that it began to lose popularity because it had no moral force or purpose, and so the old lottery was replaced by one in which there was a loser for every thirty winners. This small adjustment titillated the public interest and people flocked to buy lottery tickets. The penalty was at first a fine – which, if the loser could not pay, was replaced by a prison term – but then, as you can imagine, the desire for punishment and the administration of retribution on selected individuals became the driving force of the enterprise. Crowds love a victim: look at the stocks in medieval English towns, public hangings at Tyburn in the eighteenth century, or the popularity of public stonings and other barbarities in those places that still practice such things. In Borges’ Babylon the Company – i.e. those who administered the lottery, took control of the society and acquired omnipotence within it: the lottery came to rule the lives of all those who lived in Babylon.
Borges might well have been thinking of the role of the Catholic Church – or of any other autocratic system – when he wrote this story, but it seems to me to have a horrible contemporary relevance. Terror and misery emerge as being just as essential to human survival as the pursuit of some idiotic and unachievable happiness; the kind of elusive happiness that is offered by our own, commonplace lottery, for example, and which is announced on those absurd little TV slots where some moronic interlocutor commentates on the coloured balls as they whizz through the transparent tubes. The lottery for us is the gateway to a realm inhabited by those who have attained ‘celebrity’. Celebrity, of one kind or another, is the only good worth achieving, and the Company – interpret this as you will, but its omnipotence is terrifying – uses celebrity as a reward, but also, as we have so forcefully been reminded by the News of the World phone tapping scandal – as a punishment. Hell, of a kind: not the imprisonment or tortures endured by the losers in Borges’ story, but the pernicious and constant attentions of paparazzi and a culture of intrusion that renders the lives of all who live in the public eye (what a lovely expression) to be satirized, ridiculed and denigrated. Celebrity has replaced the religious status of the elect once occupied by bishops and popes and medieval saints, but has magnified their sufferings and their ecstasies and placed them all in the public eye. And all of it is registered, every hair of the head counted by an all-surveying Company, its cameras at every street corner.
In Borges’ story there is even ‘a sacred latrine called Qaphqa (pronounced ‘Kafka’) which gave access to the Company. In other words, there were CCTV cameras in the lavatories also.
What makes a piece of critical writing ‘creative’? How do we distinguish between ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ writing? Does anyone care?
If you read Tuesday’s post about Roberto Bolaño and what he had to say about good, creative criticism being an integral part of literature, then I suggest you take a look at what Bolaño’s fairy godfather, Borges had to say on the same theme:
. . . as to Eliot, at first I thought of him as being a finer critic than a poet; now I think that sometimes he is a very fine poet, but as a critic I find that he’s too apt to be always drawing fine distinctions. If you take a great critic, let’s say, Emerson or Coleridge, you feel he has read a writer, and that his criticism comes from his personal experience of him, while in the case of Eliot you always think – at least I always feel – that he’s agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another. Consequently, he’s not creative. He’s an intelligent man who’s drawing fine distinctions, and I suppose he’s right; but at the same time after reading, to take a stock example, Coleridge on Shakespeare, especially on the character of Hamlet, a new Hamlet has been created for you, or after reading Emerson on Montaigne or whoever it may be. In Eliot there are no such acts of creation. You feel that he has read many books on the subject – he’s agreeing or disagreeing – sometimes making slightly nasty remarks, no?
(from The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1 p. 137)
So when Borges says about a critic’s words needing to be based on a ‘personal experience’ of a writer, that is, as a reader, then we are on precisely the same ground as Bolaño saying that a critic needs to be a reader, and that if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, [they] are also throwing everything overboard.
Again, back to reading. I am a writer, that is to say, a reader who writes. Sometimes, the acts of reading and writing become contiguous, such as now, and I forget where the one ends and the other begins. But essentially I have learned this through the process of reading and writing, and what both Borges and Bolaño write only serves to confirm it: a good writer, a certain kind of good writer, always leaves me wanting to drop the book and start writing. A good critic, by which I mean a creative critic, almost always has the same effect. Bad writing, by contrast – either bad fiction or bad criticism – simply sucks energy from its reader, before the book is cast aside with a curse.