1936, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1952, 1953, 1956, Books, Fiction

Ficciones (1941, 1944, 1956) by Jorge Luis Borges

I read “The Aleph” possibly in university or, if not, then a few years later. I thought it was pretty crazy and incredible and resolved to read more Borges. And then I just didn’t for 15 years or so. (Not entirely true: I stumbled upon one other story – a late one – at some point in the intervening years.) I’ve heard so much about Borges’ influence – not just on fiction but on philosophy – that I felt like it was missing out on something.

But I think something happened to me in the interim: I guess I’ve aged out of this kind of stuff. I don’t always get it and I don’t know that I care that I don’t. Moreover, though I get Borges’ importance at an intellectual level, I wasn’t particularly entertained.

I don’t know if I know another author who did as much as Borges did in the mid 20th century to popularize this weird idea of fictitious non-fiction. I don’t know what else to call it but it’s everywhere now: alternative history, fictitious philosophy, fictitious biography, that kind of thing. Most of the stories in this collection are Borges’ writing about fictitious non-fiction works (though the works themselves are usually only posing as fiction) as opposed to actual stories of characters. It’s this, I think, that people are referring to when they say he reinvented the short story.

I also read that he’s one of the first Latin magical realists and he might be one of the world magical realists (at least in a modern sense). And given the importance of magical realism, especially in Latin America, this is a big deal.

He’s also amazing, shockingly brief, which is absolutely to his credit. I’ve only read a few other writers who tell stories so briefly and so economically. I get that this is a skill.

Everything is very esoteric. There’s so much about the world’s mysteries – such as the Kabbalah -and so much that is referring to things I either don’t know about or haven’t read about in a decade-plus. This would bother me less if I was more entertained. And I will freely admit that this stuff has heavily influenced authors I like. For example: Umberto Eco doesn’t exist without Borges, I think it’s pretty safe to say. At the beginning of Artifices he mentions 6 or 7 authors he loves; I have read three of them – and not for some time – and hadn’t even heard of some of the others. I mention this only to point out that I really don’t know the world he is coming from. That’s a problem for me, at least at this stage of my life. (I might well have accepted it when I was less well read in my early 20s.)

His best stories are the slightly more conventional ones, which should come as no surprise. But even then I find myself nit-picking: at least one story I found like was a paragraph (or even just a sentence – I am thinking of “The Form of the Sword”) too long. And that’s weird given that he usually goes the opposite way and ends his stories before more authors would.

At bottom my issue is one of entertainment. I didn’t enjoy the collection enough for the hype. At least two of the stories – especially “The Sect of the Phoenix” – I just flat out didn’t get. When I was 22, this would have bothered me. I would have wanted to get it to show that I’m just as smart as the people who love Borges. But now, a little more self-assured, I couldn’t give a shit. These stories are deliberately mysterious but they are not mysterious in a way I enjoy (with a few exceptions). I’m not going to spend hours of my life combing over his influences to figure out what he means. I don’t care.

This is sounding harsher than intended. Clearly Borges has been hugely influential, to a degree to which it might be hard to quantify (given his brevity). In English, he is an incredibly economical writer, and that is something to behold. (I assume this is true in the original Spanish.) He was clearly a major talent and an innovator, perhaps one of the great innovators of the form for the 20th century. But he’s interested in things which, frankly, I don’t care about. I have never been drawn to mysticism except to those who mock it. (Borges does not mock it.) And that for me is the big problem here: unless the story has an actual plot to be solved – as do a couple of these stories – or unless they are grounded in great local detail – as a few others are – I don’t care.

So this is a personal preference: he’s a great writer who I do not enjoy.

8/10 for its influence

  • Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (7/10)
  • The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim (6/10)
  • Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (8/10)
  • The Circular Ruins (6/10)
  • The Lottery in Babylon (6/10)
  • An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain (5/10)
  • The Library of Babel (6/10)
  • The Garden of Forking Paths (8/10)
  • Funes the Memorious (5/10)
  • The Form of the Sword (7/10)
  • Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (6/10)
  • Death and the Compass (8/10)
  • The Secret Miracle (5/10)
  • Three Versions of Judas (5/10)
  • The End (7/10)
  • The Sect of the Phoenix (5/10)
  • The South (8/10)

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