Years ago I tried to free myself from him
And I went from the mythologies of the city suburbs
To games with time and infinity
Jorge Luis Borges, born in Argentina one hundred years ago this day,* is probably the most influential Latin American writer of the last century. Known for his perplexing short stories, which he called ficciones, as well as his essays, poems, parables, and conversations, Borges passed through Montreal in 1968, during his tenure as a visiting professor at Harvard, to deliver a lecture at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) on “English Literature and Dreams.”
Through the offices of then-Argentine Consul Hugo Alvarez, I had the good fortune of meeting Borges and interviewing him at length in his suite at the Ritz Carlton for the CBC Radio show Tuesday Night. The material resulted in a fifty-minute documentary, produced by Gilles Couture, called Borges and I (the title of Borges’s most famous poem, from which the above lines are excerpted).
Borges was then already beset by blindness, though he could faintly discern the colour yellow and light and shadows; within a few years, even that ability would be gone and the sunset of his life would be lived in near-total darkness.
He was a frail man, dressed in a grey suit, neat, conservative, just as you would expect an erudite Latin American señor with European roots to look; he was gracious and charming. I wish I could remember more of the actual setting: Was there a painting in the suite? Did the sun slant in through the window? Or his physical appearance? (Ah, yes, he had a cane and leaned on it, arched forward, as he sat on the fauteuil at the Ritz.) But with Borges, it’s always the landscape of the words, the rhythm of the speech, the ideas that populate the mind, rather than the backdrop.
DB: Borges, if you were preparing a radio program about yourself and you wanted to introduce it by describing yourself and your work, what would you say?
JLB: Well, I suppose I think of myself as a writer, and I also think of myself as a professor of English literature and—but this, of course, is a kind of secret—as a student of old English, Anglo Saxon. And sometimes I think of myself as a very perplexed man, but now, perhaps because I am in Canada, I think of myself as being quite a happy man and full of hope for the future.
DB: In your writings, you place a great deal of importance on a person’s roots. I am thinking in particular of Johannes Dahlmann, the hero of your story “The South.” He was half German and half Argentine, and, significantly, the story took place in 1939. Have you ever tried to analyze the importance of your own roots in your creative development?
JLB: Well, I come of Spanish, Portuguese, and, not least, English stock. But I would like to feel a little English blood goes a long way. When I was a boy, I thought of myself as being more an Argentine. This is something hard to define, but I know and we Argentines know what we mean by it. Now as time goes on, I seem to be falling back, or thinking of my English forefathers, people who came from Northumberland. But of course all those things don’t contradict each other. I mean, I don’t think of myself as having English blood and then think of myself as having Spanish. I think what is really important is what one is now.
DB: I understand that you have been attacked in your own Argentina for not being more of a provincial writer. How do you react to this criticism?
JLB: Well, to put it frankly, I think it’s quite nonsensical. Besides, I’m an Argentine, my father was an Argentine before me, and also my grandfather, although not my English grandmother. I don’t see why I should set out to prove that I am an Argentine, since I am one. I’m not going to worry about it. I may as well try to be contemporary. When I published my first book, El Fervor de Buenos Aires—that was way back in 1923—I wrote about the Argentine landscape. I can never get away from it. Even in Iowa a few weeks ago, suddenly I felt a great emotion that wasn’t all owing to the fact that I was happy to be in Iowa, but also because the Middle West prairie is exactly like the Argentine pampa. And so I felt, well, I’m in America, but I’m also back in my own country. And I felt that was a very happy combination.
DB**:** It’s rather puzzling that you have never written anything longer than ten or twelve pages. Your stock-in-trade is what you call ficciones, or fictions. Are these different from short stories? How would you describe a ficcione?
JLB: I think I would describe it as a short story, yes. But as to my writing short pieces, there are two reasons I can give you. The first is my invincible laziness. The second is that I’ve always been fond of short stories, and it always took me some trouble to get through a novel, except in the case of such books as, well, The Pickwick Papers, Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote, Conrad’s Lord Jim, and so on. Besides, I’m very interested in Kipling, and found out that at the end of his life he could pack into a short story as many people, or, indeed, more than most can in a novel. And I thought, maybe I would try my hand at that game, writing very closely packed short stories. Although I’m very lazy when it comes to writing, I’m not that lazy when it comes to thinking. I like to develop the plan of a short story, then cut it as short as possible, try to evolve all the necessary details. I know far more about the characters than what actually comes out of the writing.
DB: When people talk about Borges, they always mention the wealth of your knowledge, the thousands and thousands of books that you have explored. Now this brings up a double-barreled question. First of all, of the multitude of things that you have read, what one book has had the most profound effect on you?
JLB: Well, I fear I haven’t read that much, but I’ve always read out-of-the-way books, and I’ve read for enjoyment. That, of course, makes for re-reading. You asked if I had one book. People are always thinking of a Robinson Crusoe with literary propensities, no? I suppose it would be a trick if I said my book would be the Encyclopedia Britannica, really that’s a library in itself. But perhaps if I could have De Quincey’s fourteen volumes—but I wonder if I would be allowed that much? Perhaps a history of philosophy would be quite the wisest choice. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, that’s a one-volume book, and it has some eight or nine hundred pages. Yes, I think for the purposes of this day in Canada, I would stick to that.
DB: Actually, the second part of my double-barreled question hasn’t been unloaded. That’s coming up now—
JLB: Oh, it’s a six-shooter, no?
DB: It’s just a two-shooter. Here’s the second volley. Is there any one passage or phrase or sentence that you remember more vividly than any other?
JLB: Well, that’s a very difficult question. If I think of one, then I’m being unfair to so many others. I spoke of Kipling a moment ago. I think of one of his finest poems, called “The Harp Song of the Dane Women,” about the wives of the Vikings and Norsemen, and their husbands growing absent-minded and going off to war with glorious dreams of invading England and Scotland and Ireland—all the world as a matter of fact—and the verse goes on to say:
Yearly you return from our side and sicken—
Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters,
You steal away to the lapping waters
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.
And then, of course, when one begins with quotations, that very troublesome Shakespeare is always cropping in, no? I start to remember ever so many things, but I think two lines are sufficient, two lines whose meaning is hardly important. Of course, I don’t think meaning is important in poetry. What is important is the music:
Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy. . .
And then, suddenly, there come to mind two verses from Chesterton I’m always remembering about the night:
A cloud that is larger than the world
And a monster made of stars.
And this monster made of stars brings to mind a very wonderful image by Victor Hugo:
L’hydre-univers tordant son corps écaillé d’astres
(The hydra universe twisting its body scaled with stars)
And that’s even more monstrous and more beautiful than the Chesterton image. And now I think we’ve had enough of quotations, and we’ll go back to sober everyday conversation. But I find your questions very stimulating. Quite beyond the usual run of questions one gets, no?—“What do you think of American coffee?” “What do you make of gadgets?”
DB: I would like to turn to the role played by the knife in your fictions and poems. One of your translators says that you’re obsessed by the knife, that you’re animated by the feel of it. And in many of your stories, your hero dies by the knife, or he kills with a knife—
JLB: Well, I suppose, the reason is that in my country firearms were scarce until well into the twentieth century, so people always thought of a fight as a fight between men who had knives. And then, of course, a man’s courage was put to the test. When it comes to close quarters, you have to be brave. And, of course, my forefathers were military men. Although I don’t think they would use knives, I’ve seen swords at home, and those swords, I suppose, cannot have been just decorative, hmm? My grandfather fought in our Uruguayan border warfare, my great-grandfather fought the Spaniards and the Brazilians; in fact, I come from military stock. Perhaps that explains many things in my stories. I think I would have made a very poor soldier, but somehow I’ve always felt a kind of wistfulness after military life, and that is the reason why I’m so fond of the epic, where, for example, when I had to pick a quotation for you, I began with that epic quotation from Kipling about the wives of the Norsemen. I always feel as though I’ve missed that part of my life, and that I’ve had to dream my life among books. Of course, I’m being very unfair to books because, after all, they are quite as real, if not far more real, than knives or swords.
DB: Well, let’s change the subject now and—
JLB: Yes, get away from cutlery, eh?
DB: Yes, and talk about another obsession you have, the interplay of time and space: let me call it magic. Do you regard yourself as a supernaturalist?
JLB: Well, I would like to answer in the affirmative, but I’m not quite sure. I was telling my friend Mr. Alvarez here that as to the question of an afterlife and immortality, living in other bodies or other minds, I am, as Spencer was, an agnostic. I don’t think we’re capable of knowledge, but I like to keep an open mind. So if you ask me whether I believe in an afterlife or not, whether I believe in God or not, I can only answer you that all things are possible. And if all things are possible, heaven and hell and the angels are also possible. They’re not to be ruled out. I mean, I think it’s so strange that I should be living inside my body, that I should be looking at you through my eyes, that I should be speaking with a human tongue and through my mouth; that if this thing has happened, why can’t many other wonderful things happen? Why should I not be immortal? Why should I not be a god, an endless being? I mean, all things are possible, so that nothing should be affirmed, nothing denied.
DB: And you show this very vividly in two of your stories, in particular “Funes, the Memorious,” and “The Aleph”—
JLB: Yes, now in the case of “Funes,” that came within a fit of sleeplessness. And in Argentine Spanish, at least, there’s a very fine word. Instead of saying “wake up,” we say “recardarse”—to remember one’s self. And this is literally true, because, for example, this morning, when I awoke, I felt, well, I was living in a kind of infinite space, and suddenly I am Borges, I’m at Cambridge, I have to go to Canada, and so on. So I had to remember my circumstances in the whole world, and in the case of “Funes” I thought that a man who is burdened down by many memories couldn’t get any sleep. So I thought of him as eventually dying under the weight of his memories. If you remember, at the time of his death he is a very young man, and he has so many memories that he is incapable of making general statements, and then he breaks down.
DB: The other story was “The Aleph.”
JLB: Well, in “The Aleph” I had two ideas in mind. The first was the old idea of the microcosm, the idea that the whole world, the whole universe, the world of the external, might be, for all we know, summed up or enclosed within a very short space, so that we would have, for example, a small shining circle somewhere in a drab house in Buenos Aires and there the whole universe might be found, and therein another aleph, and so on, to infinity. And then I had another idea. I thought of a man being granted a privilege of viewing the universe and making nothing of it but using this privilege to write a nonsensical poem. So those two strains were woven into the story.
DB: I find it rather curious that some of your stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
JLB: Oh, I’m very proud. I got a second prize.
DB: Of course, we can’t compare you to Mickey Spillane or Ross MacDonald or Dashiell Hammett, but we do link you to Chesterton and Poe and Kafka—
JLB: Well, I don’t think I could write a straight hard-boiled detective story, you know, with bloodstained bodies and sexual…I couldn’t do that to save my life. But I wonder if I could have existed without them and, not least, De Quincey. I read him, that was way back in 1916 or 1917, and since then I seem to have done little less than imitate him or reread him in my own South American way.
DB: In one of your fictions you tell about a man dreaming he was a butterfly, and you ask, was he really a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or was he a butterfly dreaming he was a man?
JLB: I wish to God I had invented that. That came from the Chinese mystic Chuang Tzu, and I read it in the year 1915 in a book called Chuang Tzu: Mystic, Moralist and Social Reformer. I think it gives us a sense of how we live life like a dream, far better than Shakespeare—for instance, “We are such stuff as dreams are made of”—because that, after all, is a sweeping statement. But in this case, the butterfly suggests the dreamlike quality of life—the butterfly is also so short-lived. I think it’s a perfect parable.
DB: I’m baffled by your quotation of sources. Sometimes they are authentic, but often they seem to be fabricated. This throws the reader off because he never knows which ones to believe.
JLB: Well, look here. I give you my word of honour to behave well during this conversation and afterwards as well. I will invent no more hypothetical authors; I will indulge no more in bogus quotations; I’ll do my very best to live up to this very solemn promise I’m giving you.
DB: I would like to throw a quotation at you now. It’s from your story “Averroes’ Search”—
JLB: I remember that story—about a very intelligent Arab who cannot find out what Aristotle meant by tragedy. In spite of being a very intelligent man, he lacked the facts needed for the answer.
DB: Well, this brings up the quotation: “I sense that Averroes, striving to imagine a drama without ever having suspected what a theatre was, was no more absurd than I who strove to imagine Averroes.”
JLB: I was merely piecing together a story from some crumbs of information. And in the end, after I thought maybe I had fooled the reader into believing the story, then I said: “Look here, you don’t have to believe me, as I know very little about Averroes and this story is pure bogus.” But of course all stories are bogus, because even if I write a story about my next-door neighbour, it is a bogus story because, after all, I’m not my next-door neighbour.
DB: You have been living in North America this past year, holding the Charles Eliot Norton Chair at Harvard. How do you react to the currents of North American society?
JLB: Well, in spite of some homesickness, and some wistfulness, and of course those are unavoidable, I feel far more than what I felt before I came to America. Of course, I was introduced to this continent when I was a small boy by Huckleberry Finn. That was the first concrete image of America that I had—of Huckleberry Finn and the Mississippi and the raft and Little Jim and so on. And then I went on to Bret Harte and to Poe. And then, I think, strangely enough, to the very first book of history I ever read through and I was very proud of the fact—Francis Parkman’s Conspiracy of Pontiac. So I’ve always had a kindly feeling for America. They’ve been on the right side in two world wars, and now, in a sense, I feel as if I’m returning to America. I find everything very loveable on this continent. Besides, I find people are very warm-hearted. Last night, for example, when I gave my fourth Eliot Norton lecture in Harvard. I got the kind of cheering I never would have got in my country or anywhere else for that matter. I think this continent is a very hopeful continent. Of course, in my country we were downhearted. We have had a dictatorship. I hope we’ll recover from it because I’m a good Argentine and I believe in my country’s future. At the same time, when one comes here, one feels that one is coming to a more hopeful world. My country means a great deal to me. I’m not disparaging it. I’m merely telling you the truth because I think I owe you the truth.
DB: Without wishing to scandalize you, have you decided what your epitaph will be?
JLB: Well, you should give me several years. Perhaps you might say, “Here lies so-and-so, who found death no less perplexing and no less wonderful than life.” Well, I made that up on the spur of the moment. And maybe I won’t find death too perplexing and too wonderful. Maybe I’ll be up against a blank wall, no?
*****This interview originally appeared in the Canadian newspaper The National Post on August 24, 1999, the hundredth anniversary of Borges’s birth.
Don Bell is an award-winning author, freelance magazine journalist, and peripatetic book scout. His books include a short story collection, The Routine, The Routine, the Life-Sucking Routine, and a volume of offbeat sports articles, Frenchy’s Hockey Fantasy.