Partial Review of Alan Pauls’ El Factor Borges

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I will write a proper review once I’m finished, but for now I want to remark on what seems to be the main theme of this essay-book, both the main street and the alleys, the corpus and the asides. I hate to think that this blog will turn into nothing but a long series of posts about Borges, but for now you’ll have to trust me that I actually read other authors. Also, there’s no human being I know more about than Borges, so I’ll focus on him for a while.

– – –

(Growing up in a Latin American country, I have developed this Pavlovian instinct of looking down at the subtitles in movies, even when I can perfectly understand what is being said. It’s not voluntary anymore, the eyes just dart downward. This happens with literature as well; it’s hard to read my copy of Doctor Faustus without stopping on each little circle next to, for example, the word want. Like this:

Then tell me, Faustus, what shall we three want°?

This book has many parenthetical comments and footnotes, but they’re arranged in this almost houseofleafy way that makes it less bothersome.)

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The intention of this book, as Pauls writes in the preface, is to search for that or those factors that have marked our perception of Borges, not only found in the careful study of his literature, but on his circumstances, his mannerisms, his voice, and the way they all tie into his literature, not in a psychological way, but in the same literary sense with which one would build a character. And it was Borges himself the one who began crafting himself as a character, before every scandalous or poignant biography, before every roman à clef (Luis Pereda in Adan Buenosayres, Jorge de Burgos in The Name of the Rose, the blind Zampanò in House of Leaves). Each interview with Borges begins with biographical details, they ask where he was born; his answer is always a variation of, “I grew up in Palermo, but in reality I grew up in my father’s library, reading Don Quixote, Stevenson, The Thousand and One Nights”, etc. This constant repetition of intimate confessions was, I think, a way he had of avoiding intimate confessions, hand over poignant breadcrumbs to the interviewers in order to appease them. He wrote a short piece in El Hacedor, addressing this dichotomy:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

Several years later, he wrote a poem, a truly confessional poem, whose confession can be found not on the surface but on the general sentiment of the poem, called Fame. I will perpetrate a translation:

To have seen Buenos Aires growing up, grow up and decline.
To remember the dusty courtyard and the vines, the sidestreets and the well.
To have inherited English, to have interrogated the old Saxon.
To profess a love for German and the nostalgia of Latin.
To have conversed in Palermo with an old murderer.
To thank chess and jasmines, tigers and hexameters.
To read Macedonio Fernandez with his voice.
To know the illustrious uncertainties of metaphysics.
To have honored swords and reasonably yearn for peace.
To not be greedy of islands.
To never have escaped my library.
To be Alonso Quijano without daring to be Don Quixote.
To have taught what I do not know to those who will know more than I do.
To thank the gifts of the moon and Paul Verlaine.
To have crafted some hendecasyllabic verse.
To have retold some ancient stories.
To have ordered in the dialect of our times the five or six eternal metaphors.
To have eluded bribery.
To be a citizen of Geneva, of Montevideo, of Austin and (like all men) of Rome.
To be an enthusiast of Conrad.
To be that thing no one can define: an Argentinian.
To be blind.
None of these things are strange and their combination gives me a fame that I will never truly understand.

– – –

One of these verses stands out: “To have honored swords and reasonably yearn for peace.” Here, Alan Pauls finds something of a decoder.

Borges’ family tree is divided in two contrasting patterns: on one side, the military part of his lineage, and on the other, the literary. His grandmother, Frances Haslam, a devout reader of Dickens and the Bible, married colonel Francisco Borges. His great-grandfather, Isidoro Suarez, was a captain of infantry; his great-granduncle, Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur, was one of the first Argentinian poets. His father, Francisco Borges, was a poet, a translator, and a philosopher. When he was a child, it was tacitly understood by the whole family that Borges would inherit the destiny of his father (from whom he also inherited his blindness), and he accepted this destiny the way children accept everything they are told.

– – –

Yet, in the literature of Borges, one often runs into a vein of yearning for that other destiny, the military one. His collections of poetry are replete with verses that sing the resigned labor of a poet who dreams of swords and glory. Yet, what Pauls tries to point out several times is the fact that Borges, in a way, managed to seize that second destiny and make it his. In another late poem, Borges writes: “Only what we have lost can be ours […] there are no paradises but lost paradises.” Borges, by lamenting the loss of his military destiny, makes it his, and transforms it into what he knows, into literature. Borges saw his Buenos Aires grow, he saw the outskirts turn into a city, and thus by singing–in his first poetry collections–these fading sidestreets and dirtroads, he is reclaiming them.

– – –

(On yearning for what’s lost, on the desire for that which is veiled from us: my own prose always tries to be as clear as possible. I never try to unnecessarily enlarge or engorge a paragraph, always with the guilt inherited by a Catholic upbringing, the guilt I feel when I make someone read a piece of text I wrote; terrified that I will bore you, I will do my best to concentrate my writing and purging it of superfluities, knowing full well that this is not a necessarily accurate measure of quality, and also knowing full well that what I want is the opposite, I want to lose myself in my own paragraphs, I want to spin a tangle, I want to be Cervantes or Saramago, I want to throw myself into a swirling raging ocean, not caring if I make it out unharmed or even alive; my own self prohibits me from writing a novel, therefore I will resign myself into these miniatures, into little stories, into summarizing novels, showing what I see from a distance, like a prisoner looking into a meadow through a hole in his cell.)

– – –

Hey, listen. Another point Pauls makes is that, contrary to the idea most people have of Borges, of this ivory tower type writer whose metaphysical wanderings are wholly separate from life, from the dirt and the stench of real life, his fictions and his essays are brimming with conflict, with life and death. Emma Zunz avenges her father; The Theologians are locked in a perpetual struggle whose field is not a battlefield but religion; Dahlmann, in The South, abandons in a fever dream his literary ambitions and (perhaps) dies in a knifefight; and many more examples found in his fiction. In his essays, one can find the polemist Borges, the radical classicist, the reader who, in times of modernism, in times of Joyce and Proust, in times of new techniques, decides to favor and praise those writers whose main characteristic is narrative, not technical–Stevenson, Chesterton, Wells, Kipling. He was constantly having literary feuds; Leopoldo Lugones, as Pauls recalls, who during the first half of the 20th century was considered the undoubted master of Argentinian poetry, once even challenged Borges to a duel (he backed down after his friends told him that, due to Borges’ blindness, this duel would be more akin to murder); in an essay, he has no problem calling Christianity “one of the many offspring sects of Judaism”; he staunchly defended Jews in Argentina, in a time (WWII) where being an anti-Semite there was very much in fashion, by writing essays on Argentinian nationalist hypocrisy (a nationalist newspaper once denounced Borges for having Jewish blood; he responded by giving an extensive review of his family tree, and them lamenting the fact that didn’t have any Jewish ancestors); he was once severely beaten up after he started cursing a truck full of Peronists. Borges may have chosen a literary destiny, but he never neglected the warrior inside his frail body. This is one of the main ideas expressed by Pauls in this book.

– – –

Only what we have lost can be ours.

– – –

°Want lack.

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