‘Readers find it easy to carry Borges in their heads. It has proved rather difficult, however, to carry his work in a reasonable number of books’
Cover Art for The Library of Babel, Erik Desmazières, 2000
Jorge Luis Borges was an eminently portable writer. He favoured various forms, but everything he produced was brief. He once claimed that his reluctance to publish novels was due to laziness, and that his works of short fiction were summaries of imagined longer works. Either he was teasing or being too modest, for his writing is deliberately compressed, and his style an instrument with an arrestingly rich sound. It takes only one reading to remember phrases as vibrant as “la unánime noche” (the unanimous night), from the story “Las ruinas circulares” (“The Circular Ruins”). And his ideas – an infinite library, a tongue-in-cheek defence of plagiarism, the claim that writers create their own precursors, rather than vice versa – have equal resonance.
Readers find it easy to carry Borges in their heads. It has proved rather difficult, however, to carry his work in a reasonable number of books. Both in the original Spanish and in English translation, the history of his publications is labyrinthine, and there is an abundance of miscellanies, selections and collections. (A Complete Works exists in Spanish. Even this is incomplete.) In English, Labyrinths and A Personal Anthology, which had the imprimaturs of the master himself, became benchmarks in the early 1960s, and have stayed in print ever since. Several volumes of poetry and fiction supplemented them. But publication was haphazard, and complicated by legal disputes which may have worked not only against readers, but also the author’s wishes for a platform in English – his second language. Thus, Norman Thomas Di Giovanni’s versions, undertaken in collaboration with Borges in the 1970s, were allowed to go out of print by the Borges estate. It took roughly three decades to work out the issues of translation, and only in the 90s, with the centenary of Borges’s birth in view, did an organized effort finally get under way to produce comprehensive editions. In 1999, Andrew Hurley produced a fluent, if often flat, rendering of the stories and other works in Complete Fiction. Alexander Coleman gathered more poetry than any previous anthologist in a judiciously edited Selected Poems. And Eliot Weinberger took care of the non-fiction in The Total Library, a cornucopia of critical writing, and an unobtrusive editorial triumph, with dozens of previously untranslated texts beautifully juxtaposed. At last, in three 500-page volumes, English-speaking readers had a reasonably complete Borges.
After the centenary of Borges’s birth in 1999, the exegesis proceeded apace, culminating in Edwin Williamson’s magisterial biography of 2004, which put Borges’s Argentine origins and themes in perspective for anglophone readers. This Borges appeared as less universal, more deeply rooted in the traditions of his native culture than had previously been noted. It was a necessary realignment, already suggested by the Argentine critic Beatriz Sarlo in her Cambridge lectures of 1992, which were edited as Borges: A writer on the edge (1993, reissued in 2007). Jason Wilson’s Borges: A critical Life (2006) stressed the same point, and further implied that the international Borges – the globetrotting lecturer, the Homer-like poet-prophet – was the lesser writer. Hispanic readers found confirmation of this in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s Boswellian journal Borges (2007), in which all the sparkle, wit and wisdom of his friend are at the beginning, while the final years read like a melancholy coda. (Are there any plans to publish at least a selection of this in translation?) The decade ended roughly at that point: with the origins in need of revision, and the feeling that the canon in English may not be so complete after all.
The five new anthologies under review reflect a kind of reaction to all this.