Alberto Manguel: With Borges

When it comes to Jorge Luis Borges, I’m more aware of him and his contribution to letters than I am versed in him. A few short stories from Labyrinths is about as far as I’ve delved, but his legacy extends far beyond his own works and he has, in some form, appeared in the works of others. As Jorge of Burgos in Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose or Zampano in Mark Z. Danielweski’s House Of Leaves. In both instances the character, like Borges, is a blind man

Borges became blind in later age and would ask people to read for him. One of the many who did just that is Alberto Manguel who, when sixteen, received the request and would read books and poetry aloud to Borges for the next four years. In With Borges (2006) Manguel reminisces over this period of his life, giving accounts of the man himself interspersed with fragments of narrative, both of which combine to provide an interesting, if slight, portrait of arguably Argentina’s greatest writer.

It’s an intimate picture, depicting the close relationship between the two, Manguel admitting the influence Borges had on his understanding and appreciation of literature:

…the conversations with Borges were what, in my mind, conversations should always be: about books and about the clockwork of books, and about the discovery of writers I had not read before, and about ideas that had not occurred to me, or which I had glimpsed only in a hesitant, half-intuited way that, in Borges’s voice, glittered and dazzled in all their rich and somehow obvious splendour.

And while Manguel does talk of his experiences, much of the book is given over to the character of his mentor, a man to whom books were everything (“his world was wholly verbal: music, colour and form rarely entered it”) and, far from being a writer, was the perfect reader of the world:

For a man who loved to travel but who could not see the places he visited…he was singularly uninterested in the physical world except as representations of his readings. The sand of the Sahara or the water of the Nile, the coast of Iceland, the ruins of Greece or Rome, all of which he touched with delight and awe, simply confirmed the memory of a page of the Arabian Nights or the Bible, of Njals Saga or of Homer and Virgil.

It’s fascinating to imagine this, the imagery of man who can’t see. Yet in his head were words – passages of prose, lines of poetry; always retrievable – being constantly edited, reshaped, and rewritten. Manguel sprinkles his recollections with a few anecdotes about Borges’ capacity for recollection and composition, and how he used it to satisfy a wry sense of humour.

Amongst all the facts and stories, one of the more interesting – and surprising – aspects of Borges, Manguel notes, was his library:

For a man who called the universe a library, and who confessed that he had imagined Paradise ‘bajo la forma de una biblioteca‘, the size of his own library came as a disappointment…

But what was in it contained “the essence of Borges’s reading” – encyclopaedias, dictionaries, volumes of epic poetry, and novels by Joyce, Kipling, Chesterton – and Manguel also provides a sizeable list of those Borges rejected (e.g. Proust, Balzac, García Márquez).

Manguel finds space to talk about Borges time with Adolfo Bioy Casares (“the most important relationship in Borges’s life”) and, talking of their collaborate efforts, the Casares’ home life, and the magnitude of their conversations, in aspects of science, religion, and the arts. There’s even a funny story regarding the death of Casares’ dog that, in true Borgesian humour, complements the themes that dominate his literature.

Amongst all the names – of friends, of books – Manguel recalls more poignant moments spent discussing the other infinities of life. Like being a tiger. But at the same time hints at moments of cruelty and casual racism. Overall, though, Borges comes in for much praise – not just for his work, but for renewing the Spanish language by way of borrowings from other tongues. Interestingly, though, he is remembered as a man who had little regard, in a physical sense, for his own work. That he should go down as a reader of the world over one of its writers certainly feels apt. On whether history remembered him at all, he was indifferent:

…it was his work, his material, the stuff on which his universe was made, that was immortal, and for that reason he himself did not feel the need to seek an everlasting existence. “The number of themes, of words, of texts is limited. Therefore nothing is ever lost. If a book is lost, then someone will write it again, eventually. That should be enough immortality for anyone.”

Although, only sixty pages in length, Manguel uses each one effectively and produces a wide ranging picture of a man, his city, his loves, his hates, and his philosophy. In Borgesian terms it need never have been written at all:

“[Borges] likes to imagine a universe in which magazines and books are not necessary because every man is capable of every magazine and book, of every story and every line of verse. In this universe…every man is an artist and therefore art is no longer necessary…

He was a man that could cheat death by being infinitely possible: in life, in literature, and in memory.

April 11, 2008

3 responses to Alberto Manguel: With Borges

  1. jem said:

    I’m interested in trying Borges, he is one of those people you hear about but can often just not get around to reading. I ordered his ‘Book of Imaginary Beings’ the other day. I’m looking forward to checking him out.

  2. Stewart you cannot complain when you close the comments. You cannot complain anyway. You get far more activity than I and I am brilliant. Just kidding.

  3. Rob said:

    Thanks for this. It’s been a while since I’ve read any Borges.

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