Posts Tagged ‘G.K. Chesterton’

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

If you want a good reason to learn Spanish, here’s one: you’ll be able to read Borges in the original. Learning won’t be very difficult, but it would be worth it even if it were. Spanish is a clear and elegant language and Borges is a clear and elegant writer. He puts his stories together like mosaics, using words as chips of coloured stone to create the strangest of worlds and situations.

This collection, which combines El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (1941) (The Garden of Forking Paths) and Artificios (1944) (Artifices), has the very strange world known as “La Biblioteca de Babel” or “The Library of Babel”, an infinite library of hexagonal rooms whose books are a kind of drunkard’s walk through alphabetic possibility:

Uno, que mi padre vio en un hexágono del circuito quince noventa y cuatro, constaba de las letras MCV perversamente repetidas desde el renglón primero hasta el último.

One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94, consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last.

Borges was fascinated by concepts like randomness and infinity, which is why he drew on mathematics so often in his stories. “The Library of Babel” is an exploration of those ideas, but amid the abstraction and universality of mathematics there are haunting images like this:

Muerto, no faltarán manos piadosas que me tiren por la baranda; mi sepultura será el aire insondable; mi cuerpo se hundirá largamente y se corromperá y disolverá en el viento engenerado por la caída, que es infinita.

When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.

That’s both horrible and beautiful. The first words of the quote – “Muerto, no faltarán…” – are an example of how Spanish can be more precise than English. A literal translation would be: “Dead, there shall not lack caring hands to cast me over the railing…” But in English the referent of “dead” hangs in the air and doesn’t settle very readily on “me”. In Spanish, muerto is masculine singular and clearly refers to the speaker.

English has to paraphrase, just as it does with the title of Gautier’s «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836). One of the strange titles in the Library of Babel, Trueno peinado, translates well into English: Combed Thunder. Another title doesn’t: Calambre de Yeso, or Plaster Cramp. I think Sandstone Cramp or Onyx Cramp would work better in English: the translation fails by being too faithful.

But Borges survives translation better than most writers, because his prose is precise and his themes are universal. Or perhaps you could say fundamental. He’s playing with words and ideas, exploring the relationship between language and reality, between reality and imagination, between imagination and mathematics. “The Library of Babel” is an excellent example, which is why it’s perhaps his most famous story.

But there’s a melancholy and even a terror in the story too, which come across more clearly when you’re reading more slowly and with closer attention. That’s one reason it’s good to read in other languages: people whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish can find things in Borges that native speakers can’t.

But that applies to every language: in some ways the natives are trapped by their own familiarity and fluency. Borges was aware of questions like that and in “The Library of Babel” he suddenly throws a door open to an infinity of mirrors. If the relation between symbol and sense is arbitrary, then any combination of letters can have any meaning. That’s why the narrator of the story suddenly asks:

Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?

In other stories, like “La Muerte y la Brújula”, or “Death and the Compass”, Borges’ games with symbols and coincidence can begin to seem like self-parody. This is the story of a series of murders committed to form the letters of the Tetragrammaton, or great and unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. I think the title in Spanish is better than the story, because brújula has an enticing echo of brujo, “wizard”, or bruja, “witch”. Borges was a profound writer, not a broad one, and he repeated himself, like a garden of forking paths or an echoing labyrinth. But my Spanish isn’t good enough to appreciate him fully or get the most out of his humour.

Whatever language you read him in, you’ll probably agree that he is among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But one of his biggest services to literature may have been to encourage more people to try G.K. Chesterton, one of his own heroes and inspirations. He would certainly have been pleased to do so, because you don’t get ego with Borges. Instead, you get ideas, some of the strangest and most haunting ever set to cellulose. As I said in one of my own attempts at Borgesian weirdness:

Black Aikkos the God is eternally blind,
But he sees with the eyes of the infinite mind… (“The Dice of Aikkos”)

Homer, at the beginning of European literature, is said to have been blind. Borges certainly was, and if he proves to have been at the end of European literature, he is great enough to bear the comparison.

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Brought to BookA Book of English Essays, selected by W.E. Williams (Pelican 1942)

GlamourdämmerungTreasures of Nirvana, Gillian G. Gaar (Carlton 2011)

Highway to Hell – The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Solids and ShadowsAn Adventure in Multidimensional Space: The Art and Geometry of Polygons, Polyhedra, and Polytopes, Koji Miyazaki (Wiley-Interscience 1987) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Magna Mater MarinaThe Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Marine Fish and Sea Creatures, Amy-Jane Beer and Derek Hall (Lorenz Books 2007) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of A Book of English Essays selected by W.E. WilliamsA Book of English Essays, selected by W.E. Williams (Pelican, 1942)

If we could always do exactly what we wanted, life would be less interesting and we’d discover much less. That applies to literature too. I wanted something to read, but I didn’t want to try this particular book. Nevertheless, faute de mieux, I did. And I’m glad I did, even though I didn’t like most of the essays in it. Too many of them seemed arch and affected, written to fill paper and earn money, not to say anything important or interesting. Joseph Addison, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt are big names and were big disappointments. Robert Louis Stevenson is an even bigger name and was an even bigger disappointment. His essays don’t seem to live up to his fiction.

Perhaps I should be forced to try those essays again, because first impressions are often wrong. But even if I’ve missed something good there, I’ve found something good elsewhere. More than one essay was good, but one would have been enough to justify reading this book. I’d never heard of Arthur Clutton-Brock (1868–1924) before, but his essay on “The Defects of English Prose” was one of the most interesting I’ve ever read. I thought it would be about grammar and semantics; it was actually about style and personality. I like his ambition and confidence. He surveys centuries of one of the world’s great literatures and finds them wanting:

Yet still one dreams of a prose that has never yet been written in English, though the language is made for it and there are minds not incapable of it, a prose dealing with the greatest things quietly and justly as men deal with them in their secret meditations, seeming perhaps to wander, but always advancing in an unbroken sequence of thought, with a controlled ardor of discovery and the natural beauties of a religious mind. Johnson might have written it, if he had had a stronger sense of beauty and more faith in the flights of reason; Newman, if he had been a greater master of words and less afraid of his own questioning; Henry James, if he had exercised his subtlety on larger things. The best of our prose writers, living or dead, are not civilized enough or too much in love with something else, or not enough in love with anything, to write the prose we dream of. The English Plato is still to be. (“The Defects of English Prose”)

I’ve not liked Plato when I’ve tried him, but that is a thought-provoking judgment and Clutton-Brock makes it with skill and subtlety. J.B. Priestley’s essays were good too, though I started them not expecting much. Evelyn Waugh didn’t like him, after all, and though Waugh’s essays are better – and should have been represented here – Priestley is obviously worth more attention. I already knew the same about G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), but I’ve been neglecting his writing for too long. This book has shown me so, because I thought Chesterton’s three essays – “A Defence of Nonsense”, “A Piece of Chalk” and “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls” – were the best things in it. He is a very good and very vivid writer whose writing seems impervious to age and fashion.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1954) comes straight after Chesterton – they were two cheeks of one arse, someone once said about their shared Catholicism and anti-modernism – and he suffers by comparison. I still enjoyed his defence of “Crooked Streets” against rational town-planning and its destructiveness and arrogance. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who begins the book, is one of the few essayists in English who don’t suffer by comparison with Chesterton. He’s not as vivid or easy to read, but he’s still someone who illuminates the world and makes you glad to be part of it.

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