Ficcciones by Jorge Luis Borges is about 170 pages in Spanish; the English translation of the same book is about 120 pages (within Borges’ Collected Fictions). Why, then, has this book taken weeks to get through?
Borges’ writing style is powerful. In some sense, I’m glad I struggled through Borges just to get a feel for his different style. But unlike Nabokov’s powerfully written stories, Borges’ well-written stories are weird. I seriously can’t think of any other word to describe them. I overall did not like them, and I will never read more Borges.
Author Yann Martel, who is more literary than I am, explains Borges to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in this way:
These stories are intellectual games, literary forms of chess. They start simply enough, one pawn moving forward, so to speak, from fanciful premises-often about alternate worlds or fictitious books-that are then rigorously and organically developed by Borges till they reach a pitch of complexity that would please Bobby Fischer. Actually, the comparison to chess is not entirely right. Chess pieces, while moving around with great freedom, have fixed roles, established by a custom that is centuries old. Pawns move just so, as do rooks and knights and queens. With Borges, the chess pieces are played any which way, the rooks moving diagonally, the pawns laterally, and so on. The result is stories that are surprising and inventive, but whose ideas can’t be taken seriously because they aren’t taken seriously by the author himself, who plays around with them willy nilly, as if ideas didn’t really matter.
Here are a few notable stories with my summaries that may help you understand why “weird” is the only word I can think of to describe Borges.
- “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” A man discovers a reference to the odd country of Uqbar in an Encyclopedia and tries to find out more information about it. In the course of the next few years, the world becomes obsessed with this country, which has been invented on an invented planet, and begins to live as if the world of Orbis Tertius is the reality. This was the first story I read and was the most challenging to read.
- “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Writing a critical review of Menard’s life, the narrator explains how Menard’s best work, although unknown, was his rewrite of Don Quixote. Menard rewrote Quixote from memory, living as if he were Cervantes.
- “The Circular Ruins.” A man washes up on the shore outside of circular ruins. Over the next year, he dreams a man into creation, and sends his begotten son into the world. This was probably my favorite story, weird as it was: to think that he dreamed a person into being, from the heart to each hair on his body. Great twist at the end, too.
- “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In a subtle mystery, during the end of WWII a man travels by train to escape his murderer and to deliver a message. It was quite confusing to me.
- “Funes, His Memory.” A young man named Ireneo Funes developed a collective memory of everyone and everything.
- “The Shape of the Scar.” The story of how an Irishman got his scar. This was also one of my favorites as it was the least weird.
- “Death and the Compass.” A detective is trying to solve the mystery of three murders and he thinks he has the solution.
Reading in Spanish
I had started reading Borges’ stories in Spanish. I studied Spanish in high school and college, and would like to not forget all the things I studied. This was to be a refresher.
But I would read a paragraph and try to translate it, feeling frustrated. My preliminary thought was always “I don’t get it!” I read the first story (“Tlon”) twice in Spanish before I determined to find an English translation. To my surprise, I read it in English and felt similarly confused. I still didn’t get it.
I read that first story about four times before I started to appreciate it as the bizarre philosophical whatever that it is. I do now think it is rather interesting. But I’d suggest reading it in your first language from the beginning.
In the midst of struggling to read the second story in Spanish, I read Yann Martel’s letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
Upon rereading Fictions I was as unimpressed this time around as I remember being two decades ago. …
Now why am I sending you a book that I don’t like? For a good reason: because one should read widely, including books that one does not like. By so doing one avoids the possible pitfall of autodidacts, who risk shaping their reading to suit their limitations, thereby increasing those limitations. The advantage of structured learning, at the various schools available at all ages of one’s life, is that one must measure one’s intellect against systems of ideas that have been developed over centuries. One’s mind is thus confronted with unsuspected new ideas.
Which is to say that one learns, one is shaped, as much by the books that one has liked as by those that one has disliked.
I can certainly appreciate that logic: that reading something you don’t like can still teach you something. But I still determined not to spend all the extra time required to read the book I don’t like in a foreign language.
Where It Fits
I read Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges primarily for my personal HTR&W challenge, in which I’m reading through Harold Bloom’s list of short stories, poems, plays, and novels.
Borges’ Fictions was just 120 pages in English; I was determined to finish it. But if I didn’t have my personal HTR&W challenge, I may have given up.
Do you read books that you don’t like? How much do you read, not liking it, before you give up?
I have decided to give up on books that just aren’t working for me. I think when I quit will be different depending on the book. Hopefully I won’t have to do it very often.
Heh. I have 100 Years of Solitude in Spanish but I don’t think I’ll be trying that one until I get more fluent. All those Aurelianos are confusing enough in English.
I have definitely read books that I didn’t like, but whether I stick with them depends on the reason I don’t like them. For me, in the end, it all comes down to the writing, if the writing is bad, then I won’t persist in reading a book that I am not enjoying. But if a character bugs me, or I’m finding it hard to get into the groove of a certain story (perhaps due to impenetrable writing, which is definitely different from bad), then I will try to stick it out. I don’t always prevail, as sometimes I feel the reward will not be worth it… in the end, life is too short to spend it on books that don’t enrich your life in some way.
If I really hate a book, I will quit, unless it’s one I have to read for moderating at my book club. If I just don’t like a book, I’ll generally finish it up, because sometimes those books can just surprise you at the end. And because I’m a little OCD when it comes to starting and finishing books.
I guess this wasn’t the best refresher for your Spanish, huh? I need to do a french refresher.
Kathy, it’s always so disappointing to not like a book!
Sylvia, a few years ago, I got through about half of 100 years in Spanish. You’re right: too many Aurelianos! Great book, though.
Steph, well Borges writes very well. It’s just weird stories. I’m glad I finished these stories (about 20) but I’m not reading any more!!
Amanda, Me too! I feel compelled to finish books!
I’m struggling through The Blind Assassin. I heard so many good things about it but now, I’ve read three other books while going back and forth to it, never getting interested enough to stop me from opening another book if given the chance. When do you draw the line?
I hate wasting time, especially time I could be really enjoying reading. But then again, I hate not finishing…I really hate giving up.
Long story short: I don’t know but I’d love the answer! Hah!
I’ve finished one or two books that I didn’t particularly enjoy but if I really just feel like its a chore than I refuse to read it.
Heather, I’d love the answer too! At least this book was short, albeit hard to read…
Ladytink, it’s true, why do I read if it feels like a chore? I guess I in this case it wasn’t too bad, just weird in the end.
In the last couple of years I have finally decided that just because I started a book doesn’t mean I have to finish it, but it is hard to leave a book unfinished-what if the best part is just a couple pages away??
That said, I am much more likely to stick with a classic- something that is proven and apparently has some value-than if it is just some random book that I ran across in the library.
Dreamybee, I guess that’s why I stuck with this one: I mean, I have to give Borges a chance! He’s Borges! I am probably not going to read more, however….
Fictions by Borges is one of the finest books in argentinean -and in spanish- literature. Maybe it’s too intelectual for you, but Borges’ literature isnt for just anybody.
La literatura de Borges no sólo está excelentemente escrita sino que es de una fineza y una riqueza intelectual que hacen que sus historias fantásticas sean de lo mejor de las letras en español. Es difícil explicar bien por qué es tan buena y me encanta tanto su literatura, sólo sé que cuentos como “La biblioteca de Babel” o “La lotería de Babilonia” me llenan de sentimientos de soledad y extrañamiento. Son cuentos ricos en imaginación e ideas, muy bien escritos, muy sutiles y con un humor muy “borgeano”.
Porlaverdad, gracias por tu comentario. Sí, en verdad, la literatura de Borges está escrita excelentemente. Yo comprendí esto después de leyendo un poquito. Pero, en verdad es demasiado intelectual para mí. Pienso que estaba el humor “borgeano” que no me gustó. Pero, comprendo que es mí problema. Yo no podía comprender los cuentos porque estaba “difícil”, un disculpa estúpido.
Después de leyendo el comentario por Usted, quiero leer más de Borges. Me doy cuenta de yo necesito comprender difícil cosas.
Otra vez, gracias por tú comentario.
If you didn’t like Borges all that much then perhaps you may be more inclined to like his old pal, Adolfo Bioy Casares, who you will already have met through his appearance in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. (And if you like the TV show Lost then his The Invention Of Morel may be one bump up that reading list.)
Bioy Casares is more about the absurd idea and running with it whereas Borges was interested in grander schemes. Borges does have an uncanny abililty to crop up in others’ fiction, such as Mark z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves or Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose.
If you didn’t like Borges, though, I would suggest giving him a second shot. If you can, first though, read With Borges by Alberto Manguel, which is an account of reading for the blind Borges, and a slim, but effective, portrait of the man, a man obsessed by labyrinths and libraries and terrified of mirrors, all common to his fiction.
Stewart, well, one of the other commenters kind of convinced me I should try Borges again at some point. I doubly think I should do so now.
Thanks so much for mention of that Manguel book — it sounds like a very interesting perspective on Borges. And Casares — I forgot that he was a real person (I think the footnote told me that).
From looking at your blog just briefly, it sure seems you are quite well read! So thanks for the suggestions.
I’m glad you read Borges despite not liking his stories. A fan of Borges, and thankful that Spanish is my native language (allowing me to read his stories in their original language), I think that perhaps the way you approached his work was not the best: reading his most complicated story (“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) in a language that wasn’t your native one. I suggest you try his short story collection “The book of sand”, and read the short stories “The book of sand” and “There Are More Things”, which I think are the most straightforward. I also suggest you try the story “Shakespeare’s memory” (from the book of the same name). And please, please try reading the short story “The Aleph”, and read it to the end (as the beggining is a bit dense; in other words, if you haven’t found out what the “Aleph” is, do not drop the book).
Tomás Batalla » thank you so much for the suggestions. I need to revisit Borges. He is meant to be reread I do believe. 🙂 And I think I’d appreciate it a lot more than when I first read and responded to him in this post! Thanks for commenting.