From Umberto Eco to David Foster Wallace, what innovative contemporary fiction writer hasn’t been a fan of Jorge Luis Borges? Known mainly for his countless conceptual, cerebral short stories published in such popular collections as 1964’s Labyrinths, the Argentine master has an influence that continues to resonate loudly even now, 24 years after his death. But in life, he produced much more than fiction. His nonfictional body of work includes poems, sonnets, reviews, and essays, some of which have only recently undergone English translation.
Penguin Classics has thus released a new collection of Borges’s nonfiction and poetry, comprising five volumes: On Writing, On Mysticism, On Argentina, The Sonnets, and Poems of the Night. The series’ general editor is Suzanne Jill Levine, a UCSB professor of Latin American literature and a noted translator of Spanish-language fiction who’s worked on some of Borges’s most difficult essays. Levine also brought to the project a history of translating other adventurous authors, including Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig, experiences that led to her book The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, which was reissued last year by Dalkey Archive Press. She recently sat down to discuss what makes Borges fascinating, how his work has made such a lasting impact, and what’s to be learned about his fiction from reading his nonfiction.
Where does Borges reside on the Latin American fiction map? He has often been called the father of the Latin American novel—certainly the new Latin American novel, as of the mid-20th century. I hate to use biological or patriarchal terms here, but he truly was such an amazing inventor, such an adventurer in the world of literature, that his ideas, his concepts, his way into literature really inspired many significant writers. He directly inspired [Gabriel] García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, but even the generation before that. What’s interesting about him is that he really was first a poet, and always considered himself a poet. His approach to writing—no matter whether it’s fiction, poetry, essays—is, in some ways, poetry. That’s what makes the Latin American novel so special, so innovative: how it was dealing with language, renewing language, bringing in these obviously new genres like magical realism, of which Borges is a precursor.
What was your first encounter with Borges’s work? Way back. I went to Spain when I was a young student, and then when I got back to college my senior year, the professors were talking about Borges. This is the late ’60s. The first book I actually engaged with was an early work of fiction of his called The Universal History of Infamy, which was hysterical, because it’s this tiny book with seven short stories, and he’s calling it the universal history of crime, basically! You have to be drawn to this.
In the nonfiction, is this a different Borges than you see in the fiction, or is it all of a piece? In some ways, in order to understand his fictions, you have to look at his nonfiction, as well as his poetry, to see where this language is coming from, where these ideas are coming from. We wanted to not only bring forth to the reader the Borges they know but also expand their concept of who Borges is. On Argentina shows you how Argentine Borges was. You understand how committed he was—politically, socially, culturally—to his country. That’s a part that many people aren’t aware of.
It’s a very complex relationship. He loved this culture, but was very pained by limitations, by a sense of a lack of civic-mindedness, of a lack of, let’s say, political development. He saw it as a culture that was very rich, but, unfortunately, a country that was in the hands of, as he said, “gangsters.” He wanted Argentina to find its own voice. He didn’t want writers to feel they had to write about certain subjects in a certain way. The fact of being Argentine meant whatever they wrote, it would be Argentine. This concept of identity was shocking, refreshing, and makes total sense.
People say that his stories have the quality of primal myths that connect to a human brain at a basic level. I actually think he’s come the closest to portraying the labyrinthine structure of the brain. His writing is, therefore, in a way, super-realist. We are fiction makers. That’s what he tells us; that’s what he’s shown us. Everything we think and do, in some ways, is a fiction. We are myth creators, whether or not we want to be. You just have to turn on the radio or the TV or look at the media, and you’ll see myths being created all over the place, some not very uplifting.
He has a lot of thoughts about translation, even saying that it’s maybe a more advanced stage of the work. He thought of translation as creation. … It’s a creative act. One could argue that much of writing is translation. Whether or not writers are conscious of it, they’re often riffing off other texts, whether it’s from another language or their own language. Borges is saying, time and again, that we’re always rewriting. It’s really more of an 18th-, 19th-century invention, this rigid distinction between translation and original writing. If you go back to Shakespeare, he was “borrowing” other texts and rewriting them. In ancient times, the Latin poets were translating the Greeks, but these translations were their own poetry at the same time. He’s showing the relativity of certain concepts, revealing prejudices we have. He makes us question every category that we presume is written in stone.
Among Borges fans, there’s a lot of temptation to make him into a god, the ultimate writer. Are there dangers in that? He’d be the last one to consider himself a god, that’s for sure. If you look at the texts in On Mysticism, you’ll see this. You’ll see a sense of skepticism that is very deep and also humility, despite all his supposed erudition—a humility in that we can never achieve total knowledge, but we also have no choice but to reach for it. People need to create gods and believe in gods. Why, for example, do we adore certain movie stars so much? You need to believe in something. Borges is an example of a writer who reached out and found a universal core we could relate to as a kind of truth even if it’s also a fiction.
Suzanne Jill Levine will appear at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.) to discuss Jorge Luis Borges with Stephen Kessler, translator of The Sonnets, on Tuesday, October 5, at 7 p.m. See chaucersbooks.com.