9 mars 2007
WITH BORGES by Alberto Manguel, Telegram Books, 80pp, £6 99p
The other night I saw someone on the television news demonstrate a prototype digital book that unfolds like an ancient parchment scroll. As I recall, its memory (much better than mine and perhaps even better than that of Borges) contains eighty entire books, books the length of, say, Manguel’s The History of Reading, to which the text under review is an enchanting coda. I say “an” rather than “the” enchanting coda because any history of reading, as the author himself wrote at the end of the earlier book, is by definition unfinished, and in principle lends itself to an infinite number of codas. With Borges expands the short section on Borges found in The History of Reading. When Manguel was sixteen and working in a bookshop in Buenos Aires, the future historian was approached by the great writer and invited to join the team of people who regularly read to him in the evening.
From 1964-1968, Manguel read to his hero whatever the writer chose for that evening :
something by Kipling or Chesterton, or one of De Quincey’s essays from the great eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Manguel tantalisingly does not tell us which of the essays – on Pope, Schiller, Shakespeare or Goethe, according to Google – he read to Borges. Borges loved German almost as much as he loved English, so that does not narrow it down. “He would ask for a particularly interesting fact to be recorded, with the page number, at the back of the revelatory volume. Mysterious notations in a variety of hands sprinkled the end-paper pages of his books”. Manguel also took down new poems Borges dictated to him. And of course they had conversations about books : “it is the life”, as my old friend the poet Michel Couturier used to mistranslate jokingly the French commonplace, “c’est la vie”.
Borges travelled a lot, he was a man for whom, without doubt, the outside world existed (as Gautier said of himself), but it existed to confirm his readings and his writings. It becomes clear to us, as Manguel describes specific occasions from memory (for he took no notes), that the books in the apartment, metonymic of all literature, have themselves become the world, and yet Borges has not ended up as an aesthete, a précieux ridicule, for he eventually emerged on the other side of the labyrinthine mirror (the very picture of one of his nightmares) as a man who himself wrote stories and poems which we cherish for what they tell us about ourselves at times in our life when literature is at the heart of our self-understanding. Far from being the project or ontology of an aesthete, it is the very heart of the matter, the matter being what serious readers make of their lives. We find this matter in Beckett, Bonnefoy, Blanchot, Barthes and Benjamin, to name only the Bs among my personal favourites.
What is it about Borges – a member of my small pantheon of talismanic figures, undoubtedly a genius, and one of the handful of writers who have changed the way we experience the literary art and therefore life itself – that so captures our imagination ? Once one moves beyond the shudder and shadow of awareness that such quotidian heroism is not given to all, and that given his position – pre-mortem dying of the light — others among us might well have succumbed to self-pity and worse, to the bottle and worse, one realises that his blindness irresistibly calls up “the mind’s eye” and forces one to focus on the interiority of the act of reading, for which, read also writing, which is the creation or recreation of worlds by means of words. Of course, the world recreated by translation, a profound concern of Borges, is itself made of words.
Borges tells Manguel that his world is wholly verbal and that he is deaf to music and also that when he could see he was blind to painting. Be that as it may, this confession or mea culpa raises in my mind the eternally interesting question of the representation of reading in paintings, from Rogier van der Weiden via Vuillard and Gwen John through to Paula Rego. I refer to the reading of books rather than of letters, for letters propose an external or even externalised drama, thus raising other issues. When we experience or read a painting containing a reader, we are enacting what the painter’s reader is supposed to be enacting ; at the same time, the reader in the painting is enacting what is going on when we read the painting. There is one important difference, though. After a while, the painting is absorbed holistically, for that is the nature of visual art, whereas the reading of a book is a diachronic experience, like music, and so its representation in a painting becomes a paradox, or even a meta-paradox. For, if one of the glorious necessities of painting is the quest to capture time passing in terms of place or space, then to capture it by means of a person reading drives the representation inwards, renders it abstract, even conceptual, as indeed a blind man might imagine it.
In the drama and pathos of his lived life, Borges embodies the drama and pathos involved in reading (and I am talking about the reading of great fiction and poetry and certain other books), namely that it is an activity of our inner life, an activity which rearranges, sometimes permanently, the elements of that inner life. True, with some books, we underline and scribble in the margin (no doubt there will be a way of doing this with digital books, but it’s not the same thing, you can’t keep your fingers in three different places at once, for a start) as Borges’s readers did on his behalf, and quite obviously there is a sense in which a book can live without readers, thus, forgotten books are sometimes remembered after years of neglect. But the real work of reading involves interiority, and the blind Borges, whether reciting by heart or fingering certain books as one who sees (no seer, unlike Borges) would not, conjures up not only Homer and Milton, but also – given the Argentinean’s gnomic wisdom and spiritual beauty – Tiresias.
Books, according to Borges, restore the past and : “in time, every poem becomes an elegy”. What an elegiac circle Manguel describes, reading books to Borges that he had earlier sold him in the bookshop. As a Borges aficionado (who named my publishing company, Menard, after one of his characters), I salute Manguel for having had the wisdom to be born at a time and in a place where he could serve this great writer. If this was not foretold by Tiresias, it certainly demanded the present book, a book that readers of Borges (surely many of the readers of this review) will want to read. Borges is the father and mother of all modern readers, and a reading of Manguel encourages the telling of literary stories
Yves Bonnefoy informed me that he and Jean Starobinski (another great reader) visited Borges during his final illness in Switzerland. As they left, Borges called out : “n’oubliez pas Verlaine, n’oubliez pas Verlaine”, a significant act of literary criticism in an age which for understandable reasons neglects Verlaine in favour of Rimbaud. Manguel concludes the book by telling us that, according to Borges, every writer leaves two works : the written work and the image of himself, and that both creations pursue one another to the end. But, one has to observe, for this to happen, the writer’s life needs readers who tell the tale. A certain puritanical attitude would disdain the second creation, but I don’t, and it is good to have Borges on my side. The images we have of Kafka and Joyce, of Beckett and George Oppen, of Borges himself, are difficult to dissociate from their books. And that is as it should be.