The Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

The Penguin Classics Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges is one of the richest compendia of a single author’s short fiction. Borges wrote in a class occupied by Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and few others.

As always I find it difficult to summarize dozens of stories in a single volume, so I thought I would approach this work thematically.

The Themes Themselves: Borges’ themes were the doubleness of consciousness, the unreliability of memory, the simplicity of perfect narrative, the interaction of dreams and waking life, labyrinths, time, the Arabs and the Jews of centuries ago, and death–both permanent and impermanent, which is to say: cyclical.

The Literary Antecedents: Borges surely had read as much as anyone. I think only Harold Bloom has read as much, and I may be wrong about that. His tastes were both catholic and refined. He loved Chesterton, Stevenson, and Kipling. Some of his stories consequently are mystery stories or misadventure stories or accounts of simple actions in which the tale virtually tells itself.

The Approaches: Per the above, Borges liked mystery, misadventure and pure action. He also liked enveloping his tale in a Conradesque “Once upon a time, I heard a man tell this story. I don’t know whether I believe it, but I thought I would pass it along.” Borges could be antiquarian, mischievous, fantastical and metaphysical. A writer with similar breadth of approach is Margaret Atwood. Another is Joyce Carol Oates.

The Style: I first read Borges many years ago in English. Then I read him in Spanish. This volume is a translation by Andrew Hurley, a very fine translation. Borges comes across spectacularly well in both languages but best, of course, in Spanish. Every sentence has an economy and specificity that is remarkable, especially when it appears in a story enshrouded in ambiguity. Borges also eschewed words like eschew. He created learned effects and ambiences with pertinent simplicity, not exotic words. One might argue that Borges was the best prose stylist ever because his artifices are so whole, so consistent, and so vivid. Such arguments are pointless in terms of winning and losing, but they can be educational.

The Imagination: Borges’ imagination, his ability to conceive a situation out of sheer thought, or sheer fantasy, or sheer erudition, or sheer envy, operates at the highest level. Why do I include “envy” in this list? Because Borges was a bookish, eventually blind, urban man who often dwelled on the tango of knife-fights between gauchos. He would have to have been the last man on earth to experience a knife fight, but he wrote about such subjects with a kind of love.

Reading Borges: My sense is that one never stops reading Borges. He’s Shakespearian in a way, or Cervantino. He has that kind of range and subtlety despite his preference for compact fictions.

The Argentine Background: Argentina (and Latin American history) plays a major role in Borges. He presents Buenos Aires as a New York, London, or Rome. It’s a thing of his imagination but real. Argentina’s perpetual torment, its suffering, its self-destructiveness, isn’t really part of this. In Borges, all that is lost will some day be found; that which is harmed will be healed. This is the permanent magic of literature, of course. Literature in Borges’ terms is like St.Anselm’s God: That than which nothing greater can be imagined.

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The Greatest Empire–A life of Seneca by Emily Wilson

The Greatest Empire is an excellent biographical account of Seneca, the Roman philosopher and advisor to Nero. It draws on known facts and makes good use of Seneca’s writings to flesh out the gaps, notably his essays and his plays.

I’ve reviewed other books about Seneca and Roman stoics recently, so I want to spend a little time here focusing on a few issues rather than taking on Wilson’s book as a whole. If you are interested in Rome, the emperor’s, or stoicism, by all means read it yourself. The best chapter is the epilogue, which traces Seneca’s influence over the subsequent 2,000 years.

The Greatest Empire refers to Seneca’s contention to that the inner life was much more important than external affairs. His life problems, of course, were that he ran afoul of the emperor Claudius and after compromising himself as Nero’s apologist, he received Nero’s order to commit suicide, an order he obeyed. Nonetheless he lived into his 60s, wrote widely and extensively, and became fabulously wealthy, all of which represents his quick wits, pliability, and intellectual energy.

The major question about Seneca is whether he was a hypocrite, dismissing worldly affairs in his writings while submerging himself in them in his personal comings and goings. At least, he was a compromised individual. More generously, one might say he was overwhelmed by imperial power and didn’t always have much choice about his fate, except in what he wrote. But something occurs to me when I compare the stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius with Seneca. Seneca’s writing is polished, clever, virtually a new style of writing Latin (he was a key figure in what is known as the Silver Age of Latin literature). Marcus Aurelius didn’t conceive of himself as a major literary or philosophical figure,but he wrote much more directly and honestly about his struggles.

This leads one to the question not so much of Seneca’s hypocrisy as his staginess, his coyness, his loftiness. There is a great, great deal of wisdom in his writing and it includes spectacular self-awareness and depth perception in terms of human nature in general. But as a reader, does one trust him, does one take him to heart, does one feel on some kind of a level with him?

In a way, all pronounced exercises in literary style must meet two tests: One test is transient and the results rise and fall with time. By that I mean tastes change. Going in and out of fashion is an unreliable measure of an author’s worth. More important is the issue of whether an author’s style emerges out of a desire to take a reader into his depths or is designed to delight and intrigue the reader at a distance. In a sense, this makes us judge a writer’s honesty, whether he is writing for show and admiration or in search of connection and communication. The Greatest Empire as a phrase conveys something of what I mean. It’s a ludicrous phrase, grand, pretentious, and somewhat empty.

One more point, however: it has to be conceded that as the ancient Greeks felt less in control of their fate, they became more inward-looking and, to use Seneca’s favorite word, indifferent to what was going on in the world around them. The same thing happened in Rome under the Caesars. There was a still a Senate,but it had no power. This rendered the nobility much less influential and certainly encouraged a philosophy of indifference such as Stoicism. So Seneca was compromised, twisted, and tormented by enormous political forces that no one–in fact, not even emperors–could bring to heel. In this context, what we have is not so much an issue of the validity of Seneca’s writing but a connection to his mortal personality, one we may not like. He was just a man, and no matter how showy he could be, he seems to have realized that.

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Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr.

Having heard of Last Exit to Brooklyn, eventually you will read it. When you read it, you will be engrossed, grossed out, appalled or amazed. Depending on who you are, one of these emotions is likely to be the dominant one while the others play back-up.

This is an expressionistic novel published in the 60s describing lower class life in Brooklyn in the 50s. Some of the characters are exquisite self-creations; others are uneducated abominations. Two writers quickly came to my mind as I worked my way into Last Exit to Brooklyn — Jean Genet and John Dos Pasos. Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers finds a kindred spirit here in a long section about cross-dressers, queens, and heterosexual fascination with a little bisexual experimentation. A lot of what goes on is boring exhibitionism–but it’s realistic and vivid and pulsing; and a lot of what goes on edges into what’s called “rough trade,” which could mean physical violence, sexual perversion, or crudeness.

Dos Pasos hovers spiritually over Last Exit to Brooklyn because of his USA Trilogy, which is written in a wild pastiche, one narrative strand smacking into another, the continuity being provided by the steamy ambiance of New York being New York– a place of dark excess, secrets, frustration, big money, and empty fantasy.

One of the longer sections of the book focuses on a foolish union underling barely surviving his responsibilities during a strike of his metalworking plant. Harry, like Georgina (the queen), and Tralala (a prostitute), and Mike and Vinny (no good husbands) is persuasively self-delusional. His arousal in a bisexual sense creeps into his thoughts and then his actions. He takes foolish risks for lust but he likes the results even though a part of him remains in denial. He’s not a fag; the man dressed as a woman he’s having sex with is a fag, and he’s not even having sex with her, he’s just doing things and having things done to him. Besides, he’s drunk.

The general sexual frankness, frustration and excess works its way into many of these narrative riffs, expressed in the vile language of the day and the culture and further bastardized by Selby’s disregard for grammar and great ear for Brooklynese. Every mangled sentence and word makes sense somehow. It all adds up to an exercise in swollen bombast as men insult women, women insult men, police crack heads, and criminals steal, burn, engage in gang rape, and celebrate with long, soggy, senseless spells of drunkenness.

Today I guess there’s little shock value in all this. More to the point is the question of whether Selby is dead on or exaggerating. Was the life he witnessed and expressed that raw, naked, aggressive, and humiliating? I’d say he’s fairly convincing. In one choral sequence he has women gathered on a bench on the grounds of a housing project: they’re almost wonderful in their cynical heartlessness and low expectations. Who has a husband who works? Not many. Who has a husband interested in fulfilling his wife’s sexual desires? Not many. Who has a husband who plays around, drinks too much, and lives in debt while making the wife do all the work both at home and in part-time tedious jobs? Most of these women do. So most of them express a noisy fatalism and omnidirectional derision toward the facts of life.

Ultimately Last Exit to Brooklyn is a highly moral book in the sense that it makes seamy behavior visible, impossible to ignore. This is what you get when city life is tough, people are detached from sustaining institutions and any sense of community. Here’s a cackling cry from hell–Don’t forget about us! We’re here, too!

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The Comedians by Graham Greene

The Comedians is a novel that reflects Graham Greene’s wandering life and mind. He had a taste for turbulence in out of the way places–in this case, Haiti. His narrator, named Brown, was born and abandoned to the Jesuits in Monaco, only to learn that his runaway mother intended to leave him a hotel she’d bought in Port au Prince. She dies early on in the novel, and here we have Brown in his hotel with two guests–bumbling but somehow noble Americans–under the watchful eyes of the Tontons Macoute, Haiti’s bogey-men at the service of Papa Doc Duvalier.

The setting is splendidly decaying. Brown’s love affair, with the German wife of a Latin American ambassador, is quintessential Greene: doomed, emotionally incomplete. As often is the case in a Greene novel, his anti-hero has no faith, no connection with his abandoned Catholicism, and therefore no place in a world full of flux and incoherence. His careless attitude sometimes undermines the story but connects directly to the theme of role playing, being an entertainer, falsely representing oneself to others in the hopes of receiving a kiss or a laugh.

Ultimately Mr. Brown, age 60, succumbs to lack of faith in his mistress and himself. He thinks she is cheating on him and arranges to have her suspected lover join some rebels in the hills. In fact, Mr. Jones, the mystery man in question, isn’t anyone’s lover and isn’t a veteran of the Burma campaign in any sense of the word. So he dies out there in the hills but not before serving as an excuse for Brown and his mistress to have the final falling out they both knew was coming.

Greene clearly knew he wasn’t writing one of his tighter, more excruciating novels. This isn’t The End of the Affair or The Power and the Glory, but the novel flows through some of its improbabilities like water cascading down a rocky stream bed, and there are a few sentences or images on most pages that are vivid, evocative, and compelling. Once having mastered the art of prose fiction, Graham Greene never forgot how to write beautifully even when he was writing tongue-in-cheek.

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Insurrections of the Mind — Essays from The New Republic

Insurrections of the Mind is an excellent anthology of diverse essays published in The New Republic over the last 100 years. The unifying theme is The New Republic’s ongoing effort to open new avenues for advancing liberalism American-style.

As we all know, liberalism became the “L-Word” somewhere during the Reagan/Bush years, but The New Republic’s version of liberalism lives on and can be succinctly defined as an attempt to insure big government helps little people while protecting everyone’s civil liberties. Mix in a little idealism in foreign policy, and you have the general formula in hand. The New Republic has always insisted, however, that public life involves more than politics, so there are many essays that focus on literature and the arts in this anthology.

Reviewing anthologies presents a problem: do you try to be comprehensive or do you focus on the high and low spots? I try to be brief in general terms — about 75% of the essays here are excellent to outstanding—and call attention to such a volume’s strengths and weaknesses.

The best essays from my perspective include Zadie Smith on Kafka, Jed Perl on Gerhard Richter, Otis Ferguson on Bix Beiderbecke,Hendrick Hertzberg on Ronald Reagan, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan on, you guessed it, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Smith captures what V.S. Naipul might call the “nullity” of Kafka and explains his difficulty with the novel form. Perl tears Richter to pieces as a paint-slapping phony while lambasting the Museum of Modern Art for featuring him so prominently. Ferguson catches the genius and misery of Beiderbecke. Hertzberg slashes into Reagan of his shallowness, self-centeredness, and general ability to mystify his staff, which constantly tried to advance ideas better than his, but not always with success. Moynihan takes stock of liberalism’s failures to deliver on its promises and suggests ways in which it, and he, can push for better results, not just more results and more dollars spent.

There are some turgid pieces here by Hans Morgenthau on the failures of democracy, J.M. Keynes on Soviet Russia, and I’m afraid, Vladimir Nabokov on translation. This is to be expected, and my taste may differ from yours in these cases just as it differs from the editor’s, Franklin Foer.

A theme throughout The New Republic’s 100 years is the impending demise of liberalism and how to save it. The answer seems to be coming after the book’s publication in the form of things like Obamacare and assertive executive action on immigration, Cuba, and climate change. (Before the book’s publication, big government plus the Federal Reserve pulled the U.S. out of a frightening economic nosedive, but I don’t find that well-covered here.)

In many ways, this volume sets the table nicely for the 2016 election. America will face a choice between rigid conservatism and fuzzy liberalism. What’s needed is a fresh look at what these political perspectives can actually achieve in a country where the middle class has lost so much ground and the relatively simple calculations of the Cold War have yielded to much more complex challenges abroad. The kind of thought that went into producing most of these essays is exactly what’s called for over the next two years.

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The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett

Writing a review of The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett is a puzzle. Reviews should describe and evaluate what the author was attempting … and accomplished. They also should note aesthetic resonances, if any, with the works of other writers. Along the way they should suggest to the review reader whether he or she might be interested in reading the work in question.

With Beckett’s short stories, that’s not easy. Here are the first sentences of the first five pieces in this volume:

“He could have shouted and could not.”
“Down you get now and step around.”
“Come come and cull me bonny bony doublebed cony swiftly my springal and my thin Kerry twingle-twangler comfort my days of roses and beauty week of redness with mad shame to my lips of shame to my shameful . . .” (Well, this piece, entitled “Text” goes on this way to the end.)
“Surgeon Bor operated with the utmost success on a boy called Bray who had been brought to him suffering from tubercular glands in the neck, since when the boy showed an unfathomable tendency to sink, and did in fact begin to sink.”
“I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time.”

There is music and mystery in these sentences that never leads to anything except more of the same, usually an account in the apparent first person of a life that is a kind of Irish bonsai, tiny and twisted and heading in contradictory directions

Becket was trying to write as minimally as he could, counting on the lilting humor and oddness of oppressed perception to encompass what is like to live as if one had never been born, or had never awakened, or was determined to articulate the subconscious stuttering and muttering everyone probably experiences in the course of a life that has an outside and an inside at the same time . . . and this is the inside.

If you know his play, Waiting for Godot, these comments probably make more sense to you than if you don’t. Beckett’s subject was the incompleteness of identity. His subject was the lack of a body, a name, a whereabouts, a direction, and any means of surviving except through gnarled being.

Samuel Beckett was a writer from the first. He came to Paris and became a kind of assistant to James Joyce, high praise in itself. He did not write as obscurely as Joyce in Finnegans Wake or as assiduously as in Ulysses or as conventionally as in Dubliners. Rather, he perfected this middle ground. He reminds one of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Franz Kafka, but in the end, he was and remains inimitably himself, satisfied with word upon word, kicked out of the world, longing for a view, buried sometimes, aloft sometimes, wondering where he’d left his coat.

On balance I’d speculate that very few readers would take these tales to heart because they’re not tales, they’re monologues from the unknown.

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The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman

The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman is 570 page book that examines the respective influences of Plato and Aristotle on western civilization. It is a tour de force. Herman has mastered everything from the pre-Socratics through St. Augustine to Descartes to the French Revolution to Hegel, Marx, Hayek, and Popper.

At bottom this is an argument that ideas matter, that they endure, that they affect human, political and economic outcomes. It is persuasive intellectual history and traces my own preoccupations since I was thirteen and began to study Latin, ancient history, and eventually Greek, reading Plato and Aristotle in the original.

The fundamental difference between Aristotle and Plato can be stated in less than 570 pages and less than 570 words. Plato conceived the highest order of reality to be the limits of our rational imagination. He posited propositions and then attempted to prove them. He used the deductive method of reasoning as his primary means of suggesting that things that can be perfectly thought can be perfectly realized. Aristotle took a simpler, inductive approach. He looked at what existed and accepted it as reality; then he compared and categorized and analyzed. He did not presuppose things. He saw freedom in diversity and he saw truth there, too.

Herman examines their cyclical rises and falls in western history. He explains Plato’s decisive effect on Christianity. He explains Aristotle’s ascendency in the Middle Ages. He finds Plato in the French and Russian Revolutions and other mass phenomena that have tended toward totalitarianism. Think of Hitler, think of Mussolini, think of anyone who would seek to make the individual fit the system. By contrast, think of Aristotle when you think of major historical actors and moments where the system is forced to adjust to the individual. One extended portion of Herman’s book focuses on the checks and balances James Madison built into the U.S. Constitution, those checks and balances being designed to thwart and excessive concentration of power and rule of the few over the many.

At the end of the book, Herman plays his personal hand too forcefully, it seems to me. He praises Ayn Rand, whom I take for narrow-minded and unoriginal (and verbose), and he tends to pretend that there is something called “the free market” and that it is information (not interest) driven.

So Herman is what we in the U.S. call a conservative, but in fairness, he’s a good kind of conservative, one who believes that there is room for the dreams of Plato in the human soul and one who clearly believes that preserving our understanding of ourselves is of vital importance.

The erudition in this book will shock some readers, but it is clearly written, well-paced, and if it has an intellectual flaw, it’s too short. Nonetheless, if you don’t know much about Abelard or Rousseau or Socrates, here’s a chance to meet them. This is no screed. It’s not a lecture in the form of a study. It’s fair-minded and compelling, and it hangs together.

We can take Plato and Aristotle as metaphors for two human intellectual capacities: the ability to imagine and deduce what it would take to fulfill our dreams and the ability to see one thing and examine its relationship to another. Or we can consider them and their followers, as Herman does, in their historical contexts, and that’s a rich road to travel.

For more of my reviews, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle). My novels–The Man Clothed in Linen and The Way Home–also are available on Kindle. Some of the seventy short stories and novellas I’ve published can be found with a simple Google search.

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