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.