Sunday, February 7, 2010

Book Thirty-Eight: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Perhaps I needed a reminder of "serious" literature. Perhaps my reading has become too easy. Perhaps I was feeling too much confidence in my supposed ability to decipher text. But my eldest son decided I needed to read Borges and brought "Ficciones" home from the library (an irony that Borges fans will enjoy). This rather unassuming 142-page book (the Everyman's edition -- not the edition pictured) holds plenty to challenge the more casual reader. For Borges, I think anyone who reads his work once is a casual reader, and this is where I fall.
Borges's collection of stories require and invite repeated readings, preferably in small doses. In my quest to read one book a week I did not have the luxury needed to appreciate this book, but I intend to own it soon and return to the stories one at a time. In fact, I find talking about this book a bit difficult.

There are many themes which arise over and over. Borges is clearly intrigued by materialism, in the sense of what (if anything) constitutes the material world. Time may belong to that material world (I'm not sure if this is his concept or my interpretation), but regardless the mutability of time is a focus in many of the stories. Then there is the recurring labyrinth, a stand in for life itself (Borges is clear about this), which reappears often and includes the hint of a straight lined labyrinth named in "Death and the Compass," one of my favorite stories. Finally, mirrors make appearances as reflections of reality or perhaps reality itself. Now take all of these elements, stir well, let simmer for a while, spread over six pages, and you have a Borges shorty story.

The stories vary greatly. Many appear as essays, but are in fact stories. Then Borges reaches into the detective genre on a couple of occasions, although these are not pulp fiction versions of his thought. These are mysteries of the mind and for Borges entire worlds can come out of the mind which are no less real than the one containing the thinker (if they themselves exist -- calling all Cartesians!).

Ficciones is split into two parts. I found the second part easier to delve into, but I'm guessing it has to do with my comfort level for Borges increasing. One of best stories, The Garden of Forking Paths, is also the name of the first part, so there is plenty in both sections to ponder. But I've decided to hold off on my thoughts until I have the time to read the stories again.

For those unfamiliar with Borges, allow me to present a short biography stolen from some site called "Great Writers, Suite 101." It was hard to find a short one since everyone likes to talk about him.

Jorge Luis Borges is the best known Argentinian writer of the 20th century. He is most remembered for writing short stories that explore the boundaries between what is real and what is fiction. His best collections include El hacedor and El libro de arena.He managed to inject humor despite using elaborate and complex mazes in his stories to dramatize difficulties of achieving knowledge and humankind's pursuit in unravelling life's mysteries.

Early life of Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, into an established and wealthy family. He was educated in Buenos Aires, Geneva, and Switzerland, where his family lived for several years. He read widely in Spanish, French, German, Latin and English.

Borges the Young Poet
As a young man, aged 19, Borges lived in Spain and became involved with a group of radical young poets, avant-garde Ultraist literary group, who wanted to revolutionize Spanish poetry. After returning to Buenos Aires, aged 22, Borges became the center of a revival in Argentinian literature. He published his first poetry collection, Fervour of Buenos Aires, two years after his return. He continued publishing poems along with essays.

Seasoned Short-Story Writer
Borges turned his attention to writing short stories in the 1930s. His first important work in this genre was A Universal History of Infamy, published when he was 36. It is a collection of criminals' biographies. This mixture of reality (featuring real people) and fiction (characters he made up) became an important feature in his work.

Borges published his most famous stories in his 40s. Two of his best-known collections, The Aleph and Fictions, include tales about an infinite library and an infinitely small point in space from which the whole universe can be seen. Some of his stories from El Aleph also appeared in the collection of Labyrinths.

Later Years
Borges became director of the National Library in 1955. Later in life he slowly became blind and returned to writing poetry as well as short stories.

Final Years
Borges's last book Atlas was written with Maria Kodama, his companion, and with whom he married a month before he passed away. He died at the age of 86, June 14, 1986.

Sorry if I appear to be skipping out this week, but I would rather hold off until I feel like I know what I want to say. This book makes you think!

Next Up
Heading to another direction with a book I'm reviewing call The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith. 

Happy reading!

1 comment:

  1. I've read this book a couple of years ago, and I remember I had a difficult time--it must have something to do with the fact that I attempted to read it in one sitting. I have his personal anthology--in which Borges chose the works he would like to be remembered for/liked best--on my shelves, and I suppose it's never too late to return to him.

    And I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Smith. She's always being recommended to me, but I've never gotten around to reading her.