Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I am in the process of rediscovering Borges, to me one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. It is a shame that he didn't win the Nobel Prize. 

For those who don't know, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was a writer from Argentina. My friend Florinda Mintz used to drive him around Buenos Aires when she was a teenager. Her mother and Borges were friends. Florinda, who later became a poet, had no idea at the time that Borges was a great genius. To her, he was just an old man who was partially blind and could not drive.

One of the things I love about Borges is his intelligence. When you read American popular fiction, you are struck, or I am, by the stupidity and banality of the writing. Oh, God, this stuff is dumb. I am talking about virtually all the bestsellers I have tried to read.

The writing is mindless and full of cliches. It seems that every male hero is a macho ex-special forces stud who is armed to the teeth and can kill 20 men in a single whack, while he's taking a leak with one hand and using his American Express credit card with the other hand.

I am always struck by how limp and lifeless the language becomes in their clumsy popular hands. I am talking about Lee Child and Faye Kellerman and Dan Brown and Harlan Coben and Denise Hamilton and Tana French and James Lasdun (who is mostly an academic) and Scott Smith, and many others, probably anyone who is usually on the bestseller lists.

It seems to me that stupid writing implies both stupid writers and stupid readers. Maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe these pop fiction writers and readers are smart people who want to rest their brains. Somehow I doubt it.

On the other hand, when I read Borges, I am struck by his vast knowledge and erudition and by his remarkable intelligence. I have to get out my dictionaries for French and Italian and look up words in Latin. And I have to get out my Bible, for Christ's sake.

Borges seems to have read everything in the world worth reading. Yet he writes about knife fighters and gauchos and thugs and gangsters in the slums.

When I was young, I loved to read, but I was too lazy to look up words. But when you read Borges, you have to know the words to get the entire meaning. So I look them up.

Borges pushes your imagination, your vocabulary, your intelligence, and your knowledge. He would be good for old people, like me, to read because he forces your mind to stay nimble.

Borges was fascinated by many of the same things that fascinate me: violence and genres and meaning in fiction.

One of the Borges's favorite things was false scholarship, dramatic and complex references to obscure texts that never existed. In one story, as I recall from when I first read him years ago, he posits the idea that if two people wrote the same exact book, word for word, one could be a world-famous classic and the other unknown and worthless.  

Borges played with meaning and ideas in a way that made the stories have multiple meanings on different levels. In the book I am currently reading, "Collected Fictions," Borges quotes George Bernard Shaw as saying, "all intellectual labor is inherently humorous." I believe it should be. Life is too short to be gloomy all the time.

Borges also said, "good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves." What a delightful idea. It is hard to find good readers, especially these days. It's getting rare to find people who even like to read. It is fun to think that the ability to read is as valuable as the ability to write. Not quite true, but there is a grain of truth, and much humor, in that idea. Writers do need readers, otherwise their work never comes to life.

Borges brings me an intense joy, a sense of limitless possibility, an excitement just to be alive.

I've been away from Borges for years, and I am sure glad to be back.

-- Roger

© Copyright 2011, Roger R. Angle

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