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Jorge Luis Borges

Monday, June 19, 2006

Borges: a forgotten interview

[It is the 20th anniversary of the death of Jose Luis Borges, one of the great writers of the Spanish language. I hesitated to translate anything by him - so much has been translated already. See The Garden of Forking Paths where there is a huge catalogue of his work in English. However, the BBC World Service recently published an interview with Borges by Noel Clark, journalist and translator, in Spanish for the Latin American service. My wife bought me a CD when I was first learning Spanish called “Borges por él mismo” (Colleción Visor de Poesía) in which he reads a selection of his own poems and sometimes gives a short commentary. As I read his responses in the interview, I can almost hear his distinctive and lyrical voice. And I thought that if I could only capture that tone in my translation here, I would be happy.]

In 1969, the University of Oxford announced its decision to award an honorary doctorate on the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

On that occasion, he was interviewed by the British journalist and translator Noel Clark for the Latin American service of the BBC.

As a homage to him on the 20th anniversary of his death, we transcribed this interview.

What was your first reaction when Oxford announced that it had decided to award you this degree?

My first reaction was astonishment, total amazement. I remembered that I had once thought that when good news arrives it can produce the same effect as bad news; a feeling of astonishment. Later I had a feeling of gratitude because I believe that the university has made a generous mistake.

It's certainly no mistake. I hope you are going to come to England to receive the award?

Yes. In addition there is something else I want to say, it's a coincidence - except that reality is full of coincidences - that I will go on the 7th of June and the 7th of June is my wife's birthday, her saint's day as we say here. The University of Oxford, without knowing it, without planning it and without suspecting it, will give a splendid gift to Elsa (Astete Millán) and to myself on this date.

In addition, I was once in Oxford, I think I spent the night there, many years ago. But I can say that I have always been in Oxford, in some way. With more justification, I have always been in England, not only because I have some English blood, but also because almost everything that I have read, I have read in English.

Also, England has something that other countries don't have; in particular English literature is a bit different.

If you think about other literatures, very admirable as they are - Italian literature, French literature or German literature - your first thought is about books in a library.

By contrast, if you think about English literature, you think about people. Thinking about English literature is first thinking of De Quincey waiting for his Ann in Oxford Street before thinking of De Quincey's 14 volumes.

It's as if England was like one of Shakespeare's plays or Dickens's novels. One sees them full of recognizable personalities, and I think this started in England.

On the other hand, a great literature like the French is for me a verbal literature. You could say that it is a literature of words, of books, and English literature of a literature of characters. They can be as different from each other as, for example, Sam Weller (The Pickwick Papers) and Quilp (The Old Curiosity Shop).

You once wrote poems in English...

Yes, I wrote some poems a long time ago but now I regret it. I feel too much respect for the English language to attempt this adventure now. Although I felt respect before, then, I was young and foolish.

But my friends tell me that there is something English, something spontaneous but not deliberately English, in my style of writing in Spanish.

If my friends are right, I have yet another reason to feel gratitude for England; it has done so much for me and so much for the world.

With your intimate knowledge of English culture and your contacts with the youngsters of Argentina and Latin America as a professor, what is your impression of the image that Latin America has of Britain at this time? Has it changed much during your life?

Well, I believe that in spite of the British invasions, here, no one has ever felt hostility towards England.

Now there is an important difference. Remember that this is a man of advanced age talking here, a man who will be 70, God willing, in August. When I was a boy, our culture, if we had any, was predominantly French. I don't mean this in the sense that all Argentinians, or rather those that mattered, could speak French.

I mean this in the more important sense that we could all enjoy French literature; in a discussion it was not a pedantry to interject a verse from Racine, Corneille, Hugo, Verlaine or some other French writer.

I suppose, through my reading of Russian literature translated by Mrs Constance Garnett, that the same happened in Russia.

Currently, I think that the French influence is declining, just as France is declining politically - it is less important as a country that it was before - and I know that many young people are taking up English.

They have been led to English by films, in the first instance. They reached England via Hollywood, but some unfortunately stayed behind in Hollywood and never went any further. They didn't reach New England and neither did they reach England.

But nevertheless, the influence of English here is indisputable. In Argentinian literature, I believe in contrast to other Latin American countries, we write books that are not just documentary or controversial, but excellent. I think that this is due to the influx of literature or literatures in the English language.

Professor, your poems and stories are well know abroad, but I believe that you have not written a single novel. If this is true, is there any specific reason?

I think that there are two specific reasons: first, my incorrigible laziness and second, the fact that I am not very confident makes me want to keep an eye on what I write, It is easier to keep an eye on a story, because of its brevity, than to keep an eye on a novel.

One can write a novel in successive parts and later these parts are organised in the mind of the reader or the author. By contrast, one can oversee a story with almost the same detail as one can oversee a sonnet: one can see it as a whole.

With a novel, one sees the whole when one has forgotten many details, when it has organised itself as a whole in the mind's eye.

I also believe that there are writers - here I am thinking of Rudyard Kipling and Henry James in particular - who can pack everything that a novel can hold into a story.

I think that the last stories that Kipling wrote are as complete as many novels. Although I have read, re-read and will continue reading “Kim”, I think that some of Kipling's last stories such as “Dayspring Mishandled” or “Unprofessional” or perhaps “The Gardner” are as full of humanity, of human complexity, as “Kim” and many other novels.

So I don't think that I will write a novel. Although I do know that writers are expected to produce novels in these times.

I am constantly asked when I am going to write a novel, but I console myself by thinking that one day I am going to ask writers, “When are you going to write a narrative poem?” or “When are you going to write a play in five acts”.

I also think that the story is an older art form than the novel and may even outlive or go further than the novel.

Here I am beginning to realise that I am repeating what another favourite author of mine, Wells, said. One could say the same of Wells and of Henry James: I believe that their stories are better than their novels and are just as rich.

Professor, you have modestly called yourself “a poet of few subjects”. What are, in your opinion, the principle subjects of your poetry?

I believe that I can reduce them to just one that is for me the essential problem of philosophy and metaphysics. I believe that if we could solve this problem... - but I don't see any way we might be capable of solving it and there is no reason why the mystery of the universe should be comprehensible - this subject is time.

Above all, time is related to the problem of personal identity. With this, we come back to the old Greek paradox about a river, that famous statement by Heracles: “No one steps in the same river twice.”

At first, we think that Heracles was talking about the river, “No one steps in the same river twice because the waters are different.” But later, with a feeling of terror, we understand that no one steps in the same river twice because we ourselves are like the river; there is something persistent in ourselves and also something that changes.

This is the mystery of time and I think that everything that I have written refers to the two paradoxes, which are perhaps the same: that of time and that of personal identity; that of reality and of me.


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