Some books you can’t make yourself put down, and others you can’t make yourself pick up. Gass’s The Tunnel ruined reading for me for months because I didn’t feel like I could read anything else until I finished it, and I couldn’t bear to read much of it at a time. Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions I carried around like some sort of a curse for a couple of weeks. These are books that you feel like you ought to read, that you know people admire, that you really do want to get through, that you know are probably good for you, but that just don’t do it for you.
I finally finished the Borges today and really don’t understand the fascination people have for him. His is a name you hear with awe and respect. I had meant to read him for years and was finally nudged into doing so upon reading several references to him in a John Barth essay collection recently. The Barth also nudged me to read Don Quixote, which I enjoyed a lot, and The Thousand Nights and a Night, which will take a good long time but which I’m digging. So I was optimistic about Borges.
His stories seem to take a few forms:
- History (usually about gauchos or knife fighting or Argentenian politics) retold.
- Revenge plots (some overlap with the history here).
- Brief philosophical or mystical musings that fall really flat.
The first three varieties generally don’t much interest me. I don’t have a head for or a particular interest in history or politics, and though the knife-fighting gauchos make for an occasional fun (if oddly subdued) read, I don’t need a dozen of them. The fantasies, and particular those that touch on the infinite and on doubling, are the stories that required less of a stiff upper lip for me to get through. Even those sometimes Borges delivers in a way that winds up feeling sort of deflated. He’s a master of telling a story and then adding a punchy closing line that wrecks the whole thing. In the shorter mystical pieces, he has a way of making simple statements about things and then adding a feeble flourish that seems designed to make you think the story is deep, but to me, it comes off pretty badly, as if he’s a magician doing the thumb-removal trick we all learned as kids and finishing with a big “ta-da” and a deep bow. His tricks, in other words, don’t merit nearly the response he seems to expect. It’s pretty annoying.
The later work appealed to me more than the earlier work, as evidenced by the sharply increasing frequency of dog-eared stories toward the end of the book. I dog-eared nothing until nearly halfway through the book, when I was struck by “The Zahir.” Others that I liked to some degree or another include the following:
- The Aleph
- The Interloper
- The Encounter
- The Gospel According to Mark
- Brodie’s Report
- The Other
- The Book of Sand
- Blue Tigers
The penultimate collection, The Book of Sand, is the strongest in the book.
A few references in Barth’s book aside, I’ve studiously avoided reading any criticism or even biographical information about Borges in hopes that I could form my own opinion unsullied. My opinion’s obviously not very high. I’ll be curious now to read a bit to discover all the ways in which my opinion is ill-informed and unjust; I’m sure there must be much to Borges that I’m missing. He seems to have been an awfully smart man, just not one whose fictions struck me in general as being as great as a whole as I gather they’re trumped up to be. I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll likely revisit a few of those dog-eared pieces. I’m also glad to be done with the book and eager to move on.