Thursday, 25 July 2013

'Professor Borges' by Jorge Luis Borges (Review)

After my recent experience with Fictions, I was keen to try more of Jorge Luis Borges' work (and I actually had a library copy of The Aleph sitting on my shelves).  However, while browsing the New Directions web-site recently, I saw a new book by the Argentinian legend, an intriguing piece of non-fiction - and thought it might be interesting to see what the maestro thinks about our literary history...

Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, translated by Katherine Silver - review PDF courtesy of the publisher) does exactly what it says on the cover.  Borges spent many years as a lecturer at the University of Buenos Aires, and this book brings together a series of lectures he held from one semester back in 1966.  The twenty-five chapters (or lessons!) provide the reader with a trip through time and English literature - Borges style.

We start with Anglo-Saxon poetry, looking at the differences in style between Beowulf and other historic texts, before jumping to the middle ages.  There's a (very) brief look at the Victorian novelists, especially Dickens, before ending with the romantic poets.  There is a lot on poetry...  Strangely, Shakespeare is mentioned only in passing (if frequently), and while George Eliot, Austen and the Brontës are absent, there's a whole lesson on Robert Louis Stevenson.

Borges has an idiosyncratic style, and his choices certainly reflect that.  In addition to the heavy focus on poetry, he also spends a long time looking at Anglo-Saxon literature, an era you'd expect to fill one or two sessions, not seven.  His lectures are not your usual meticulously planned talks, more a kind of informal, digression-filled ramble through literary history.  His goal seems to be less to deconstruct texts but to kindle interest in his students by discussing the history of the pieces and the lives of the writers. 

Of course, it's all done with a slight Spanish slant.  Barely a session goes by without a mention of Cervantes or Don Quixote (or both), and even in the sessions on Beowulf, Borges is able to find an Hispanic connection through the involvement of the Geats (Spanish relatives of the Goths).  When he says...
"Hence all descendants of the Spaniards would be relatives of Beowulf"
p.10 (New Directions, 2013) might think he's exaggerating a little though ;)

Above all, Borges has an interest in the characters of the writers he discusses, the people, not the author.  He spends a lot of time talking about Samuel Johnson, using Boswell's biography of the great man to paint a humorous warts-and-all picture (he even describes the Johnson-Boswell pairing as comparable to that of Quixote and his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza...).  Another figure to receive this treatment is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Borges brings across as a somewhat lazy genius...

It's true that the book is just a transcript of off-the-cuff lectures, but it is amazing how he expounds and digresses, but manages to stay (mostly) on topic.  Borges is erudite, with an incredibly wide historical and literary knowledge - and, let us not forget, it's all from memory.  At this point of his life he was virtually blind:
"And now let us read some of Rossetti's work.  We are going to begin with this sonnet I spoke to you about, "Nuptial Sleep."  I do not remember all the details, but I do remember the plot." (p.187)
As a piece of writing, you won't find it particularly impressive - and that's because it's not writing...

It is inspiring though.  I frequently zipped off to the computer to look up the writers and works name-checked (Rossetti, Blake, Morris), often reading the poems mentioned before returning to the book.  One interesting find was Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, a long poem dealing with ten views of the same crime, a work Borges mentioned in the same breath as Kurusawa's film Rashomon (adapted from two stories by Akutagawa).  Yep, erudite ;)

While I enjoyed this book greatly, not everyone agrees.  A Guardian review I saw really didn't like it, and had several reasons for criticising it.  The first was that this is not something Borges would ever have wanted published himself, and that's a hard point to argue with.  Then again, this is merely a translation of the Spanish-language original, so I think we can probably side-step that objection.

The second point was that this is just a standard series of university lectures and that there's nothing here a university student wouldn't have come across before.  That may be true to an extent, but for readers like myself, without a university background in literature, it does throw up new writers and works - plus there is the unique Borgesian slant...

The final point is that the lectures are dull and lacking in humour, and that's one I'd have to disagree with.  It's not obvious, but a subtle, dry humour pervades Professor Borges (perhaps easily missed if you don't read the book carefully enough...), and what appears to be dry conjecture could also be read as sly mockery:
"Johnson had a peculiar temperament.  For a time he was extremely interested in the subject of ghosts.  He was so interested in it that he spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet one.  Apparently, he didn't." (p.84)
All in all then, Professor Borges is a book worth having a look at, especially for those obsessed with all things Borgesian.  In fact, even the introduction explaining how the book came about is a fascinating one.  You see, we owe these pages to the unnamed students who recorded the lectures (on cassettes!) for lazy friends, and later transcribed them.  All good and well, except for the fact that these were university undergraduates working in a foreign language - which means that the transcripts were full of errors and, at times, illegible.

With the original tapes long reused, scholars had to reconstruct the original lectures from the half-baked second-hand copies the students had produced, leaving us with a sparkling, possibly imaginary, series of lectures which may or may not have happened this way (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius...).  So did these lectures really exist?  Just as was the case (as Borges tells us) with Samuel Johnson, whose witty conversations were remembered and written down after the fact, we'll never really know the truth...