Thursday, 25 July 2013

Rereading, Not Reading, Is What Counts: My Top 25 Borges Stories

Jorge Luis Borges (Source: Wikipedia.)
Partly in response to a request for Borges recommendations, and partly because it woud make it easier when I recommend Borges in other people's comboxes (which I do with what I'm sure is annoying regularity), I have decided to compile a list of what I feel are Jorge Luis Borges's twenty-five best short stories, "best" here being the totally objective measure of how much I liked remembering them when reading Wikipedia's list of Borges's work. Before I begin, I think it is best to place Borges: you'll likely get a sense of his style just from these selections, but each of his stories appreciates the better you know his style and the different things he writes. For this reason, I suggest you read the Wikipedia page, or a similar source, before diving into his work. (I would have liked to recommend the introductions to some of his collections, but I do not have my copy of Collected Fictions on hand, so I cannot identify which collection has an introduction I would like to recommend. This is a shame, as in one of them he writes some very thoughtful things about translation. And as far as non-fiction goes, I would also like to recommend his The Book of Imaginary Beings, which is a bestiary of imaginary creatures.)

These are ordered roughly as you'd find them in a chronological collection of his work; at any rate, they are ranked as you would find them ordered within his short story collections, and the collections themselves chronologically by publication. In order to make your reading decisions easier, however, I've arranged them again below according to themes.

My summaries are deliberately incomplete because many of them are spoilable and I would never want to diminish a person's experience with Borges. Of course I won't mark which ones are the most incomplete because I don't want you starting the story expecting their to be a twist or something.

1. "The Widow Ching--Pirate" is part of The Book of Iniquities, which is famously half-plagairized. It follows the career of the eponymous women, a real historical figure whose depiction here is as much hagiography as it is biography. At the beginning of his career Borges was writing stories about ne'er-do-wells, outlaws, and thoroughly amoral people, but his interest in such characters remained throughout his life.
2. "On Exactitude in Science" is Borges's take on the map/territory problem. It is about a group of cartographers who make a map that exactly fits the empire. Baudrillard later addressed the story in Simulacra and Simulation. It looks like it is a citation, but Borges actually wrote it himself.
3. "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" is a review of a fictional novel of the same name. I consider it a deeply touching story; it involves a young man trying to find an ever-receding spiritual leader. I understand that it meant something different to Borges than it does to me; to be honest, I haven't read enough of Borges's essays on personality to be quite sure what it meant to Borges (or, anyway, to be as sure as one can be).
4. "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is also a review of a fictional novel; this time, the novel is Don Quixote, except written by Pierre Menard rather than Cervantes. It is about how to read texts in light of their authors, among other things. Recall that, in the Spanish literary tradition, Cervantes holds much the same role as Shakespeare holds in the English literary tradition, and that Borges loved classical literature.
5. "A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain" is maybe the least interesting of the reviews of fictional works that I've included, but it is still interesting. As with the others, Borges suggests books that are interesting in conception but might be tedious to read in full, and I am grateful to Borges that I can think about these books without feeling bad about not having read them, since they don't exist.
6. "The Library of Babel" is one of Borges's fantasies. It is about an enormous and self-contained (ie. microcosmic) library that contains all possible books of 410-page books (of a certain format), and the philosophical consequences of this situation. It is one of Borges's many meditations on infinity. (If you like philosophy, I suggest you read the Wikipedia page on this story once you've read the original, as Wikipedia summarizes what philosophers have said about it:
7. "Death and the Compass" is a short detective story, one of Borges's oft-referenced genres. It is not like most mystery stories. It was the first Borges story that I read in full; it was assigned to a class in which I was the TA, and I had to teach it. Expect considerations of mirrors, a labyrinth, and one of the names of God.
8. "Three Versions of Judas" is about a fictional theologian who considers, in three different and increasingly heretical works, what the Incarnation meant and what role Judas played in it.
9. "The Dead Man" is one of Borges's gaucho stories. I have not included many of them and wanted to be sure I had a few. This one is pretty classically Borges.
10. "The Theologians" is about a rivalry between two theologians. It is also about heresy and orthodoxy. It, more than "Pierre Menard," is about how all people are one/the same, or whatever it is that I don't quite grasp about Borges.*
11. "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden" is, in way, about conversions, and about finding things worth sacrificing oneself for, though I don't know if Borges would summarize it in the same way. It is not about damsels in distress at all. Like much of Borges work, it is both neo-classical and concerned with South American history and politics.
12. "The House of Asterion" is about Asterion, who is a shut-in. Don't be put off by the beginning; by the end of the story I felt much more sympathy for the narrator, not because he becomes less oblivious but because his obliviousness becomes more, well, sympathetic.
13. "The Zahir" is another fantasy or magic realist piece. It is about a fictional object, the zahir, which makes anyone who sees it become obsessed with it. Someone somewhere says it is about unrequited love, which I think is a horribly diminishing interpretation. It is in many ways the partner and opposite of "The Aleph," which I actually liked less than "The Zahir" and did not include in this list.
14. "The Maker" is about memory and poetry and what kind of life (and psychology) is necessary for art; to this end, it follows a man whose life at least begins in a way that does not predispose him to poetry. I think it is easily one of Borges's most beautiful stories.
15. "Dreamtigers" is quite short (as is "The Maker," but even that isn't so short as "Dreamtigers"). It deals entirely with Borges's obsession with tigers. It also deals with the limits of art. Borges considered it his most personal piece. Some people consider it a poem.
16. "Argumentum Ornithologicum" is a tongue-in-cheek apologetics for the existence of God based on counting birds. At least, I think it's tongue-in-cheek. It's cute and very very short, but it nearly didn't make this list.
17. "Everything and Nothing" is about identity, and Shakespeare, and art, and maybe God.
18. "Borges and I", maybe one of Borges's most well-read pieces (that's wild speculation, you should likely ignore it), is about what it's like to be an author...or, anyway, an author who strongly believes that personality doesn't exist and that identity isn't as coherent or discrete as well mostly pretend. It is not magic realist at all, by the way; it's strictly realist.
19. "The Intruder" is about a love triangle. If you've read Eve Sedgwick's Between Men, you'll realize how badly this can go. It is most interesting to read in light of Between Men, especially once you know that Borges based it on a true story, but changed two of the characters from friends to brothers specifically to prevent any homoerotic undertones. It is also one of Borges's gaucho stories.
20. "The Duel" is about a rivalry between two society ladies who take up painting. I maybe include it because I share Borges's obsession with rivalries. It's unusual for Borges in that all of the primary characters are women.
21. "The Gospel According to Mark" is a sort of surrealist take on the Gospel of Mark. A man stays with a family of illiterate labourers isolated in the pampas and introduces them to the Bible. Events take an unexpected (but in retrospect unsurprising) turn.
22. "Guayaquil" has Borges, or a near-Borges, as a protagonist. It is about some letters of Bolivar; it is also about Spanish American history, and who writes about it.
23. "There Are More Things" probably would not make this list if it was about merit, but since this list is really about which I like the best, it is here. Borges wrote it as an homage to H. P. Lovecraft, and I think in reading it I learned that Borges would likely have made a better Lovecraft than Lovecraft did. (That's maybe unfair. He'd have made a more eloquent and more patient Lovecraft, but maybe not a better Lovecraft. Unless being a less racist Lovecraft is enough to make him better, in which case...)
24. "The Book of Sand" probably would not make this list if it was about which ones I liked best, but since I am kind of pretending this list is at least sometimes about merit, it is here. Like "The Library of Babel," "The Zahir," "The Aleph," and some others, it is about infinity. It is also magic realist/fantasy.
25. "Blue Tigers" could have exactly the same description as "The Book of Sand." Please note that it is not about tigers at all, actually, but having read "Dreamtigers" is probably a prerequisite to really appreciating this story and why Borges named it "Blue Tigers."

Ones I almost included but did not: "The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell," "The Man on Pink Corner," "The South," and "A Yellow Rose."

Below I have organized the stories thematically. Feel free to ignore all of the headings you find boring.

Magic Realism and Fantasy Stories:
"The Library of Babel," "The Zahir," "There Are More Things," "The Book of Sand," "Blue Tigers."

Iniquity Stories (including guacho stories):
"The Widow Ching--Pirate," "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," "Three Versions of Judas," "The Dead Man," "The Intruder."

South and Latin America Stories (including gaucho stories):
"The Dead Man," "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," "The Intruder," "The Duel," "Guayaquil."

More Personal Stories:
"The Maker," "Dreamtigers," "Borges and I," "Guayaquil."

Stories with Overtly Religious Themes:
"The Approach to Al-Mu'Tasim," "Death and the Compass," "Three Versions of Judas," "The Theologians," "Argumentum Ornithologicum," "The Gospel According to Mark," "The Book of Sand."

Stories with Infinity as a Theme:
"A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain," "The Library of Babel," "The Zahir," "The Book of Sand," "Blue Tigers."

Stories about Literature:
"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain," "Death and the Compass," "The House of Asterion" (perhaps), "The Maker," "The Dreamtigers," "Everything and Nothing," "Borges and I," "There Are More Things," "The Book of Sand." (Huh. I wonder what particular theme interest me the most...)

Stories about Art:
All of those in "Stories about Literature," and "The Duel."

Stories with Mathematics or Science as a Theme:
"On Exactitude in Science," "A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain" (maybe), "Argumentum Ornithologicum," "Blue Tigers."

Stories with Identity as a Theme:
"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "Three Versions of Judas," "The Theologians," "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," "Everything and Nothing," "Borges and I."

Stories that are Quests, especially for Knowledge, kind of but not really:
"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," "Death and the Compass," "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," "There Are More Things," "Blue Tigers."

Stories in which Female Characters Play an Important Role:
"The Widow Ching--Pirate," "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," "The Intruder," "The Duel." (This is maybe one of Borges's weaknesses; he writes mainly about men. Thank goodness they are not all white, able-bodied men.)

Stories which have a Plot, as Traditionally Conceived, or anyway as Traditionally as Borges will Write:
"The Widow Ching--Pirate," "Death and the Compass," "The Dead Man," "The Theologians," "The Zahir," "The Intruder," "The Gospel According to Mark," "There Are More Things," "The Book of Sand," "Blue Tigers."

Stories which might not even be Stories but Some Unnamed Genre, maybe "Fictional Essay"**:
"On Exactitude in Science," "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain," "Argumentum Ornithologicum," "Borges and I."

Stories, of this list, that are easily my favourites:
"The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," "The Maker," "Dreamtigers."

*The trouble is more that I don't know how to articulate what Borges is getting at than that I don't have any idea. It is much less willowy-sounding than I've made it out to be, though perhaps still less intellectually rigourous than some might care for.
**If you notice that not all of the stories are included in one of "has a traditional plot" and "might not even be a story," be assured that it's because a lot of what Borges writes is on the border between the two. "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" contains a story, for instance, but also contains a fictional review of that story. Others have events but not in some sort of linear plot way.

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