Saturday, 21 November 2015

Tales of the Wandering Louse

Portuguese Literature can’t brag about a prominent place in the history of long narrative prose fiction; it always inclined to lyricism. Portugal is a nation of poets, or so its people like to think; but as the philosopher Eduardo Lourenço once wittily remarked, every nation considers itself a nation of poets. The empty self-back-patting mitigates the truth that, a few pastorals and chivalric romances, Portugal before the 19th century didn’t add anything worthwhile to long prose fiction. The dearth spread out in the 16th century, after the Inquisition started kindling fires in 1536, until 1843, when the first genuine Portuguese novel came out. There were a few works between those dates, obscure and inconsequential enough not to have trouble official literature: books aimed at the masses, pure entertainment, that never presumed to be art. One in particular that I recently read and greatly enjoyed is called O Piolho Viajante, or The Wandering Louse, by António Manuel Policarpo da Silva. It’s such a neglected work it hasn’t been reprinted since 1973. The gentleman who gave it a brief lease on life was a writer I like very admire, José Palma-Ferreira (1930-1989), novelist, diarist, translator (of Ulysses no less), book reviewer, literature teacher, literary historian and lover of popular fiction that had fallen by the wayside. He was a tireless discoverer, promoter, annotator and prefacer of oddities and curiosities. Read and acclaimed in his lifetime, Palma-Ferreira eventually joined his hosts of pariahs in the oblivion he tried to rescue them from. Most of his work is out of print, and nowadays you can only find his careful, elegant, expensive editions of classics in secondhand bookshops. That’s a pity because The Wandering Louse is remarkable book.

Not much is known about the author: Policarpo da Silva was a bookseller and publisher with a shop in the Terreiro do Paço square, by the Tejo River, that nowadays teems with tourists. In 1802 he began the anonymous serialization (doubts about his identity lingered for some time; Palma-Ferreira shrewdly solved the matter by simply checking the records of the Inquisition for that particular year, since the periodical required a license, which was granted) of the Louse’s adventures. There is no plot to speak of, just episodic good fun in the manner of the old Spanish picaros. Much like Lazarillo de Tormes who switches from  master to master bathing in the sordidness of 16th century Spain, the Louse jumps from host to host (all in all there are 72 extant tales), giving us a panoramic view of Portugal’s lumpenproletariat in all its amoral, petty, cheating splendor. It was published up to the 1920s (when Policarpo da Silva may have passed away) and reprinted many times throughout the 19th century. It remained a popular work with the masses, however it never received much attention from the academy until Palma-Ferreira. Policarpo da Silva wasn’t a skilled raconteur, but he had a vibrating satirical vein, a delirious imagination and a comical turn of phrase that elevated his whimsies from mere dreck into respectable, sometimes inspiringly good prose. It’s not a novel with character development, rather an assortment of situations focused on ridiculing societal types, and so it’s best read in the jolly spirit of loose books like Il Decameron, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the first part of Don Quixote.

The book starts with an introduction by a man claiming to have acquired a manuscript from a Moor in Algiers written in “louse language.” Having an inclination for foreign languages, he claims the present book to be a translation and adaptation into Portuguese society. Fair enough; translation is a tricky business; sometimes you have to tweak stuff around to make them it clearer for readers. The actual narrator is the Louse. “I was born over there in Asia, from an intercourse between a She-louse and an Elephant, although some said that a male Tarantula was the person who gave me my day. But whether or not it was, that’s an insignificant thing; for since Lice don’t have estates to inherit, She-Lice don’t have many scruples about this or that being the Father of their children, albeit there are many scrupulous She-Lice and with many good feelings.” Palma-Ferreira, who was also an expert on picaresque fiction, explains that this beginning is meant to emulate the Spanish picaros that tend to begin with the narrators denigrating their parents. (Curiously, when Eça de Queiroz wrote his own special brand of picaro, The Relic, he did just the same; he was genre-savvy.)

Always adhering to the picaresque tradition, this book is about the lengths people of any social stratus will do to subsist. Although upper classes also get ridiculed, the Louse spends most of his time on poor people’s heads; but they’re not the downtrodden of social realist fiction; these are brutish, vicious, lying ogres that probably never had any intimation with lofty morals and ideals. This allows Policarpo da Silva to create a fine contrast between the Louse’s natural instinct to suck blood and man’s depravity. “For we don’t suck anybody’s blood in order to own carriages and support vices.” Not so with the men and women on whose grimy, filthy hairdos he hides and thrives.

The book is a window into many aspects of daily live that you wouldn’t find in literary fiction from this time; the most fascinating is the focus on poor hygiene conditions (the Louse frets over the pomades, tinctures, ointments, greases and medicines people put on their hair), including a lice-picking scene. “The husband begins, with his little finger, to pick his wife’s head. I take notice of that, and of the danger I was in, I move to the husband’s head. After a while the husband stops the picking and the wife gets to picking him. I return to the wife’s head, and thus they spent all night and me jumping from head to head. At dawn I rested somewhat but protesting that I’d jump bail as soon as I could, which I succeeded the next day,” he says, at which point he manages to jump to another host. He changes for many reasons: sometimes by accident, like when heads collide and tumbles into another hairdo; sometimes the host dies from illness; or else he’s in danger or being wiped away by cleaning products; other times he finds his hosts so dull (he’s a curious Louse) that he longs to meet a more exotic head. The picaro generally involves a journey; although the Louse stays in Lisbon, his head hopping constitutes in itself a journey.

He lives on barbers, dressmakers, doctors, philosophers, politicians, noblemen, bartenders, grocers, beggars, bandits, even a poet. Deception, greed, abjection and iniquity are running themes: incompetent doctors prescribe medicine that have no effect; grocers adulterate products with cheaper material and cheat on the weights; washerwomen steal clothes; bartenders make beverages last longer by adding water. (This was still common enough in Eça’s time.) Most people are grafters trying to make ends meet, and for them a good trick means survival pure and simple, and moral qualms don’t even come into it.  It’s a grim, voracious world, all the funnier because the Louse seldom judges but finds everything perfectly normal in accordance with basic human needs. A particularly grotesque host is a man the Louse calls Avaricious (there few have proper names): on finding a dead man in bed, the first thing he does is cut off his hair to sell it. “Once he threw out a daughter just because she broke a glass,” the Louse reveals. But he can be even more vile: “And there was another thing about him: on Sundays, he called his children and joined them in catching flies for eating and told them it was the same as lupin seeds [eaten in Portuguese bars like peanuts in America]. And they were so skilled at this that, in the end, they already caught them with their mouths.”

Here’s how a ruthless apothecary worked; medicine in Portugal in 1802 was pretty primitive, people could become doctors with almost no credentials, and medicine was still based on folklore, not science. The following flimflam is a stretch, but conveys the spirit of crude solution-thinking that passed for medicine at the time:

The apothecary also had a prescription for eyes which was a thing never seen before, and a neighbor who had this malady was cured by him in three days. I wish to relate the prescription because it’s a useful thing. He put him in dark house and then removed every furniture from his house and painted several figures with coal on the walls. He told the man he could come out, that he was fine. The patient, who saw no furniture at home, claimed he was worse than before because he saw nothing. But the apothecary insisted it was a lie and asked him: “Do you not see these paintings on the walls?” “Yes I do, sir,” replied the poor man. He asked him again: “And before I cured you, did you see them?” No, sir.” “Then why do you complain, if you’re seeing so well? You even see what you didn’t see before.

There’s also a tale about a mediocre poet; here’s his idea for a play: “He composed a Tragedy wherein the first death on stage was the Investor’s. Then began dying, in their order, all the Actors and Actresses so that an Extra, who turned on the lights, had to come to give notice that the Tragedy was over.” Policarpo da Silva should have written this play instead; he’d be famous nowadays as a forerunner of the Theater of the Absurd.

Another running theme, like in a good British Victorian novel, is the widespread abuse of drinking. “There were many who never lunched at home. It was easier for them, when they only a penny, to leave their whole family fasting, for with a penny’s worth of bread they’d hardly kill hunger, just to come to the gin joint to chat and take their coffee with a toast.”

A layer the Louse lives on perhaps conveys the book’s motto: “In this world everything is business. Today I sell, tomorrow I buy.” And there’s money to be made with everything; through cunningness, lack of scruples, boldness and some luck, anything becomes a commodity in the feral struggle for life. This book would be absolutely horrifying if it weren’t so hilarious. Policarpo da Silva had the genius to find a great metaphor for early 19th century vermin-riddled Portugal: in a world where everyone feeds on others, like lice do without our noticing, by ruse and schemes, everyone is a blood-sucking louse. It’s not that sophisticated, but what he does with it is very different enticing.

Trendy Americans like to make up lists of foreign untranslatable words; there are two Portuguese words that usually make the rounds: one is saudade, which is not very useful and we won’t waste our time with it; the other, far more vital, is the bedrock of Portuguese thought: desenrascanço, which means coming up with a crude, last minute solution for a problem because of lack of planning of foresight. It’s very much the Portuguese way of being. The Wandering Louse, it could be said without exaggeration – although The Voyages of Fernão Mendes Pinto may be a precursor – is perhaps Portugal’s first and yet best treatment of desenrascanço.

A few brief remarks on the languages. Although Policarpo da Silva was writing mass entertainment, his prose is surprisingly good. There are frequent word puns, inner rhymes, alliteration, and paronomasias. Not being a genius writer, Policarpo da Silva was quite the coiner of lively sentences wholly unexpected in their oddness. This book is so foreign to the general character of Portuguese fiction, I’m amazed it even exists, and ever so thankful for it. If only more mainstream, literary authors had read it and absorbed some of its insanity, instead of the Walter Scotts, Balzacs and lifeless Romantics that only led to dull copycats, the course of the Portugal novel would have improved astronomically.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Borges talks about his mom

So I was looking into the serviceable Osvaldo Ferrari/Jorge Luis Borges book for another post for The Argentine Literature of Doom, when I came across a conversation about a most unusual subject: Borges’ mom, Señora Leonor Acevedo Suárez. I didn’t remember this conversation at all, and I’ve read the book twice. But, oh!, it’s brimming with stuff. Borges talks about his mom, translations, foreign languages versus Spanish, or Castellan as he prefers to call it, fake memories, terrorism and equestrian statues. This one has everything!

As always, it begins with Ferrari, Boswell to Borge’s Johnson, picking a theme. This time he chooses Borges’ mom, “A figure that seems crucial in your literary life,” he claims. Borges quite readily agrees, no angst at all with him. “Yes, I owe a lot to my mother… to her indulgence, and then she helped me in my literary oeuvre. She advised me not to write a book about Evaristo Carriego, she suggested to me two themes that would have been far superior: she suggested to me a book on Lugones and another, perhaps more interesting, on Pedro Palacios-Almafurte. And I told her, with feeble conviction, that Carriego had been our neighbor in Palermo, and she told me, quite right: “Well, nowadays everybody is somebody’s neighbor,” of course, unless you live in a desert oasis, no? I don’t know, I wrote that book… I had become enthused, more or less, with Palermo’s apocryphal mythology. I finished second in a municipal award, which was nothing to sneer at, since it was three thousand pesos. They gave the third place to Gigena Sánchez, the first I don’t remember who won it. Anyway, those prizes allowed – I gave some money to my family – allowed me, let us say, one year of leisure. And I wasted that year writing that book, for which I’m quite regretful, as of almost everything I’ve written, titled Evaristo Carriego, which was published by Manuel Gleiser, from Villa Crespo.”

OK, let’s have a pause here to break this super-long reply, and to remark that his memory is amazing; circa 1984 he still remembered events from 1930 so crisply. The Wiki entry on Carriego is lovely, by the way; we learn that he “was an Argentine poet, best known for the biography written about him by Jorge Luis Borges.” Anyway, moving on:

“That book is illustrated with photos by Horacio Cóppola of old Palermo houses. It took me about a year or so to write it, which led me to certain researches and to meet Nicolás Paredes, who had been a caudillo in Palermo in Carriego’s time, and who showed me, or told me, so many things – not all of them apocryphal – about the neighborhood’s lowly past. Besides that, he taught me… I didn’t know how to play card tricks (laughs), he introduced me to popular payador Luis García [a wandering singer], and I hope to write something one day about Paredes, a character by far more interesting than Evaristo Carriego. However, Carriego discovered the literary possibilities of the outskirts. Well, I wrote that book, in spite of my mother’s opposition, or better yet, resignation. And then my mother helped me a lot, she read me long texts aloud, and when she was voiceless, when she was losing her eyesight, she continued to read for me, and I was not always dutifully patient with her… And… she invented the ending for one of my most famous tales: “The Intruder.” I owe it to her. Well, my mother barely knew English, but when my father passed away, in 1938, she couldn’t read because she read a page and forgot it, as if she had read a blank page. So she imposed upon herself a task that would force her to pay attention, that task was translating. She translated a William Saroyan book; it was called The Human Comedy, she showed it to my brother-in-law, Guillermo de Torre, and he published it.”

Here Borges starts digressing, but Ferrari steers him back to her translations. “But we can also remember other translations made by your mother, which were exceptional, like the translation of D.H. Lawrence’s tales.” And Borges replies: “Yes, the tale that gives the book its title, ‘The Woman Who Rode Away,’ and she translated it very well, I think. And then, why not confess that she translated, and I later proofread without hardly changing anything, the novel The Wild Palms, by Faulkner. And she also translated other books from French, from English, and these were excellent translations.” “Yes,” says Ferrari, “but perhaps you didn’t have the same affection she did for D. H. Lawrence; I never heard you talk about Lawrence.” Borges, as always, is quite candid about his likes and dislikes: “… No, she liked D. H. Lawrence, and I, alas, was rather unlucky with him. Well, when my father passed away, she got to translating; and then she thought that one way of getting close to him, or pretending to get close to him, was improving her knowledge of English.” And he adds: “Yes, and she liked it so much that in the end she couldn’t read in Castellan anymore, and she was one of the few people here who read in English… there was a time when every society lady read in English; and since they read a lot, and read good authors, that made them skillful at English. Castellan was for her a bit like, I don’t know, like Guarani must be for a lady in Corrientes or in Paraguay, no? A rather homely language. So I met many ladies here who were quite skillful at English, and fatally trivial in Castellan. Of course the English they read was a literary English, and, on the other hand, the Castellan they knew was a homely language, no more.”

Ferrari, focusing on the question of English, flatters him, “Borges, I always imagined that being skillful at English was one of your never revealed secrets.” But Borges replies, “… No, Goethe used to say that French writers shouldn’t be excessively admired because, he added, ‘The Language versifies for them.’ He thought French was a skillful language. But I think the fact of one having a good page in French or English doesn’t allow any judgments on them: as languages they’ve been so overwrought that they practically function on their own. On the other hand, if a person achieves a good page in Castellan, he had to overcome many adversities, many strained rhymes, many ‘entos’ – which group together with ‘entes’ – many words without hyphen, so that, in order to write a good page in Castellan you have to have, at least, literary gifts. And not so with French and English, these are languages that have so overwrought that they practically function on their own.”

After this hilarious, concise put-down of three languages Ferrari returns to his mother, why I don’t know, this was quite obviously the climax of the conversation. But no, it gets better.

Ferrari mentions that his mother, like Borges, was famous for having a prodigious memory. “Yes, “ agrees Borges, “she told me so many things,” about Buenos Aires in the past, “and in such a vivid way that I now think these are my personal memories, but in fact are memories of things she told me. I suppose that happens once in a while to everyone; especially if it’s about very ancient things: confusing what’s heard with what’s perceived.” And he adds: “I have personal memories that can’t have been registered by me, for chronological reasons.” Borges really was a character in a Borges short-story! He was a Naturalist all along. “Well, my sister sometimes remembered things and my mother told her: ‘It’s impossible, you hadn’t been born yet.’ And my sister replied: ‘Very well, but I was around already.’ By this she drew close to the theory according to which children chose their parents; that’s what Buddha presupposes, who up in the sky chooses a particular region in India, which belongs to a particular caste, or to particular parents.”

Ferrari chips in that “memory is hereditary,” which Borges agrees with of course. “An admirable aspect in my mother was, I think, the fact that she didn’t have a single enemy, everybody liked her; she had every sort of female friends: she entertained in the same way an important lady and a black old woman, great-granddaughter of slaves on her family’s side and who used to pay her visits. When this black woman died, my mother went to the chapel where they were carrying out the wake and one of the black women got atop a stool and announced that the black woman who had died had been my mother’s wet nurse. And there she was, in a circle of black folks, acting quite naturally. I don’t believe she ever had a single enemy; well, she was in jail, honorably in jail, at the start of the dictatorship. And once she was praying and the lady from Corrientes, who ever since has been our house maid, [the text is not clear here;], asked her what she was doing, and she replied: ‘I’m praying for Perón,’ who had passed away; ‘I’m praying for him because he really needs someone to pray for him.’ She absolutely held no grudge.” You really need to read the two volumes from start to finish to appreciate how Borges couldn’t forget and forgive Perón.

Ferrari brings up her courage. “Yes,” says Borges, “I remember someone phone her once and a quite rude and terrorizing voice told her, ‘I’m going to kill you and your son.’ ‘Why, sir?’ asked my mother with a rather unexpected courtesy. ‘Because I’m a Peronista.’ ‘Very well,’ she said, ‘as for my son, he goes out every day at ten. You only have to wait outside to kill him. As for me, I’m… (I don’t remember how old she was, eighty something); I advise you not to waste any time talking on the phone because if you don’t hurry I may pass away first.’ Then he hung up.” And there were no more phone calls, suggesting perhaps that the secret ingredient in Gandhi’s ahimsa is ridicule.

Next Borges mentions some of the illustrious officers in his family, which prompts this bit about people wanting him to sign a public petition to rise a statue in honour of his ancestor General Soler. “And the last thing our unfortunate country needed was more equestrian statues. There were so many equestrian statues you could barely walk around with all these statues; naturally I didn’t sign it. Besides that, they’re all ghastly, why foment that hunger for statues? But I was told there’s a Don Quixote statue that beats all the others in ugliness.” Now, if someone knows which statue he means, please let me know.

Borges isn’t crazy about his military ancestors; he seems prouder of his mother’s religiosity. She “was sincerely religious,” he says. “As was my English grandmother because she was Anglican, but of a Methodist tradition; that is, her ancestors moved all around England with their wives and Bibles. And my grandmother lived almost four years in Junín. She married Colonel Francisco Borges, whom we just mentioned [I cut out his quoting a poem about this figure], and she was quite happy – she said so to my mother – for she had her husband, her son, the Bible and Dickens; and that was enough for her. She had no one to talk with – she was amongst soldiers – and, besides that, it was a prairie with nomadic Indians; farther out there were the Coliqueo huts, belonging to friendly Indians, and in Pincén too, filled with spear-yielding Indians, warring Indians.” I was just thinking that Borges, like Gabriel García Márquez, can boast of having had important military man in his family history.

There’s a final note about Borges’ mom that fills me with joy. Ferrari mentions her “familiarity” with literature. “Yes,” says Borges, “her love for books was remarkable, and so was her literary intuition; she read, around the centennial, the novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, by Eça de Queiroz. [the Centennial was held in 1945, but it must have occurred before 1938 since Borges’ dad was still alive, as we can see below; anyway, I’m amazed echoes of the event reached Argentina.] Queiroz was unknown at the time, at least here [no, almost everywhere actually]; because he died in the century’s final year. And she told my father, ‘It’s the best novel I ever read in my life.’”

And there you go; now we all know a bit better Señora Borges, and above all that she had a magnificent taste in books.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Because otherwise we’d live in a chaotic world, which may be true, but it’s not cheerful: Borges on Argentina.

                       The Argentinean Literature of Doom

                        Now that time of year when busy book blogs
                        take tasty, tender trips to Argentina,
                        and even I cease translating Three Wogs
                        and cobble up some verses - not a sestina

                        though!, he deserves no riches, my friend Rich
                        (clever trick, inspiration is abloom!),
                        just hare-brained clumsy verses crammed with cute kitsch
                        to contradict this dire drift of droll Doom,

                        a playful prologue to graver (is it?)
                        business about an arabesque blind man
                        who wrote of mazes, tigers, books with bright wit
                        and of whom everyone is a big fan.


I was looking at the Table of Contents of my Osvaldo Ferrari/Jorge Luis Borges book of conversations and noticed that there was a conversation about Argentina. Well, that seemed appropriate! Borges mentions in passing that he was 84, which puts it at 1983 or 1984, so Argentina was still either a dictatorship or had just recently moved to democracy. But Borges detested politics – he says as much below – so he dexterously avoids being too explicit about anything.

It begins, as it often does, with Osvaldo Ferrari asking him something. “Borges, I’d like to know how you see Argentina, or how you remember it (I mean inner vision) from your travels: from the technocratic world of America and Europe, for instance, or else, ultimately, from the ancient West: from Greece, Sicily.” Borges replied at length: “I always have an anachronistic recollection of this country. Of course I lost my sight more or less a bit before I was fifty-five – I lost my reader’s sight at that date. I imagine Buenos Aires in a totally anachronistic way; unwillingly, I think of Buenos Aires as a low-ceilinged houses town… of course, apparently I never saw that much, but when I saw what I saw, that was one of things that impressed me. And now I know that vision is false. And yet I continue to keep it: I continue to imagine a Buenos Aires that, obviously, doesn’t look like the real Buenos Aires; I still think of Buenos Aires with low-ceilinged houses, terraces on the roof, patios, cisterns, attics. I know that’s all anachronistic, I know that no longer exists. Except, perhaps – in a rather theatrical way – in the proximities of the Lezama Park, or in that place they now call Palermo Viejo, but there they’re conserved in an artificial way. I still see things that way, and as for politics, the truth is politics never interested me, except in relation to ethics. That is, if I intervened in politics it was for ethical reasons, and nothing else. But I’m not affiliated in any party, I expect and fear nothing. Well, perhaps I may fear some parties a bit, but I try to live in the margins of that, and I try to live my own way, that is, inventing; inventing fables, thinking… and now, well, perhaps we have some right to hope. Or maybe we have the duty to hope, to better put it. I think an act of faith is expected of each and every one of us if we wan to save the nation. And perhaps that act is not hard, although its effect may be, yes… it’s still a bit far. And we shouldn’t think what’s going to happen this year or the coming one, but rather think, well, think of how things will be in five years, and perhaps that way we’re cooperating. Yes, an act of faith.”

Ferrari insists on the theme of Argentina joining the pace of the rest of the developed world, focusing on the nation’s difficulty to come to terms with modernity; “it’s suspected,” he says, “that there is something in us, Argentines, that offers resistance to unconditional adaptation to technocracy as a way of life.” Borges replies: “However I don’t know if there’s any other possibility left to us. Well, we’re always left with the exercise of ethics; and that’s an individual thing. I don’t know if I can think in a very general way; I can think about my behavior, in the behavior of people I love, of my friends. But such a vague thing as the historical future, I don’t know if I can think about that… of course I spent my life rereading Schopenhauer, and Schopenhauer said that seeking for a purpose in history is like looking for bays, rivers and lions in the clouds – we find them because we look for them – but he believed that history didn’t have any purpose. And yet it seems rather sad to think so: we must think that history has a purpose – at least an ethical purpose – and perhaps also an aesthetic purpose. Because otherwise we’d live in a chaotic world, which may be true, but it’s not cheerful. Nevertheless… our dreams are also part of reality and can intervene in it, no? So. The fact that we look for lions is already something.”

Ferrari maintains that Argentina seems incapable, unlike the rest of the Western world, of accepting change; but he’s also worried about the risks of becoming a technocratic country; he wants to know if Borges sees risks and benefits for Argentina. “Id’ say,” Borges replies, “that it might harm us, but I don’t know if my opinion has any value. Besides, I don’t know if we exist outside the West, we’re part of the West.” Ferrari asks him to imagine that Argentines suspect the technocratic way is wrong and that the West is developing along wrong lines. “And what other line is possible to us?” asks Borges. “You say it’s humanism? But we also practice it, and the whole West.” Then he adds: “Yes, well, humanism, of course; but that’s not an Argentinean invention either – it’d be very awkward. Besides, as far as I know we didn’t invent anything.”

Ferrari next argues that the Argentines don’t have propensity to form a community, to go about accomplishing something as a community. Borges agrees. “That’s a grave flaw, no doubt about it. And I think it’s due to the fact that people think, well, that people think in this and that party, and not in the nation. And that seems dire to me, and I think you must be in agreement with me, and everyone must be, theoretically, in agreement with me. Why, in practice they act otherwise: as to that there’s no doubt at all, is there?” They talk about parties and economy and Borges maintains that, for Borges, led Argentina to “disaster.” For him it’s the consequence of everyone thinking only about their own interests: “each one thinks in his personal fortune and his personal fate. The result is general disaster.” With everyone running for their own lives, “they manage not to save anybody’s. That’s the final result.”

Then Ferrari asks him if he thinks they can ever come together as a people. The best part of the reply is really when he starts talking about Hindus. “You will certainly manage it,” says Borges, “you’re still young. Not me, I’m hoping to die this or the next moment and of course I won’t see that, for I don’t know if I can live another ten years. Certainly not, besides that would be a disaster for me. I’ve surpassed the reasonable life expectancy. It’s seventy in the Scripture, I’m eighty-four. Why, according to Schopenhauer, he prefers the Hindu way of counting, which says that the normal thing in human life is one hundred years. He explains that by saying that if a person dies before reaching one hundred, he dies because of an illness, which is no less accidental than falling on a river, or being devoured by a tiger. So that number would be exact because only after one hundred does a person die without agony, spontaneously; that is, he ceases to be, suddenly. Not before, before you need something as casual as an illness, or like an accident, to kill you.”

There you have it, this is how Borges discussed Argentina and current affairs. Just to relieve readers of possible shock, yes, Borges does talk about books towards the end, about George Bernard Shaw in fact, but I skipped that; I just don’t want people to leave St. Orberose wrongly persuaded that Borges ever had a conversation without bringing books into it. This may be a two-bit book blog, but it’s still committed to the truth and will not brook the creation and spreading of false rumors!

Monday, 21 September 2015

A poor island, lost on the Northwest side of Europe, which seems to have specialized in men of genius: Jorge Luis Borges on Irish Literature

Back in the 1980s Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari had a radio program; the topic was always books and authors, even when Ferrari tried to lead Borges to other places. Once he asked Borges about the “vast richness” of the Irish Literature.

“Yes,” replies Borges, “it’s a richness that seemed opposed to all statistics: a poor island, lost on the Northwest side of Europe, which seems to have specialized in men of genius and which enriched English Literature, for English Literature is inconceivable without so many unforgettable authors.” Then he develops his thesis. “Why, curiously, that tradition is ancient, for we’d have to think – I think it’s in the ninth century – and there we have that gigantic image of Scotus Eriugena, whose name means ‘Irishman born in Scotland,’ for Ireland was then called Vetus et Maior Scotia, and Scotland is the name Irishmen had over there.” Only Borges to really begin at the beginning. And then of course he starts digressing. “On reading histories of philosophy, and especially histories of scholastics [Who does that?], which is certainly quite rich and has many varied masters, I noticed that Scotus Eriugena is, however, unique because he’s a pantheist. The writings attributed to the Areopagite had arrived in Paris, and there was no one in France capable of reading them. And then this monk from Ireland arrives, and in Ireland they had saved Greek: they had been invaded I’m not sure if by the Saxons or by the Scandinavians; anyway, the Irish monks had to flee from their convents – these convents were particular, each monk was alone in his hut, and in the cultivated fields there were moats to stop the Barbarians. But one of them left: Johannes Scotus Eriugena.” At this point it does look like Borges is going to give a full lecture on Irish Literary History, but damn it!, it’s so interesting. “He was called by Charles the Bald, and translated the text of the Areopagite from the Greek. No one knew neither Latin nor Greek; the Irish monk did. And then he wrote his philosophy, which is a pantheistic philosophy. And, curiously, there’s a Hugo poem, ‘Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre,’ which corresponds exactly to Scotus Eriugena’s philosophy. And that philosophy is also found in Back to Methuselah, from another Irishman, who probably hadn’t read Scotus Eriugena: Bernard Shaw. The idea is that all things emanate from divinity, and that at the end of history all things will return to it. And this provided Hugo with a wonderful page wherein he imagines a whole sort of monsters, of black dragons, or whatever it is, and of demons amongst them. And they all return to the divinity. That is, divinity is reconciled with all creatures, including its monsters.”

Phew, and Ferrari only asked him about Irish Literature! Imagine if he had asked him to talk about philosophy.

Borges moves on to “another incredible writer, we have Swift, to whom we owe Gulliver’s travels – amongst them that horrible voyage: the voyage to the Yahoos, who are men who are like monkeys – and these other men, whose name imitates the sound of a neigh, are the ones who form that republic of thinking horses.” There’s also Berkeley the philosopher. “Berkeley is the first one to reason about idealism and he was Hume’s master. Well, Hume was Scottish, and both were Schopenhauer’s masters. And further on there are so many illustrious Irishmen that one loses the thread: perhaps the greatest poet of the English Language in our, William Butler Yeats. And we also have an unjustly forgotten, George Moore, who began by writing very silly books and in the end writes admirable books with a new type of prose; books like, about confidences of unreal things, of dreamt things by him, but which are told as confidences to the reader and which are Moore’s personal inventions. And there’s another name that, in spite of the sadness, or maybe infamy of his fame, we think of him the way we think of an intimate friends, or even a child: Oscar Wilde obviously. And why not mention another Irishman who created two characters that are perhaps more famous than any politician: the creator of Sherlock Holmes and doctor Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Ferrari asks him to return to Bernard Shaw. Borges remarks on the similarities between Shaw’s Back to Methuselah and Scotus Eriugena’s philosophy. “And that was all thought of by Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century and Bernard Shaw ends up giving it a dramatic and hilarious form in that work.” On Borges’ mentioning the play’s humour, Ferrari suggests that Ireland “produced the humoristic genre, the ironic, the satiric; a very particular variety.” Borges kindly ignores him and piles on more names from his prodigious memory. “And we forget Goldsmith, we forget Sheridan; well, we forget the ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets, the ‘Celtic penumbra.’ Yes, but Yeats was in that group at first, but then, fortunately, he abandoned that twilight and wrote perhaps the most poetic and precise works. And we forget, I don’t know how we can, it’s really a feat of forgetting: to forget the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, who was also Irish.” It’s not really a feat of forgetting; although Borges held Ulysses in high regard, he derided Finnegans Wake and had very little to say about Joyce’s earlier realistic books.

Ferrari asks Borges to speak a bit more about Yeats. “Well, what Yeats did with the English Language is more admirable than what Joyce did, for Joyce’s compositions are a bit like Literature Museum pieces, no?” Here’s the Borges I know and love! The one who always speaks his mind, who doesn't fear unpopular opinions. “On the other hand, the poetry of William Butler Yeats is not, it’s something that enraptures us, like Hugo’s poetry, for instance. It’s extraordinary: I always remember that untranslatable, unwise verse which however exerts its magic: ‘That dolphin’s thorned, that gong tormented sea.’ How strange! The sea dilacerated by dolphins and tormented by gongs. I don’t know if it can defend itself logically, but it’s evidently a magical conjunction. And we find many in Yeats’ pages; there are constantly unforgettable lines like that.  I remember the end of one of his plays where one character is a pig keeper, and you see these extraordinary women who descend slowly down a staircase’s handrail. And he asks them what were they made for; and they respond: For desecration, and the lover’s night. Those are the last words. It’s stupendous, isn’t?”

As far as I could inquire, the play to look this line in is called The Herne's Egg.

Ferrari reads aloud a line from Don Juan in Hell: “Hell the home of the unreal and of the seekers of happiness.” Borges’ reaction is a very Spanish “Caramba” of approval and delight.

This is a funny little conversation; as always it showcases Borges’ strengths and weaknesses: he has a prodigious memory, he knows all the classics and he can establish unexpected relationships between them; on the other hand literature seems to have stopped somewhere in 1939: no mention of Flann O’Brien, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney. Anyway, it’s always a pleasure to re-read Borges talking about books.