In my last post, Tom providentially brought up Jorge Luis Borges’ other collection: The Library of Babel. Although I knew the collection by name and knew a few details, this seemed like the right time to learn more about it. Turns out that Grant Munroe, at The Rumpus, has already done a splendid job investigating it. But he overlooks a few facts that I can add to give it a fuller picture. Munroe made the understandable mistake of assuming that, because Borges wrote in Spanish, he would find the answers in Spanish. Actually the origins of the mysterious Library of Babel begin in Italy.
In 1974, Franco Maria Ricci, an Italian editor who did much to introduce Borges’ work in Italy, asked him to edit and write the prologues for a collection of fantasy books. Borges wanted the collection to be called Colección del hombre (roughly a man’s collection), but Ricci, to Borges’ chagrin, insisted in using the title of his famous short-story. Thirty-three books were released, between 1975 and 1985. In1983 the Spanish publisher Siruela, owned by Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, count of Siruela, starts publishing them in Spanish. The count was a fantasy aficionado because in 1987 he created his own fantasy collection, called “El ojo sin párpado,” now mythical amongst Spanish book collectors for its rarity.
But back to Borges. He only wrote twenty-nine prologues; four of the books were edited by Ricci without Borges’ assistance, but more on that later. Then the prologues were published in Italian in book form and next in Spanish. Although I own a four-volume set of the so-called complete works of Jorge Luis Borges, these prologues are not anywhere in them. And that makes me feel indignant.
Since Ricci first published the collection, other publishers have reprinted it. Mondadori, in Italy, did it in the early ‘90s. I’ve also discovered collections in France, Germany, and even Turkey. A couple of years ago Portugal started publishing it too, but I embarrassingly confess I haven’t bought a single volume yet. Remarkably, it seems every country uses the original Italian covers… except for the evil Germans. And it’s understandable why the original covers are so popular, they’re gorgeous works of art! Ricci and Marcella Boneschi designed them, and what immediately strikes me is that they all share an identity, in spite of the varied palette, you just have to look at them and know they belong to the same collection. I’ve found a set with 30 of the covers so you may marvel at them:
Now for the actual books: acquiring them is a difficult task. One of the main difficulties was to find out what each book contained, since they were anthologies edited by Borges and others. Thanks to Grant Munroe, now we know. Even so, many of the texts aren’t available in English, or they’re likely out of print. So it helps knowing a couple of foreign languages. But even if you do know the foreign languages, that won’t do you a lot of good because they’re also out of print in their own countries. I bitterly discovered that when I tried to order Giovanni Papini books from Amazon Italy. There’s really no pardon for people who let books go out of print! They’re the scum of the Earth. But don’t despair, with patience, perseverance and luck, maybe one day we Borges fanatics can obtain them all.
My order differs from the English one. As I understand it, English sources are based on Eliot Weinberger’s book Selected Non-Fictions, which obviously uses the order of the Siruela editions. But the original FMR editions used a slightly different order. The ones I’ve read are in bold:
Jack London, The Concentric Deaths
Giovanni Papini, Lo specchio che fugge
Léon Bloy, Histoires désobligeantes
Gustav Meyrink, Der Kardinal Napellus
Arthur Machen, The Shining Pyramid
Jacques Cazotte, The Devil in Love
Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener
Pedro Antonio de Alarcon, El amigo de la muerte
Franz Kafka, The Vulture
William Beckford, Vathek
Charles Howard Hinton, Scientific Romances
G.K. Chesterton, The Eye of Apollo
Rudyard Kipling, The Wish House
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Isle of Voices
Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Leter
Pu Songling, The Tiger Guest
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Great Stone Face
Jorge Luis Borges, Venticinque agosto 1983 e altri racconti inediti
Henry James, The Friends of the Friends
Leopoldo Lugones, The Pillar of Salt
Saki, The Reticence of Lady Anne
Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Le Convive des dernières fêtes
H.G. Wells, The Door in the Wall
Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
Antoine Galland, The Arabian Nights
Richard Burton, The Arabian Nights
Lord Dunsany, The Country of Yann
J.L. Borges & A.B. Casares, Nuevos cuentos de Bustos Domecq
The Book of Dreams
Jorge Luis Borges, A/Z
Some words on four of the books: Venticinque agosto 1983 e altri racconti inediti was a special translation of previously unpublished Borges stories in Italy, to celebrate the author’s 80th birthday. For that reason this book didn’t have a prologue by him. These four short-stories are in his last book, Shakespeare’s Memory.
The last three books don’t have prologues either because they were added by Ricci after Borges had finished editing the collection. Russian Tales, the last book edited by Borges, was from 1981. The last three came out in 1985. For A/Z, the most elusive of them, I can offer two explanations: from what I’ve read in Italian, it’s a compilation of the prologues Borges wrote for this collection; it was edited by Gianni Guadalupi, who co-wrote The Dictionary of Imaginary Places with Borges scholar Alberto Manguel. But I’ve read it elsewhere described as a ‘Borgesian dictionary,’ which sounds great! Furthermore the Spanish edition had another editor, one Antonio Fernandéz Ferrer, and from what I’ve gleaned from reviews, it’s a collection of sentences, paragraphs, quotes, interview excerpts by Borges, organized as a thematic dictionary of his thoughts. I want to believe two different editors created two different books with the same title, in the same collection; that would be truly Borgesian. But it’s probably some mix-up.
And that’s that. There’s a lot of overlap with the other list, many of the same authors, but this list is more fiction-oriented, no essays, no poetry, no non-fiction, just straight up narratives. It’s pure entertainment: crime, horror, adventure, mystery, and general weirdness. I think I actually like this one more. It also seems I’m closer to finishing it. Instead of leaving my thoughts of on the books here, I’ll create separate entries for each one. Just thinking about them lately, I feel like re-reading them. So stay tuned. And let me read your thoughts if you’ve read any of them.