Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Jorge Luis Borges on detective tales

Jorges Luis Borges liked detective tales. He wrote them alone, he co-wrote them with Adolfo Bioy Casares; together they created the detective Don Isidro Parodi. He devoted a lecture to detective tales in Borges, oral. His book reviews for El Hogar showed a preference for detective novels. And he selected many for his two book collections. One of the most remarkable things about the most intellectual of modern writers is how he was a great lover and defender of popular genres and traditional storytelling. But in hindsight this was expected: Borges liked logic and rationality, and structures, and for him there was nothing more rational and structured in literature than the detective tale.

Obviously, Borges also had something to say about this genre in his conversations with Osvaldo Ferrari. Ferrari, for his part, is mostly silent throughout the conversation, so this is mostly Borges reminiscing, without needing anyone to goad him.

First of all, why does he like detective tales? He likes them because of their adherence to order; Borges chastises the psychological novel because “in a psychological novel everything is allowed, any extravagance is allowed that corresponds to the personality of the character. Oppositely, in a very chaotic time for literature, logical rigour was saved by the detective tale, for a detective tale is an intellectual tale; that is, it’s a tale that has a beginning, middle and end, where nothing is inexplicable. So there’s a logical satisfaction in detective tales.” It’s not the first time he argues this; he wrote almost the same thirty years before this conversation in a prologue for Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. Borges is nothing but coherent. The conversation does not include hardboiled fiction, a subgenre Borges did not like because it had too much sex and violence and not enough reasoning and mysterious crimes. Still he did not like outlandish for outlandish’s sake. The method to carry out a crime, as surprising as it may be, should first and foremost be credible. When he discusses locked room mysteries - Dickson Carr, Israel Zangwill, Gaston Leroux – he regrets that too many finales disappoint him because ‘trivial,’ they fail to live up to the premise. In fact I think one of the few locked room mysteries he enjoyed was a short-story by Chesterton.

According to Borges, the detective tale has been “unjustly calumniated,” one presumes by critics, highbrow writers and some pedantic readers like me. “And yet, [it’s] a genre invented by a man of indubitable genius – Edgar Allan Poe – and who then inspired writers like Dickens, like Stevenson, like Wilkie Collins, like Chesterton; it seems to me these names are enough to push away all criticism.” But they’re not, Borges, they’re not! The world is wicked, people are intolerant, they label everything and criticise without knowing! What do you reply to that? “Of course it can be said that there are horrible detective texts, the same way there are horrible sonnets, horrible epics, horrible historical novels; alas, any genre we mention has given malefic fruits. But I think we need only the works of the writers I’ve just mentioned and who aren’t the only ones, for why not think of Nicholas Blake or in Ellery Queen or in Eden Phillpotts, who’d be enough to save the genre.” I’m not convinced they are, but perhaps a few more names would.

The conversation focuses on three writers: Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and G.K. Chesterton. Poe, of course, is the foundation of the genre, everything emanates from the three or four “tales of ratiocination” he wrote. “Now, in the case of Edgar Allan Poe, what is strange is that he established certain rules within the detective story, which were abided by its most famous followers, like Conan Doyle, for instance. That is, it’s the idea of a detective, who solves crimes personally – everything told by a friend, verging on stupid, who admires him. That’s sketched in Auguste Dupin: it’s his friend who tells his exploits. Then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took this and gave it a character of intimacy, which, of course, doesn’t exist. In Poe’s detective tales, which can be terrific – in the good sense of the word: the case of “The Crimes of Rue Morgue;” or mere intellectual games like “The Purloined Letter,” one certainly won’t find the intimacy that exists in the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. I was re-reading with my sister Norah the tales of Sherlock Holmes, which is a form of going back to the past, for we used to read them together many years ago, in several latitudes. But we could also verify that in these Conan Doyle tales the plot almost doesn’t matter; what matters is the friendship between the two characters, and the relationship – that relationship between a very intelligent person (Sherlock Holmes) and an almost professionally foolish person like doctor Watson. The fact that they are friends, of liking one another, that we feel this friendship, is more important than what happens to them.”

I think this is a very interesting idea, the importance of friendship in the Sherlock Holmes tales, and the buddy angle has certainly been explored in recent iterations of the character. But I also think Borges is being too unfair on poor Watson, calling him professionally foolish. That does sound like the Watson from the movies, for cinema does not need a narrator and thus Watson’s presence is justified by comedic relief, but I never had the impression, reading the original tales, that he was a simpleton.

Here’s another literary theory Borges likes. “Sherlock Holmes is a sort of tender myth of the human memory. Sherlock Holmes is in every memory, its name is immediately identified. We can even consider the tales bad, but regardless there’s something in some of these tales… something the author didn’t understand, for Conan Doyle didn’t like these tales; and he tried to kill Sherlock Holmes in one of them, but people demanded that he resurrect him, that he come back. So he had to write the return of Sherlock Holmes.” Now this is similar to something he once wrote about Franz Kafka, namely that one day he could belong to the “memory of the world,” that is, his work becoming so universal that it’d become anonymous, like a myth. Borges seems to think this condition is the greatest glory literature can aspire to. And here’s a bit of trivia: Borges considers “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” the best Sherlock Holmes tale. I don’t remember it at all, but I read the whole lot a long time ago. Perhaps it’s time to revisit a few.

Finally he moves on to G.K. Chesterton. For Borges, detective tales reach their apotheosis in the work of Chesterton. Unlike the others, Chesterton didn’t just create one famous detective; he created several – Father Brown, Gabriel Syme, Mr. Pond, Horne Fisher, Gabriel Gale, all diverse but equally entertaining and very humane. Chesterton was a writer of immense talents, not just a great crime writer but a literary genius; many of his lines are the best I’ve read in English. Like Borges says, he was excellent at describing things. Here’s what he says about his detective tales. “In Chesterton’s case, of course, they’d come to be, I’d say, the masterpieces of the genre; for these detective novels are also supernatural tales; in each case a supernatural solution is suggested. And then there’s a solution that we must accept as rational, given by Father Brown, or by any other detective created by Chesterton. And besides that those tales – as Xul Solar made me notice – are like theatrical plays, they’re like paintings too… I don’t know if you remember that Chesterton started by trying to become a painter; and then abandoned painting and drawing for literature, but in literature he continued to be a painter.”

And now I feel like re-reading Chesterton again.


  1. Miguel, I tried to leave a comment on this post yesterday but the captcha image wouldn't appear for me to verify. Grrr. Anyway, while I think Borges is interesting--as usual--on the detective story here, I think his attack on the "psychological novel" for a lack of adherence to order is way weak if he wasn't being ironic; it's not like all human emotions, actions, psychology are governed by logic or order alone, so why should we look to a book or a novelist to provide that when it's so amply missing in life? That being said, you and Georgie do have me more interested in trying Chesterton out than I was several months ago. Fun series of posts!

    1. I don't think he was being ironic at all. He clearly liked well-structured narratives. I don't take a particular interest in this view, I'm like you, I think each narrative calls for an adequate structure, or even lack of structure.

      As for Chesterton, you should read him! He's an excellent, funny writer, a master of prose and a very unusual observer of daily life.