Sunday, 27 July 2014

Borges on Woolf

Recently I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s The Complete Shorter Fiction, a book I started reading something like a decade ago. Instead of writing about it, I realized I could use my time on the more urgent, more essential, more advantageous matter of what Jorge Luis Borges thought about the famous English novelist.

As my readers should know by now, in the mid-eighties, poet Osvaldo Ferrari and Borges met once a week to chat on national radio about whatever they felt like it. Usually Ferrari introduced the theme and asked his partner to elaborate on it. One day he brought up Virginia Woolf since Borges was known for having translated her twice.

“… I thought I did not like Virginia Woolf,” Borges commences, “or, to put it better, she didn’t interest me; but Sur magazine ordered a translation of Orlando from me. I accepted to translate it, and, as I translated it, I read it and, amazingly to me, I grew interested by it.”

The novel, the novel that he feared would be an “unreadable book,” has a “curious theme,” says Borges, namely the Sackville-West family, “that family as a platonic archetype; like a universal form – which is what scholars call archetypes. And so, to achieve that end, Virginia Woolf imagines an individual who lives in the 18th century and then reaches our own.” As always, with his usual pedantic bookishness, he downplays the originality of the concept. “This artifice had been already accomplished by Wells in one of his novels – I don’t remember which one – wherein individuals, for the novelist’s ease, to historically situate them in several epochs, live three hundred years. And Bernard Shaw also played with this idea of immortality.” And no doubt he knew that Wells, one of his favourite writers, was despised by Woolf, so it must have given tremendous pleasure to insinuate that Woolf pilfered techniques from him.

The mention of Shaw leads Ferrari to refer to Back to Methuselah, which leads Borges to one of his usual self-deprecating jokes. “Yes, except that there some individuals are long-lived and others live normally… well, at the moment I run the risk of being one of those long-lived ones, for it’s dangerous to have reached 85 years; I can reach 86 at any moment. But let’s hope not, let’s hope not to be one of those privileged or smashed by time, by lots of time, by too much time.”

Next Ferrari alludes to a second translation into Spanish: A Room of One’s Own. “Yes, now I’m going to reveal to you, since we’re alone, a secret; the book was actually translated by my mother. I revised the translation a bit, the same way she revised my translation of Orlando. The truth is we worked together; yes, A Room of One’s Own, which grabbed me less… well, the theme is, so to speak, a simple text in defence of women and of feminism. But since I’m a feminist I don’t need those texts to convince me, for I’m convinced already. Why, Virginia Woolf turned herself into a missionary of that objective, but since I share that objective I can do without missionaries. Nevertheless the book Orlando is really an admirable book.” But not without its flaws; he quickly notes that “it’s a shame that in its final pages it crumbles down; but that tends to happen in books. For instance in One Hundred Years of Solitude” (According to Alberto Manguel, Borges disliked Gabo); “it seems that solitude should not live one hundred years but eighty, no? But from the title it was necessary one hundred years of solitude.” Wait, what, Borges, what the hell are you talking about? “The author gets tired and the reader feels that tiredness… and shares it. And at the end of Orlando it seems to me there’s something, I don’t know, that I vaguely connect to diamonds, but those diamonds are a bit lost in forgetfulness; I only see the sparkle… but it’s a very, very beautiful book, and I remember a chapter, a page where Shakespeare shows up but his name isn’t said. But there isn’t a reader who doesn’t realize it’s Shakespeare. It’s a man who is watching a party in order to think about something else in the middle of a party: thinking about parties in a comedy or, perhaps, in a tragedy. But you realize it’s Shakespeare. And if she had said his name it would have ruined everything, for allusion can be more efficient than expression.” In other words, Virginia Woolf gets good marks on his chess riddle.

Then he moves on to her essays (oh, he definitely knew she didn’t like his god Wells). “I like Virginia Woolf’s books of criticism less. Referring to writers of a certain generation, she used as an example Arnold Bennett [who happens to be included in Borges’s list of favourite writers]… and it’s strange that she chose Arnold Bennett, when she could have chosen two men of genius like Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells [except she didn’t consider Wells genius, on the contrary]. I think Virginia Woolf said that Bennet had failed in what she thought was essential in a novelist, which is the creation of a character. But I think that that applied to Bennet is false, and I’m also not sure that the creation of character is the essential in a novelist. Well, I don’t know if that remark is exact, but let us consider that, after all, Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse, and Laurel and Hardy are characters. So I don’t think it’s that hard to create characters, isn’t that so?, they’re constantly created; a penciller can create a character.”

Then we move on to the Ocampo sisters, Victoria and Silvina, members of Borges’ intimate circle, and their devotion to Woolf. “Victoria knew her personally, but perhaps in a rather subaltern way; because I remember that Victorian told me about a number of Sur devoted to English literature. So we put together, with Bioy Casares, a series of texts and then Victorian went about publishing a selection made by Victoria Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf in England. I didn’t want to publish many of these poems because I didn’t like them, but she said no, the number was ready, and it came out like that. Then I continued publishing in Sur the texts we had chosen, texts that had been arbitrarily excluded by Virginia Woolf and by Victorian Sackville-West. I think these two writers wanted to showcase writers from their group. I, in turn, had thought of an anthology that encompassed the whole of contemporary English literature.”

He apparently admired her father more, who was the editor of something called the English Men of Letters. “Some of the biographies of the collection he directed were admirable; for instance one of Harold Nicholson, of Swinburne, another on Edward Fitzgerald, then a study of Priestley about Meredith, which was extraordinary.”

The best part of the dialogue for me is a possible, discernible subtext that Borges couldn’t care less about Woolf. All the time Ferrari tries to get Borges into a conversation about feminism and he just shoos him away. “Of course; and before I read her I already thought the same thing,” he says when the other argues that Ocampo and Woolf promoted the struggle for the rights of women. Ferrari insists and mentions a letter Victoria Ocampo wrote to Woolf about the oppression women suffered at the time. “Yes, well, now it seems we’re all entitled to the right of oppression and asphyxiation, isn’t that true? Men also; unfortunately we can know that melancholy privilege that used to be exclusive to women.” That’s a great riposte for a man whose country had just come out of a dictatorship.

But here’s the punchline. “I remember Victoria Ocampo told Virginia Woolf that she originated from the Argentinean Republic, and so Virginia Woolf replied that she thought she could imagine that country; and imagined a scene of people in a garden or in a prairie, drinking refreshments, at night, in a place with trees and fireflies. And Victoria courteously said to her that that indeed corresponded to the Argentinean Republic.”

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.


  1. These treasures you keep turning up related to Borges could be a blog (or book) in themselves. This one is especially delicious. I love the way Borges brings in his own age to the discussion of both Orlando and One Hundred Years of Solitude - the musings of someone who sounds as though he's feeling old and for whom the idea of living a lot longer seems almost painful.

    1. Scott, there is a book, it's just not in English yet.

      Borges' musings on age do dominate many of the dialogues. He was clearly feeling the weight of time on his shoulders and there's a not very hidden desire to finally rest.

  2. Borges the critic and I have just had a falling out: I found Orlando almost as unreadable as you found Clarice Lispector and her ineffable claptrap! Not for the same reasons, of course. Also, that Woolf anecdote about Argentina at the end isn't too far off from being as good as the Castro the proofreader anecdote in your previous post. He he, not for the same reasons, of course!

    1. To date, Orlando is the only Woolf book I enjoyed, although that doesn't mean a lot. I suspect Borges, a fan of the fantastic in general, just liked the premise of an immortal character and the parody of literary periods. I'm still hopeful about the essays.