In the 1980s Jorge Luis Borges and poet Osvaldo Ferrari held weekly conversations over a radio program, in Radio Buenos Aires. Ferrari usually set the theme going, asked Borges a question and let the master wander through his memories and tastes. I’ve written the gist of many such conversations in the past, but English-speaking readers can finally purchase the first volume, an indispensable book for Borgs lovers. Eventually a second volume will come out. Meanwhile here’s a preview: Borges on Russian literature. Of course it’s not about Russian Literature; with Borges a conversation is never just about one topic; like in a real conversation he digresses, a lot, and there’s as much about the Russians as about Dickens, detective novels, poetry, his writing process, Hegel, and Kierkegaard.
It begins with Ferrari mentioning Tolstoy and Borges comparing him to Dostoevsky. “After reading Crime and Punishment, I thought for a long time that Dostoevsky was the preeminent novelist. Then I read The Possessed, which in Russian I think is called Demons; and then, well, I wanted to meet The Brothers Karamazov. Here I failed. And although I continued to revere Dostoevsky, at the same time I felt I had no interest whatsoever in seeing another one of his books. And I was cheated by The House of the Dead. However I read and reread, well, also a single book, hm: War and Peace, by Tolstoy; and it continues to seem admirable to me. Now I think that’s the general opinion: that Tolstoy is superior.” “To Dostoevsky?” asks Ferrari. “Yes, to Dostoevsky, no?” “It’s quite probable.”
What eerie similarities to my life: after reading Crime and Punishment, for a while I also considered Dostoevsky the greatest novelist ever; kind of what I felt after reading Garcia Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Borges, my second book was also Demons; he may have liked it, that one soured me a bit on the great Russian and although I’ve read shorter novels like The Gambler, Poor People and The Double, I continue wary of tackling another one of his big ones. Notes from the Underground is on a galaxy apart, a faraway galaxy full of mystery and wonder, populated by very strange aliens.
But moving on: Borges, in order to defend Tolstoy’s superiority over Dostoevsky, invokes the authority of – wait for it – “the author of Lolita…” “Nabokov,” adds Ferrari. Unfortunately, this is not the text that will reveal what Borges thought of Nabokov; I’m certain I’m not alone in wanting to know that, especially since the curmudgeon émigré admired the Argentinean. Borges only mentions this: “Nabokov said that he was compiling an anthology of Russian prose and that he couldn’t include a single page by Dostoevsky.” We know why Nabokov did that, the bastard, but Borges, always the kind dean of literature, has a gentler theory. “But that, although it looks like an admonishment, in fact isn’t, for it doesn’t befit a novel to include anthological pages. And I’m remembering what Momigliano said of D’Annuzio, when he stated that his most unforgivable sin, or let us says his biggest fault, was having written only anthological pages. Because, of course, a page is a unit and a novel isn’t reduced to any of its pages, and even less to any of its phrases, sentences; the novel must be read as a whole and is always remembered as a whole. So Nabokov’s sentence may not be an admonishment.” Borges is always a gentleman, and one must admire the way he twists reality to unite opposites, his reasoning can be as crafty as Saint Aquinas’; only he could dig up Gabriele D’Annuzio to obfuscate the simple fact that Nabokov excluded Dostoevsky because he hated his writing.
Since now they’re talking about novels per se, Borges remarks that “when one speaks of novels it’s inevitable to think of Quixote,” and he goes on to say that “in the Quixote most pages are not anthological: they seem written haphazardly, but the last chapter and the first, certainly unforgettable, are anthological, and excluding them would be a mere caprice of the anthologist. Now, of course in the past I used to have an anthological concept of literature; so I wrote a sentence, let’s say – usually they were long, as if a bit… well, they wanted to be eloquent, unforgettable – four or five lines. Then I reread it, corrected it, but when I corrected it guided by perverse reasons, it came out wrong. And then I moved on to the second sentence, and next to the third; and that made the whole article becoming unreadable because it was composed of isolated blocks. Nowadays I write in a fluid way, or I try to make it fluid, and then I correct what I write.”
Ferrari opines that Borges’ old method of writing was perhaps more adequate to poetry. “I think so,” says Borges, “because in a poem you presuppose that each verse must be right. Although there may be admirable poems without memorable verses, and terrible poems, well, solely composed of memorable verses. But I think we’re straying from the topic, I have this digressive habit…”
Borges next regrets that he can’t speak Russian, a language he finds extremely beautiful when he hears it spoken. He also reveals that “I tried to study Russian, in 1918, let’s say at the end of the First World War, when I was a communist. But, of course, communism at the time meant the friendship of all men, the forgetting of frontiers; and now I think it represents the new czarism.”
Returning to Dostoevsky, he tells Ferrari that this writer to him means Crime and Punishment above all. “And I read, although I don’t know if it’s true or not, that the true title was to be ‘Guilt and Atonement,’ and that the book as we know it would be the first part: the story of a murderer, the killing of the money-lender and the other woman. And then the whole part where the policeman chases him; those unforgettable dialogues, no doubt, between the inspector and the killer. And then the other part; I think in the last sentence it says that telling Raskolnikov’s experiences in Siberia would be telling how a soul mutates. I mean, it’d narrate the punishment, which doesn’t show up in the first part, or the atonement, which would be the same thing. There’s a terrible expression by Hegel, or it seems terrible, that says that punishment is the criminal’s right. It seems a cruel sentence, but it’s not; if the punishment redeems, the criminal has the right to be punished, that is, to be redeemed. The expression was considered cynical, but perhaps it’s not.”
The conversation turns to legal punishment, and Borges remarks that “personally I’d prefer death penalty because prison sounds terrible to me. Xul Solar told me that he wouldn’t mind being locked up for a year, so long as he were alone. But having to live with bad people must be horrible, don’t you think?” And then thinking about his blindness, he says, “during part of my time, in a certain sense, I’m in solitary confinement, isn’t that true?” Ferrari repeats the usual cliché that we’re all alone, and Borges replies, “Yes, but, perhaps we’re always alone… no, but I feel company in a very agreeable way, so long as it’s not excessive, so long as it’s not, well, a penitentiary, or a cocktail party, or maybe a meeting of the Academy. So long as it’s not lots of people, I enjoy it very much, yes, of being with one, two people, it’s very pleasant. But being with twenty people seems terrible, right?” And he continues: “It’s the downside of Heaven… no, but perhaps in Heaven there’s a reduced population, no? For many are called and few are chosen. And now I’m remembering that terrible sentence by Kierkegaard who says that if Judgement Day arrived and there were only a man condemned to hell, and that man were him, he’d sing the De Profundis, the praise of the Lord and His Justice. Except we may think that this sentence is a bribe made to God, that he wanted to please God, but I don’t think so.”
Trying to get back to Dostoevsky, Ferrari says that he agrees with Nabokov when he said he was more of a playwright than a novelist. “That’s true,” Borges agrees, “we remember the conversations.” But then he defends Dostoevsky’s use of melodrama. “I think it was Eliot who said that from time to time we must explore the possibilities of the melodramatic. Why, it’s clear Dostoevsky is melodramatic. And there’s no doubt the Russian novel exercised a huge influence on the world. But I think I read that Dostoevsky was Dickens’ reader, and it seems there was a time, according to Forster, Dickens’ friend and biographer, when he said that he couldn’t look anywhere, couldn’t think of any plot that didn’t have a murder in the end.” So now we jump to Dickens: “The murder of characters, the murders in Dickens rank amongst the best, no? You can see that he felt that intensely, I remember, there’s hardly a Dickens novel without a murder, except The Pickwick Papers; and those murders are, well, very convincing and very different one from another.” Ferrari argues that they’re even better than in some detective novels, which is Borges’ turf. “Yes, maybe better, yes; in the detective novel the murder is a pretext for investigation. You can make a good detective novel without a crime. For instance, one of the best detective tales, ‘The Purloined Letter,’ by Poe; well, in it the important thing is the fact that he hid the letter in an obvious place and for that reason the letter’s invisible, no?”
Ferrari makes a valiant effort at returning to Tolstoy; he mentions that for Nabokov in Tolstoy there was a struggle between the artist and the preacher. “Yes,” says Borges, “and sometimes the preacher won.” Remarking that Tolstoy was an ascetic who renounced his worldly possessions, Borges adds: “I read an article about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that said that the strange thing was the fact that Dostoevsky knew poverty but Tolstoy went look for it to know it.” However he rejects the notion that poverty made Dostoevsky a more interesting writer. “Having renounced something and being an ascetic is more interesting than being poor, which isn’t that meritorious.” Reflecting that Tolstoy gave up writing to get closer to himself, Borges calls that “a praiseworthy mistake. I, well, modestly… of course when I was young I wanted to be Lugones, then I realized that Lugones was Lugones in a far more convincing way than me. And now I’ve resigned myself… to being Borges, that is, to be all the writers I read, and, amongst them, inevitably Lugones, isn’t that so?”
And so ended another weekly conversation, with Borges taking us through the meanders of his many book readings.