Most people first encounter Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges piecemeal. This isn’t much of a surprise, considering how good he was at writing plummy, ultracondensed short stories, many of which – The Library of Babel, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim and Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, to name a few – have been liberally sprinkled across 20th-century culture. On postsecondary campuses around the world, he continues to act as a gateway drug, getting hapless undergraduates hooked and dizzy on literature off just a taste.
This was certainly my experience. In university, I seemed to be assigned one or two Borges stories every semester, and they inevitably proved to be my favourite parts. But I wasn’t able to understand Borges’s work in widescreen until I finally pulled his Collected Fictions off the shelf and read every one of his stories – all nine collections’ worth – over a few months.
It’s not that Borges, who was also a prolific poet and essayist, had such a wide range of interests. In fact, you can just about list his go-to subjects on one hand: mirrors, tigers, knife fights, labyrinths, libraries (not always distinguishable from labyrinths) and apocryphal texts. No, what you glean from seeing Borges’s work as a whole is just how thoroughly he dedicated himself to literature as a medium, and as a tradition. That panoramic passion and erudition has been captured once more, this time in a more informal setting, in Professor Borges, a newly translated series of lectures Borges gave at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966.
Picture this: You’re an Argentine teenager, sitting in a lecture hall on the first day of classes, ready to learn about the history of English literature. In walks your kindly, elderly professor, and suddenly he starts speaking, about everything from The Dream of the Rood to Treasure Island, sometimes quoting entire paragraphs, without any notes whatsoever. He’s also blind (and has been for more than a decade). What would your reaction be?
The 25 lectures in Professor Borges began life as utilitarian transcriptions – intended for study notes and nothing more. So it’s impossible to tell how his students reacted in the moment. Borges rarely acknowledges them directly, and, as editors Martin Arias and Martin Hadis point out in their introduction, his own place in the pantheon had not yet been reserved: “[T]he constant political changes in Argentina resulted in more publicity for his statements about the news than his literary work.”
Instead, he riffs and extemporizes in a way that is loosely chronological and heavily idiosyncratic. The first seven lectures, for instance, are dedicated exclusively to Old English poetry. Then, with almost no segue, we jump 700 years into the future to rub shoulders with Samuel Johnson and the Romantic poets. Borges is happy to follow his nose, canon be damned. Who else would give 19th-century poet and textile designer William Morris (three full lectures) more space than Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare (zero, zero and zero, respectively) combined?
Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm, once said that good teachers are in fact performers, “provid[ing] an example of what it’s like to fall in love in a way that changes your whole life and doesn’t involve a civil ceremony.” By that metric, Borges’s lectures, rough as they are on the page, are an obvious success. Even when he’s heckling Beowulf as if it were a Hollywood blockbuster (he calls it “poorly wrought” and several key details “improbable”), it’s clear that he has nothing but respect and admiration for the fact that it was written down in the first place.
That contagious love of literature, which also seeped into every story he ever wrote, is a big reason why Borges’s influence has only grown since his death in 1986. Roberto Bolano named his 2003 collection The Insufferable Gaucho after a particularly cryptic Borges tale; the title story was later published in The New Yorker. Another of Borges’s Latin American descendants, the madcap Cesar Aira, has published many of his 70-plus novels with a small Argentine publisher called Beatriz Viterbo, named after a character in The Aleph.
English literature, too, continues to pay Borges debts both spoken and unspoken. He has made cameos in recent Canadian novels by Rebecca Campbell and Miguel Syjuco – and if you find the mention of a fictional prose poem called Borges Disappointed by the Internet as delightful as I do (he probably would be!), seek out the latter’s Ilustrado. Borges’s thought experiments with logic and technology, not to mention the way he eagerly mixed a high literary style with pulp cowboy and detective plots, prefigured entire genres of writing. For Borges, literature was a feedback loop, requiring nothing but itself for sustenance.
One of the greatest tricks in his fiction is creating sprawling lists of other books and writers (sometimes real, sometimes not), and there are moments in Professor Borges where the real man seems just as comically omnivorous in his reading habits. In arguing that William Blake’s true literary ancestors are found much earlier than the Romantic movement, for instance, Borges compares his poems “to the Cathar heretics in the south of France, the Gnostics in Asia Minor and Alexandria of the first century after Christ, and of course to the great and visionary Swedish thinker, Emanuel Swedenborg.” Of course.
The professor will eventually provide evidence for each of those claims. But in that moment, he sounds like nobody so much as the narrator of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges.
Michael Hingston is the books columnist for the Edmonton Journal. His first novel, The Dilettantes, will be published in September.