Having recently discovered the fiction or Jorge Luis Borges at university where I studied a few of his short stories (“The Shape of the Sword”, “The House of Asterion”, “The Garden of Forking Paths” amongst others), I was intrigued by this book as a paced the stacked shelves of the library seeking out critical analyses of Borges’ work. I took it out but, as happens frequently during the skitty exam period, it remained on my desk unread for a good couple of weeks. But with my exams and essay deadlines behind me, I had the freedom to read whatsoever I wished until I return to extensive uni reading lists on Monday…
Published in 1974, the text recounts Borges’ seminars alongside his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni with students enrolled in the creative writing course at Columbia University. Borges gave three seminars, each with its own specific subject; fiction, poetry, and finally translation. Which is thus how the text is divided. Initially di Giovanni reads Borges’ work in translation, providing a springboard for Borges to offer comments on how he went about composing the text and allowing the students to pose questions about the text. Borges replies rather laconically, and Di Giovanni offers additional information about his own experience of the text in translation. Overall I felt the text is replete with insights into the mind of this great artist, delayering his methods of thinking and composing texts and his philosophy on art.
The Young Artist
Despite covering three different realms or fields of writing, I feel the book’s title is effective in that as a whole it offers Borges’ viewpoints on the art of writing as a whole. He seems highly aware of the aspiring authors of his audience and offers them several pieces of advice on starting out:
‘A young writer, he says, should begin, of course, by imitating the writers he likes. This is the way the writer becomes himself through losing himself—the strange way of double living, of living in reality as much as one can and at the same time of living in that other reality, the one he has to creative, the reality of his dreams.’ (p.64)
He proposes that contemporary authors are too focused on being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘unique’ but they should rather respect and abide to their literary heritage and tradition which is omnipresent.
‘Tradition is the language he is writing in and the literature the has read. I think it is wiser for a young writer to delay invention and boldness for a time and try to merely writer like a good writer he admires’ (p93).
As well as imitating other writers, Borges indicates that he has taken inspiration for many of his stories from real life, stories which he is told and lets stew in his fermenting imagination for years before composing them again. When committing the story to the page, Borges proposes that the story should be clear and concise, but also that the story should imitate reality, for example
‘one should work into a story the idea of not being sure of all things, because that’s the way reality is’ (p.45).
Art imitates reality. Or is it the other way round?
The Short Story vs. the Novel?
As a practitioner of several forms, Borges’ comments on the differences between forms are intriguing. For him, the distinguishing element between the short story and the novel is simply what is at the centre of the story; the characters or the plot?
‘What I think is most important in a short story is the plot or situation, while in a novel what’s important are the characters. You may think of Don Quixote as being written with incidents, but what is really important are the two characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza… in writing a novel, you should know all about the characters, and any plot will do, while in a short story it is the situation that counts’ (p.46).
When discussing his oeuvre Borges also touches on numerous elements of the writer’s style. First and foremost, when asked whether he consciously tries to be a contemporary author, he expresses the opinion that the writer is defined by his epoch and cannot but be contemporary. It is part of his/her voice:
‘You have a certain voice, a certain kind of face, a certain way of writing, and you can’t run away from them even if you want to. So why bother to be modern or contemporary since you can’t be anything else?’ (p.51)
This, I imagine, is why it is acceptable for the writer to imitate his favourite authors when starting out. A writer’s voice seems to be pre-defined deep within the author before he even starts writing, and initially you write simply to find your own narrative voice. Borges offers another enlightening comment when he says that
‘I couldn’t say “What an awful thing happened,” or “This story is very gruesome”, because I would make a fool of myself. That kind of thing must be left to readers, not to writers’ (p.48).
When writing my first pieces for my creative writing class, I found myself writing such foolish comments. Why? I wonder whether, due to naivety and lack of skill, the young writer is too intent on explicitly giving the message of his narrative to the reader. Maybe. But I feel this is definitely what Borges is driving at here. His comment moreover reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk’s advice in his timeless essay “Nuts and Bolts: “Thought Verbs”:
‘Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.’
The writer should never explicitly explain emotions or thoughts to the reader, but simply describe the action and allow the reader to do the thinking. After all, is this not the reader’s job?
As a language student myself, I was fascinated by Borges’ and Di Giovanni’s comments on translating one text to another. They discuss the idea of being linguistically ‘culturally bound’ and how texts can become difficult to translate transculturally. In particular they discuss the vast meaning of particular words in Spanish in different countries, from Argentina, to Uruguay, to Mexico and to mainland Spain:
‘Even though you may know Spanish or Mexican Spanish, you may be quite unaware of something’s being different in Argentine or Uruguayan Spanish.’
Borges seems to take this idea one step further by insinuating that our perceptions of the world are not only defined by the language we speak, but the books we have read. When asked
‘Are there no stories you consider untranslatable because they reflect a peculiarly Spanish way of looking at the world?’ Borges replies, ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I have a Spanish way of looking at the world. I’ve done most of my reading in English’ (p.137).
A language he spoke from an early age due to his grandmother’s being English. He seems to have reflected deeply on the intrinsic nature of particular languages such as English, for example he gives his opinion that
‘A good sentence in English has a structure that begins with the second most important element, moves to the least important element, and ends with the strongest element. The pattern is 2-3-1…So my whole thesis on translation is that you must write good sentences—effective English. That’s all there is to it’ p.135.
He backs this up with two translations from one of his own stories which seem to indicate this to be the case. Borges also reflects on the role of rhyme in poetry and the problems it causes in translation as being down to the inherent qualities of each language:
‘The trouble with rhyme in English is that the accent usually falls on the first syllable: “courage”, which in French would be “courage”. The Latin languages therefore are easier to rhyme’ (p.141).
The Life of the Writer
Borges translated his first published short story when he was just 10 years old. It is fair to say he lived the life of a writer and in this book he details some aspects of this lifestyle. The writer, for Borges, lives a very fulfilling life because his job forces him to experience and live through the tales he tells.
‘When I think of my grandfather who died in action’ he explains, ‘when I think of my great-grandfather who had to fight his kinsmen in the wars of the dictator Rosas, when I think of people in my family who had their throats cut or who were shot, I realize I’m leading a very tame kind of life. But really I’m not, because after all they may have just lived through these things and not felt them, whereas I’m living a very secluded life and am feeling them, which is another way of living them—and perhaps a deeper one, for all I know…’ (p.50).
One key theme of Borges’ short stories (at least that I have read) is that of human identity and humans as having a sort of dual identity or existence. It seems that the writer lives a sort of dual-life through his writing, an opinion which Borges explicitly conveys:
‘To be a writer is, in a sense, to be a day-dreamer—to be living a kind of double life’ (p.163)
Finally he applauds the ‘rewarding experience’ that the writer’s lifestyle offers to mankind, and such creative writing courses as that at Columbia which give birth to the next generation of budding authors:
‘We all have the pleasures of the reader, but the writer has also the pleasure and the task of writing. This is not only a strange but a rewarding experience. We owe all young writers the opportunity of getting together, of agreeing or disagreeing, and finally of achieving the craft of writing.’ (p.165)
Thanks for reading, what do you think about Borges’ thoughts on writing?