The Book Club

Hokey, Sometimes, and Dense. Not Boring

Dear Judith,

I thought Mavis Gallant’s review of Borges was a setup job. Their stories spring from totally opposite philosophies. Gallant’s are steeped in the teensy weensy details of everyday life, which is exactly what Borges avoided like the plague. Of course she dismisses him: It’s like asking Pat Robertson to review Darwin.

I agree with you that the new Borges collection, which everyone besides Gallant has praised to the skies, is slow going–at times, I’ll admit, flat out boring. I tuned out the stories with gunfights and tangoes and hokey touches of Argentine color. In the intellectual stories, my mind got overstuffed with references until it burst and went limp, like a sagging balloon. But it’s always been the case with Borges that I can only take small bits of him in one sitting. Andrew Hurley’s new translation is witty and faithful and clearly an act of love, but I think Borges is better served by the smaller collections that already exist, like Labyrinths, for two reasons. 1) They contain only his best stories, which are exponentially better than the OK ones. 2) Alongside the stories, there are occasional essays like “Kafka and His Precursors,” and sometimes these are as wonderful as the stories.

This last point seems important to me. Borges didn’t write “short stories” in the contemporary, melancholy, observed-slice-of-life sense of the genre. Nowhere in his work, that I know of, do a husband and wife drive silently home from a dinner party trying to figure out where their love went wrong. Borges had philosophical themes to muse about, systematic ways of thinking to condemn, weird old books to praise, and jokes to tell (you have to admit “Pierre Menard” is an absurdity worthy of Monty Python). He found a form to accommodate all this; sometimes it was fiction and sometimes it wasn’t. You’re right to say his entire life consisted of books–just as there have been painters who ate, slept, and breathed art, and violinists who only heard music. This just means literature was the passion in his life. Weird and unhealthy, maybe, but not such a handicap if you’re planning to write.

I can see why he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he means a lot to me. As for Alice Munro–there’s someone I admire, but she’s not my cup of tea. You’re right that she’s Chekhovian, and this may be part of my problem. I love Chekhov too, every bit as much as Borges. I’m just not sure I want to see his spirit channeled so literally into brand new stories. (I wouldn’t be so excited about a neo-Borgesian, either.) When I read Munro, I’m awed by the technique. I nod at the wisdom. But I always feel that she takes the genre of the story for granted in a way Chekhov didn’t. Chekhov’s modest, honest fragments were radical for their time–Chekhov was delivering news. With Munro, I feel I’m getting craft and humanity but not so much news. (For comparison, imagine a contemporary composer writing a heartbreaking sonata in the style of Ravel.)

I also feel that the kind of short story Munro writes has suffered a lot from competition with film and television and the media in general. Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell you about some things in The Love of a Good Woman that felt familiar to me, as if I’d read about them or seen them before.