The Book Club

Kerr and Shulevitz

Dear Sarah,

I was shocked when I read Mavis Gallant’s review of Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions in the New York Times Book Review about a month ago. Underneath the sheen of politesse oblige that overlays everything in the Book Review these days, she was really rather nasty. Once she got through praising him as a towering figure in world literature in the 1960s, she pointed out that nobody reads him anymore–”(other than Spanish-speaking readers, translators, specialists in Latin American writing, teachers and graduate students preparing dissertations).” Plus, he’s boring: His stories “are like old and precious reels a curator in a film museum has lovingly kept unscratched and dusted. Everything happens and will happen in the same way, over and over.” 

Who was Mavis Gallant to write like this about the most beloved writer of my college years? She’s just some Canadian short story writer who lives in Paris, whom you yourself once called minor in Slate, and he was (he died 12 years ago) the modern era’s greatest fabulist–the successor to Kafka; the precursor of magical realism; the Argentine writer whose work John Updike hailed as the “way out of the dead-end narcissism and downright trashiness of present American fiction”; the careful rhetorician whom the critic Paul de Man, in a famous 1964 essay, suggested was the definitive stylist of our time, since his main subject was the infamy of style–the way style subverts everything, even philosophy. (It makes a deconstructionist’s day to discover literary style trumping the philosophical quest for truth, since deconstruction is in large part a corporate raid by literature departments on philosophy departments.)

Borges’ little Voltairian contes philosophique (philosophical tales) take as their subject matter several of the more unsettling paradoxes in the history of thought: Whether Judas Iscariot was in fact the true saint of the Christ story, since he made the supreme sacrifice of mortifying his soul in order to play the necessary villain. Whether there’s any point to the infinite labyrinth of individual consciousness, since reality carries a gaucho’s knife and stabs consciousness to death every time. Whether the quest for total knowledge must perforce deteriorate into total forgetting.

I thought it would be a sheer delight to come back to Borges’s libraries and Kabbalists and Babylonian heros and obscure figures from Argentine history. It wasn’t. Maybe it was that I was reading him against these other short story writers–Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore, particularly Munro–but he seemed dry, pedantic, inhumane, overly clever. Fifteen years ago Borges’s idea that the short story was a superior form to the novel because it could summarize all those creaking plots novelists must laboriously put together (one of his favorite conceits is the book review of a book that doesn’t exist) seemed brilliant. Now it strikes me as soulless. Gallant is right: Nothing surprises. Once you’ve grasped each story’s central irony, you can work the rest of it out ahead of time.

Not that the short story isn’t superior to the novel in some ways. It occurred to me that the short story does all kinds of things the novel can’t do was when I was reading Munro’s latest collection, The Love of a Good Woman, which focuses mostly on lonely women in remote parts of Canada. (The great short story writer Frank O’Connor once wrote that novels are about community and short stories are about the isolated individual–outsiders and outcasts.) If Borges is Voltaire, Munro is Chekhov–deceptively everyday, with an intensity of mood and affect that opens up chasms where you thought there was nothing but surface, making it obvious how little you really understand about people. 

I loved the title story, which is about an unsolved murder in, of course, a remote part of Canada. First there are these boys who discover the body in a lake, and mean to tell the police, they really do–they just forget to. Finally one ‘fesses up, and the rest do too, and the town is so flabbergasted at their silence the boys carry the stigma of the incident with them for life. You think this is going to be a plot point but it isn’t. It’s dropped, and you’re left with the mystery of death, an experience so disruptive the boys just prefer to forget it.

Then there’s the second half of the story, which is about a private nurse taking care of an exceedingly unpleasant woman whose kidneys are drying up–you half think from nastiness and evil temper. Slowly but surely, the woman’s husband comes into view, a persevering and reserved man, an appealing possibility for our lonely single nurse. But as his wife dies, she tells the nurse a horrible story about her husband that’s meant to poison the nurse’s budding affection for him. The story brings the murder back, but you have no idea how to take it–how can you trust a woman as spiteful as that?

It’s the perfect Munro story, not because it’s about death, but because it’s about death as a transmogrifying, subterranean force on life. Everything she writes has something like this going on underneath it–some hidden power that rips through her characters’ carefully assembled lives and alters them in slight but utterly definitive ways. That’s something that’s hard to do in a novel, which can’t be all about subtle effects and seemingly minor changes. It has to be bigger and grander than that. Munro’s life-and-death forces are also something I never sense in Borges. He was withered old fellow who lived with his mother and ran his libraries; his entire life consisted of books. When I was in college (where deconstruction reigned supreme) that used to make me adore him. Now it makes me bored.