With Borges by Alberto Manguel

More knowledgeable friends have often expressed consternation, if not contempt, for the fact that I have never quite ‘taken to’ Borges.

Silly as it may sound, but the fact is that I could not proceed beyond a few (well, actually just a couple) of his stories that I don’t even remember.

My reasoning is that I am a reader of the novel, not the short story, and then also novels in the tradition of the 19th century novel at least in their concern for social and political issues.

Borges does neither.

In fact, I was surprised by a statement attributed to him- that the novel is an unnecessary form since a good writer can express the same in a short story (or words to that effect) .

Jorge Luis Borges himself was a master of the short form.

His genre is also the fantasy, something that does not appeal to me for similar reasons.

It turns out that my views are not exactly original. In his early years, Borges was criticized on these very grounds (which makes me feel ancient.)

This and much else comes to light in Alberto Manguel’s slim, almost Borgesian volume, With Borges whose English translation came out last October.

Manguel read to the great Spanish writer when the latter was fifty eight years and had turned blind, and Manguel himself was sixteen years old. He was one of the many people who had the privilege of reading to Borges and it is very clear that these four years at that impressionable age left a lifelong imprint on his mind and his style of writing.

With Borges is part recollection and part an insightful literary excursion into the writings of Borges.

He brings out in one breathless sweep, the great man’s wide reading, his ability to correlate different works and ideas, his love for ‘inventive memories’, his disdain for convention when it came to writing, or reading for that matter, and his belief that the universe is a book.

There are writers who attempt to put the world in a book. There are others, rarer, for whom the world is a book, a book that they attempt to read for themselves and for others. Borges was one of those writers. He believed, against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and he believed that happiness could be found in book, even though he was unable to explain why this was so.

Elsewhere he remarks:

For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogs begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past.

Borges considered himself to be, above all, to be a reader.

…reading is, for Borges, a way to be all those men he knows he’ll never be: men of action, great lovers, great warriors. For him reading is a form of pantheism.

For anyone who is a fan of Borges already, this is a delightful book with incisive insights into their favorite writer’s mind and for those still not converted to the cult, it is a gentle reminder to go and read him carefully, and more generously.

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6 thoughts on “With Borges by Alberto Manguel

  1. I hadn’t read your post when I mentioned the link but I read it now and it is interesting how they mention the same passages. I haven’t tried much of Borges but I haven’t loved the little I have read since I too prefer writing that is sociopolitically engaging (though I enjoy reading both short stories and novels).

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