Latin American Writers at Work (Modern Library Paperbacks)

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9780679773498: Latin American Writers at Work (Modern Library Paperbacks)
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The fourth book in the Modern Library’s Paris Review Writers at Work series, Latin American Writers at Work is a thundering collection of interviews with some of the most important and acclaimed Latin American writers of our time. These fascinating conversations were compiled from the annals of The Paris Review and include a new, lyrical Introduction by Nobel Prize–winning author Derek Walcott.

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From the Back Cover:

“What these interviews achieve in their essential courtesy is the hallowing of the craft by the writers whatever their stupid quarrels, whatever their superficial cynicisms. It is this secular sacredness that, hovering on the verge of translation, of being translated myself, made me grateful for the echo of the names Cortázar, Fuentes, Paz, García Márquez, in the house in Guadalajara where the ferocity of the flowers was an ignorance that these voices dispel.” —from the Introduction by Derek Walcott

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Jorge Luis Borges


Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires on August 24, 1899. Both of his parents spoke Spanish and English fluently, and "Georgie," as Borges was affectionately called, grew up trilingual, spending much of his childhood exploring his father's extensive library filled with books written in English, Spanish, and French.

In 1914 the Borges family moved to Europe-first to Switzerland, where young Borges and his sister Norah attended the College Calvin in Geneva, then to various cities in Spain. In Madrid, Borges began to acquaint himself with burgeoning avant-garde movements such as ultraism, and published poems in local literary magazines. In 1921 the family returned to Argentina, where Borges founded two literary magazines and published his first poetry collections, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) and Luna de Enfrente (1925). The poems deal mainly with Borges's exuberant revisit to his hometown and his keen observations of the local color and gaucho tradition that dwelt within. In the early thirties, Borges began publishing collections of essays before he forayed into the genre for which he is perhaps best known and most praised-the short story. His first short story collections, Historia universal de la infamia [A Universal History of Infamy] (1935) and Ficciones (1944), earned him recognition as one of Argentina's greatest writers. Borges won the 1961 Prix Formentor, the International Publisher's Prize, for Ficciones.

From 1938 until his retirement in 1973, Borges held several jobs. The first was in a local library, a position that he described as nine years of "solid unhappiness." Not usually known for his political views, Borges began to speak out against then dictator Juan Perón; Perón retaliated by appointing Borges National Poultry Inspector. After Perón's fall, Borges was named director of the National Library of Argentina by the new government and served as professor of German, English, and North American literatures at the University of Buenos Aires. In the meantime, he wrote such notable works as Labyrinths (1962), Elogie de la sombra [In Praise of Darkness] (1969), and El informe de Brodie [Doctor Brodie's Report] (1970)-all collections of essays, poetry, and short stories.

During the late seventies and early eighties, at which point Borges was nearly blind, he continued to publish essays and short story collections. In April of 1986, he married his longtime secretary and collaborator María Kodama, and died later that same year of liver cancer.

This interview was conducted in July 1966, in conversations I held with Borges at his office in the Biblioteca Nacional, of which he is the director. The room, recalling an older Buenos Aires, is not really an office at all, but a large, ornate, high-ceilinged chamber in the newly renovated library. On the walls-but far too high to be easily read, as if hung with diffidence-are various academic certificates and literary citations. There are also several Piranesi etchings, bringing to mind the nightmarish Piranesi ruin in Borges's story "The Immortal." Over the fireplace is a large portrait; when I asked Borges's secretary, Miss Susana Quinteros, about the portrait, she responded in a fitting, if unintentional, echo of a basic Borgesian theme: "No importa. It's a reproduction of another painting."

At diagonally opposite corners of the room are two large, revolving bookcases which contain, Miss Quinteros explained, books Borges frequently consults, all arranged in a certain order and never varied so that Borges, who is nearly blind, can find them by position and size. The dictionaries, for instance, are set together, among them an old, sturdily rebacked, well-worn Anglo-Saxon dictionary. Among the other volumes, ranging from books in German and English on theology and philosophy to literature and history, are the complete Pelican Guide to English Literature, the Modern Library Francis Bacon, Hollander's The Poetic Eddas, The Poems of Catullus, Forsyth's Geometry of Four Dimensions, several volumes of Harrap's English Classics, Parkman's The Conspiracy of Pontiac, and the Chambers edition of Beowulf. Recently, Miss Quinteros said, Borges had been reading The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, and just the night before he had taken to his home, where his mother (who is in her nineties) reads aloud to him, Washington Irving's Life of Mahomet. Each day, late in the afternoon, Borges arrives at the library, where it is now his custom to dictate letters and poems which Miss Quinteros types and reads back to him. Following his revisions, she makes two or three, sometimes four copies of each poem before Borges is satisfied. Some afternoons she reads to him, and he carefully corrects her English pronunciation. Occasionally when he wants to think, Borges leaves his office and slowly circles the library's rotunda, high above the readers at the tables below. But he is not always serious, Miss Quinteros stressed, confirming what one might expect from his writing: "Always there are jokes, little practical jokes."

When Borges entered the library, wearing a beret and a dark grey flannel suit hanging loosely from his shoulders and sagging over his shoes, everyone stopped talking for a moment, pausing, perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of empathetic hesitation for a man who is not entirely blind. His walk is tentative, and he carries a cane which he uses like a divining rod. He is short, with hair that looks slightly unreal in the way it rises from his head. His features are vague, softened by age, partially erased by the paleness of his skin. His voice, too, is unempathetic, almost a drone, seeming, possibly because of the unfocused expression of his eyes, to come from another person behind the face, and his gestures and expressions are lethargic-characteristic is the involuntary droop of one eyelid. But when he laughs-and he laughs often-his features wrinkle into what actually resembles a wry question mark; and he is apt to make a sweeping or clearing gesture with his arm and to bring his hand down on the table. Most of his statements take the form of rhetorical questions; but in asking a genuine question, Borges displays now a looming curiosity, now a shy, almost pathetic incredulity. When he chooses, as in telling a joke, he adopts a crisp, dramatic tone, and his quotation of a line from Oscar Wilde would do justice to an Edwardian actor. His accent defies easy classification: a cosmopolitan diction emerging from a Spanish background, educated by correct English speech and influenced by American movies. (Certainly no Englishman ever pronounced piano as pie-ano, and no American says a-nee-hilates for annihilates.) The predominant quality of his articulation is the way his words slur softly into one another, allowing suffixes to dwindle so that couldn't and could are virtually indistinguishable. Slangy and informal when he wants to be, more typically he is formal and bookish in his English speech, relying, quite naturally, on phrases like "that is to say" and "wherein." Always his sentences are linked by the narrative "and then" or the logical "consequently."

But most of all, Borges is shy. Retiring, even self-obliterating, he avoids personal statement as much as possible and obliquely answers questions about himself by talking of other writers, using their words and even their books as emblems of his own thought.

In this interview, it has been attempted to preserve the colloquial quality of his English speech-an illuminating contrast to his writings and a revelation of his intimacy with a language that has figured so importantly in the development of his writing.

interviewer: You don't object to my recording our conversations?

jorge luis borges: No, no. You fix the gadgets. They are a hindrance, but I will try to talk as if they're not there. Now where are you from?

interviewer: From New York.

borges: Ah, New York. I was there and I liked it very much-I said to myself: "Well, I have made this; this is my work."

interviewer: You mean the walls of the high buildings, the maze of streets?

borges: Yes. I rambled about the streets-Fifth Avenue-and got lost, but the people were always kind. I remember answering many questions about my work from tall, shy young men. In Texas they had told me to be afraid of New York, but I liked it. Well, are you ready?

interviewer: Yes, the machine is already working.

borges: Now, before we start, what kind of questions are they?

interviewer: Mostly about your own work and about English writers you have expressed an interest in.

borges: Ah, that's right. Because if you ask me questions about the younger contemporary writers, I'm afraid I know very little about them. For about the last seven years I've been doing my best to know something of Old English and Old Norse. Consequently, that's a long way off in time and space from the Argentine, from Argentine writers, no? But if I have to speak to you about the Finnsburg Fragment or the elegies or the Battle of Brunanburg . . .

interviewer: Would you like to talk about those?

borges: No, not especially.

interviewer: What made you decide to study Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse?

borges: I began by being very interested in metaphor. And then in some book or other-I think in Andrew Lang's History of English Literature-I read about the kennings, metaphors of Old English, and in a far more complex fashion of Old Norse poetry. Then I went in for the study of Old English. Nowadays, or rather today, after several years of study, I'm no longer interested in the metaphors, because I think that they were rather a weariness of the flesh to the poets themselves-at least to the Old English poets.

interviewer: To repeat them you mean?

borges: To repeat them, to use them over and over again and to keep on speaking of the hronrad, waelrad, or "road of the whale" instead of "the sea"-that kind of thing-and "the sea-wood," "the stallion of the sea" instead of "the ship." So I decided finally to stop using them, the metaphors that is; but in the meanwhile I had begun studying the language and I fell in love with it. Now I have formed a group-we're about six or seven students-and we study almost every day. We've been going through the highlights in Beowulf, the Finnsburg Fragment and The Dream of the Rood. Also, we've gotten into King Alfred's prose. Now we've begun learning Old Norse, which is rather akin to Old English. I mean the vocabularies are not really very different: Old English is a kind of halfway house between the Low German and the Scandinavian.

interviewer: Epic literature has always interested you very much, hasn't it?

borges: Always, yes. For example, there are many people who go to the cinema and cry. That has always happened: it has happened to me also. But I have never cried over sob stuff, or the pathetic episodes. But, for example, when I saw the first gangster films of Sternberg I remember that when there was anything epic about them-I mean Chicago gangsters dying bravely-well, I felt that my eyes were full of tears. I have felt epic poetry far more than lyric or elegy. I always felt that. Now that may be, perhaps, because I come from military stock. My grandfather, Colonel Borges, fought in the border warfare with the Indians and he died in a revolution; my great-grandfather, Colonel Suárez, led a Peruvian cavalry charge in one of the last great battles against the Spaniards; another great-uncle of mine led the vanguard of San Martín's army-that kind of thing. And I had, well, one of my great-great-grandmothers was a sister of Rosas-I'm not especially proud of that relationship, because I think of Rosas as being a kind of Perón in his day; but still all those things link me with Argentine history and also with the idea of a man's having to be brave, no?

interviewer: But the characters you pick as your epic heroes-the gangster for example-are not usually thought of as epic, are they? Yet you seem to find the epic there?

borges: I think there is a kind of, perhaps, low epic in him-no?

interviewer: Do you mean that since the old kind of epic is apparently no longer possible for us, we must look to this kind of character for our heroes?

borges: I think that as to epic poetry or as to epic literature, rather-if we except such writers as T. E. Lawrence in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom or some poets like Kipling, for example in "Harp Song of the Dane Women" or even in the stories-I think nowadays, while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the Westerns.

interviewer: I have heard that you have seen the film West Side Story many times.

borges: Many times, yes. Of course, West Side Story is not a Western.

interviewer: No, but for you it has the same epic qualities?

borges: I think it has, yes. During this century, as I say, the epic tradition has been saved for the world by, of all places, Hollywood. When I went to Paris, I felt I wanted to shock people, and when they asked me-they knew that I was interested in the films, or that I had been, because my eyesight is very dim now-and they asked me, "What kind of film do you like?" And I said, "Candidly, what I most enjoy are the Westerns." They were all Frenchmen; they fully agreed with me. They said, "Of course we see such films as Hiroshima, mon amour or L'Année dernière à Marienbad out of a sense of duty, but when we want to amuse ourselves, when we want to enjoy ourselves, when we want, well, to get a real kick, then we see American films."

interviewer: Then it is the content, the "literary" content of the film, rather than any of the technical aspects of the movies that interests you?

borges: I know very little about the technical part of movies.

interviewer: If I may change the subject to your own fiction, I would like to ask about your having said that you were very timid about beginning to write stories.

borges: Yes, I was very timid, because when I was young I thought of myself as a poet. So I thought: "If I write a story everybody will know I'm an outsider, that I am intruding in forbidden ground." Then I had an accident. You can feel the scar. If you touch my head here, you will see. Feel all those mountains, bumps? Then I spent a fortnight in a hospital. I had nightmares and sleeplessness-insomnia. After that they told me that I had been in danger, well, of dying, that it was really a wonderful thing that the operation had been successful. I began to fear for my mental integrity-I said, "Maybe I can't write anymore." Then my life would have been practically over, because literature is very important to me. Not because I think my own stuff particularly good, but because I know that I can't get along without writing. If I don't write, I feel, well, a kind of remorse, no? Then I thought I would try my hand at writing an article or a poem. But I thought: "I have written hundreds of articles and poems. If I can't do it, then I'll know at once that I am done for, that everything is over with me." So I thought I'd try my hand at something I hadn't done: if I couldn't do it, there would be nothing strange about it, because why should I write short stories?-It would prepare me for the final overwhelming blow: knowing that I was at the end of my tether. I wrote a story called, let me see, I think, "Hombre de la esquina rosada," and everyone enjoyed it very much. It was a great relief to me. If it hadn't been for that particular knock on the head I got, perhaps I would never have written short stories.

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