Selected Visions of Jorge Luis Borges, 1958-1986
by Jorge Luis Borges and Norman Thomas di Giovanni
New Directions, 298 pp., $23.95
The Argentine Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is one of the most revered men of modern letters. He is best known for his volume of fiction Ficciones, particularly for the stories “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and for his story “The Aleph,” from the collection of the same name, a story about the titular point of space in an Argentinian basement from which all other points in the universe may be seen. It is not difficult to believe in such a magic mirror as the aleph when one is faced with the plenitude (an infinity!) of learning and erudite curiosity found in Borges’ thousands of pages of fiction and non-fiction: a study of the genre of allegory, essays on Dante, on blindness, on Kafka, ‘capsule biographies’ of Woolf, Valéry, T. S. Eliot, and others, an investigation of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, treatises on translation and time and memory. If Borges has been to all places, he has been to all times, too: there are studies of ancient Scandinavian dialects, a “New Refutation of Time,” essays on immortality, histories of angels, of eternity, of the tango, of the conception of Hell, of the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, of the echoes of a name. It becomes plausible to posit the existence of a moment in time (a beth?) analogous to the aleph, from which all other times may be seen. Such a moment for Borges may have been the instant his eyes finally gave up their struggle with ocular degeneration.i
Borges was many things: intellectual, librarian, lecturer, writer, reader; all of which may be gathered under the one rubric: thinker. But it seems that not all of his works are the result of his dreams and thoughts. In a case of life imitating art, a startling discovery has been made. Borges was not only a thinker but a prophet, a visionary. Shortly before his death from liver cancer, Borges married his personal assistant María Kodama. A will drawn up at about the same time gave Kodama complete control of Borges’ estate – a move rendered distinctly suspicious when, after his death, Kodama wasted no time in rescinding the publication rights of Borges’ oeuvre and commissioning new translations by Andrew Hurley.ii As good as these new translations may be, the older ones have a distinct advantage over them: they are the direct collaboration of Borges with his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni.
Di Giovanni spent a number of years working beside Borges, translating volume after volume of poetry and prose from their original Spanish into English. From 1967 to 1972 they brought Borges’ dreams and fantasies to the Anglosphere, and beginning in 1968 translated new poems and stories , breaking Borges’ eight year silence. Di Giovanni’s translations were hailed as masterworks and he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. But upon Borges’ death in 1986 Kodama, his wife for only 50 days, executrix of his estate, declared the di Giovanni translations unpublishable. The decision to toss out all the work that di Giovanni had done together with Borges was nonsensical – at least until one considers that such a decision robs di Giovanni of his equal share in royalties and instead puts it all in Kodama’s sticky palm. The heavy hand of the executrix is evident even when one visits di Giovanni’s personal website: under the title “The Borges Papers,” there are a number of pages that presumably once contained some of Borges’ work, but which now have only a heading (“Missing Borges I, II, III,” “Borges in Conversation,” “The Maker: Prose Pieces 1934-1960,” etc.), the body of which has been replaced with the laconic, “This page has been removed.” “Missing Borges” is missing. But the evidence of their censoring remains, a small but deserved irony from di Giovanni.
And there are other, larger, victories, one so monumental that it is essentially revelatory. One that will forever change the way Borges is read. One that constitutes a work so original that it will, as Walter Benjamin said, “either invent a genre or dissolve one.” I’m talking of the Selected Visions of Jorge Luis Borges, 1958-1986. As the title suggests, this volume of prose on which di Giovanni has worked in secret for some decades is a catalogue of prophetic visions recorded by Borges after his eyesight failed him. In the introduction to the work, di Giovanni is at pains to assure the reader that,
“this is not a work of fiction, and if it might be called a work of non-fiction it is only because history has made it so. The veracity of these pieces is proved almost with each passing year: the American flag on the moon, the reunion of East and West Germany, the election of a black President of the United States of America, among so much else.”
But for every event of world-shaking significance there are dozens more that assume the nebulous, unidentifiable form of personal tragedy or triumph: a mime lying on railway tracks in the rain, a boy hiding with the dust and spiders under his house in the darkness of predawn, a face that retained its nobility through two world conflicts and the Spanish Civil War, an old man who stood before his naked wife and saw in her the young woman he had married and fell in love with her again. Di Giovanni later details how the book came to be published.
“I received a package in the mail in October of 1986, four months after [Borges'] death. It was marked “confidential” and addressed to me. Inside there were hundreds and hundreds of pages, typed, no doubt, by one of his many secretaries, those respectful young senoritas so quiet and demure. A letter explained what they were, these pages, that they were stories but not ones he had himself written – merely recorded. And all of them were true. He said, “If you are reading these pages then I have died and you are their sole possessor.” I imagine it amused him to put it that way, echoing as it does a classic device of crime fiction. I suspect he had left the pages with Franny, his housekeeper of many years, with instructions on how to find me. His trust in me for this was the beautiful marble capstone on the friendship we had built together.
As to why Borges hid the pages from Kodama and had them sent to me, I can only speculate. Perhaps he knew even then the perfidy she had planned one he was out of the picture. But then why marry her and draw up a new will? Why did he do anything that he did? It is as well to speculate on his acceptance of a medal from the man he denounced so often and publicly, Peron. It is true that Borges often thought about logic, but he rarely thought logically: if he applied his mind to rigorous philosophical systems, it was only to see to what taffy consistency they would melt.
I kept silent about the prophecies of Jorge Luis Borges for so long because I not only feared ridicule from the professors who “dispense the fame,” but also feared legal retaliation from María Kodama. It has taken me two decades to decide that the work presented in this volume is too important not to be published, and that its integrity as an instrument of divination would be vindicated with the occurrence of those future events detailed in its pages.
I speculate further that the reason he didn’t have the papers published in his lifetime was not fear of ridicule (he could always pass them off as one of his hoaxes) but because he didn’t think them as important as his fictions. For Borges they were facts, and he was never much interested in facts.”
As confident as di Giovanni is, many critics have expressed – I beg your pardon – predictable doubts about the content of the book. With the flaming faith of their rationality they have denounced Selected Visions as “factitious,” “narcissistic,” and “self-indulgent.” Teddy Shoestring, writing for The New Yorker, laments the volume as “singularly damaging to the Borges canon…in publishing the Visions, di Giovanni has only vindicated María Kodama’s decision to task someone else with the work of translating Borges.” Jonathan Nathan Stamp for Slate writes, “[Selected Vision] is an encyclopedia of the hallucinations of a closet clairvoyant in the spirit of his beloved junky de Quincy.” Rather than actually address the book critically, the cognoscenti have been quick to declare in strident tones which side they are on – believers or non. It will come as no surprise that the skeptics field by far the larger army.
But all of this is to miss the point entirely. The veracity of any one of the prophecies in the Visions is wholly irrelevant. It must be remembered that Borges saw himself first and foremost as a poet and, ipso facto, he had a sense of what Keats called “negative capability,” that is, the quality of resting content in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…” It is most assuredly this uncertainty, this vital mystery that Borges wanted to evoke, and to this end, I believe, he peppered his own visions with his own fabrications, blending fiction with future fact. And so for many of the more personally touching prognostications (such as the suicidal mime mentioned above) the truth may never be known. We will have to remain content in half-knowledge. Not least among the prophecies included in the selection is:
602) The man Borges will write a book or prophecies in which shall be found a prophecy that foretells itself and is thus simultaneously prophesied and proved in an infinite present.
That this milyunanochescoiii prophecy follows 148 and precedes 149 is a clear indicator that Borges is, as ever, playing games with his reader. It is, one realises, a self-parody (thus the use of third-person, the only such occasion in all of the Visions) of the kind of paradox and infinite logic of which Borges was so fond.iv I am not the first reader to note that 602 is an homage to night 602 of the Thousand and One Nights, that night on which Scheherazade begins to tell the tale of the Thousand and One Nights – a tale that, “were the queen to persist,” Borges writesv, “the immobile king would forever listen to the truncated story of the thousand and one nights, now infinite and circular…”
While the heavily skewed animadversions from the garrulous residents of the ivory tower serve ironically to validate another playful entry,
1) They shall not believe
there are the few who give the man, Borges, his due credit. In a shower of coruscating syllables from Mark McConnor for Bookforum, Selected Visions is “the most important event in psychic literature since Nostradamus’ Les Propheties, splendidly scintillating, quintessentially Borgesian.”
Not all of the entries in the Visions are as terse as the one above: amongst the shorter passages are essays on subjects yet to be discovered, on philosophies yet to be founded, histories of future wars and biographies of the future lives they took. Nor do his visions appear to have been fleeting and vague, either, for there is a handful of film and book reviews, some written with the kind of reference and attention to detail that only a keen familiarity with the work in review can provide.
Norman Thomas di Giovanni speaking in the Autumn 2010 issue of The Paris Review has more to say about the process of translating Selected Visions and the particular responsibility he feels toward this new, posthumous volume of Borges’:
How did you come to be working with Borges?
Borges had come to Harvard in 1967 to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures. I met him at around that time and, along with several other translators, we began work on a selection of his poems. It was really very successful, they were published in some of the bigger journals and we were invited to do some readings in Boston. It was a great time. He felt not as though he had brought poems to the deaf, but “dreams to the sleeping.”
“Dreams to the sleeping” seems a poetically apt description of the “boom” of Latin American fiction in America.
Well, yes, the 60′s were the golden decade of modern Latin American letters. You had them from all sides, from all over the continent – Carlos Fuentes from Mexico, Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru. 1967 was the year García Márquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude. And in Argentina you had Cortázar and Borges. Ficciones first appeared in English in 1962. After the readings around Boston, Borges returned to Argentina. He invited me over to help him translate some more work and I agreed to go. I spent five years there.
Were you afraid [María Kodama] would send her lawyers after you? Throw the book at you, as it were?
Sure. It’s still a concern. But Borges sent me his Visions – and, by the way, they were not always called Visions. In personal notes not published in the volume, he variously refers to the collection as his Confessions, in the tradition of St. Augustine, or as Methuselah, a name that hints not only at their longevity as premonitions, but, as is typical of the kind of etymological attention to detail characteristic of Borges and essential to a translator, means in Hebrew, “when he has died, it shall be sent.” Considering I received these papers in October of 1986, four months after his death, I thought it a great joke between friends. So, suddenly, at the reach of my hand, I have a mass of illuminating documents. Is it not high time I made them public?
The once exception with this work compared to your other translations of Borges’ work is that this time around there is no collaboration.
Well, that’s not entirely true. It might be another joke of his, but it undeniably serves an instructive function that he has left notes scattered throughout the – I’m going to call it Methuselah because it delights me and it’s his title – notes that clarify meaning or suggest adjectival inflections, cognates, etc. It is a collaboration from beyond the grave, without the medium. But at the same time, what you say is technically true. If I should need clarification of a clarification? What then? When I first visited Argentina to work with Borges, we decided that neither of us wanted to make a direct translation, but instead worked on rewriting his work in English. When it came time to translate the Methuselah, the notes he left indicated that this was the method that he wanted to use.
There are premonitions from the time that the two of you were working together. Did you know that Borges was having them and recording them?
-“The Art of Translation No. 2,”
The Paris Review, Autumn 2010
[The following is an excerpt from Selected Visions of Jorge Luis Borges, 1958-1986, to be published by New Directions in early 2011.]
107) I have read a novel of the future. A future novel in time, for it has not yet been written, and in structure, for it will be written with heroic insouciance to the contemporary narrative forms. A novel of the next millennium. It was to my good fortune that the book will be written in Spanish, so I had no difficulty reading it. The novel is split into two volumes with the first acting as a prelude to the latter, the latter being the author’s statement of his philosophy of writing. The first novel is a catalogue of writers that stopped writing and their reasons for this. But it is more. It is the story of a man who writes such a book, a man who is faced with the paradox that, if he writes the book he can’t include himself in it, but if he doesn’t he can. It is, the narrator says, a book of footnotes to a book he will never write, and this is how he escapes his paradox: it’s not really the book on writers that don’t write, but the notes for it, and so he appears in its pages. The metatextual games continue in the second volume, where the first is presented as reality, then fiction, then reality. Fiction within fiction is not new, not now, not then. The most famous Spanish writer Cervantes made it an integral part of his Quijote. This is the soul of the work in question: a fluid organic restlessness ever conscious of its direction, evading the critic’s grasp. These works are the efforts of an author to move Spanish literature out from under the shadow of Cervantes. Whether he should prove successful or not not even I can foretell. Emerson once said that imitation is suicide. These novels, in their tangled narrative, are the attempt to deconstruct the Cervantine gallows on which Spanish novelists daily hang themselves.
iOr, perhaps, his blindness was a result of the “beth”. Of all of the theories given for Borges’ blindness, the most beautiful, and the most Borgesian, is that given by Bolaño: “Having looked too long on Eternity, like staring at the Sun, Borges returned from some time, Future or Past, and left behind his vision.”
iiWell aware of the role of translators in the life of any translated work, Borges had proposed and contracted an even split of royalties with his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Kodama doubtlessly saw such a ratio as far too generous.
iiiForgive me the use of such a recondite adjective. It seemed to me an opportune moment to favour such a beautiful word: ‘milyunanochesco’ – one-thousand-and-one-nights-esque.
ivSee “The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise,” The Total Library, Penguin, 1999, p.43
vSee “When Fiction Lives in Fiction,” The Total Library, Penguin, 1999, p.161