02 March 2009

Why there is no space for George Eliot in Borges’ universe

Yann Martel has apparently been sending books to the president of Canada, Stephen Harper, a person he sees as ‘deluded by busyness’ and in need of some decent books to enrich his infrequent ‘stillnesses'; Martel posts with the books adjoining commentaries that tell Harper, and readers of www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca, what might be gained in the readings. And this is a nifty conceit. In his discussion (here) of Jorge Luis Borges’ work there is evidence of Martel’s commendable engagement as a reader, for example, something I’ve never seen discussed in talk to do with Borges, that he spies a lack of women, an 'absence of intimate relations.. warmth... genuine pain' - the feminine principle - in Fictions. But I’m not sure I can totally agree with Martel’s approximation of the ills in this particular body of writing. I’m not convinced that the extension of this finding, and other of the demands Martel makes (he suggests to Stephen Harper that the deficiencies of Borges can be learnt from also), can really be asked of Borges’ work. ‘Beyond the flash [Borges's conceptual pyrotechnics], [only once did Martel] find depth’; if Borges’ playfulness is anything it is a repudiation of the credos of realism that words are more than symbolic approximations of the real - fictions - and that the real is a thing depthed in ways that are in fact highly dissimilar to words. One of the motivations of Borges’s work, and one of the reasons he is the grandfather of writers like John Fowles, Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, and indeed postmodernism in general (for whatever you think that is worth!), is that books (and the realistnovel in particular) generally foist things on readers that are dishonest, while laying claim to a kind of ‘honesty’. This he tackles, as Swift tackled it, as Sterne tackled it. Can you have work with the question-everything, playful thrust of Borges that also involves the reader (as Martel demands) emotionally (a la Jamesian realism, a la George Eliot)? Certainly erudition and emotional connection can inhere in the same work (W. G. Sebald springs to mind, whose writing I've just got to, Nabokov, John Donne!) but Borges is more extreme, and in many ways he led the way - could signifiers have floated from their moorings without his untying of certain knots? I wonder if it would have been better to set out for Stephen Harper, instead, ideas about why there might not, in fact, be space for George Eliot in Borges’ universe.

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