The International Literary Quarterly

August 2008


Daniel Albright
Meena Alexander
David Dabydeen
Alice Fulton
Richard McKane
Jonathan Morley
Michael Schmidt
Tuğrul Tanyol
Alan Wall
Marina Warner
Edwin Williamson
Xu Xi
Gao Xingjian

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 4 Guest Artist: Arturo Di Stefano

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Extract from “Borges: A Life” (2004) with a foreword (2008) and afterword (2008) by Edwin Williamson  

Foreword. August, 2008

One Sunday in May 1961 Jorge Luis Borges was having lunch in Buenos Aires at the house of his friend and occasional collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, when he received a telephone call informing him that he had won an international literary prize which he had never heard of before. At first he thought it was a joke, but in fact it was a prize which was being awarded for the first time that year. Six publishing houses — “Gallimard” of France, “Einaudi” of Italy, ”Rowohlt” of Germany, the Spanish firm of “Seix Barral”, “Weidenfeld and Nicolson” of London and “Grove Press” of New York — had created the International Publishers' Prize for an author of any nationality whose existing body of work would have “a lasting influence on the development of modern literature”. The winner was to receive $10,000 and have a book translated and published by each of the sponsoring publishers.

The award of the prize had been entrusted to six committees, each drawn from the countries represented by the various publishing houses. In May, writers, critics and academics (among them Iris Murdoch, Alberto Moravia, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger) convened at the “Hotel Formentor” in Mallorca. Two names eventually emerged — Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. The French, Hispanic and Italian committees argued in favour of Borges, but the British, Americans and Germans preferred Beckett.  The organizers had planned to call on a seventh, Scandinavian committee, which would have broken the deadlock, very likely by voting for Beckett with the “northern” block, but there had not been time to put it together for that year. The Americans at one point tried to break the deadlock by introducing the candidacy of Henry Miller, but this late proposal was thrown out. Eventually, it was resolved to bring the matter to an end by splitting the prize equally between Beckett and Borges.

“As a consequence of that prize”, Borges was to write, “my books mushroomed overnight throughout the Western world.”  Indeed, within a few years, he was being acclaimed as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Certainly, he was to become the most influential writer in the Spanish language of modern times. Not only did he have a seminal influence on Latin American literature, he was subsequently to have a remarkable impact on a rising generation of writers in Britain, the USA, Italy, France and many other countries. Borges’s work encouraged writers to embrace fiction as a self-conscious, rhetorical artefact, susceptible to unashamed fantasy and to overtly intellectual, and even philosophical, concerns. Additionally, his stories and essays were perceived to have anticipated some of the principal topics of modern critical theory, from Russian formalism through to post-modernism. His subtle reflections on time and the self, or on the dynamics of writing and reading, generated texts which embodied ideas such as the arbitrariness of personal identity, the de-centred subject, the “death of the author”, the limitations of language and rationality, “intertextuality”, or the historically-relative and “constructed” nature of human knowledge (viz. Borges’s elliptical “histories” of abstract concepts, such as infamy, eternity or angels).     

This international reputation, however, was based on a somewhat limited view of his actual output: his fame rested almost exclusively on the stories collected in Fictions (1944) and The Aleph (1949), and the critical essays collected in Other Inquisitions (1952); there was, for instance, very little interest in, or indeed access to, his poetry, especially outside the Spanish-speaking world, even though Borges had started his career as a poet and always regarded poetry as his favourite medium. What’s more, the pronounced metaphysical concerns of Borges’s fiction of the 1940s fostered the view among critics that his work belonged in an ideal, timeless space, a kind of literary utopia in which writing amounted to a self-referential game of quoting or re-writing earlier texts.

This radical decontextualization was, of course, encouraged by certain strikingly original and revolutionary ideas in Borges’s own work. For example, in his “Autobiographical Essay”, he suggested that “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” was the story which had inaugurated the new style of writing he called “ficciones”, short stories or prose-texts whose brevity allowed him to condense mental play into reverberating images and situations.  “Pierre Menard” is a tongue-in-cheek account of the absurd enterprise of an early twentieth-century French writer, who sets out to “re-write” Cervantes’s Don Quixote word for word, and it was to become one of Borges’s most famous texts because it calls into question the unique authority of a literary classic, and insinuates that even the most revered of writers, in this case Cervantes, the great iconic author of Hispanic letters, may in the end be not much different from any other author, thereby exemplifying one of Borges’s favourite themes, the arbitrary or illusory nature of personal identity. The questioning of an author’s status as the sole originator of meaning also entails a severing of the text from its context, for if the author is no longer a privileged authority, then the context in which the work was written cannot be privileged either and it falls to the reader to provide the text with meaning according to his own culture, history and circumstances.

These ideas were a feature of Borges’s writing some thirty years before Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author” in his famous essay of 1968. Nevertheless, they sit uneasily alongside Borges’s long-held belief that writing, ultimately, is a form of autobiography. In 1926 he had declared in “A Profession of Literary Faith”: “All literature is autobiographical, in the last instance. Everything is poetic inasmuch as it confesses a destiny, inasmuch as it gives us a glimpse of one.” And in 1967, when already famous for his “ficciones”, he confessed to an interviewer: “I have felt my stories so deeply that I have told them, well, using strange symbols so that people might not find out that they were all more or less autobiographical. The stories were about myself, my personal experiences”

How can one reconcile these seemingly contradictory conceptions of the nature of writing? The inconsistency, I would say, sprang from a tension that is evident at the very core of Borges’s work between a desire to discover and affirm a destiny -- a true self – through the process of writing, and a horror of what he called “the nothingness of personality”. The fluctuations between self and non-self would vary in intensity according to circumstances, but they were present throughout his career, and, in fact, by looking into the context in which “Pierre Menard” itself was written, one can appreciate the extent to which even this most abstract of literary texts was a product of Borges’s personal experience, for it emerged from an acute crisis of faith in his own destiny as a writer, stemming from deep-seated conflicts provoked by the final illness and death of his father.


Extract from “Borges: A Life” (2004)

Some time in the latter months of 1937 Borges's father suffered a stroke which left him paralysed down the left side of his body. At the age of sixty-four, Dr. Borges was blind, debilitated by an aneurysm, and now immobilized. Borges would give us a glimpse of his father's condition in his story “The Other”: “His left hand resting on his right hand was like the hand of a child lying on the hand of a giant.” The stroke destroyed what remained of Dr. Borges's will to live: he wanted to die, he used to say, he wanted to die “completely”, by which he meant dying in body and soul with no prospect of an afterlife.

It was very likely his father's plight that jolted Borges into seeking a full-time job for the first time in his life.  He was thirty-eight and had no educational qualifications whatever, not even the baccalaureate, which he had never got round to completing.  Having previously worked only as a part-time literary journalist at a number of short-lived, poorly-paid jobs, the best he could manage by way of earning an independent living was a post as a library assistant in the Municipal Library Service.  On 8 January 1938 he started work at the Miguel Cané Library in the working-class district of Almagro on the southside of Buenos Aires, effectively at the other end of the city from where he lived. His salary was a measly 210 pesos a month, though some time later, through the influence of friends, it was raised to 240 pesos, a miserable wage all the same.

Life at the Miguel Cané Library was pretty dire for a writer like Borges. None of his colleagues showed any interest in books; they spent their time talking about soccer and horse-racing, or telling each other smutty stories.  The depths to which he had sunk were brought home to him when a colleague came across a biographical note in an encyclopedia on a certain Jorge Luis Borges, and pointed out the coincidence of their names to Borges, not realizing that they were one and the same person.

A couple of upper-class lady-friends once came to visit him at the library and were so horrified by what they saw that they rang him up and told him: “You may think it amusing to work in a place like that, but promise us you will find at least a 900-peso job before the month is out.” But working as a library assistant was not one of Georgie's more perverse jokes, it was the position he had attained by his own efforts as an independent adult in the world, and it caused him unutterable distress:

“Now and then during these years, we municipal workers were rewarded with gifts of a two-pound package of mate to take home. Sometimes in the evening, as I walked the ten blocks to the tramline, my eyes would be filled with tears. These small gifts from above always underlined my menial and dismal existence.”

Borges's anguish was compounded by his awareness of his father's disappointment in him. He would recall his father commenting on a well-known apothegm of the Liberator General José de San Martín, in which the founding-father of the nation extolled a man's overriding duty to fulfil his destiny: “Serás lo que debes ser, y si no, no serás nada”—“You must be what you ought to be, and if not, you will be nothing at all”, which, in Dr. Borges's cynical gloss, became:

“You must be what you ought to be — you must be a gentleman, a Catholic, an Argentine, a member of the Jockey Club, an admirer of General Uriburu, an admirer of the extensive landscape paintings of Quirós, or you will be nothing at all — you will be a Jew, a good-for-nothing, a first assistant in a library; the Ministry of Culture shall ignore your books, and Dr. Rodríguez Larreta shall not send you any autographed copies of his own.”

The reference to a “first assistant” indicates that this conversation took place early in 1938, some time after Georgie had started work at the library. It would have been painful enough for Borges to witness the depth of his father's disillusionment, but the pain must have been exacerbated by the knowledge that his father saw him as a failure too. Neither had found much success in the world — the father had not fulfilled his aspirations as a writer and was now blind and paralysed, while the son had betrayed his early promise as a poet and risen to the giddy heights of “first assistant” at a municipal library in some godforsaken corner of Buenos Aires.

And yet, as the reality of death drew closer, Dr. Borges could not reconcile himself to literary failure. He confessed to being dissatisfied with his novel El Caudillo, and appears to have placed some of the blame on Georgie: he was unhappy with the expressionist metaphors his son had suggested to him in Mallorca. He then asked his son “to rewrite the novel in a straightforward way, with all the fine writing and purple patches left out”, and the two of them would discuss ways of improving it.

This strange request to rewrite El Caudillo was itself an index of Dr. Borges's sense of failure: when Georgie had first started writing poetry he was told by his father: “Each of us must save himself by his own efforts; you must never seek advice from anyone.” At the end of his life, however, the unfortunate Dr. Borges, having failed to save himself as a writer by his own efforts, turned to his son for help. But it was a request that put the son in a terrible predicament, for how could he “save” his father, when his own failure to write a self-justifying novel had pushed him to the brink of suicide four years earlier? 
On the morning of 24th of February Borges received a telephone call from his mother, who told him that the aneurysm had ruptured and his father would be dead in a matter of hours. He left the library and made his way across the city, arriving home in time to see his father pass away. Borges was profoundly moved by the stoic dignity with which his father met his end, but admiration was mixed also with a searing anguish, as is evident in a poem he wrote shortly afterwards, an unpolished composition of thirty-two lines written on ruled paper taken from an exercise book and clearly dated 1938. Next to the handwritten text is a rough drawing of a large tree, an image of strength and endurance which relates to the opening image of the poem: 

“We have seen you die on your feet,
bearing fruit like brave men die;
we have seen you die with the steadfast
spirit of your father amidst the bullets ...”

Georgie praised his father's courage in meeting his death by likening it to the heroic death in battle of their ancestor, Colonel Borges. And yet, despite his brave spirit, Dr. Borges died wishing that his son might somehow bring to fruition the literary destiny that had eluded him. The grieving Georgie ended his valedictory poem with a desperate cri de coeur:

“Papa, don't leave me, take me with you wherever it is that you are going!”  

Borges's poem posited a connection between himself, his father, and the spirit of the latter's own father. As a boy, he had already adumbrated such a triangle in his playlet about the Spanish knight Bernardo del Carpio, where the young hero pays a ransom to release his captive father only to discover that he has been tricked by the wicked king, whereupon he avenges his father's murder by killing the king. However, the self-belief displayed by the adolescent Borges had quite evaporated in the grown man — he now felt himself to be a mere reflection of his father, since their respective attempts either to live up to the ideal of the ancestral hero or to rebel against his oppressive memory had ended equally in failure, and both father and son were mired in a paralysing condition of “unreality” as a result. 

The triangular relationship bonding father, son and the spirit of their ancestor, exerted a horrible fascination. Borges saw an emblem of this triad in the Christian notion of the Trinity. In his essay, “A History of Eternity”, he described the Trinity as a monstrosity that “only the horror of a nightmare could have engendered”; it was more terrifying even than the idea of Hell, for “Hell is mere physical violence, but the three inextricable Persons imply an intellectual horror, an infinity which is suffocating, specious, as of contrary mirrors”.

At the time of his father's final illness, Borges was engaged in translating a selection of Kafka's stories for the Editorial Losada, and it was Kafka who would provide him with the means of exploring further the ambivalent relations with his father and the ghost of their ancestral hero. In the prologue to his translations of Kafka, he would observe that the Czech writer had been secretly “despised” and “tyrannized” by his own father, and that Kafka himself had declared that his entire work was derived “from that conflict and from his tenacious meditations on the mysterious favours and unlimited exigencies of patriarchal power”. Two “obsessions” governed Kafka's fiction — “subordination” and “the infinite”, which is why none of the three novels he wrote was complete, for “the pathos of these ‘inconclusive’ novels stems precisely from the infinite number of obstacles that detain his identical heroes over and over again”.

Borges must have had in mind the “pathos” of his own “inconclusive” novels — the two attempts at the autobiographical The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim, or April March, his equally “inconclusive” effort to render infinite time in narrative form. Thanks to Kafka he attributed this failure to a mysterious inhibition deriving from patriarchal power. In May, just a couple of months after his father's death, he published a translation of  “Before the Law”, Kafka's brief tale about a man who is prevented by an invisible obstacle from walking through an open door. Kafka's protagonist asks to be admitted to the law but is refused entry by the doorkeeper who warns him that there are other halls inside with other doorkeepers who are even more powerful than he. The man waits for many years to receive permission to enter, and finally, when he is on the point of dying, he asks the doorkeeper why no-one else has asked to enter the law, only to be informed that this entrance was reserved for him alone and now that he is about to die, it will be closed. In the curious inability of Kafka's character to defy the doorkeeper's prohibition Borges must have recognized an identical inhibition in himself — and in his father too, no doubt — based on a fear of defying authority.
The period of his father's illness and death would constitute a decisive turning-point in Borges's career as a writer. From the beginning, he had conceived of writing as a means of expressing his true self, and, ultimately, of transcending the self in a rapturous fusion with the essential reality of the world. Even after losing his poetic voice in 1929, he had experimented with fiction in order to define his unique artistic personality by transmuting his unhappiness in love into aesthetic form. But his repeated failure to rebel against the patriarchal sword of honour, and so dissolve the perverse, familial trinity in which he was trapped, had caused him, time and again, to lose the love of a woman. And without a woman's love, he believed, there could be no hope of finding salvation by writing. In the aftermath of his father's death, therefore, Borges would abandon his quest for the essence of the self and would turn to writing as a means of exploring the nature of that abject failure.
Father's dying request that Borges rewrite El Caudillo epitomized the sheer impossibility of being saved by writing, for such an enterprise would entail the sacrifice of his own creative identity to his father's, while undermining his father's claim to be the novel's unique author, which would defeat the point of having written it in the first place. Re-writing, in short, entailed the destruction of true authorship, of originality, of invention. By the middle of 1938, I reckon, Borges's reflections on the implications of re-writing another man's work had led him to the rudiments of a new story in which he would stand on its head the idea he had cherished for so long, and portray its opposite — damnation by writing, or the death of the author.

We find elements of the new story that was taking shape in Borges's imagination in his review of Paul Valéry's Introduction à la poétique, which appeared in El Hogar on 10 June 1938, only two weeks after his translation of Kafka's “Before the Law” was published in the same magazine. Valéry argued that the history of literature was not to be found in an account of the life and works of individual authors but in a transcendent “History of the Mind” (“Esprit”), which was both producer and consumer of literature. And literary creation he regarded as the combination of the potentialities of a particular language according to forms established for all time. However, Borges found a contradiction between this view and a later assertion by Valéry that works of art only existed in the act of being perceived by a reader or spectator, for the first assertion implied a large but finite number of possible works, while the second “admits that time and its incomprehensions and distractions collaborate with the dead poet”. The same text, according to Borges, could mean different things to different readers in different periods, and he quoted a line from a poem by Cervantes to show that a reader in the twentieth century would derive a different sense from the very same words: “Time — a friend to Cervantes — has corrected the proofs for him”. 

Over the following months Borges would work up the idea of time as a “corrector of proofs” into a story he would call “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”, a spoof review of the works of a fictional writer from Nîmes, recently deceased. In the character of Pierre Menard we have a Paul Valéry who has woken up one morning to find himself transformed into Franz Kafka, for the nihilism of Menard was so absurdly perverse that it led him to “anticipate the vanity that awaits all human effort” by undertaking “an enterprise that was extremely complex and futile from the start” — he would rewrite Cervantes's Don Quixote. It was not a matter of copying the novel but of “repeating” the book, that is to say, writing his own text independently of Cervantes but with the aim of making it coincide “line by line and word for word” with the original. “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” thus presents us with an exact inversion of Borges's ideal of writing, for this is a kind of writing that results in the complete annihilation of personality. Had Menard succeeded in rewriting Don Quixote, he would have sacrificed his artistic individuality to the task but, equally, he would have robbed Cervantes of his status as the unique author of the great classic. Menard's success would thus have amounted to the destruction of original invention, rendering authorship an arbitrary concept — one author would be equivalent to any other — so that over a sufficiently long period of time, any work could, in principle, be written by any author.

In addition to this death, so to speak, of the author, Borges elaborated the related idea of time as the “corrector of proofs” which he had briefly mentioned in his review of Valéry's book. If time changed the meaning of texts so that every reader derived a different meaning from the same set of words, then a reader, in a sense, could be said to invent the meaning of any given text. Accordingly, we learn that Pierre Menard had “enriched” the art of reading by opening up the possibility of attributing a given text to any author the reader might fancy, thereby filling “with adventure the most placid of books”: “To attribute The Imitation of Christ to Louis-Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce, would this not be a sufficient renovation of those mild spiritual counsels?”

A bitter, self-mocking irony pervades “Pierre Menard”, for in this story Borges had drained the act of writing of any vital purpose whatever.  Menard's enterprise, in effect,  converted the reader into an author, and the author, in turn, into a glorified reader for whom writing had no connection with individual experience or feeling, and indeed was no more original than the work of a scribe “repeating” a pre-existing text. Moreover, as Borges realized, such a conception of writing and reading led to the dissolution of objective meaning. He cited as an example of Pierre Menard's “enrichment” of reading Don Quixote, Part I, chapter 9, in which history is called the “mother of truth”, as an example of Pierre Menard's “enrichment” of reading. What was conventional rhetoric for a Baroque writer like Cervantes becomes an “amazing” idea in a twentieth-century Frenchman — as “the mother of truth”, history is regarded by Menard not “as an investigation of reality but as its origin”: “Historical truth, for him, is not what happened; it is what we judge to have happened”. And so, one might infer that we invent the truths of history, we invent reality, in the way that readers invent meanings for literary texts, with the result that reading, no less than writing, becomes an exercise in solipsism.

By one of those strange ironies that seemed to manifest themselves periodically in Borges's life, these reflections on the death of the author were interrupted by a sudden brush with the reality of his own physical death in a strange accident that occurred on Christmas Eve, 1938. Borges had gone to fetch a girl at her apartment on Calle Ayacucho, some five blocks from where he lived at Avenida Pueyrredón, in order to accompany her home for dinner with his mother. The lift was out of order, so he decided to run up the stairs, but in the poor light he knocked his head against a newly-painted casement window which had been left open to dry.  Despite receiving first aid, the wound became poisoned, and for a week he lay in bed with a high fever and suffering from insomnia and hallucinations. One evening he lost his power of speech and had to be rushed to hospital for an emergency operation in the middle of the night. He had developed septicaemia, and for a month he hovered between life and death. When he recovered, he feared he might have been left mentally impaired and might never write again. He decided to write something he had never done before so that he would not feel so bad if he failed, and this led him to write “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” while he was convalescing from his illness in the summer months between January and April 1939.

“Pierre Menard” came out in Sur in May, and although it won plaudits from his friends, this was not sufficient to dispel Borges's sense of failure.  He was still oppressed by the concerns which had preceded his accident on Christmas Eve, concerns which could only have been aggravated when in July 1939 he lost his job as the editor of the fortnightly books page for El Hogar.  He had nothing left but his dreary post at the Miguel Cané Library, and his depression can be gauged from an essay, which he published in August, called “The Total Library”, where he imagined the entire universe in the form of a library.

“The Total Library” was based on the idea that, given a sufficiently extensive period of time, a limited number of letters or symbols would generate a finite number of combinations and, consequently, of books. This library, therefore, would contain all the books that could conceivably be written and would describe everything that existed or could possibly exist in the universe. In such a library all writers would be reduced to the condition of Pierre Menard, for, as Lewis Carroll observed, they could only ask themselves not “what book shall I write?” but “which book shall I write?” Dreadful as this idea was for Borges, he went further still, imagining another kind of “total library” immersed in the appalling immensity of infinite time, where for every “intelligible line” of text there would be “millions of senseless cacophonies, verbal farragoes and incoherencies”, where it was conceivable that “the generations of man might pass away altogether” without the shelves of the monstrous library yielding up “a single tolerable page”.  

The nightmare of the Total Library put him in mind of a kindred nightmare, the Trinity, and both nightmares he associated with the idea of Hell:

“One of the mind's habits is the invention of horrible imaginings. It has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, the abnormal transfinite numbers (in which the part is no less copious than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratological Trinity: the Father, the Son and the insoluble Ghost, articulated in a single organism.”

The Library — the Platonic form of Father's library in which he had spent his childhood, or of the Miguel Cané Library in which he currently worked — would become the supreme metaphor of solipsism for Borges, an idealist counter-world, a prison-house of “unreality” so pervasive that it was as if the living universe itself had been transformed into a Hell of endless books:

“I have endeavoured to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical deserts of books run the unceasing risk of changing into others, affirming everything, denying everything, and then confounding it all like some deity gone raving mad.”

It was in this solipsistic frame of mind that he conceived a new story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, which would appear in Sur in May 1940. This was a parody of Bishop Berkeley's philosophical idealism, in which the members of a secret society run by a millionaire called Ezra Buckley invent an imaginary planet called Tlön whose inhabitants lack any natural sense of there being a physical reality external to their own consciousness. In a series of brilliant comic manoeuvres, Borges sketched the consequences of such congenital idealism for the languages, science, mathematics, literature and religions of Tlön.

There are, however, a number of autobiographical allusions lurking in the farther reaches of the tale, among them the figure of Herbert Ashe, the taciturn English engineer afflicted by “unreality”, who is said to have established with Borges's father “one of those English friendships which begin by excluding any confidences and very soon omit conversation altogether”, and who died of a ruptured aneurysm like Borges père himself. The younger Borges recalls a conversation about Brazil he once had with Ashe in which they spoke of “cattle-ranching, of capangas, of the Brazilian etymology of the word gaucho”. Herbert Ashe thus obliquely connects father and son in a triadic relationship loosely associated with a trip to the borderlands of Uruguay and Brazil that Borges made shortly after his suicide attempt in 1934. Finally, a touch of paranoia creeps into the fable when Borges describes two incidents from his own experience which suggest that Ezra Buckley and his conspirators may be attempting to contaminate our world with the sinister idealism of the planet Tlön. The story, then, evinces Borges's fears of becoming as disengaged from the world as the stricken Dr. Borges, a reflection of the father in the son personified in the mysterious figure of the ghostly Ashe, and a condition from which writing itself could no longer offer any salvation.


Afterword. August, 2008

The de-contextualization of Borges’s work has obscured, if not erased, a number of fundamental preoccupations that drove him to write, and to persist in his writing, despite extremely adverse circumstances at times. Borges himself contributed to this de-contextualization, not least through his habit of appending additional texts to successive editions of his books, texts which had often been written years before, or indeed after, those books had first been published. “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”, for instance, now forms part of Fictions, a book which has achieved canonical status in Borges’s oeuvre, but this collection came about in a manner that owed more to the particular circumstances in which Borges’s radically new fiction was received in Buenos Aires at the time, than to any considered design of the author’s.

After its first appearance in Sur in May 1939, “Pierre Menard” was published, along with “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, “The Library of Babel” (a re-elaboration of “The Total Library”) and five other “ficciones” in December 1941, in a collection called The Garden of Forking Paths.  Reviewing this collection in Sur, Bioy Casares claimed that Borges had invented a new genre of fiction by discovering “the literary possibilities of metaphysics” and combining these with the pursuit of the “ideal” qualities inherent in detective stories, namely, “inventiveness”, “rigour” and “elegance” in the structuring of a narrative. The book was entered for a “National Prize for Literature” but failed to win an award. According to one of the judges, it had been thought inappropriate to recommend to the Argentine people “an exotic and decadent work” which followed “certain deviant tendencies of contemporary English literature”, hovering as it did “between the tale of fantasy, a pretentious and recondite erudition, and detective fiction”; Borges’s work amounted to a “dehumanized literature”, “an obscure and arbitrary cerebral game”.

Borges’s failure to win a “National Prize for Literature” for The Garden of Forking Paths caused dismay, even outrage, among his friends, and two years later, when he was preparing six new stories for publication under the title Artificios, his friend Enrique Amorim came up with the idea of making amends to Borges by having “The Society of Argentine Writers” create a prize of its own and award it to this new collection. Borges seems to have been quite happy to go along with this manoeuvre, and it may well have been Amorim’s proposal that influenced his decision to re-issue The Garden of Forking Paths, the object of the earlier controversy, under the same cover as Artificios. This double collection was then called Fictions and, when the book came out on 4 December 1944, it still bore the evidence of its dual provenance by being divided into two sections, each with its own prologue and title, The Garden of Forking Paths and Artificios, respectively, a division that has been retained in all subsequent editions. What’s more, it was not until the second edition of Fictions in 1956 that the collection would reach its present form, with the addition of three new stories written in the early 1950s. Thus, the canonical edition of Fictions, far from representing a well-defined period of Borges’s writing, is a somewhat haphazard accumulation of texts written between 1935 and 1953.

The award of the “Gran Premio de Honor”, which had been specially created by “The Society of Argentine Writers’” for the 1944 edition of Fictions, was made at a dinner in July 1945, and in his speech of thanks, Borges was to reveal something of the raw suffering from which his “ficciones” had been distilled. Having been criticized for the “dehumanized” quality of his work when he was denied a National Prize in 1941, he spoke of the twenty years of “obscurity” which had preceded the receipt of the present award. He had been “nourished on dangerous poisons”: he had fed on “darkness, bitterness, frustration, interminable useless evenings, and neglect”, but he rejoiced that the prize should have been given to a work of fantasy because the literature of fantasy, far from being a“marginal genre”, was in fact the most ancient of all: “Dreams, symbols and images traverse our lives; a welter of imaginary worlds flows unceasingly through the world.”  He concluded by observing that his life as a man had been “an unpardonable succession of miserable experiences”, but he nevertheless hoped he might achieve a greater dignity in his life as a writer.