Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great books #4: Labyrinths

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

To understand the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, it helps to begin with the encyclopedia. Not the fantastic encyclopedia of Tlön, which describes an imaginary country—its fishes, its playing cards—in monumental detail, or even the countless unreadable encyclopedias, with their autobiographies of the archangels and the true story of your own death, that populate the infinite Library of Babel. I’m talking about the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Borges read extensively. Borges sometimes strikes us as a monster of unbelievable erudition, and there’s no doubt that he was deeply familiar with such subjects as the cabala and the history of philosophy, as well as such authors as Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Kafka. Yet his true intellectual heritage was that of the reader of encyclopedias, a connoisseur of enigmatic facts filtered through the perspective of an army of anonymous compilers, superficially orderly but opening into ever darker mysteries. Many readers, including myself, were first drawn to Borges for the richness and quality of his mind, which tosses out fascinating ideas in a paragraph or aside in an otherwise densely textured story. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a man who is profoundly ambivalent about his own learning, to whom a book can be a paradise, a labyrinth, or the hybrid creature of a nightmare. If Proust is the ultimate noticer, Borges is our ultimate reader, and he has troubling lessons for those of us who spend most of our lives among books.

That said, it’s foolish to discount the incidental pleasures of his fictions, which include some of the finest mystery and fantasy stories in any language. Borges appeals to us because he descends from the line of storytellers that includes Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his best stories can be enjoyed simply as works of virtuoso cleverness: “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a philosophical fable that includes a twist worthy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where it first appeared in English, and “The Immortals” packs more wonderful ideas into fourteen pages than most authors could manage in ten times that length. (All of these stories appear in Labyrinths, still the strongest anthology of Borges, which collects his best work from the fifties. My other favorites include “Death and the Compass,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “Three Versions of Judas.”) The more of Borges we read, though, the more disturbing he becomes. Borges was a master librarian who finally lost his eyesight, an irony he would have found too obvious to include in his own fiction. His best works are about other kinds of blindness: overinterpretation, the conflation of the reader and the text, the unreliability of apparently solid narratives, and the uncanny relationship between ideas and the shape of the world around us. “Death and the Compass” is the tale of a perfect detective, a Holmes, undone by a villain who constructs a puzzle to lure him to his death, and it’s hard not to identify both with Borges himself, weaving the web that traps both the author and his readers.

Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

One Response

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  1. I remember coming across Borges in my teens, when I picked up a second-hand copy of ‘Labyrinths’. He’s utterly unique, one of those authors I return to time and again, and always discover something knew.

    I picked my favourite three Borges stories for a recent blog post, ‘On the size of a story’:


    September 26, 2013 at 1:34 pm

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