Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Garden of Forking Paths

The tunnel and the labyrinth

leave a comment »

Last week, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf released The William H. Gass Reader, a dense, beautiful volume of almost nine hundred pages devoted to one of the strangest, most serious, and most uncompromising writers of our time. (As I’ve noted here before, Gass’s The Tunnel may have more to say about our era than any other novel.) I hope to discuss it in detail soon, but today, I want to focus on the essay “Imaginary Borges and His Books,” in which Gass takes on my favorite author, whom he admires, but only with strong reservations. After quoting a line in which Borges hints at his fondness for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gass writes acidly:

Emerson? Many of Borges’s other enthusiasms are equally dismaying, like the Russians’ for Jack London, or the symbolist poets’ for Poe; on the whole they tend to be directed toward obscure or marginal figures, to stand for somewhat cranky, wayward, even decadent choices: works at once immature or exotic, thin though mannered, clever rather than profound, neat instead of daring, too often the products of learning, fancy, and contrivance to make us comfortable; they exhibit a taste that is still in its teens, one becalmed in backwater, and a mind that is seriously intrigued by certain dubious or jejune forms, forms which have to be overcome, not simply exploited: fantastic tales and wild romances, science fiction, detective stories, and other similar modes which, with a terrible theological energy and zeal, impose upon implausible premises a rigorous gamelike reasoning.

For now, I’ll pass over the disparaging reference to science fiction—because Gass isn’t quite finished yet. He disapprovingly continues: “Thus for this minutely careful essayist and poet it’s not Aristotle, but Zeno, it’s not Kant, but Schopenhauer; it’s not even Hobbes, but Berkley, not Mill or Bradley, but—may philosophy forgive him—Spencer; it’s Dunne, Beckford, Bloy, the Cabalists; it’s Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells and William Morris, Browne and De Quincey Borges turns and returns to, while admitting no such similar debt to James, Melville, Joyce, and so on.”

At this point, I could point out that Borges is also one of our most fascinating modern interpreters of such authors as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and especially Dante—but that would simply be playing Gass’s own game, which he’s amply qualified to win. It’s better, I think, to consider what Borges does in practice with these writers, which Gass declines to specify. Take this passage, for instance, which Borges liked so much that he used it in two different essays:

Stevenson (“A Chapter on Dreams”) tells of being pursued in the dreams of his childhood by a certain abominable “hue” of the color brown; Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday) imagines that at the western borders of the world there is perhaps a tree that is more or less than a tree; and that at the eastern borders, there is something, perhaps a tower, whose very shape is wicked. Poe, in his “MS Found in a Bottle,” speaks of a southern sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman; Melville devotes many pages of Moby-Dick to an elucidation of the horror of the unbearable whiteness of the whale.

Borges is using these examples to explain the idea of the unheimlich, but along the way, he does much more. These lines appear in a passage in which Borges suggests that William Beckford, author of the novel Vathek, conjures up a more frightening hell than Dante, and the collage of supporting images that he provides here implies that there’s something fundamental in life—its uneasiness, its uncanniness—that we find more clearly in Poe and Chesterton than in any of the supposedly greater writers that Gass would evidently prefer to read. And I suspect that Borges is right.

In fact, nearly all of Gass’s objections can be refuted by looking at the use to which Borges actually puts his materials. While discussing The Book of Imaginary Beings, in which Borges defines mythical creatures from Bahamut to the Simurgh, Gass writes: “Most of these beasts are mechanically made—insufficiently imaginary to be real, insufficiently original to be wonderful or menacing…There’s no longer a world left for these creatures to inhabit—even our own world has expelled them—so that they seem like pieces from a game we’ve forgotten how to play.” I could reply by saying that I’ve been thinking of Bahamut—the gigantic fish that holds up the world in Islamic cosmology—for most of my life. But it would be even better to respond with a few lines from an essay that Borges wrote shortly after the Nazis entered Paris:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

This is an unforgettable passage, and it depends enormously on Borges’s intuitive ability to zero in on the “metal vultures,” rather than, say, the Erymanthian Boar, which serve as a more effective symbol than any realistic image ever could. As Borges writes elsewhere of another imaginative writer: “How can these fantasies move me, and in such an intimate manner? All literature (I would dare to answer) is symbolic; there are a few fundamental experiences, and it is unimportant whether a writer, in transmitting them, makes use of the ‘fantastic’ or the ‘real,’ Macbeth or Raskolnikov, the invasion of Belgium in August 1914 or an invasion of Mars.”

Borges is speaking here of The Martian Chronicles, of which he continues: “In this outwardly fantastic book, Bradbury has set out the long empty Sundays, the American tedium, and his own solitude.” This comes very close to what Borges notes of his own achievement in his lecture “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”:

For many years, in books now fortunately forgotten, I tried to compose the flavor, the essence, of the outskirts of Buenos Aires; naturally I abounded in local words…Then, about a year ago, I wrote a story called “Death and the Compass,” which is a kind of nightmare, a nightmare in which elements of Buenos Aires appear, deformed by the horror of the nightmare…After the story was published, my friends told me that at last they had found the flavor of the outskirts of Buenos Aires in my writing. Precisely because I had not abandoned myself to the dream, I was able to achieve, after so many years, what I once sought in vain.

Borges’s greatness lies precisely in his ability to find the deeper psychological truth in those very genres, like detective stories or speculative fiction, that Gass thinks should be “overcome.” And part of that gift lies in his genius—which he shares with Proust, an author with whom he might seem to have little else in common—to integrate his mature talents with the mood of the fantasy stories that he read as a child. (Gass dismisses his taste as “still in its teens,” but it would be more accurate to call them the tastes of a boy of twelve, or the golden age, which is something very different.) Gass asks incredulously: “And what about those stories which snap together at the end like a cheap lock? with a gun shot? Is this impish dilettante the same man who leaves us so often uneasily amazed?” He doesn’t name any titles, but any list of such works has to include “Death and the Compass,” one of the most essential short stories of the century, and perhaps also “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was first translated into English by Anthony Boucher for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. These qualities aren’t incidental to Borges’s work, as Gass seems to believe, but the indispensable building blocks of his labyrinth. And if this is the dream, or nightmare, in which we’ve all found ourselves, Borges is still the best guide that we have.

“Arkady arrived at the museum at ten…”

with 3 comments

"Arkady arrived at the museum at ten..."

Note: This post is the first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the prologue.

A few years ago, at my beloved Newberry Library Book Fair, I picked up a copy of Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama. Because I got it on the last day, in which all prices are cut by half, I ended up buying it for only four dollars. I’d wanted to check it out ever since it was first published, and it’s typical of a lot of the books I buy these days—a big, beautiful tome that I might never read from cover to cover, but which makes me happy whenever I see it on the shelf. I’m conscious of the fact that this strays a bit from my own conception of a working library: like Umberto Eco, I may not have read all the books I own, but I’d like to think that each one is there for a reason. A single idea, a moment of clarity, even a loving hour’s browse is enough to justify a purchase. At some point shortly thereafter, then, I sat down with Rembrandt’s Eyes and simply turned the pages, trying to get a bird’s eye view of what it had to offer. About about halfway through, I stumbled across a story that caught my attention at once: Schama’s detailed account of the bizarre act of vandalism in which a young Lithuanian knifed and threw acid at Rembrandt’s Danaë at the Hermitage. I made a note of it. And it eventually formed the basis for the prologue to Eternal Empire.

It’s one of my favorite memories from writing any of my novels, because it represents a rare successful example of what writers are supposed to be doing all the time. In theory, we’re always on the lookout for material, and when we notice an interesting anecdote or instance of human behavior, it really ought to go right in the notebook. Practically speaking, of course, we’re more likely to forget it. If I happened to cling to this particular idea, it’s because I was primed for it: at the time, I was still working on City of Exiles, and the prospect of a third novel in the series was actively on my mind. So I actually wrote it down, as a good writer should, telling myself that it would make for a nice, arresting opening. At first, I didn’t know how it would tie in with the larger story I was slowly beginning to glimpse, but I arrived fairly quickly at one possible solution—that the destruction of a painting could serve as an attempt to convey a message, via press coverage of the incident, that a desperate intelligence operative couldn’t communicate in any other way. (If this sounds a little familiar, it may be because it isn’t far off from the premise of Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and I acknowledge the influence in the epigraph.)

"But that all lay in the future..."

Once I had the episode’s narrative role in mind, what remained was largely a matter of filling in the blanks, both mechanically and on a more intuitive level. I decided early on that I wanted to set the scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, since it was a museum I could plausibly visit for research purposes, although by then I’d already moved to Chicago. (As it happened, I didn’t have the chance to do any work on location until after the prologue had already been written. Luckily, the Met is a museum I know well—I went there once a week for years—and there were plenty of online resources available, including the museum’s own virtual tour. In the end, my trip there only filled out a few minor details, although not until I’d been yelled at by a guard for surreptitiously videotaping the security line.) I also searched the museum’s collections for a potential painting to ruin, and I seem to have rapidly zeroed in on one promising candidate: Eugène Delaroix’s Ovid Among the Scythians. At the time, the novel I was writing was actually called The Scythian, a title I still regret losing, and it didn’t take a genius to see that the closer I could tie this painting into the story’s existing themes, the better.

This still left the small matter of what message the painting’s destruction was supposed to send. Fortunately, the fates conspired in my favor, as they often do in such situations. Ovid Among the Scythians depicts the exiled poet at the port of Tomis, now known as Constanta in Romania, a city on the edge of the Black Sea. I’d already decided—for reasons that I hope to explain in later post—that one of the novel’s subplots would follow a journey by megayacht across the Black Sea to the Russian resort town of Sochi. Constanta was a logical disembarkation point for such a voyage, and it seemed easy enough to connect the message sent by Arkady, my unfortunate spy, to that particular plot point. Later, I realized that opening the novel with an instance of art vandalism also provided a convenient way of reintroducing the character of Maddy Blume, who commits a similar act at the end of The Icon Thief. (There’s another nod to Maddy in a painting that Arkady pauses to examine in the same gallery, Delacroix’s Abduction of Rebecca, which foreshadows what happens to her at the end of Part I.) The result, I think, is still pretty neat, and it stands a nice instance of how unlikely components can be assembled, by looking both forwards and backwards, into a story that seems to have been conceived as a whole. It doesn’t always happen that way, but here, it works nicely. Or it’s better, at least, than what happens to poor Arkady…

Borges and I

leave a comment »

I owe my discovery of Jorge Luis Borges, my favorite modern writer, to the conjunction of a library and an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia was the classic Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manquel and Gianni Guadalupi, which has fueled my dream life more than any other reference book; the library was the Library of Babel, whose article I discovered after following a reference from the entry for The Abbey of the Rose. (Our cultural lives, it seems, are really just a vast system of cross-references, all of which can be traced back to one original source—so it’s all the more important that this source be a good one.) My imagination was seized at once by the description of Borges’s library, with its “minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies,” and the extremely vast, though not infinite, number of books generated from every possible combination of the letters of the alphabet. I sought out the original story at once, in Labyrinths, which is still one of the two or three books I would keep if I could own no others. And nothing was ever the same after that.

The influence of Borges has been enormous, of course, on cultural figures ranging from Michael Chabon to, yes, Karl Rove. Why does he make such an impression on so many different personalities? I can think of three reasons. The first is the fact that he gives us many of the pleasures that we want from popular fiction, but transformed into art by his intelligence, precision, and originality. His best stories—”Death and the Compass,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Immortal,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” all of which I can read again and again—are all transmutations of familiar genres: the detective story, fantasy, science fiction. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” for example, turns on an ingenious trick that wouldn’t be out of place in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—which, as it happens, is where the story first appeared. Like many great works of contemporary art, from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills to the works of David Lynch, Borges gains his power from a mingling of the familiar and the strange, giving us both what we want and things we never knew we needed.

The second is the figure of Borges himself, the blind librarian of apparently infinite erudition, or at least the ingenuity and intellectual power to extract boundless riches from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The range of Borges’s influences and engagements in both fiction and non-fiction is astounding: his works push meaningfully against Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night, Martín Fierro, Poe, Chesterton, Thomas Quincey, the cabalists, and such obscurities as William Beckford’s Vathek—and these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Borges’s work is a vast hypertext, an impression underlined by the passages that occasionally recur between stories, either for the sake of efficiency or as a clue to a network of larger meanings. The analogy of a web, or a garden of forking paths, is aided by Borges’s productivity and concision: his collected works run to many volumes, but the individual stories are rarely more than a few pages long. The result is, again, something like a universal encyclopedia built by one man, which finally becomes, as Borges has said, a portrait of the author himself.

The third reason is perhaps the hardest to pin down, but also the most important. The recurring images in Borges’s stories—the labyrinth, the encyclopedia, the endless text—are all emblems of how we live with information. Borges, like his fictional Funes the Memorious, was both the master of information and its uneasy witness. His stories are full of anonymous narrators, most of them thinly veiled versions of Borges himself, confronting monsters of complexity: the Aleph, the Library of Babel, Shakespeare’s memory, the hundred volumes of the true encyclopedia of Tlön, the infinite details afforded by a day’s worth of sensory impressions in Buenos Aires. No other major writer has so consistently and elegantly returned to the problem of dealing with what is now called information overload, which makes him more important now than ever. Borges died just as the Internet was being born, bringing us all into the Library of Babel. And in most of his stories, the result is neither triumph nor destruction but a sort of resignation, a willingness to ignore the complexity of the world and focus on one’s translation of the Urn Burial. Which, as time passes, seems like the only sane response there is.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2012 at 10:14 am

%d bloggers like this: