BOOK REVIEW: Conversations, Volume 3 Jorge Luis Borges [Int: Osvaldo Ferrari]

Conversations, Volume 3Conversations, Volume 3 by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book of interviews with Jorge Luis Borges has me jonesing to read a collection of his short fiction. I must admit that, despite Borges’ great stature as an author, I’ve only ever read one of his stories, and that was lost amid a huge anthology (also perhaps a poem or so under the same constraints.) However, I was intrigued by the possibility of gaining some insight into the Argentinian author credited as one of the founders of the magic realism genre in Latin America. I not only gained said insight, but I also developed an affinity for Borges as a thinker. These interviews not only discuss literature, but also philosophy, politics, language, and other topics as they interact with the literary world. The chapters, of which there are almost thirty, are topically organized and a few pages each.

The interviews are published as dialogues between Osvaldo Ferrari and Borges. That is to say, they are in transcript form so that one can experience the question and response as if you were witnessing the conversation. I found this worked well, and one could sense a camaraderie between the two men.

Let me answer a few questions about which readers might be interested. First, I came in late to the game, and one might wonder if there was any problem reading this, the third volume, first. It caused me no problems. Once in a while Ferrari would reference something the two discussed at an earlier point, but I didn’t feel any confusion (it was never necessary to have heard what they said earlier to interpret a reply.)

Second, given that the conversation is between two Argentinians, readers from other parts of the world might wonder if there is any difficulty following the discussions if one doesn’t know much about the art and social worlds of Argentina. Again, I would say the answer is no – for the most part. There are brief forays into Argentinian literature and politics, but the bulk of the discussion is cosmopolitan. I’d say there was considerably more page space devoted to Irishmen (e.g. Joyce and Yeats) and Americans (e.g. Emerson and Whitman) than there was to Argentinians.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether the book is highly focused on Borges’ work, the answer to that, too, is no. Borges discusses his own work enough, for example, that I now feel I know where I should begin my reading of him. However, he generally seems reticent to discuss his own work and the interviewer was responsive to that preference and picked his questions carefully.

If you’re interested in literature, I’d highly recommend this book. I found Borges penchant for minimalism and simplicity appealing, and yet he had deep insights to offer into a wide range of topics.

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5 Posthumous Gods of Literature; and, How to Become One

There have been many poets and authors who — for various reasons — never attracted a fandom while alive, but who came to be considered among the greats of literature in death. Here are a few examples whose stories I find particularly intriguing.



by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

5.) William Blake: Blake sold fewer than 30 copies of his poetic masterpiece Songs of Innocence and Experience while alive. He was known to rub people the wrong way and didn’t fit in to society well. He was widely considered insane, but at a minimum he was not much for falling in with societal norms. (He probably was insane, but cutting against the grain of societal expectations has historically often been mistaken for insanity.)  While he was a religious man (mystically inclined,) he’s also said to have been an early proponent of the free love movement. His views, which today might be called progressive, probably didn’t help him gain a following.



4.) Mikhail Bulgakov: Not only was Bulgakov’s brilliant novel, The Master & Margarita, banned during his lifetime, he had a number of his plays banned as well. What I found most intriguing about his story is that the ballsy author personally wrote Stalin and asked the dictator to allow him emigrate since the Soviet Union couldn’t find use for him as a writer. And he lived to tell about it (though he didn’t leave but did get a small job writing for a little theater.) Clearly, Stalin was a fan — even though the ruler wouldn’t let Bulgakov’s best work see the light of day.



3.) John Kennedy Toole: After accumulating rejections for his hilarious (and posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole committed suicide. After his death, Toole’s mother shopped the draft around and brow-beat Walker Percy into reading it, which ultimately resulted in it being published.



2.) Emily Dickinson: Fewer than 12 of Dickinson’s 1800+ poems were published during her lifetime. Dickinson is the quintessential hermitic artist. Not only wasn’t she out publicizing her work, she didn’t particularly care to see those who came to visit her.



1.) Franz Kafka: Kafka left his unpublished novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, as well as other works in a trunk, and told his good friend Max Brod to burn it all. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your definition of a good friend), Brod ignored the instruction and the works were posthumously published.



In brief summary, here are the five ways to become a posthumous god of literature:

5.) Be seen as a lunatic / weirdo.

4.) Live under an authoritarian regime.

3.) Handle rejection poorly, lack patience, and / or fail to get help.

2.) Don’t go outside.

1.) Wink at the end of the sentence when you tell your best friend to burn all your work.

POEM: Literarily Insane

Hemingway off’d himself–
curled up under his
own looming shadow.

What loomed beyond
that shadow was the
great unfathomable.

Peering into it might
have been a comfort,
or might have killed
him in pre-greatness days.

***

Kesey’s Chief wondered
how the Irishman could live
in his own grandiosity of being.

McMurphy’s sanity was surely
built upon a foundation of delusion–
sanity and delusion forged iron-clad.

Meanwhile, those free of such
delusions huddled in the fog,
unable to step out into life.

***

Heller’s Yossarian summed
up the whole damned mess:
claims of insanity are a
recognition of one’s sanity.

Who else seeks to turn down
the volume on reality?

Other than one who can
hear it well enough to know
when it peals thunderous?