Thursday, 24 April 2014

L-Space- Struggling with Borges

My book reading goes in line with my obsessive compulsiveness in certain ways. This blog alone is proof,, my attempt to catalogue each book I read with a short review. To some writers that amount of productivity is easy to achieve, but for me sometimes it just feels really, really hard. As a result over the past few years there have been more than a couple of novels and non-fiction books that I just didn't bother reviewing, for various reasons. One of the main ones is the nagging feeling in the back of my head that, with some of them, there's really not much to achieve. This happens a lot with older classics (most recently Marlowe's Faustus and Goethe's Faust) where I feel like even trying to place a critical eye on something that's been renowned, revered, and already picked apart by so many people already is a redundant, maybe even narcissistic thing to do.

After reading and reviewing Terry Pratchett's Raising Steam I fancied breezing through a shorter book, if anything just to try and make my to-read pile a little lighter (37 to go now I think), and so I made my third and final attempt to connect with an author whom I, in the past, have really wanted to like. He's both famous enough and esoteric enough (to me, anyway) to seem cool and reputable, as the most popular author in South American history. Like most of my books I first encountered Jose Luis Borges fairly randomly a few years ago by picking out a random title of his off the shelf of a charity shop, hoping to add him to the growing list of authors I enjoy. Ultimately though this recent third effort is likely to be my last with the author for a while. Three times I've tried to crack him, and three times I've failed badly enough to the point where I haven't bothered to review them. Hopefully these mini versions will make me feel a bit better about it.

The first Jose Luis Borges book I read was his Book of Imaginary Beings (1969 expanded edition), which on the surface of it seemed like a whimsical exercise in fantasy writing that appealed through its simplicity as well as Borges' name, I fancied it as a good entry point and having recently very much enjoyed David Eagleman's Sum- Tales from the Afterlife as a similarly-shaped collection of micro-stories. The book is simply an alphabetical trawl through 120 different mythical creatures of lore, each one assigned a generally brief paragraph dedicated to describing it, and it's as simple as that. It was, in hindsight, kind of an odd book to experience Borges for the first time with because its quirky, fleeting nature left me feeling like I'd not gotten much of an impression of Borges' writing talent overall, instead merely experiencing him writing in an atypical genre-specific style. Though I did enjoy it as a quick read I was looking forward to reading something more substantial and expressive from Borges, though ironically in the end concluded that I enjoyed it most of all of them.

The second attempt at Borges seemed more promising, the short story collection A Universal History of Infamy (originally 1935, my revised edition 1954), in which Borges writes fictional stories about real historical criminals. The stories are very short and this is a very brief collection, but they are much longer than the entries in Book of Imaginary Beings, thus giving me the chance to get a better feel of Borges' style. Unfortunately it just did capture me; from a technical standpoint he's an immaculate writer, able to portray each scenario with an expansive vocabulary, but perversely I found there to be something a little off about it all. As though he's so confident with his narrative style, descriptive and emotive that the narration offsets the characters in the stories. Though the subject matter seemed right up my alley the style and the brevity of each story pushed me away and I just couldn't connect. It's frustrating because I really did want to like this book. Maybe one day I'll pick it up again.

I finished the final Borges from my to-read pile only a few days ago, hoping that this time I'd finally get it, but it never really happened. Doctor Brodie's Report (1970)  was the most traditional collection of short stories that I read and some ways the most interesting. Famously written at the age of 70 after a gap in short story writing that lasted 20 years, this collection showed me more of Borges' voice than the prior two, thanks to its regular style of storytelling. Though I knew of Borges primarily for being such a well regarded South American literary export, I hadn't felt his cultural influences much until I read this. Unfortunately I found little I could relate to amongst these tales of Catholics in Argentina, and though I sort of enjoyed the distinctive Latin feeling (or at least my impression of it), it only worked to a certain extent. I think I was a little turned away by the religious undertones to be honest, which is hardly something to criticise the author for but isn't my cup of tea.

Ultimately I left my first looks at Borges feeling disappointed, but not completely disheartened. I do feel there's something there that's not clicking with me where I can't seem to enjoy his prose style despite knowing that it's good, if that makes any sense. There's so much stuff left to read that I doubt I'll find myself re-reading any of these any time soon, but I could still be tempted to pick up any other random Borges title that comes my way. Until then I'll be heading north of the border with my reading habits, starting with another novel by king of the low lives Chuck Bukowski.