12 December 2009


I've now got hold of Labyrinths by Borges from the library, a fairly new copy (bought in 2008) of the Penguin Modern Classics collection. I've got it particularly to remind myself of what really happens in the story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote".

First thing to strike me was how irritating the story is. Borges uses as a narrator an unnamed academic, who is commenting on the works of Pierre Menard and the criticism that has so far been made of him. There is a short list of Menard's published work and then the narrator discusses his work on rewriting Don Quixote. If this story were the work of an English writer, we'd describe it as "donnish". Borges clearly aims the work at people whose work involves textual and literary studies. Here's the best joke. One of the cited works is:
A technical article on the possibility of improving the game of chess, eliminating one of the rook's pawns. Menard proposes, recommends, discusses and finally rejects this innovation.
Oh my sides.

In my memory, Menard had adopted the personality of Cervantes, by reading everything he had. But Borges is clear that he discarded this method. He wanted to remain Menard but still recreate the novel. The way he did so is unclear (deliberately - Borges' narrator makes it clear that there was no trace left of Menard's work in progress). The point is that if we assume that a 20th century writer had - somehow - written Don Quixote, it would be a much richer work, because it would have been written with all the knowledge of what has happened since.

And of course the real point is that when a 20th century reader reads Don Quixote, they are reading something different to what a 17th century reader would have read. A fair point, but I'm not sure we needed to endure all the donnish humour to get to it.

But let's apply these methods to the collection of stories etc we have in front of us. It was first published in 1964 by New Directions. The editors, Donald A Yates and James E Irby did an introduction and some of the translations. Other translations are taken from various magazines and journals. The preface is by André Maurois, and undated, but he died in 1967. So all of the translations and all of the editorial comment in the book are over forty years old. More than a lifetime in literary studies. And Maurois makes the same mistake I did: he states that Menard's method was to be Cervantes. Wrong! The fact that Maurois' mistake doesn't stop him from getting the point suggests to me that the story obscures a fairly simple idea by proposing an impossible scenario to (purportedly) embody it.

The editors' introduction then reports Borges' poor reputation in Argentina, blaming the fact that he was perceived as too European. That seems a fair accusation to me. They quote Ernesto Sábato: "if Borges were French or Czech, we would all be reading him enthusiastically in bad translations". I've a feeling that's what a reader of this book may be doing.

Even if these translations aren't "bad", they're old: new translations are needed, precisely because the Borges a translator reads now is very different from what these translators read 50 years ago. And a new introduction is needed: Borges' reputation has changed and his place in translation theory - a theory that has developed enormously in those 50 years - needs to be reviewed. The preface by Maurois is a historical document now. It might be worth keeping, but surely the opinions of someone who's been affected by magic realism, for example, would be more valuable to contemporary readers. Even the selection and arrangement of works is ripe for review.

I'm disappointed that Penguin is still publishing this sixties view of Borges. Ultimately, it makes it hard to know what Borges' quality and status is. Now.

(Edit. After writing this I've looked at the Wikipedia entry on Borges. It appears his estate is obstructive to publication of translations, in ways that aren't entirely clear. So I guess Penguin have little choice but to persist with this volume. Apologies to them.)

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