Thoughts on Borges

I recently read Ficciones, a classic short story collection by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, who’s largely credited with beginning the magical realism genre. Like all literary classics, I went into this with certain hopes and expectations, and I was somehow both rewarded and disappointed in the end. In short, I’m glad I read him, but I won’t be seeking any more of his work.

For those of you unfamiliar with Borges, I’ll give you my general impressions. Borges weaves philosophical exercises with surreal fantasy elements into tight, complex stories that read more like essays. His narrators often come across as the author, and are usually removed from the center of the story by generations, distance, knowledge, etc. His predominant themes are mazes, libraries, dreams, writing, war, time, and religion. I was particularly interested to spot the influences of Bertrand Russell (philosophy) and Edgar Allan Poe (the detective genre).

When I got on Goodreads to mark Ficciones as “read,” I was shocked to see that it has a 4.5 star rating. That’s higher than the works of most classics. Really? I’ll admit that my first thought was, “I wonder how many of those 4- and 5-star ratings were from people who wanted to look smart by liking Borges.”

First I gave it 4 stars, thinking about how pivotal Borges was for both Spanish and fantasy literature, how great a mind and distinctive a voice. But then I went back and changed it to 3, because no matter how much I admire him, I don’t like his work. And isn’t that what ratings are supposed to be? “How much did you like this book?” Well, it wasn’t my favorite. I ended up on 3 stars. I’ll try to break down why.

Likes

Of the seventeen stories in this collection, my favorites were “The Circular Ruins,” “The Babylon Lottery,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Secret Miracle.” If you read only these four stories, you’ll have an excellent sense of Borges.

Intelligence– One undeniable fact about Borges is that he’s smart as hell. He’s not just intellectual; he’s intelligent (and yes, there is a difference). If nothing else, you’d be hard-pressed to come away from reading Borges and not feel impressed by the man’s mind.

Concepts– I happen to adore many of the concepts Borges explores. Libraries, mirrors, writing, dreams, and infinity are all things I personally write about and also enjoy reading about. I think he has interesting things to say about them.

Sense of humor– This, in my opinion, is actually the best thing about Borges. Plenty of people in this world are smart. Many people are funny. Both together make a special combination. Borges has this wry, understated sense of humor that sort of sneaks up on you. Much of it was highly self-aware, and I found it absolutely delightful. I laughed aloud several times, smiled many, and smirked at a few.

Distinctness– And finally, I appreciate Borges’ fidelity to his own style, concepts, and voice. I might not like everything about them, but I admire that he knows who he is as an author and stays true to that. One of the beautiful things about reading the classics is that even if you don’t like a particular author, you “get to know them.” You hear their distinctive voice and feel their distinct impression left on the literary canon. Borges is such a voice, and I love him for it.

Dislikes

Redundancy– This is a risk you run anytime you read collected works by an author. Most if not all writers have themes and concepts they return to throughout their artistic life, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. In fact, as I mentioned above with distinctiveness, I think it can be a good thing, but in the case of sitting down to read the stories back to back, it can become dull. I found myself predicting the ending to these stories after reading only the first half dozen or so.

Ego– This is my biggest problem with Borges. I felt that he was too in love with his own cleverness. He knows that he’s smart, and he’s a big fan of it, and that’s incredibly off-putting to me. Don’t get me wrong; I adore difficult, complex works. I love House of Leaves, Thomas Pynchon, Kafka, Don DeLillo, and Nabokov, so it’s not that I’m a leisure-read-only person or that Borges went over my head. I followed him; I just didn’t like how pleased he was with where we were going. The best way I can describe it is the difference between a brilliant professor who’s there to teach the students and a brilliant professor who’s there to hear himself talk. Unfortunately, more often than not Borges struck me as the latter.

Lack of story– Another issue I had was Borges’ distaste for story. There’s a reason that you’ll see his works referred to as “essays” as often as “stories.” Many of them eschew story structure entirely. Some of them go so far as to read like philosophical exercises and mental trickery. The characters don’t matter. The plot rarely matters. In some cases, it feels more like playing Sudoku than reading fiction. Some people might love that; I hated it.

Lack of passion and honesty– Which brings me to my final issue: There wasn’t enough meat in Borges’ work. I want to feel moved, not manipulated. Intellect, philosophy, and concept can only take a piece so far. The reason I’m a reader isn’t to exercise my mind or to explore experimental ideas. I mean, I love doing those things, but I don’t need literature for them. I need literature to make me feel. I need literature to make me care. I need literature to be art – or at least entertainment. I want authors to make me feel like I’ve seen a sliver of their soul. I want authors to make me believe that their beliefs matter, not just their ideas. And despite all his strengths and value, Borges withholds himself. He doesn’t leave all of himself on the page – only his mind. And me? I want heart.


I think Borges would’ve been a wonderful man to know. I’d have loved to get him in a room where he wasn’t trying to impress anyone and spend hours talking. But as to his essay-stories? I admire them. I appreciate them. I respect them. But I don’t like them. Give me Kafka’s filial angst spliced with surrealism. Give me Shirley Jackson’s understated intelligence captured in emotionally honest prose. Give me all the fervor, excitement, and passion of Poe. But Borges? Well, at the end of the day, Borges leaves me cold.

Have you read Jorge Luis Borges? What was your take?

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  • Very interesting. I’ve never read Borges and don’t really plan to. (In fact, I thought Borges was a place in Belgium. Turns out that’s Bruges. lol) But I liked going through your pros and cons about the writing. Your “Dislikes” were mostly the reasons I don’t read literary, since it tends to be a bit self-centric and overly complex whereas I’d rather just read a good story. But I know you love literary, and I think your did a great job critting the book!

    • Thank you, Lexa! I do love literary fiction, and thoughtful fiction, but this just wasn’t to my taste. There are so many different styles and feels of literary that it’s kind of silly they all fall under one label.

  • Traci Kenworth

    Doesn’t sound like it’d be my kind of read. Thanks for the review!!

    • I guess they can’t all be for everyone, can they? Glad it steered you in the right direction!

  • Peggy

    Interesting review of a book and author I’ve never read. I thought your discussion of his distinctness was just wonderful! I could not add one single thing to your thoughts about distinctness as it relates to all authors:

    “And finally, I appreciate Borges’ fidelity to his own style, concepts, and voice. I might not like everything about them, but I admire that he knows who he is as an author and stays true to that. One of the beautiful things about reading the classics is that even if you don’t like a particular author, you “get to know them. ”You hear their distinctive voice and feel their distinct impression left on the literary canon. Borges is such a voice, and I love him for it.”

    This is so very true that I found myself thinking about authors such as Hemingway, Austen, & especially Faulkner, whose “The Sound and The Fury” drove me so crazy that I didn’t finish it but can’t forget that haunting quality. Your review also made me think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is also a Latin American author with an incredibly distinctive voice. And he can tell a story:)

    • Thank you! I feel the same way about Faulkner and Austen. I still have Gabriel Garcia Marquez on my to-read list; I’ll have to remember him next time I’m itching for a classic!

      • Peggy

        I didn’t actually mean for it to sound like I didn’t like all 3 of those authors – only very specifically The Sound & The Fury. I absolutely love Hemingway and I love Jane Austen, as well. I just meant them to be examples of authors with strong voices. Hemingway was a huge presence for me as a young reader (when I discovered him). Just to set the record straight:) Your review really set me off & thinking about authors’ distinctive voices…

        • No worries; I understood what you meant! Suddenly I’m thinking of all the classic, distinctive voices as “collect them all!” cards I want to add to my own personal literary canon. 🙂

          • Peggy

            Yes!!! Me too:)

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Well, you know how I feel. 🙂 I want the writer’s heart too, not just a simulation, or dazzling but hollow display of technique. I don’t recall if I’ve ever read Borges. Now I want to, if only to experience what it was you liked and disliked, Annie.

    I read Gone Girl, recently. That was one strange read: A bit bored by the first half, yet I couldn’t put it down. Which made me wonder if I would have continued reading if it wasn’t such a hit already, and if I hadn’t seen the movie and had some knowledge of what was coming. The second half lived up to the hype, but that first half felt loooong.
    Excellent post!

    • I do! 🙂 I would love to hear your thoughts if you decide to give Borges a try. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see heart where I didn’t, or maybe he’ll resonate differently. Obviously he means a lot to some people, so there must be something there, right?

      Oh man, I *loved* Gone Girl. It was a very strange read, but that uniqueness is a big part of why I loved it. I would have kept reading even without the buzz, but the twist certainly would have jolted me more. As it was, I know something was coming, so I was sort of braced for the change.

  • Laura Maisano

    Yeah, I think it’s sometimes hard to rate books because you know what everyone else thinks about something. It really does come down to “Did *I* like this and enjoy it?”

    • That’s very true. There’ve been times when I rated a book and then looked at the reviews and felt tempted to change mine by a star up or down. I’m not sure if it’s some weird hive-mind thing or if it’s just that reading other people’s opinions is convincing.

  • Regina Richards

    “I’ll admit that my first thought was, “I wonder how many of those 4- and 5-star ratings were from people who wanted to look smart by liking Borges.””

    LOL. How many times have I read something multitudes of other readers gushed over, and thought to myself, “Am I a complete dunce? Why don’t I get why this is supposed to be so great?”

    Thanks for the reassurance that maybe, sometimes, possibly, it isn’t just me.

    • Haha! I mean, we do think about how our opinions of things will come across to others, right? Or is *that* just me? I know when I rate controversial books like 50 Shades or Gone Girl, etc., I’m aware that my Goodreads friends will see what I thought of them. Just a weird little quirk; I try not to let that influence my actual ratings, but it does cross my mind!

  • Russell Linton

    Magical realism is such an odd category. It’s full of stuff that in principle I should love but often it does get too far divorced from the “real” just like you said. IMO Mirakami for instance, really shines when he’s writing a particularly grounded part of a story and loses me when he wants to crawling into a well or what not. As to ratings – they’ve become such a problem lately. They’re touted as indicators of quality and have even come to be important in the selling of books (getting Amazon’s algorithms to help you, getting marketing support from some advertisers) but they’re subject to so many “mob” forces that they’re really pretty meaningless.

    • It is an odd category. I actually feel much the same about Mirakami as I do about Borges; smart, interesting, but not passionate enough. I want emotion when I read, and neither of them ever delivered that for me. I wonder if that’s a coincidence or if something about magical realism runs that risk? It’s an interesting comparison. And about ratings, I tend to agree. They’re useful for me and my own categorizing of my books (remembering what I liked and didn’t, etc.), but not always useful for readers in general.

  • A. B. Davis

    Annie, I admire how you can appreciate a work, and review it fairly and hoenstly, even when you may not care for the work personally. I enjoyed reading this review too, even though I will probably never read Borges.

    • Thank you, Ashley! If you ever get curious, you can always go with just ones story instead of a whole collection. “The Library of Babel” would be a great one to read if you just want to get a sense of him.

      • A. B. Davis

        Oooh. Good. I will probably at least give one a shot because I also like the things you said he writes about…like, a lot. So thank you for the specific recommendation.

        • You bet! I’d love to hear what you think if you do give it a read. Many people love him, so who knows?

    • Carie Juettner

      Ditto! 🙂 And I’ll go so far as to admit that I’d never even heard of this author. =/

      • Well now you have! I’m always surprised by how many “classics” I discover that I’ve never read or even heard of. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to know them all. 🙂

  • I was a Spanish major so I know I did some Borges pieces in Spanish, but I bet I could not even begin to appreciate them in the confusion of a second language. This was such an excellent analysis as always.

    • Wow, that’s advanced. I was a Spanish minor and the hardest thing I ever read was “La noche boca arriba” by Julio Cortázar, and I put hours into it before it made any sense to me. (Of course, then I loved it, but at least part of that had to be Stockholm syndrome, right?) I think if it had been Borges I would’ve just thrown in the towel. Thank you, Nina!