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.
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.
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?Share this: