The holidays are not compatible with daily writing habits and they are even less amenable to writing, editing and posting to a blog. At least, that’s my situation. While I am working on something with a broader purpose (and which requires some research and careful drafting) I have a little time today to write about one very fortunate present.
I have mentioned my great affection for the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). I rarely read fiction but there is something about his short stories and his particular take on magic realism that has always appealed to me. His non-fiction work is equally compelling and although he likely suffers somewhat through translation, he was a master craftsman in English anyway. I received as a gift this past week, the 1998 Penguin Classics Collected Fictions, which is just about everything Borges wrote in the genre.
Borges actually gets much of the credit for inventing the genre of magic realism (or magical realism, which is how I usually refer to it). Incidentally, I would place most early science fiction and horror writers like H. P. Lovecraft or M. R. James in the same category and Henry James and Franz Kafka are clearly muses for Borges.1 What Borges manages to avoid in these other authors is a certain melodrama or temporality (if that’s a word). Borges avoids obvious period traits that make his stories feel antique or dated. I can’t say he is entirety free of some mannerisms peculiar to the period but his European education and a rare South-American undercoat of ‘foreignness’ keeps much of his writing fresh and lively, even when he is pulling out all the most ornate and tangled language he can devise.
Some day, if I try really hard, I can come up with little gems like Boges constantly does. A knife-fight is “a dance without music” and an outlaw fires “bullets that kill at a distance, like a magic spell.”2 Who else could give a New York street gang this sort of Homeric dignity:
A hundred or more heroes, none quite resembling the mug shot probably fading at that very moment in the mug books; a hundred heroes reeking of cigar smoke and alcohol; a hundred heroes in straw boaters with bright-colored bands; a hundred heroes, all suffering to a greater or lesser degree from shameful diseases, tooth decay, respiratory ailments, or problems with their kidneys; a hundred heroes as insignificant or splendid as those of Troy or Junin—those were the men that fought that black deed of arms in the shadow of the elevated train.3
These are the distant cousins of that “happy few.” Swap some adjectives and you have Byrhtnoth’s “wlance þe’g enas, unearge men” with both heroism and mortality intact.4 Borges’ work is filled with these little turns of phrase and longer, more carefully constructed, pictures.
Someday. I’ll keep working on that.
1 M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. (Orlando, FL.: Harcourt Brace, 1999), pp. 195-6, certainly credits the start of the genre with Borges and other South American authors of the early 20th century.
2 “Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities” p. 25, “The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan” p. 31, both originally published in A Universal History of Iniquity (1935).
3 “Monk Eastman” p. 28.
4 I don’t think I need to cite chapter and verse from Henry V, but for the needy, the ‘proud Thegns / unafraid men’ is taken from Bill Griffith’s ed. The Battle of Maldon: Text and Translation (Frithgarth, Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1991), line 205-6.