Jul 30 2013

The Fabulist Professor

Eric Benson

web exclusive


Professor Borges, a transcription of a British literature survey course the Argentine fabulist taught in the fall of 1966, is the kind of volume that gets published only if a scholar is canonical, inspires cultish devotion, and, almost certainly, is long dead. The twenty-five lectures that make up the book are ostensibly introductory, but they're only masquerading as English 101. Instead, this is Borges's highly idiosyncratic tour of his favorite authors and most revered myths, a view of history and literature as filtered through his capacious, whimsical mind.

The book begins with the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain in the Fifth Century AD and ends with Robert Louis Stevenson's death on the Samoan Island of SavaiʻI in 1894. Vikings, mythical Old English heroes, and Icelandic historians dominate the first third of the course. James MacPherson, a literary forger who composed an anachronistic epic called Ossian and tried to pass it off as ancient Scottish verse, is credited as a key founder of the Romantic movement. The writings of nineteenth century poet William Morris are the topic of the three classes. The works of John Milton and William Shakespeare are the topic of none.

Instead of hallowing the English tradition's most acclaimed texts, Borges offers the proudly non-academic thoughts of an erudite enthusiast. He narrates the events of largely forgotten battles. He goes on tangents to discuss arcane linguistics. And he tosses off historical theories based on the scantest shreds of evidence (Beowulf's setting in Denmark and Sweden is definitive proof that "after 300 years of living in new lands, the Anglo-Saxons still felt homesick"). It's hard to imagine these lectures will end up as required reading for any serious English-literature course. It's also hard to imagine any serious reader failing to discover pleasure in the joyful digressions and virtuoso distillations of this strange, wonderful book.

Professor Borges is, for all parties involved, a labor of love. Recordings of the lectures, we learn in an introduction by the book's editors, Argentine scholars Martin Arias and Martin Hadis, were lost long ago, leaving only a set of transcriptions that had been cranked out rapidly by Borges's University of Buenos Aires students. Parsing these texts demanded not only that Arias and Hadis clean up a lot of messy copy, but that they correct multiple spellings of "every single one of the names that appears." Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, for instance, was spelled "Jaquil," "Shekli," "Shake," "Sheke," and "Shakel." (I'll leave Mr. Hyde's many forms to your imagination.) Suffice it to say, the fact that this book is not only legible but unmistakably in Borges's voice is a testament to the dogged work undertaken by everyone from the original transcribers to Arias and Hadis to the book's English-language translator, Katherine Silvers.

But what can a reader actually learn from these half-century-old lectures? Borges held Northern European literature in great esteem and considered it part of his heritage (his paternal grandmother was English). Reading him as he nestles into the nooks and crannies of these old texts, loyal readers will notice the strong imprint these histories and myths had on his work. When Borges discusses elaborate Old English metaphors called kennings, it's not hard to hear echoes of the languages he invented for his short story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." When he praises MacPherson and Thomas Carlyle for literary forgeries, devoted readers will recall Borges's mischievous enthusiasm for framing fiction as fact in tales like "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and his book A Universal History of Iniquity.

The deeply personal nature of these lectures is mirrored in Arias and Hadis's editing. At various points, Borges misquotes texts or mangles biographical details. (In a concise summary of Robert Browning's life, Borges misidentifies the Elizabeth Barrett poetry collection that made Browning fall in love with her, then declares that Browning and Barrett were childless when, in fact, they had a son.) Arias and Hadis mention these errors only in the book's exhaustive and entertaining endnotes, choosing to leave the text as Borges spoke it. The result is that even the scholarship surrounding Borges's lectures feels Borgesian.

Towards the end of the book, Borges regales his students with an anecdote about one of his heroes, G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton undertook a biography of Robert Browning and felt himself so knowledgeable about the English poet that he quoted whole swaths of Browning's work from memory. Every single time Chesterton did this, however, he misquoted Browning, and Chesterton's sober-minded editors decided to save him the embarrassment by correcting his errors. What a pity, Borges contends. "It would have been lovely to know how Chesterton transformed in his memory—memory is also made up of forgetting—Browning's verses."

Arias and Hadis have honored Borges's opinion, presenting his words and memories with all their telling imperfections. This makes for a very unreliable textbook, but a supremely worthwhile document for the author's obsessive admirers. Professor Borges is not a volume for the uninitiated. But if you already love him, this is as close as you'll ever get to a master class in the master himself.

Eric Benson is a journalist living in Austin, Texas. He has previously written about Jorge Luis Borges for Guernica, and about many other subjects for New York, Men's Journal, and The New York Times Book Review.

ns2022

July 30, 2013
9:33 am

Robert Browning wasn't Scottish. He was born in what is now part of London; on his father's side, the ancestry can be traced to around Salisbury. Browning's mother was the daughter of a German shipowner and was raised in Scotland—if that's what Mr. Benson means?

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