Interviews

Jorge Luis Borges, The Art of Fiction No. 39

Interviewed by Ronald Christ

This interview was conducted in July 1966, in conversations I held with Borges at his office in the Biblioteca Nacional, of which he is the director. The room, recalling an older Buenos Aires, is not really an office at all but a large, ornate, high-ceilinged chamber in the newly renovated library. On the walls—but far too high to be easily read, as if hung with diffidence—are various academic certificates and literary citations. There are also several Piranesi etchings, bringing to mind the nightmarish Piranesi ruin in Borges’s story, “The Immortal.” Over the fireplace is a large portrait; when I asked Borges’s secretary, Miss Susana Quinteros, about the portrait, she responded in a fitting, if unintentional echo of a basic Borgesean theme: “No importa. It’s a reproduction of another painting.”

   At diagonally opposite corners of the room are two large, revolving bookcases that contain, Miss Quinteros explained, books Borges frequently consults, all arranged in a certain order and never varied so that Borges, who is nearly blind, can find them by position and size. The dictionaries, for instance, are set together, among them an old, sturdily rebacked, well-worn copy of Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language and an equally well-worn Anglo-Saxon dictionary. Among the other volumes, ranging from books in German and English on theology and philosophy to literature and history, are the complete Pelican Guide to English Literature, the Modern Library’s Selected Writings of Francis Bacon, Hollander’s The Poetic Edda, The Poems of Catullus, Forsyth’s Geometry of Four Dimensions, several volumes of Harrap's English Classics, Parkman's The Conspiracy of Pontiac, and the Chambers edition of Beowulf. Recently, Miss Quinteros said, Borges had been reading The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, and just the night before he had taken to his home, where his mother, who is in her nineties, reads aloud to him, Washington Irving's The Life of Mahomet.

Each day, late in the afternoon, Borges arrives at the library where it is now his custom to dictate letters and poems, which Miss Quinteros types and reads back to him. Following his revisions, she makes two or three, sometimes four copies of each poem before Borges is satisfied. Some afternoons she reads to him, and he carefully corrects her English pronunciation. Occasionally, when he wants to think, Borges leaves his office and slowly circles the library's rotunda, high above the readers at the tables below. But he is not always serious, Miss Quinteros stressed, confirming what one might expect from his writing: “Always there are jokes, little practical jokes.”

When Borges enters the library, wearing a beret and a dark gray flannel suit hanging loosely from his shoulders and sagging over his shoes, everyone stops talking for a moment, pausing perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of empathetic hesitation for a man who is not entirely blind. His walk is tentative, and he carries a cane, which he uses like a divining rod. He is short, with hair that looks slightly unreal in the way it rises from his head. His features are vague, softened by age, partially erased by the paleness of his skin. His voice, too, is unemphatic, almost a drone, seeming, possibly because of the unfocused expression of his eyes, to come from another person behind the face; his gestures and expressions are lethargic—characteristic is the involuntary droop of one eyelid. But when he laughs—and he laughs often—his features wrinkle into what actually resembles a wry question mark; and he is apt to make a sweeping or clearing gesture with his arm and to bring his hand down on the table. Most of his statements take the form of rhetorical questions, but in asking a genuine question, Borges displays now a looming curiosity, now a shy, almost pathetic incredulity. When he chooses, as in telling a joke, he adopts a crisp, dramatic tone; his quotation of a line from Oscar Wilde would do justice to an Edwardian actor. His accent defies easy classification: a cosmopolitan diction emerging from a Spanish background, educated by correct English speech and influenced by American movies. (Certainly no Englishman ever pronounced piano as “pieano,” and no American says “a-nee-hilates” for annihilates.) The predominant quality of his articulation is the way his words slur softly into one another, allowing suffixes to dwindle so that “couldn't” and “could” are virtually indistinguishable. Slangy and informal when he wants to be, more typically he is formal and bookish in his English speech, relying, quite naturally, on phrases like “that is to say” and “wherein.” Always his sentences are linked by the narrative “and then” or the logical “consequently.”

But most of all, Borges is shy. Retiring, even self-obliterating, he avoids personal statement as much as possible and obliquely answers questions about himself by talking of other writers, using their words and even their books as emblems of his own thought.

In this interview it has been attempted to preserve the colloquial quality of his English speech—an illuminating contrast to his writings and a revelation of his intimacy with a language that has figured so importantly in the development of his writing.

 

INTERVIEWER

You don't object to my recording our conversations?

JORGE LUIS BORGES

No, no. You fix the gadgets. They are a hindrance, but I will try to talk as if they're not there. Now where are you from?

INTERVIEWER

From New York.

BORGES

Ah, New York. I was there, and I liked it very much—I said to myself: “Well, I have made this; this is my work.”

INTERVIEWER

You mean the walls of the high buildings, the maze of streets?

BORGES

Yes. I rambled about the streets—Fifth Avenue—and got lost, but the people were always kind. I remember answering many questions about my work from tall, shy young men. In Texas they had told me to be afraid of New York, but I liked it. Well, are you ready?

INTERVIEWER

Yes, the machine is already working.

BORGES

Now, before we start, what kind of questions are they?

INTERVIEWER

Mostly about your own work and about English writers you have expressed an interest in.

BORGES

Ah, that's right. Because if you ask me questions about the younger contemporary writers, I'm afraid I know very little about them. For about the last seven years I've been doing my best to know something of Old English and Old Norse. Consequently, that's a long way off in time and space from the Argentine, from Argentine writers, no? But if I have to speak to you about the Finnsburg Fragment or the elegies or the Battle of Brunanburg . . .

INTERVIEWER

Would you like to talk about those?

BORGES

No, not especially.

INTERVIEWER

What made you decide to study Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse?

BORGES

I began by being very interested in metaphor. And then in some book or other—I think in Andrew Lang's History of English Literature—I read about the kennings, metaphors of Old English, and in a far more complex fashion of Old Norse poetry. Then I went in for the study of Old English. Nowadays, or rather today, after several years of study, I'm no longer interested in the metaphors because I think that they were rather a weariness of the flesh to the poets themselves—at least to the Old English poets.

INTERVIEWER

To repeat them, you mean?

BORGES

To repeat them, to use them over and over again and to keep on speaking of the hranrād, waelrād, or “road of the whale” instead of “the sea”—that kind of thing—and “the seawood,” “the stallion of the sea” instead of “the ship.” So I decided finally to stop using them, the metaphors, that is; but in the meanwhile I had begun studying the language, and I fell in love with it. Now I have formed a group—we're about six or seven students—and we study almost every day. We've been going through the highlights in Beowulf, the Finnsburg Fragment, and The Dream of the Rood. Also, we've gotten into King Alfred's prose. Now we've begun learning Old Norse, which is rather akin to Old English. I mean the vocabularies are not really very different: Old English is a kind of halfway house between the Low German and the Scandinavian.

INTERVIEWER

Epic literature has always interested you very much, hasn't it?

BORGES

Always, yes. For example, there are many people who go to the cinema and cry. That has always happened: It has happened to me also. But I have never cried over sob stuff, or the pathetic episodes. But, for example, when I saw the first gangster films of Joseph von Sternberg, I remember that when there was anything epic about them—I mean Chicago gangsters dying bravely—well, I felt that my eyes were full of tears. I have felt epic poetry far more than lyric or elegy. I always felt that. Now that may be, perhaps, because I come from military stock. My grandfather, Colonel Francisco Borges Lafinur, fought in the border warfare with the Indians, and he died in a revolution; my great-grandfather, Colonel Suárez, led a Peruvian cavalry charge in one of the last great battles against the Spaniards; another great-great-uncle of mine led the vanguard of San Martin's army—that kind of thing. And I had, well, one of my great-great-grandmothers was a sister of Rosas*—I'm not especially proud of that relationship because I think of Rosas as being a kind of Perón in his day; but still all those things link me with Argentine history and also with the idea of a man's having to be brave, no?

INTERVIEWER

But the characters you pick as your epic heroes—the gangster, for example—are not usually thought of as epic, are they? Yet you seem to find the epic there?

BORGES

I think there is a kind of, perhaps, of low epic in him—no?

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean that since the old kind of epic is apparently no longer possible for us, we must look to this kind of character for our heroes?

BORGES

I think that as to epic poetry or as to epic literature, rather—if we except such writers as T. E. Lawrence in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom or some poets like Kipling, for example, in “Harp Song of the Dane Women” or even in the stories—I think nowadays, while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the Westerns.

INTERVIEWER

I have heard that you have seen the film West Side Story many times.

BORGES

Many times, yes. Of course, West Side Story is not a Western.

INTERVIEWER

No, but for you it has the same epic qualities?

BORGES

I think it has, yes. During this century, as I say, the epic tradition has been saved for the world by, of all places, Hollywood. When I went to Paris, I felt I wanted to shock people, and when they asked me—they knew that I was interested in the films, or that I had been, because my eyesight is very dim now—and they asked me, “What kind of film do you like?” And I said, “Candidly, what I most enjoy are the Westerns.” They were all Frenchmen; they fully agreed with me. They said, “Of course we see such films as Hiroshima mon amour or L'Année dernière à Marienbad out of a sense of duty, but when we want to amuse ourselves, when we want to enjoy ourselves, when we want, well, to get a real kick, then we see American films.”

INTERVIEWER

Then it is the content, the “literary” content of the film, rather than any of the technical aspects, that interests you?

BORGES

I know very little about the technical part of movies.

INTERVIEWER

If I may change the subject to your own fiction, I would like to ask about your having said that you were very timid about beginning to write stories.

BORGES

Yes, I was very timid because when I was young I thought of myself as a poet. So I thought, “If I write a story, everybody will know I'm an outsider, that I am intruding in forbidden ground.” Then I had an accident. You can feel the scar. If you touch my head here, you will see. Feel all those mountains, bumps? Then I spent a fortnight in a hospital. I had nightmares and sleeplessness—insomnia. After that they told me that I had been in danger, well, of dying, that it was really a wonderful thing that the operation had been successful. I began to fear for my mental integrity—I said, “Maybe I can't write anymore.” Then my life would have been practically over because literature is very important to me. Not because I think my own stuff particularly good, but because I know that I can't get along without writing. If I don't write, I feel, well, a kind of remorse, no? Then I thought I would try my hand at writing an article or a poem. But I thought, “I have written hundreds of articles and poems. If I can't do it, then I'll know at once that I am done for, that everything is over with me.” So I thought I'd try my hand at something I hadn't done: If I couldn't do it, there would be nothing strange about it because why should I write short stories? It would prepare me for the final overwhelming blow: knowing that I was at the end of my tether. I wrote a story called, let me see, I think, “Hombre de la esquina rosada,”* and everyone enjoyed it very much. It was a great relief to me. If it hadn't been for that particular knock on the head I got, perhaps I would never have written short stories.

INTERVIEWER

And perhaps you would never have been translated?

BORGES

And no one would have thought of translating me. So it was a blessing in disguise. Those stories, somehow or other, made their way: They got translated into French, I won the Prix Formentor, and then I seemed to be translated into many tongues. The first translator was Ibarra. He was a close friend of mine, and he translated the stories into French. I think he greatly improved upon them, no?

INTERVIEWER

Ibarra, not Caillois, was the first translator?

BORGES

He and Roger Caillois*. At a ripe old age, I began to find that many people were interested in my work all over the world. It seems strange: Many of my writings have been done into English, into Swedish, into French, into Italian, into German, into Portuguese, into some of the Slav languages, into Danish. And always this comes as a great surprise to me because I remember I published a book—that must have been way back in 1932, I think*—and at the end of the year I found out that no less than thirty-seven copies had been sold!

INTERVIEWER

Was that the Universal History of Infamy?

BORGES

No, no. History of Eternity. At first I wanted to find every single one of the buyers to apologize because of the book and also to thank them for what they had done. There is an explanation for that. If you think of thirty-seven people—those people are real, I mean every one of them has a face of his own, a family, he lives on his own particular street. Why, if you sell, say two thousand copies, it is the same thing as if you had sold nothing at all because two thousand is too vast—I mean, for the imagination to grasp. While thirty-seven people—perhaps thirty-seven are too many, perhaps seventeen would have been better or even seven—but still thirty-seven are still within the scope of one's imagination.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of numbers, I notice in your stories that certain numbers occur repeatedly.

BORGES

Oh, yes. I'm awfully superstitious. I'm ashamed about it. I tell myself that after all, superstition is, I suppose, a slight form of madness, no?

INTERVIEWER

Or of religion?

BORGES

Well, religion, but . . . I suppose that if one attained one hundred and fifty years of age, one would be quite mad, no? Because all those small symptoms would have been growing. Still, I see my mother, who is ninety, and she has far fewer superstitions than I have. Now, when I was reading, for the tenth time, I suppose, Boswell's Johnson, I found that he was full of superstition, and at the same time, that he had a great fear of madness. In the prayers he composed, one of the things he asked God was that he should not be a madman, so he must have been worried about it.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that it is the same reason—superstition—that causes you to use the same colors—red, yellow, green—again and again?

BORGES

But do I use green?

INTERVIEWER

Not as often as the others. But you see I did a rather trivial thing, I counted the colors in . . .

BORGES

No, no. That is called estilística; here it is studied. No, I think you'll find yellow.

 

INTERVIEWER

But red, too, often moving, fading into rose.

BORGES

Really? Well, I never knew that.

INTERVIEWER

It's as if the world today were a cinder of yesterday's fire—that's a metaphor you use. You speak of “Red Adam,” for example.

BORGES

Well, the word Adam, I think, in the Hebrew means “red earth.” Besides it sounds well, no? “Rojo Adán.”

INTERVIEWER

Yes it does. But that's not something you intend to show: the degeneration of the world by the metaphorical use of color?

BORGES

I don't intend to show anything. [Laughter.] I have no intentions.

INTERVIEWER

Just to describe?

BORGES

I describe. I write. Now as for the color yellow, there is a physical explanation of that. When I began to lose my sight, the last color I saw, or the last color, rather, that stood out, because of course now I know that your coat is not the same color as this table or of the woodwork behind you—the last color to stand out was yellow because it is the most vivid of colors. That's why you have the Yellow Cab Company in the United States. At first they thought of making the cars scarlet. Then somebody found out that at night or when there was a fog that yellow stood out in a more vivid way than scarlet. So you have yellow cabs because anybody can pick them out. Now when I began to lose my eyesight, when the world began to fade away from me, there was a time among my friends . . . well they made, they poked fun at me because I was always wearing yellow neckties. Then they thought I really liked yellow, although it really was too glaring. I said, “Yes, to you, but not to me, because it is the only color I can see, practically!” I live in a gray world, rather like the silver-screen world. But yellow stands out. That might account for it. I remember a joke of Oscar Wilde's: a friend of his had a tie with yellow, red, and so on in it, and Wilde said, Oh, my dear fellow, only a deaf man could wear a tie like that!

INTERVIEWER

He might have been talking about the yellow necktie I have on now.

BORGES

Ah, well. I remember telling that story to a lady who missed the whole point. She said, “Of course, it must be because being deaf he couldn't hear what people were saying about his necktie.” That might have amused Oscar Wilde, no?

INTERVIEWER

I'd like to have heard his reply to that.

BORGES

Yes, of course. I never heard of such a case of something being so perfectly misunderstood. The perfection of stupidity. Of course, Wilde's remark is a witty translation of an idea; in Spanish as well as English you speak of a “loud color.” A “loud color” is a common phrase, but then the things that are said in literature are always the same. What is important is the way they are said. Looking for metaphors, for example: When I was a young man I was always hunting for new metaphors. Then I found out that really good metaphors are always the same. I mean you compare time to a road, death to sleeping, life to dreaming, and those are the great metaphors in literature because they correspond to something essential. If you invent metaphors, they are apt to be surprising during the fraction of a second, but they strike no deep emotion whatever. If you think of life as a dream, that is a thought, a thought that is real, or at least that most men are bound to have, no? “What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.” I think that's better than the idea of shocking people, than finding connections between things that have never been connected before, because there is no real connection, so the whole thing is a kind of juggling.

INTERVIEWER

Juggling just words?

BORGES

Just words. I wouldn't even call them real metaphors because in a real metaphor both terms are really linked together. I have found one exception—a strange, new, and beautiful metaphor from Old Norse poetry. In Old English poetry a battle is spoken of as the “play of swords” or the “encounter of spears.” But in Old Norse, and I think, also, in Celtic poetry, a battle is called a “web of men.” That is strange, no? Because in a web you have a pattern, a weaving of men, un tejido. I suppose in medieval battle you got a kind of web because of having the swords and spears on opposite sides and so on. So there you have, I think, a new metaphor; and, of course, with a nightmare touch about it, no? The idea of a web made of living men, of living things, and still being a web, still being a pattern. It is a strange idea, no?

INTERVIEWER

It corresponds, in a general way, to the metaphor George Eliot uses in Middlemarch, that society is a web and one cannot disentangle a strand without touching all the others.

BORGES

[With great interest] Who said that?

INTERVIEWER

George Eliot, in Middlemarch

BORGES

Ah, Middlemarch! Yes, of course! You mean the whole universe is linked together; everything linked. Well that's one of the reasons the Stoic philosophers had for believing in omens. There's a paper, a very interesting paper, as all of his are, by De Quincey on modern superstition, and there he gives the Stoic theory. The idea is that since the whole universe is one living thing, then there is a kinship between things that seem far off. For example, if thirteen people dine together, one of them is bound to die within the year. Not merely because of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper, but also because all things are bound together. He said—I wonder how that sentence runs—that everything in the world is a secret glass or secret mirror of the universe.

INTERVIEWER

You have often spoken of the people who have influenced you, like De Quincey . . .

BORGES

De Quincey greatly, yes, and Schopenhauer in German. Yes, in fact, during the First World War, I was led by Carlyle—Carlyle: I rather dislike him: I think he invented Nazism and so on, one of the fathers or forefathers of such things—well, I was led by Carlyle to a study of German, and I tried my hand at Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Of course, I got bogged down as most people do—as most Germans do. Then I said, “Well, I'll try their poetry, because poetry has to be shorter because of the verse.” I got hold of a copy of Heine's Lyrisches Intermezzo and an English-German dictionary, and at the end of two or three months I found I could get on fairly well without the aid of a dictionary.

I remember the first novel in English I read through was a Scottish novel called The House with the Green Shutters.

INTERVIEWER

Who wrote that?

BORGES

A man called Douglas. Then that was plagiarized by the man who wrote Hatters Castle—Cronin—there was the same plot, practically. The book was written in the Scots dialect—I mean, people instead of saying money speak of bawbees or instead of children, bairns—that's an Old English and Norse word also—and they say nicht for night: that's Old English.

INTERVIEWER

And how old were you when you read that?

BORGES

I must have been about—there were many things I didn't understand—I must have been about ten or eleven. Before that, of course, I had read The Jungle Book, and I had read Stevenson's Treasure Island, a very fine book. But the first real novel was that novel. When I read that, I wanted to be Scotch, and then I asked my grandmother, and she was very indignant about it. She said, “Thank goodness that you're not!” Of course, maybe she was wrong. She came from Northumberland; they must have had some Scottish blood in them. Perhaps even Danish blood way back.

INTERVIEWER

With this long interest in English and your great love of it . . .

BORGES

Look here, I'm talking to an American: There's a book I must speak about—nothing unexpected about it—that book is Huckleberry Finn. I thoroughly dislike Tom Sawyer. I think that Tom Sawyer spoils the last chapters of Huckleberry Finn. All those silly jokes. They are all pointless jokes; but I suppose Mark Twain thought it was his duty to be funny even when he wasn't in the mood. The jokes had to be worked in somehow. According to what George Moore said, the English always thought: “Better a bad joke than no joke.”

I think that Mark Twain was one of the really great writers, but I think he was rather unaware of the fact. But perhaps in order to write a really great book, you must be rather unaware of the fact. You can slave away at it and change every adjective to some other adjective, but perhaps you can write better if you leave the mistakes. I remember what Bernard Shaw said, that as to style, a writer has as much style as his conviction will give him and not more. Shaw thought that the idea of a game of style was quite nonsensical, quite meaningless. He thought of Bunyan, for example, as a great writer because he was convinced of what he was saying. If a writer disbelieves what he is writing, then he can hardly expect his readers to believe it. In this country, though, there is a tendency to regard any kind of writing—especially the writing of poetry—as a game of style. I have known many poets here who have written well—very fine stuff—with delicate moods and so on—but if you talk with them, the only thing they tell you is smutty stories or they speak of politics in the way that everybody does, so that really their writing turns out to be kind of sideshow. They had learned writing in the way that a man might learn to play chess or to play bridge. They were not really poets or writers at all. It was a trick they had learned, and they had learned it thoroughly. They had the whole thing at their finger ends. But most of them—except four or five, I should say—seemed to think of life as having nothing poetic or mysterious about it. They take things for granted. They know that when they have to write, then, well, they have to suddenly become rather sad or ironic.

INTERVIEWER

To put on their writer's hat?

BORGES

Yes, put on the writer's hat and get into a right mood, and then write. Afterward, they fall back on current politics.

SUSANA QUINTEROS [entering]

Excuse me. Señor Campbell is waiting.

BORGES

Ah, please ask him to wait a moment. Well, there's a Mr. Campbell waiting; the Campbells are coming.

INTERVIEWER

When you wrote your stories, did you revise a great deal?

BORGES

At first I did. Then I found out that when a man reaches a certain age, he has found his real tone. Nowadays, I try to go over what I've written after a fortnight or so, and of course there are many slips and repetitions to be avoided, certain favorite tricks that should not be overworked. But I think that what I write nowadays is always on a certain level and that I can't better it very much, nor can I spoil it very much, either. Consequently I let it go, forget all about it, and think about what I'm doing at the time. The last things I have been writing are milongas, popular songs.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, I saw a volume of them, a beautiful book.

BORGES

Yes, Para las seis cuerdas, meaning, of course, the guitar. The guitar was a popular instrument when I was a boy. Then you would find people strumming the guitar, not too skillfully, at nearly every street corner of every town. Some of the best tangos were composed by people who couldn't write them nor read them. But of course they had music in their souls, as Shakespeare might have said. So they dictated them to somebody: They were played on the piano, and they got written down, and they were published for the literate people. I remember I met one of them—Ernesto Poncio. He wrote “Don Juan,” one of the best tangos before the tangos were spoiled by the Italians in La Boca and so on: I mean, when the tangos came from the criolla. He once said to me, “I have been in jail many times, Señor Borges, but always for manslaughter!” What he meant to say was that he wasn't a thief or a pimp.

INTERVIEWER

In your Antología Personal . . .

BORGES

Look here, I want to say that that book is full of misprints. My eyesight is very dim, and the proofreading had to be done by somebody else.

INTERVIEWER

I see, but those are only minor errors, aren't they?

BORGES

Yes, I know, but they creep in, and they worry the writer, not the reader. The reader accepts anything, no? Even the starkest nonsense.

INTERVIEWER

What was your principle of selection in that book?

BORGES

My principle of selection was simply that I felt the stuff was better than what I had left out. Of course, if I had been cleverer, I would have insisted on leaving out those stories, and then after my death someone would have found out that what had been left out was really good. That would have been a cleverer thing to do, no? I mean, to publish all the weak stuff, then to let somebody find out that I had left out the real things.

INTERVIEWER

You like jokes very much, don't you?

BORGES

Yes, I do, yes.

INTERVIEWER

But the people who write about your books, your fiction in particular . . .

BORGES

No, no—they write far too seriously.

INTERVIEWER

They seldom seem to recognize that some of them are very funny.

BORGES

They are meant to be funny. Now a book will come out called Cronícas de Bustos Domecq, written with Adolfo Bioy Casares. That book will be about architects, poets, novelists, sculptors, and so on. All the characters are imaginary, and they are all very up-to-date, very modern; they take themselves very seriously; so does the writer, but they are not actually parodies of anybody. We are simply going as far as a certain thing can be done. For example, many writers from here tell me, “We would like to have your message.” You see, we have no message at all. When I write, I write because a thing has to be done. I don't think a writer should meddle too much with his own work. He should let the work write itself, no?

INTERVIEWER

You have said that a writer should never be judged by his ideas.

BORGES

No, I don't think ideas are important.

INTERVIEWER

Well, then, what should he be judged by?

BORGES

He should be judged by the enjoyment he gives and by the emotions one gets. As to ideas, after all it is not very important whether a writer has some political opinion or other because a work will come through despite them, as in the case of Kipling's Kim. Suppose you consider the idea of the empire of the English—well, in Kim I think the characters one really is fond of are not the English, but many of the Indians, the Mussulmans. I think they're nicer people. And that's because he thought them—No! No! Not because he thought them nicer—because he felt them nicer.

INTERVIEWER

What about metaphysical ideas, then?

BORGES

Ah, well, metaphysical ideas, yes. They can be worked into parables and so on.

INTERVIEWER

Readers very often call your stories parables. Do you like that description?

BORGES

No, no. They're not meant to be parables. I mean if they are parables . . . [long pause] . . . that is, if they are parables, they have happened to be parables, but my intention has never been to write parables.

INTERVIEWER

Not like Kafka's parables, then?

BORGES

In the case of Kafka, we know very little. We only know that he was very dissatisfied with his own work. Of course, when he told his friend Max Brod that he wanted his manuscripts to be burned, as Virgil did, I suppose he knew that his friend wouldn't do that. If a man wants to destroy his own work, he throws it into a fire, and there it goes. When he tells a close friend of his, “I want all the manuscripts to be destroyed,” he knows that the friend will never do that, and the friend knows that he knows and that he knows that the other knows that he knows and so on and so forth.

INTERVIEWER

It's all very Jamesian.

BORGES

Yes, of course. I think that the whole world of Kafka is to be found in a far more complex way in the stories of Henry James. I think that they both thought of the world as being at the same time complex and meaningless.

INTERVIEWER

Meaningless?

BORGES

Don't you think so?

INTERVIEWER

No, I don't really think so. In the case of James . . .

BORGES

But in the case of James, yes. In the case of James, yes. I don't think he thought the world had any moral purpose. I think he disbelieved in God. In fact, I think there's a letter written to his brother, the psychologist William James, wherein he says that the world is a diamond museum, let's say a collection of oddities, no? I suppose he meant that. Now in the case of Kafka, I think Kafka was looking for something.

INTERVIEWER

For some meaning?

BORGES

For some meaning, yes; and not finding it, perhaps. But I think that they both lived in a kind of maze, no?

INTERVIEWER

I would agree to that. A book like The Sacred Fount, for example.

BORGES

Yes, The Sacred Fount and many short stories. For example, “The Abasement of the Northmores,” where the whole story is a beautiful revenge, but a revenge that the reader never knows will happen or not. The woman is very sure that her husband's work, which nobody seems to have read or cares about, is far better than the work of his famous friend. But maybe the whole thing is untrue. Maybe she was just led by her love for him. One doesn't know whether those letters, when they are published, will really come to anything. Of course James was trying to write two or three stories at one time. That's the reason why he never gave any explanation. The explanation would have made the story poorer. He said The Turn of the Screw was just a pot-boiler, don't worry about it. But I don't think that was the truth. For instance, he said, Well, if I give explanations, then the story will be poorer because the alternative explanations will be left out. I think he did that on purpose.

INTERVIEWER

I agree; people shouldn't know.

BORGES

People shouldn't know, and perhaps he didn't know himself!

INTERVIEWER

Do you like to have the same effect on your readers?

BORGES

Oh, yes. Of course I do. But I think the stories of Henry James are far above his novels. What's important in the stories of Henry James are the situations created, not the characters. The Sacred Fount would be far better if you could tell one character from the other. But you have to wade through some three hundred pages in order to find out who Lady So-and-so's lover was, and then at the end you may guess that it was So-and-so and not What's-his-name. You can't tell them apart; they all speak in the same way; there are no real characters. Only the American seems to stand out. If you think of Dickens, well, while the characters don't seem to stand out, they are far more important than the plot.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that your own stories have their point of origin in a situation, not in a character?

BORGES

In a situation, right. Except for the idea of bravery, of which I'm very fond. Bravery, perhaps, because I'm not very brave myself.

INTERVIEWER

Is that why there are so many knives and swords and guns in your stories?

BORGES

Yes, that may be. Oh, but there are two causes there: first, seeing the swords at home because of my grandfather and my great-grandfather and so on. Seeing all those swords. Then I was bred in Palermo; it all was a slum then, and people always thought of themselves—I don't say that it was true but that they always thought of themselves—as being better than the people who lived on a different side of the town, as being better fighters and that kind of thing. Of course, that may have been rubbish. I don't think they were especially brave. To call a man, or to think of him, as a coward—that was the last thing; that's the kind of thing he couldn't stand. I have even known of a case of a man coming from the southern side of the town in order to pick a quarrel with somebody who was famous as a knifer on the north side and getting killed for his pains. They had no real reason to quarrel: They had never seen each other before; there was no question of money or women or anything of the kind. I suppose it was the same thing in the West in the States. Here the thing wasn't done with guns, but with knives.

INTERVIEWER

Using the knife takes the deed back to an older form of behavior?

BORGES

An older form, yes. Also, it is a more personal idea of courage. Because you can be a good marksman and not especially brave. But if you're going to fight your man at close quarters, and you have knives . . . I remember I once saw a man challenging another to fight, and the other caved in. But he caved in, I think, because of a trick. One was an old hand, he was seventy, and the other was a young and vigorous man, he must have been between twenty-five and thirty. Then the old man, he begged your pardon, he came back with two daggers, and one was a span longer than the other. He said, “Here, choose your weapon.” So he gave the other the chance of choosing the longer weapon, and having an advantage over him; but that also meant that he felt so sure of himself that he could afford that handicap. The other apologized and caved in, of course. I remember that a brave man, when I was a young man in the slums, he was always supposed to carry a short dagger, and it was worn here. Like this (pointing to his armpit), so it could be taken out at moment's notice, and the slum word for the knife—or one of the slum words—well, one was el fierro, but of course that means nothing special. But one of the names, and that has been quite lost—it's a pity—was el vaivén, the “come and go.” In the word come-and-go (making gesture) you see the flash of the knife, the sudden flash.

INTERVIEWER

It's like a gangster's holster?

BORGES

Exactly, yes, like a holster—on the left side. Then it could be taken out at a moment's notice, and you scored el vaivén. It was spelled as one word and everyone knew it meant knife. El fierro is rather poor as a name because to call it the iron or the steel means nothing, while el vaivén does.

SUSANA QUINTEROS [entering again]

Señor Campbell is still waiting.

BORGES

Yes, yes, we know. The Campbells are coming!

INTERVIEWER

Two writers I wanted to ask you about are Joyce and Eliot. You were one of the first readers of Joyce, and you even translated part of Ulysses into Spanish, didn't you?

BORGES

Yes, I'm afraid I undertook a very faulty translation of the last page of Ulysses. Now as to Eliot, at first I thought of him as being a finer critic than a poet; now I think that sometimes he is a very fine poet, but as a critic I find that he's too apt to be always drawing fine distinctions. If you take a great critic, let's say, Emerson or Coleridge, you feel that he has read a writer, and that his criticism comes from his personal experience of him, while in the case of Eliot you always think—at least I always feel—that he's agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another. Consequently, he's not creative. He's an intelligent man who's drawing fine distinctions, and I suppose he's right; but at the same time after reading, to take a stock example, Coleridge on Shakespeare, especially on the character of Hamlet, a new Hamlet had been created for you, or after reading Emerson on Montaigne or whoever it may be. In Eliot there are no such acts of creation. You feel that he has read many books on the subject—he's agreeing or disagreeing—sometimes making slightly nasty remarks, no?

INTERVIEWER

Yes, that he takes back later.

BORGES

Yes, yes, that he takes back later. Of course, he took those remarks back later because at first he was what might be called nowadays “an angry young man.” In the end, I suppose he thought of himself as being an English classic, and then he found that he had to be polite to his fellow classics, so that afterwards he took back most of the things he had said about Milton or even against Shakespeare. After all, he felt that in some ideal way they were all sharing the same academy.

INTERVIEWER

Did Eliot's work, his poetry, have any effect on your own writing?

BORGES

No, I don't think so.

INTERVIEWER

I have been struck by certain resemblances between The Waste Land and your story “The Immortal.”

BORGES

Well, there may be something there, but in that case I'm quite unaware of it because he's not one of the poets I love. I should rank Yeats far above him. In fact, if you don't mind my saying so, I think Frost is a finer poet than Eliot. I mean, a finer poet. But I suppose Eliot was a far more intelligent man; however, intelligence has little to do with poetry. Poetry springs from something deeper; it's beyond intelligence. It may not even be linked with wisdom. It's a thing of its own; it has a nature of its own. Undefinable. I remember—of course I was a young man—I was even angry when Eliot spoke in a slighting way of Sandburg. I remember he said that Classicism is good—I'm not quoting his words, but the drift of them—because it enabled us to deal with such writers as Mister Carl Sandburg. When one calls a poet “Mister” [laughter], it's a word of haughty feelings; it means Mister So-and-so who has found his way into poetry and has no right to be there, who is really an outsider. In Spanish it's still worse because sometimes when we speak of a poet we say, “El Doctor So-and-so.” Then that annihilates him, that blots him out.

INTERVIEWER

You like Sandburg, then?

BORGES

Yes, I do. Of course, I think Whitman is far more important than Sandburg, but when you read Whitman, you think of him as a literary, perhaps a not-too-learned man of letters, who is doing his best to write in the vernacular, and who is using slang as much as he can. In Sandburg the slang seems to come naturally. Now of course there are two Sandburgs: There is the rough; but there is also a very delicate Sandburg, especially when he deals with landscapes. Sometimes when he is describing the fog, for example, you are reminded of a Chinese painting. While in other poems of Sandburg you rather think of, well, gangsters, hoodlums, that kind of people. But I suppose he could be both, and I think he was equally sincere: when he was doing his best to be the poet of Chicago and when he wrote in quite a different mood. Another thing that I find strange in Sandburg is that in Whitman—but of course Whitman is Sandburg's father—Whitman is full of hope, while Sandburg writes as if he were writing in the two or three centuries to come. When he writes of the American expeditionary forces, or when he writes about empire or the War or so on, he writes as if all those things were dead and gone by.

INTERVIEWER

There is an element of fantasy in his work, then—which leads me to ask you about the fantastic. You use the word a great deal in your writing, and I remember that you call Green Mansions, for example, a fantastic novel.

BORGES

Well, it is.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define fantastic, then?

BORGES

I wonder if you can define it. I think it's rather an intention in a writer. I remember a very deep remark of Joseph Conrad—he is one of my favorite authors—I think it is in the foreword to something like The Dark Line, but it's not that . . .

INTERVIEWER

The Shadow Line?

BORGES

The Shadow Line. In that foreword he said that some people have thought that the story was a fantastic story because of the captain's ghost stopping the ship. He wrote—and that struck me because I write fantastic stories myself—that to deliberately write a fantastic story was not to feel that the whole universe is fantastic and mysterious; nor that it meant a lack of sensibility for a person to sit down and write something deliberately fantastic. Conrad thought that when one wrote, even in a realistic way, about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious.

INTERVIEWER

You share this belief?

BORGES

Yes. I found that he was right. I talked to Bioy Casares, who also writes fantastic stories—very, very fine stories—and he said, “I think Conrad is right. Really, nobody knows whether the world is realistic or fantastic, that is to say, whether the world is a natural process or whether it is a kind of dream, a dream that we may or may not share with others.”

INTERVIEWER

You have often collaborated with Bioy Casares, haven't you?

BORGES

Yes, I have always collaborated with him. Every night I dine at his house, and then after dinner we sit down and write.

INTERVIEWER

Would you describe your method of collaboration?

BORGES

Well, it's rather queer. When we write together, when we collaborate, we call ourselves “H. Bustos Domecq.” Bustos was a great-great-grandfather of mine, and Domecq was a great-great-grandfather of his. Now, the queer thing is that when we write, and we write mostly humorous stuff—even if the stories are tragic, they are told in a humorous way, or they are told as if the teller hardly understood what he was saying—when we write together, what comes of the writing, if we are successful, and sometimes we are—why not? after all, I'm speaking in the plural, no?—when our writing is successful, then what comes out is something quite different from Bioy Casares's stuff and my stuff, even the jokes are different. So we have created between us a kind of third person; we have somehow begotten a third person that is quite unlike us.

INTERVIEWER

A fantastic author?

BORGES

Yes, a fantastic author with his likes, his dislikes, and a personal style that is meant to be ridiculous; but still, it is a style of his own, quite different from the kind of style I write when I try to create a ridiculous character. I think that's the only way of collaborating. Generally speaking, we go over the plot together before we set pen to paper—rather, I should talk about typewriters because he has a typewriter. Before we begin writing, we discuss the whole story; then we go over the details, we change them, of course: we think of a beginning, and then we think the beginning might be the end or that it might be more striking if somebody said nothing at all or said something quite outside the mark. Once the story is written, if you ask us whether this adjective or this particular sentence came from Bioy or from me, we can't tell.

INTERVIEWER

It comes from the third person.

BORGES

Yes. I think that's the only way of collaborating because I have tried collaborating with other people. Sometimes it works out all right, but sometimes one feels that the collaborator is a kind of rival. Or, if not—as in the case of Peyrou—we began collaborating, but he is timid and a very courteous, a very polite kind of person, and consequently, if he says anything, and you make any objections, he feels hurt, and he takes it back. He says, “Oh, yes, of course, of course, yes, I was quite wrong. It was a blunder.” Or if you propose anything, he says, “Oh, that's wonderful!” Now that kind of thing can't be done. In the case of me and Casares, we don't feel as if we are two rivals, or even as if we were two men who play chess. There's no case of winning or losing. What we're thinking of is the story itself, the stuff itself.

INTERVIEWER

I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with the second writer you named.

BORGES

Peyrou. He began by imitating Chesterton and writing stories, detective stories, not unworthy, and even worthy of Chesterton. But now he's struck a new line of novels whose aim is to show what this country was like during Perón's time and after Perón took to flight. I don't care very much for that kind of writing. I understand that his novels are fine; but, I should say, from the historical, even the journalistic point of view. When he began writing stories after Chesterton, and then he wrote some very fine stories—one of them made me cry, but of course, perhaps it made me cry because he spoke of the quarter I was bred in, Palermo, and of hoodlums of those days—a book called La Noche Repetida, with very, very fine stories about gangsters, hoodlums, holdup men, that kind of thing. And all that way back, let's say, well, at the beginning of the century. Now he has started this new kind of novel wherein he wants to show what the country was like.

INTERVIEWER

Local color, more or less?

BORGES

Local color and local politics. Then his characters are very interested, well, in graft, in loot, making money, and so on. As I am less interested in those subjects, maybe it's my fault, not his, if I prefer his early stuff. But I always think of him as a great writer, an important writer, and an old friend of mine.

INTERVIEWER

You have said that your own work has moved from, in the early times, expression, to, in the later times, allusion.

BORGES

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by allusion?

BORGES

Look, I mean to say this: When I began writing, I thought that everything should be defined by the writer. For example, to say “the moon” was strictly forbidden; that one had to find an adjective, an epithet for the moon. (Of course, I'm simplifying things. I know it because many times I have written “la luna,” but this is a kind of symbol of what I was doing.) Well, I thought everything had to be defined and that no common turns of phrase should be used. I would never have said, “So-and-so came in and sat down,” because that was far too simple and far too easy. I thought I had to find out some fancy way of saying it. Now I find out that those things are generally annoyances to the reader. But I think the whole root of the matter lies in the fact that when a writer is young he feels somehow that what he is going to say is rather silly or obvious or commonplace, and then he tries to hide it under baroque ornament, under words taken from the seventeenth-century writers; or, if not, and he sets out to be modern, then he does the contrary: He's inventing words all the time, or alluding to airplanes, railway trains, or the telegraph and telephone because he's doing his best to be modern. Then as time goes on, one feels that one's ideas, good or bad, should be plainly expressed, because if you have an idea you must try to get that idea or that feeling or that mood into the mind of the reader. If, at the same time, you are trying to be, let's say, Sir Thomas Browne or Ezra Pound, then it can't be done. So that I think a writer always begins by being too complicated: He's playing at several games at the same time. He wants to convey a peculiar mood; at the same time he must be a contemporary and if not a contemporary, then he's a reactionary and a classic. As to the vocabulary, the first thing a young writer, at least in this country, sets out to do is to show his readers that he possesses a dictionary, that he knows all the synonyms; so we get, for example, in one line, red, then we get scarlet, then we get other different words, more or less, for the same color: purple.

INTERVIEWER

You've worked, then, toward a kind of classical prose?

BORGES

Yes, I do my best now. Whenever I find an out-of-the-way word, that is to say, a word that may be used by the Spanish classics or a word used in the slums of Buenos Aires, I mean, a word that is different from the others, then I strike it out, and I use a common word. I remember that Stevenson wrote that in a well-written page all the words should look the same way. If you write an uncouth word or an astonishing or an archaic word, then the rule is broken; and what is far more important, the attention of the reader is distracted by the word. One should be able to read smoothly in it even if you're writing metaphysics or philosophy or whatever.

INTERVIEWER

Dr. Johnson said something similar to that.

BORGES

Yes, he must have said it; in any case, he must have agreed with that. Look, his own English was rather cumbersome, and the first thing you feel is that he is writing in a cumbersome English—that there are far too many Latin words in it—but if you reread what is written, you find that behind those involutions of phrase there is always a meaning, generally an interesting and a new meaning.

INTERVIEWER

A personal one?

BORGES

Yes, a personal one. So even though he wrote in a Latin style, I think he is the most English of writers. I think of him as—this is a blasphemy, of course, but why not be blasphemous while we're about it?—I think that Johnson was a far more English writer than Shakespeare. Because if there's one thing typical of Englishmen, it's their habit of understatement. Well, in the case of Shakespeare, there are no understatements. On the contrary, he is piling on the agonies, as I think the American said. I think Johnson, who wrote a Latin kind of English, and Wordsworth, who wrote more Saxon words, and there is a third writer whose name I can't recall—well—let's say Johnson, Wordsworth, and Kipling also, I think they're far more typically English than Shakespeare. I don't know why, but I always feel something Italian, something Jewish about Shakespeare, and perhaps Englishmen admire him because of that, because it's so unlike them.

INTERVIEWER

And why the French dislike him to the extent that they do; because he's so bombastic.

BORGES

He was very bombastic. I remember I saw a film some days ago—not too good a film—called Darling. There some verses of Shakespeare are quoted. Now those verses are always better when they are quoted because he is defining England, and he calls it, for example, “This other Eden, demi-paradise . . . This precious stone set in the silver sea” and so on, and in the end he says something like, “this realm, this England.” Now when that quotation is made, the reader stops there, but in the text I think the verses go on so that the whole point is lost. The real point would have been the idea of a man trying to define England, loving her very much and finding at the end that the only thing he can do is to say “England” outright—as if you said “America.” But if he says “this realm, this land, this England,” and then goes on “this demi-paradise” and so on, the whole point is lost because England should be the last word. Well, I suppose Shakespeare always wrote in a hurry, as the player said to Ben Jonson, and so be it. You've no time to feel that that would have been the last word, the word England, summing up and blotting out all the others, saying, “Well, I've been attempting something that is impossible.” But he went on with it, with his metaphors and his bombast, because he was bombastic. Even in such a famous phrase as Hamlet's last words, I think: “The rest is silence.” There is something phony about it; it's meant to impress. I don't think anybody would say anything like that.

INTERVIEWER

In the context of the play, my favorite line in Hamlet occurs just after Claudius's praying scene when Hamlet enters his mother's chamber and says: “Now, Mother, what's the matter?”

BORGES

“What's the matter?” is the opposite of “The rest is silence.” At least for me, “The rest is silence” has a hollow ring about it. One feels that Shakespeare is thinking, “Well, now Prince Hamlet of Denmark is dying: He must say something impressive.” So he ekes out that phrase “The rest is silence.” Now that may be impressive, but it is not true! He was working away at his job of poet and not thinking of the real character, of Hamlet the Dane.

INTERVIEWER

When you are working, what kind of reader do you imagine you are writing for, if you do imagine it? Who would be your ideal audience?

BORGES

Perhaps a few personal friends of mine. Not myself because I never reread what I've written. I'm far too afraid to feel ashamed of what I've done.

INTERVIEWER

Do you expect the many people who read your work to catch the allusions and references?

BORGES

No. Most of those allusions and references are merely put there as a kind of private joke.

INTERVIEWER

A private joke?

BORGES

A joke not to be shared with other people. I mean, if they share it, all the better; but if they don't, I don't care a hang about it.

INTERVIEWER

Then it's the opposite approach to allusion from, say, Eliot in The Waste Land.

BORGES

I think that Eliot and Joyce wanted their readers to be rather mystified and so to be worrying out the sense of what they had done.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have read as much, if not more, nonfiction or factual material as fiction and poetry. Is that true? For example, you apparently like to read encyclopedias.

BORGES

Ah, yes. I'm very fond of that. I remember a time when I used to come here to read. I was a very young man, and I was far too timid to ask for a book. Then I was rather, I won't say poor, but I wasn't too wealthy in those days—so I used to come every night here and pick out a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the old edition.

INTERVIEWER

The eleventh?

BORGES

The eleventh or twelfth because those editions are far above the new ones. They were meant to be read. Now they are merely reference books. While in the eleventh or twelfth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, you had long articles by Macaulay, by Coleridge; no, not by Coleridge by . . .

INTERVIEWER

By De Quincey?

BORGES

Yes, by De Quincey, and so on. So that I used to take any volume from the shelves—there was no need to ask for them: They were reference books—and then I opened the book till I found an article that interested me, for example, about the Mormons or about any particular writer. I sat down and read it because those articles were really monographs, really books or short books. The same goes for the German encyclopedias—Brockhaus or Meyers. When we got the new copy, I thought that was what they call the The Baby Brockhaus, but it wasn't. It was explained to me that because people live in small flats there is no longer room for books in thirty volumes. Encyclopedias have suffered greatly; they have been packed in.

SUSANA QUINTEROS [interrupting]

I'm sorry. Está esperando el Señor Campbell.

BORGES

Ah, please ask him to wait just a moment more. Those Campbells keep coming.

INTERVIEWER

May I ask just a few more questions?

BORGES

Yes, please, of course.

INTERVIEWER

Some readers have found that your stories are cold, impersonal, rather like some of the newer French writers. Is that your intention?

BORGES

No. (Sadly) If that has happened, it is out of mere clumsiness. Because I have felt them very deeply. I have felt them so deeply that I have told them, well, using strange symbols so that people might not find out that they were all more or less autobiographical. The stories were about myself, my personal experiences. I suppose it's the English diffidence, no?

INTERVIEWER

Then a book like the little volume called Everness would be a good book for someone to read about your work?

BORGES

I think it is. Besides, the lady who wrote it is a close friend of mine. I found that word in Roget's Thesaurus. Then I thought that word was invented by Bishop Wilkins, who invented an artificial language.

INTERVIEWER

You've written about that.

BORGES

Yes, I wrote about Wilkins. But he also invented a wonderful word that strangely enough has never been used by English poets—an awful word, really, a terrible word. Everness, of course, is better than eternity because eternity is rather worn now. Ever-r-ness is far better than the German Ewigkeit, the same word. But he also created a beautiful word, a word that's a poem in itself, full of hopelessness, sadness, and despair: the word neverness. A beautiful word, no? He invented it, and I don't know why the poets left it lying about and never used it.

INTERVIEWER

Have you used it?

BORGES

No, no, never. I used everness, but neverness is very beautiful. There is something hopeless about it, no? And there is no word with the same meaning in any other language, or in English. You might say impossibility, but that's very tame for neverness: the Saxon ending in -ness. Neverness. Keats uses nothingness: “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink”; but nothingness, I think, is weaker than neverness. You have in Spanish nadería—many similar words—but nothing like neverness. So if you're a poet, you should use that word. It's a pity for that word to be lost in the pages of a dictionary. I don't think it's ever been used. It may have been used by some theologian; it might. I suppose Jonathan Edwards would have enjoyed that kind of word or Sir Thomas Browne, perhaps, and Shakespeare, of course, because he was very fond of words.

INTERVIEWER

You respond to English so well, you love it so much, how is it you have written so little in English?

BORGES

Why? Why, I'm afraid. Fear. But next year, those lectures of mine that I shall deliver, I'll write them in English. I already wrote to Harvard.

INTERVIEWER

You're coming to Harvard next year?

BORGES

Yes. I'm going to deliver a course of lectures on poetry. And as I think that poetry is more or less untranslatable, and as I think English literature—and that includes America—is by far the richest in the world, I will take most, if not all of my examples, from English poetry. Of course, as I have my hobby, I'll try to work in some Old English verses, but that's English also! In fact, according to some of my students, it's far more English than Chaucer's English!

INTERVIEWER

To get back to your own work for a moment: I have often wondered how you go about arranging works in those collections. Obviously the principle is not chronological. Is it similarity of theme?

BORGES

No, not chronology; but sometimes I find out that I've written the same parable or story twice over, or that two different stories carry the same meaning, and so I try to put them alongside each other. That's the only principle. Because, for example, once it happened to me to write a poem, a not too good poem, and then to rewrite it many years afterwards. After the poem was written, some of my friends told me, “Well, that's the same poem you published some five years ago.” And I said, “Well, so it is!” But I hadn't the faintest notion that it was. After all, I think that a poet has maybe five or six poems to write and not more than that. He's trying his hand at rewriting them from different angles and perhaps with different plots and in different ages and different characters, but the poems are essentially and innerly the same.

INTERVIEWER

You have written many reviews and journal articles.

BORGES

Well, I had to do it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you choose the books you wanted to review?

BORGES

Yes, I generally did.

INTERVIEWER

So the choice does express your own tastes?

BORGES

Oh yes, yes. For example, when somebody told me to write a review of a certain “History of Literature,” I found there were so many howlers and blunders, and as I greatly admire the author as a poet, I said, “No, I don't want to write about it, because if I write about it I shall write against it.” I don't like to attack people, especially now—when I was a young man, yes, I was very fond of it, ut as time goes on, one finds that it is no good. When people write in favor or against anybody, that hardly helps or hurts them. I think that a man can be helped, well, the man can be done or undone by his own writing, not by what other people say of him, so that even if you brag a lot and people say that you are a genius—well, you'll be found out.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any particular method for the naming of your characters?

BORGES

I have two methods: One of them is to work in the names of my grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and so on. To give them a kind of, well, I won't say immortality, but that's one of the methods. The other is to use names that somehow strike me. For example, in a story of mine, one of the characters who comes and goes is called Yarmolinsky because the name struck me—it's a strange word, no? Then another character is called Red Scharlach because Scharlach means scarlet in German, and he was a murderer; he was doubly red, no? Red Scharlach: Red Scarlet.

INTERVIEWER

What about the princess with the beautiful name who occurs in two of your stories?

BORGES

Faucigny Lucinge? Well, she's a great friend of mine. She's an Argentine lady. She married a French prince, and as the name is very beautiful, as most French titles are, especially if you cut out the Faucigny, as she does. She calls herself La Princesse de Lucinge. It's a beautiful word.

INTERVIEWER

What about Tlön and Uqbar?

BORGES

Oh, well, those are merely meant to be uncouth. Sou-q-b-a-r.

INTERVIEWER

Unpronounceable, in a way?

BORGES

Yes, more or less unpronounceable, and then Tlön: t-l is rather an uncommon combination, no? Then ö. The Latin Orbis Tertius—one can say that swimmingly, no? Perhaps in Tlön I may have been thinking of traum, the same word as the English dream. But then it would have to be Tröme, but Tröme might remind the reader of a railway train: t-l was a queerer combination. I thought I had invented a word for imagined objects called hrön. Yet when I began learning Old English, I found that hran was one of the words for whale. There were two words, wael and hran, so the hranrād is the “whale road,” that is to say “the sea” in Old English poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Then the word you invented to describe an object perpetrated on reality by the imagination, that word had already been invented and was, in fact, a hran?

BORGES

Yes, yes, it came to me. I would like to think that it came from my ancestors of ten centuries ago—that's a probable explanation, no?

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that in your stories you have tried to hybridize the short story and the essay?

BORGES

Yes—but I have done that on purpose. The first to point that out to me was Casares. He said that I had written short stories that were really sort of halfway houses between an essay and a story.

INTERVIEWER

Was that partly to compensate for your timidity about writing narratives?

BORGES

Yes, it may have been. Yes; because nowadays, or at least today, I began writing that series of stories about hoodlums of Buenos Aires: Those are straightforward stories. There is nothing of the essay about them or even of poetry. The story is told in a straightforward way, and those stories are in a sense sad, perhaps horrible. They are always understated. They are told by people who are also hoodlums, and you can hardly understand them. They may be tragedies, but tragedy is not felt by them. They merely tell the story, and the reader is, I suppose, made to feel that the story goes deeper than the story itself. Nothing is said of the sentiments of the characters—I got that out of the Old Norse saga—the idea that one should know a character by his words and by his deeds, but that one shouldn't get inside his skull and say what he was thinking.

INTERVIEWER

So they are nonpsychological rather than impersonal?

BORGES

Yes, but there is a hidden psychology behind the story because, if not, the characters would be mere puppets.

INTERVIEWER

What about the Cabala? When did you first get interested in that?

BORGES

I think it was through De Quincey, through his idea that the whole world was a set of symbols, or that everything meant something else. Then when I lived in Geneva, I had two personal, two great friends—Maurice Abramowicz and Simon Jichlinski—their names tell you the stock they sprang from: They were Polish Jews. I greatly admired Switzerland and the nation itself, not merely the scenery and the towns; but the Swiss are very standoffish; one can hardly have a Swiss friend because as they have to live on foreigners, I suppose they dislike them. That would be the same case with the Mexicans. They chiefly live on Americans, on American tourists, and I don't think anybody likes to be a hotel keeper even though there's nothing dishonorable about it. But if you are a hotel keeper, if you have to entertain many people from other countries, well, you feel that they are different from you, and you may dislike them in the long run.

INTERVIEWER

Have you tried to make your own stories Cabalistic?

BORGES

Yes, sometimes I have.

INTERVIEWER

Using traditional Cabalistic interpretations?

BORGES

No. I read a book called Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.

INTERVIEWER

The one by Scholem?

BORGES

Yes, by Scholem and another book by Trachtenberg on Jewish superstitions. Then I have read all the books of the Cabala I have found and all the articles in the encyclopedias and so on. But I have no Hebrew whatever. I may have Jewish ancestors, but I can't tell. My mother's name is Acevedo: Acevedo may be a name for a Portuguese Jew, but again, it may not. Now if you're called Abraham, I think there is no doubt whatever about it, but as the Jews took Italian, Spanish, Portuguese names, it does not necessarily follow that if you have one of those names you come from Jewish stock. The word acevedo, of course, means a kind of tree; the word is not especially Jewish, though many Jews are called Acevedo. I can't tell. I wish I had some Jewish forefathers.

INTERVIEWER

You once wrote that all men are either Platonists or Aristotelians.

BORGES

I didn't say that. Coleridge said it.

INTERVIEWER

But you quoted him.

BORGES

Yes, I quoted him.

INTERVIEWER

And which are you?

BORGES

I think I'm Aristotelian, but I wish it were the other way. I think it's the English strain that makes me think of particular things and persons being real rather than general ideas being real. But I'm afraid now that the Campbells are coming.

INTERVIEWER

Before I go, would you mind signing my copy of Labyrinths?

BORGES

I'll be glad to. Ah yes, I know this book. There's my picture—but do I really look like this? I don't like that picture. I'm not so gloomy? So beaten down?

INTERVIEWER

Don't you think it looks pensive?

BORGES

Perhaps. But so dark? So heavy? The brow . . . oh, well.

INTERVIEWER

Do you like this edition of your writings?

BORGES

A good translation, no? Except that there are too many Latin words in it. For example, if I wrote, just say, habitación oscura (I wouldn't, of course, have written that, but cuarto oscuro, but just say that I did), then the temptation is to translate habitación with habitation, a word which sounds close to the original. But the word I want is room: It is more definite, simpler, better. You know, English is a beautiful language, but the older languages are even more beautiful: They had vowels. Vowels in modern English have lost their value, their color. My hope for English—for the English language—is America. Americans speak clearly. When I go to the movies now, I can't see much, but in the American movies, I understand every word. In the English movies I can't understand as well. Do you ever find it so?

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes, particularly in comedies. The English actors seem to speak too fast.

BORGES

Exactly! Exactly. Too fast with too little emphasis. They blur the words, the sounds. A fast blur. No, America must save the language; and, do you know, I think the same is true for Spanish? I prefer South American speech. I always have. I suppose you in America don't read Ring Lardner or Bret Harte much anymore?

INTERVIEWER

They are read, but mostly in the secondary schools.

BORGES

What about O. Henry?

INTERVIEWER

Again, mostly in the schools.

BORGES

And I suppose there mostly for the technique, the surprise ending. I don't like that trick, do you? Oh, it's all right in theory; in practice, that's something else. You can read them only once if there is just the surprise. You remember what Pope said: “the art of sinking.” Now in the detective story, that's different. The surprise is there, too, but there are also the characters; the scene or the landscape to satisfy us. But now I remember that the Campbells are coming, the Campbells are coming. They are supposed to be a ferocious tribe. Where are they?

 

* All parenthetical dates above indicate American publication in translation. 

* Rosas, Juan Manuel de (1793-1877), an Argentine military dictator.

* This is, perhaps, a slip of memory: The story was “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” published in Sur, number 56 (May 1939). Borges had, in fact, written two short stories before this story—“The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” (1938), a review of a book that did not exist (similar to the “Pierre Menard” story), and “Hombre de la esquina rosada,” his first short story, originally published in A Universal History of Iniquity in 1935. The Prix Formentor, mentioned later in this interview, was for Borges story collection Ficciones, which did not include “Hombre de la esquina rosada.”

* Callois was the publisher.

* It was 1936.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.