James Joyce according to Borges

When one century has passed since the publication of the Ulises of James Joyce, perhaps it is opportune to point out some considerations about the reading of the works of the illustrious Irish author carried out by Jorge Luis Borges.

The interpretation that the great Argentine polygraph made of Joyce’s writings constitutes a kind of universal history of paradoxes, combining in his critical judgment fiery admiration and a certain disappointment. In any case, Borges was by no means indifferent to the literary achievements of the Irishman, with whom he shared an erudite culture, imbued with a passion for artistically sublimated language.

Both authors created an intertextual literary universe full of references and echoes of those that preceded them, uniting them, among other elements, the fascination for ancient civilizations and beliefs, Christianity and Judaism, controversy, artifice, the labyrinth, blindness , and even exile, a trait they shared with that epitome of expatriates known by the names of Odysseus or Ulysses, and who also responds to that of Sinbad, unrepentant traveler, on its eastern slope.

vast joyce

On the other hand, Borges is to Buenos Aires what Joyce is to Dublin, and vice versa. The reader can be referred to verses by Borges such as “the years that I have lived in Europe are illusory, / I was always (and will be) in Buenos Aires” (“suburb”).

The relationship between these two writers and the cities that saw them born was an oscillating agony –in its etymological sense– of permanent attraction and aversion.

Review of Ulises in the New York Times.
Joseph Collins / Wikimedia Commons

The ultraist and devoted Borges to the avant-garde could not help but feel an early interest in Joyce’s aesthetic experimentation. Already in 1925 he had dared to translate the last page of the Ulises in the magazine Bowand on February 5, 1937, he published a concise piece of news, pick up at captive textsin which he refers to Joyce, highlighting his literary tastes: “He was always attracted to vast works, those that encompass a world: Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, the Zohar”, and he put these names in relation with the epic work of the Dubliner: “More than the work of a single man, the Ulises It seems like the work of many generations.”

Borges and Finnegan’s Wake

The great Joycean epos is for Borges the summit and the epicenter of the Irishman’s work, far superior in literary quality to his previous narratives, which he considers anticipations of the Ulises or writings that can help your understanding. For his part, Finnegan’s Wake It supposes a break between Borges and Joyce in aesthetic terms, as he already revealed in a review published on June 16, 1939, the year of publication of the Dubliner’s last work, which caused him “essential perplexity” and “useless, partial glimpses”.

He then adds: “In this large volume (…), efficiency is an exception”, and defines what was once “Work in Progress” as “a concatenation of puns committed in dreamlike English and that it is difficult not to describe as frustrated and incompetent”. For the Argentine, Jules Laforgue and Lewis Carroll had played these rhetorical games with better luck.

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Portrait of Borges in the National Library of Argentina.
General Archive of the Argentine Nation / Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, Borges describes Joyce’s last novel as “indecipherably chaotic”, and ends up associating to the author of Finnegan’s Wake with the Góngora of the solitudestop of culteranismo.

In a lecture entitled “The book”, Borges stressed in a laconic and controversial way that “If we read something with difficulty, the author has failed. That is why I consider that a writer like Joyce has essentially failed, because his work requires effort ”.

language master

All this is not an obstacle for Borges to continue considering Joyce as a master of language and as one of the first writers of his time, perhaps the first in his mastery of verbal technique, referring to passages from the Ulises as worthy of Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Browne.

in a fragmentary Introduction to English Literaturecomposed with María Esther Vázquez, Borges defines Joyce as “literally, one of the most extraordinary writers of our century”, although he would later regret that the Dubliner wasted his verbal ingenuity on the novel, and that he did not use it in the composition of poems, praising also the beauty of Dubliners Y Portrait of the adolescent artistworks that, let us remember, he had considered inferior to the Ulises.

In Medieval Germanic literatures (1966), also written in collaboration with Vázquez, Borges will highlight the creativity and playful capacity of Joycean linguistic games, comparing them with the kenningarmetaphors typical of the ancient Germanic sphere: “In the Ulises Joyce speaks of the ‘heaventree of stars’, the celestial tree of stars, to signify the stellar vault”.

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Portrait of James Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig.
Wikimedia Commons

Around February 1941, in a contribution to South titled “Fragment on Joyce”Borges once again alludes to the work of the Irishman and, more specifically, to the Ulisesputting it in relation to his magisterial story “Funes el memorioso” -included in fictions–, a character whom he defines as “a monster”: “I have remembered it because the consecutive and correct reading of the four hundred thousand words of the Uliseswould require analogous monsters”.

The astonishing diversity of styles of said work, with everything and despite everything, would always arouse Borges’ astonishment and admiration, extendable to the Irish author himself: “Like Shakespeare, like Quevedo, like Goethe, like no other writer, Joyce is less a writer than a literature”. Despite this, with his proverbial ironic spirit, he went on to add:

I (like the rest of the universe) have not read the Ulises, but I happily read and reread some scenes (…). Fullness and poverty coexisted in Joyce. Lacking the ability to build (which his gods did not grant her and which she had to supply with arduous symmetries and labyrinths) she enjoyed a verbal gift, a happy omnipotence of the word, which it is not exaggerated or imprecise to equate to the of Hamlets or to the one of Urn Burial.

poems to joyce

In praise of the shadow (1969), Borges dedicates the poem “James Joyce” to the great Irish author, highlighting the eternity symbolized by the day in which the plot of the Ulises.

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Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Grete Stern.
Wikimedia Commons

In his quintessential organicism, the Argentine postulated the hypothesis that, ultimately, all authors are an author, and perceived in “El zahir”that coin that is all coins, the imprint of “Leopold Bloom’s irreversible guilder”, hero (or anti-hero) of the Ulises. Joyce’s imprint pervades many of his writings, either through direct allusions or through imitation of the extraordinary rhetorical richness of the Dublin writer’s literary language.

On the other hand, the idea that we all live in others and are interconnected in time and space is an obsession common to Borges’ vision of the world, and is the fundamental motive of the “Invocation of Joyce”, included in it. poetry. In this composition, Borges begins by referring to his avant-garde past:

Down the vast slopes of the night

that adjoins the dawn,

We searched (I still remember) for the words

of the moon, of death, of the morning

and the other spheres of man.

We were imagism, cubism,

that gullible universities revere.

We invented the lack of punctuation

the omission of capital letters,

dove-shaped stanzas

of the librarians of Alexandria.

And as a counterpoint to the conventions and empty fashions and style exercises of the first decades of the 20th century, Borges will propose the integrity of the exiled Joyce, a fabulator of other worlds that are in this one:

You, meanwhile, forged

in the cities of exile,

in that exile that was

your hated and chosen instrument,

the weapon of your art,

you erected your arduous labyrinths

infinitesimals and infinitesimals

more populous than history.

The end of the poem is a fervent praise and apology for the Irishman. Joyce is the climax, the sublimation of the challenge by the search for language:

What does our cowardice matter if there is on earth

one brave man

What does sadness matter if there was in time

someone who said he was happy

What does my lost generation matter?

that vague mirror,

if your books justify it.

I am the others. I am all those

that has rescued your obstinate rigor.

I am the ones you don’t know and the ones you save.

here is Borges that he recognized that Joyce “knew all languages ​​and wrote in a language invented by him, a language that is hardly understandable, but distinguished by strange music. Joyce brought a new music to English. is the Borges what do you think that “Ulises by James Joyce is the most complete illustration of an autonomous orb of corroborations, omens, and monuments. A dizzying novel.” It is, in short, the Borges that Borges and Joyce were, secretly. And maybe vice versa.

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James Joyce according to Borges


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