Borges and His Precursors

Letras Libres‘ August issue included three stories that influenced some of Borges’ most famous stories in Fictiones. The stories are a fascinating look into Borges process of thought and creation and worth a look for any fan of Borges. While the stories are available on-line in Spanish, they are not on-line in English. However, two are more or less easily available in reprints, while a search for the third on the web will easily bring up a result. The three stories by Borges are the Library of Babel, Perrie Mendard Author of the Quijote, and the Shape of the Sword.

Of the three, the precursor to the Library of Babelis the most interesting. Written by Kurd Lasswitz, the Universal Libraryis a mathematical exploration of a library that contains every possible book, those with errors, those that we know, and the billions of others that do not exist now. What sets the story apart from Borges is the idea that there is some sort of true volume by each author, whereas Borges focuses more on the metaphysical complications of a library that has every possible book. Both stories authors posit intriguing ideas on the shape of ideas, but for Lasswitz the library he envisions is a mathematical monster, one that would be so large that laying the books end to end would take two light years to get from one end to the other. Even though Lasswitz sees it as finite, in practice it is an infinite library. For Borges the intrigue is more in what happens if the library already existed, how would knowledge exist. He goes one step beyond Lasswitz, one step beyond the reader’s history with true volumes, and reflects on more than the mathematical possibilities, but the ontological possibilities. 

The precursor to Perrie Mendard Author of the Quijote has the most Bogesian changes. Corputby Tupper Greenwald is the story of a professor who so loves King Leer that when he finally takes the time to write his own play, what he creates is an exact copy. Greenwald’s protagonist is more of a lost man who has so imbibed a work he is unable to differentiate himself from the work.  The story is psychological more than literary and it suggests that the professor has become senile. Borges, on the other hand, places the focus of the story less in the copying of the Quijote, and focuses on the interpretation, the way a work is understood through time. When the narrator of Perrie Mendard Author of the Quijote describes the book he changes the terms of interpretation so that what in Cervantes’ day was considered a medieval way of writing, in Perrie Mendardbecomes a briliant exposition of criticism. Even though they are the same text, the interpretations have changed. Corput, while interesting, is no where near as interesting as Perrie Mendard Author of the Quijote.

The final story,  Shape of the Sword, I won’t cover here but is based on W Somerset Maugham‘s the Man with the Scar.

As in reading Boccaccio’s Filocolo before reading Chaucer’s the Franklin’s Tale, or reading Plutarch before reading Shakespeare, reading the sources of Borges will not diminish the quality of invention in his stories, but will magnify them.