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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Borges on writing

Quotes from Borges' when he gave the Norton Lectures (from This Craft of Verse).
"[W]hat I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes-- yet one writes not what one would like to write but what one is able to write." (p. 98)

(on Huck Finn) "[T]here should be something pleasing to the imagination in the very framework of the book [...] We feel the idea of the black man, the boy, of the raft, of the Mississippi, of the long nights--that these ideas are somehow agreeable to the imagination, are accepted by the imagination." (p. 102)

"One knows so little about oneself that, when I read Don Quixote, I thought I read it because of the pleasure I found in the archaic style and in the adventures of the knight and the squire. Now I think that my pleasure lay elsewhere--that it came from the character of the knight. I am not now sure that I believe in the adventures, or in the conversations between the knight and the squire; but I know that I believe in the knight's character, and I suppose that the adventures were invented by Cervantes in order to show us the character of the hero. [... Similarly,] I am sure that I believe in Sherlock Holmes and in the strange friendship between him and Dr. Watson. [...] I suppose the future will bring all things in the long run, and so we may imagine a moment when Don Quixote and Sancho, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson will still exist, though all their adventures may have been blotted out. Yet men, in other languages may still go on inventing stories to fit those characters--stories that should be as mirrors to the characters." (p. 103-104)

"The Gnostics said the only way to be rid of a sin is to commit it, because afterwards you repent it." (advocating trial & error in writing p.109)

"Free verse is far more difficult than the regular and classic forms [...] the ear is led to expect something, and then it does not get what it expects. Something else is given to it; and that something else should be, in a sense, a failure and also a satisfaction." (p. 109-110)

"Had I to give advice to writers (and I do not think they need it, because everyone has to find out things for himself), I would tell them simply this: I would ask them to tamper as little as they can with their own work. I do not think tinkering does any good. The moment comes when one has found out what one can do--when one has found one's natural voice, one's rhythm. Then I do not think that slight emendations should prove useful.

When I write, I do not think of the reader (because the reader is an imaginary character), and I do not think of myself (perhaps I am an imaginary character also), but I think of what I am trying to convey and I do my best not to spoil it." (p. 116-117)

"When I am writing something, I try not to understand it. I do not think intelligence has much to do with the work of a writer." (p. 118)
I didn't find Borges' insights to be especially profound but I was grateful for the advice on writing. I started journaling again in 2008 and it seems my pen mostly wants to write philosophishy stuff but I'm trying to retrain it. I think I squashed my philosophy bug so that may help. Borges made it obvious that I'm still making most of the mistakes of a young man and that there's really only one cure to bad writing... more writing (trial and error). Borges also thinks French writers are too self conscious.1 But I love those Frenchies (well, especially Hadot, Camus, Montaigne). I may still take Borges' advice on that point.

[1] "I think that one of the sins of modern literature is that it is too self-conscious. For example, I think of French literature as being one of the great literatures in the world (I don't suppose anybody could doubt this). Yet I have been made to feel that French authors are generally too self-conscious. A French writer begins by defining himself before he quite knows what he is going to write. He says: What should (for example) a Catholic born in such-and-such province, and being a bit of a socialist, write? Or: How should we write after the Second World War? I suppose there are many people all over the world who labor under those illusory problems." (p. 118-119)


Baakanit said...

Great Borges quotes, I have the audio of the lectures, I didn't know they transcribed them.

Well the profound insights you'll find them in his essays, in his work, in those lectures in Harvard he tried to convey the ideas as simple as possible.

I love the French and Russian writers, you can't never get enough of them.


Mike said...

I'm looking forward to reading more of Borges' works. Where do you think is the best place to begin? I was thinking of starting with a collection of his non-fiction.

Mike said...

oh, and Bem-vindo.

Baakanit said...

The best place to start is by reading this Collected Fiction:

Even though I can read him in Spanish, I bought his collection of short stories in English.(It was a cheaper way to get a hold of all his work.) The differences between the original and the translation are minimal, they did a great job.

In his short stories, he worked the same themes of his essays, he kind of put the ideas into practice. The knowledge you'll adquire by reading him cannot be measured. He make you travel into paths no other writer before him tried.

Have a good one.

Unknown said...

Definitely start with his short stories, the shorter the better (Dreamtigers, Toenails, etc.), and then move onto his longer and longer pieces. Finally, you may skip his very longest story altogether (you'll figure out which it is) because it was his only attempt in life at a novel, and after too much editing and not enough progress it's just wonky and dense. Plus you'll be more than sated by all the work leading up to there.