the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 2   --   May, 2000

Borges under Review:
Critical Responses to the Collected Fictions - page 2


Shakespeare's Memory

       The Collected Fictions includes four stories never previously published in English in any collection (though three of them were apparently published in magazines, in Hurley's translation). These stories -- which together form the section titled Shakespeare's Memory and were written in the early 1980s -- represent the only true addition to the Borges' oeuvre. As such they also represent something new to comment on. Reviewers may not have much to say about the old, familiar tales, but one might expect them to comment on the previously unknown.
       Not surprisingly, the reviewers again fall short, with a large number basically ignoring the later work or not specifically making note of it. When Marc Berley (CR) writes about "later stories" he means Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and The Lottery of Babylon (sic ! -- Hurley has "in" rather than "of", though Berley gets this right elsewhere in his review) -- both from the 1941 collection The Garden of Forking Paths.
       Others acknowledge some of the later work, but comments tend to be simplistic generalizations. Shalom Freedman (JP) believes that: "In reading the nine collections of stories from A Universal History of Iniquity (1935) through Shakespeare's Memory (1983), there is a sense of remarkable consistency in quality." Coetzee (NYRB) dismisses the later collections (The Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory), writing that: "There is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature." Manguel (O) goes so far as to write that Shakespeare's Memory "was never fully revised and should perhaps not have been published", but Philip Hensher (S) states "the late Shakespeare's Memory stories haven't been translated before, and are among Borges' best."
       Bell-Villada (CL) also hedges his comments, referring specifically to Brodie's Report and The Book of Sand when he speaks of Borges' "later texts", and never mentioning Shakespeare's Memory :
Intrinsically, Borges's later texts weren't all that bad; from a lesser writer, they'd be deemed worthy, "promising." But they are ever in the shadow of the playfully brooding, quietly dazzling, thoroughly inspired works of the genius at mid-century.
       Opinions are offered with little support or explanation, sweeping judgements made at the drop of a hat. There might be thought and reason behind them, but these are not presented to the reader.

       Critics had a hard time dealing with the Shakespeare's Memory stories. Most simply chose not to mention them at all. Others chose to concentrate on Borges' prime years (the collections Fictions (1944) and The Aleph (1949)) and consider the rest of the work only in relation to this plateau. Hensher (S) discusses the story Shakespeare's Memory, but no one else gives it much space.
       Once again, readers relying on the reviews are shortchanged. With little explanation the stories are dismissed by most of the critics -- and, when they are not (as with Freedman's (JP) too uniform and undifferentiated praise), the reviews are hardly more helpful.
       Perhaps the last four stories are minor efforts, hardly worth a few lines of comment, but given the circumstances it seems appropriate to devote more space to them than almost all the reviewers in fact did.

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       The reviewers proved to be on considerably surer footing when looking at the big picture and examining Borges' fiction as a whole. Unkind commentators might point out that rather than evaluating the work most are in fact only echoing the standard lines. Borges' reputation has been made and it is this that is described, with little variation.
       A number of reviewers speak of personal encounters with Borges (Manguel (O) begins his discussion of the book: "The last time I saw him was in Paris"), and most make at least some mention of his influence. While all acknowledge the great impact of his work there is no uniformity of opinion as to whether it has been lasting or, for that matter, positive.
       Hensher (S) pegs him as "a one-off":
He is quickly becoming an exquisite period piece (.....) I wonder whether his influence has been entirely healthy; he enabled a large number of mediocrities to pursue a particularly dreary line of post-modernist fantasy in the 1980s, and was seldom a wholly beneficial influence even on good writers.
       Mavis Gallant (NYTBR) sees his reputation intact but his direct influence diminished:
Now, 12 years after the great wave of the obituaries, and a year short of the centenary, it is all but impossible to find anyone who has read Borges recently (other than Spanish-speaking readers, translators, specialists in Latin American writing, teachers and graduate students preparing dissertations).
       She also refuses to make any final judgements, maintaining that: "It will take another 25 years after the centennial for a new generation to test the stories for vitality and endurance." (Surely that too will not be the definitive test -- Borges' stories, like all art, must constantly be reevaluated and will be found occasionally more relevant and occasionally less so.)
       There is some name dropping of influences and those influenced in turn (and some simply for the sake of name-dropping). Calvino, most often, and Nabokov, and everyone from Eudora Welty to Kathy Acker are brought up and in.
       The emphasis in the reviews tends to be on the fiction from the 1940s, specifically the stories collected in Fictions (1944) and The Aleph (1949). The Economist suggests that "his best stories were written between 1940 and the mid-1950s" -- despite the fact that no (fiction) collection appeared between 1949 and 1960 (though admittedly some pieces from El hacedor (The Maker) were written in the 1950s).
       A variety of stories are specifically mentioned -- with The Aleph, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, The South, and Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius being popular choices. Generally these (and other examples) are used to demonstrate what Borges did in his stories -- his magical, mirroring, dazzling invention and so on. Many of these examples are fairly well-presented and give readers a general feel for Borges' work (or at least for the standard interpretation of Borges' work).
       The stories from the 1940s ("the apex of his literary career" (LA1)) are the focus, and most of the others are compared to these -- a simple but useful device. There is little that is new to the interpretations on offer -- and surprisingly little effort to place Borges in a more modern (i.e. contemporary) context.

       The reviewers do manage to give an impression of Borges the man, his most significant work, and his influence. Little is presented that is new -- indeed, the picture of Borges is almost across the board the traditional view of him, with only some variation regarding the details. Most emphasize how profound the effect was when the first Borges texts appeared in English, but even this account is not fully convincing, coloured by time. The reassessments of man and work are also of limited value.

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       It is difficult to evaluate reviews. Different fora must be judged differently. The lack of space generally afforded reviewers is a major constraint that few reviewers are able to work with. The New York Review of Books is the only one of the surveyed publications that provided ample space for a full review -- which Coetzee fortunately took full advantage of. The New Criterion also devotes significant space to the review, but Eric Ormby must deal with all three volumes of the Viking-Borges, and so while he is strong in certain areas (Hurley's translation) he fails to provide other significant information (not mentioning, for example, Shakespeare's Memory or discussing much of Borges' prose in depth -- though he does give a nice overview).
       Approaches to reviewing the Collected Fictions varied. One of the reviews surveyed (VQR) is simply a throwaway piece, making the reader aware of the publication of an important work (the Atlantic Monthly, in a review not included in this survey, offers a similar piece). A number of others are also fairly superficial, including Irving Malin's (RCF), in which he suggests: "This book could be reviewed in several different ways", and then doesn't really review it in any of these ways.
       Coetzee's review (NYRB) is by far the most thorough and, though there are weaknesses and debatable points in it, seems exemplary in addressing almost all of the major issues and providing useful information to the reader of the review. A number of others provide good introductions to Borges as a whole (Borges the literary phenomenon), -- generally without providing much critical guidance specifically regarding the Collected Fictions.
       There is a fair amount of praise for Hurley, for having tackled Borges' fiction. Bell-Villada (CL) speaks of "a noble, indeed monumental endeavor", Mavis Gallant (NYTBR) insists: "This collection is testimony to hard labor and devotion." Irving Malin (RCF) compliments Andrew Hurley "on his heroic task." Eric Ormby (NC) states that "by any standard his accomplishment here is immense". The purpose of these comments is unclear, and the praise is ridiculously exaggerated.

       In examining the response to the Collected Fictions it is also useful to recall how Borges' work was greeted when it first became available in the English-speaking world. Borges finally became accessible to larger audiences in the US and Great Britain with the almost concurrent publication (in 1962) of Ficciones and Labyrinths. These two often overlapping volumes were generally reviewed together. Coverage of the books was good but not especially prominent. Many, but not all, major outlets reviewed the titles (including The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and the Times Literary Supplement).
       What is striking about the reviews is how Borges is already spoken of as a near-legendary and fairly well-known figure -- who wrote his best work in the 1940s. The introductions to the author offered by the reviewers are, by and large, interchangeable with the vast majority of those written some 35 years later in reviewing the Collected Fictions. He is touted for the Nobel Prize. His stories are described in similarly general terms as in the contemporary reviews -- i.e. little insight is offered. Some of the stories are "judged harshly" because they seem too much like tricks (Naomi Bliven, in The New Yorker), but most are recognized for their artful, clever brilliance.
       The impact that Borges made might have been great and lasting, but one would never have sensed that the arrival of his work in English translation was something sensational from the critical response at the time. All hail the availability of Borges' work, but he also seems to be held out to be more a curiosity than anything else. Again: the reaction mirrors the reaction 35 years later.
       The reviews are generally of a reasonable length (remembering that two books are being reviewed -- Ficciones and Labyrinths), but Borges is given no prominent place. The New York Times Book Review of 27 May 1962 reviews Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire on its first page. The two Borges books gets a few columns by Mildred Adams farther in the back. And -- no disrespect intended -- the question remains: Mildred who ?
       Clearly the reviews were not instrumental in spreading the word -- or creating the legend Borges. Borges exerted an increasing amount of influence on American (and French and British) fiction as the 1960s progressed, and the availability of his work in English was obviously pivotal in making this possible. Critical reaction suggests the reviewers had little idea of the significance the appearance of these books would have -- perhaps because many were already familiar with his work and thus took familiarity with it almost for granted.

       Looking at the contemporary reviews in light of those from the early 1960s one is inclined to judge them less severely. They are by and large inadequate, generally failing to deal with many (or most or all) of the issues that are raised by the publication of a volume such as the Collected Fictions. Their predecessors, however, were not much better.
       Viking/Allen Lane disappointingly opted not to publish anything resembling "the complete Borges", bringing out three volumes -- of his fiction, non-fiction, and poetry -- that present a great deal of Borges' work but also leave out much of it (including a fair amount previously available in English). Only a few reviews examined two or all three of the volumes as a set; because there is no unifying element (beyond Borges) to them -- no single editor or even, apparently, any sort of editorial plan -- it is, indeed, an unnecessary exercise. Presumably in a few decades time a more serious effort at collecting and presenting Borges' work in English will be undertaken. It will be interesting to once again compare the critical reaction at that time.
       Faced with reviewing stories that are already classics, known (at least by reputation) to readers and critics alike, reviewers of the Collected Fictions were limited in how they could address the work. The novelty of the stories all being collected in a single volume was an obvious point to mention, as was the fact that they had been newly translated, by a single person. Beyond that there was an opportunity for a reassessment of Borges and his influence, a chance to take a second look at an author -- as happens too rarely in a book reviewing world that concentrates its efforts on what is brand new. In particular, the general familiarity with the author's work (or at least the general sense of familiarity among readers) should have permitted a trenchant and probing analysis of master Borges. Almost none was forthcoming.
       The reviews vary greatly in quality, usefulness, and length -- as reviews tend to do. The disparity in reactions is nevertheless astonishing. Borges' fiction from the 1940s is universally acclaimed -- it is this that is considered quintessential Borges, and upon which his reputation has, by and large, been made in the English-speaking world (an evaluation already made in the reviews from 1962, and repeated essentially unchanged by all the contemporary critics). Beyond that there is little agreement. Some reviewers judged his writing consistent from beginning to end, others disparage the first and/or the later stories -- where Borges' "later" period is judged to begin anywhere between 1950 and 1980.
       There is hardly any agreement about Hurley's translation -- though there is at least some coverage of this issue in the reviews. Even specific examples (such as his translation of the title of the story Funes el memorioso) are both praised and ridiculed -- offering practically no guidance to the non-Spanish speaking reader.
       There is also little agreement about the editorial presentation of the volume -- and far too little discussion of the question. Similarly, the only new stories in the collection -- the last four -- are not considered in any great depth.
       Only in presenting Borges himself -- man, legend, and his lasting influence -- do the reviewers do an adequate job. Perhaps this is all that should be required of them: a glimpse of the figure that whets some readers' appetites, and a simple summary that suffices for those (the vast majority of review-readers out there, one suspects) who have no intention of ever picking up the collection.

       Perhaps the complete review Quarterly's assumptions behind this survey were wrong: a known quantity such as Borges -- and one so universally acclaimed -- apparently does not show off reviewer's abilities to best advantage. Certainly, almost all those considered here appear hamstrung by Borges' aura. There is a great deal of praise, but little content. Of course, the failure to address questions of translation and editorial presentation cannot easily be explained even by Borges' overwhelming shadow.....

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The complete review's review of the Collected Fictions: Reviews in this survey: Additional reviews not included in survey: Other books of interest under review at the complete review:
Information about Jorge Luis Borges:

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© 2000 the complete review Quarterly
© 2000 the complete review