Sebastian Shakespeare

The Man Who Talked to Letter Boxes

The Lesson of the Master: On Borges And His Work


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JORGE LUIS BORGES’S literary reputation is based on a slender body of work – just fifty short stories, a few volumes of poetry, and occasional journalism and essays. Sadly, he has not a single novel to his name (on account of sheer laziness, so he claimed), which explains why he described himself as first a reader, then a poet, then a short-stow writer. It is hard to know what the great man would have made of this book. It is a remarkable work, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Norman Thomas di Giovanni spent four years as Borges’s translator and collaborator after a chance encounter with the Argentine writer in America. The prose is at times so clumsy it makes you wonder why Borges entrusted his masterpieces to di Giovanni’s safekeeping (and it brings to mind Evelyn Waugh’s remark about the late Sir Stephen Spender – that allowing that poet the use of the English language was like entrusting a precious Ming vase to a chimpanzee). Other passages are so self-serving they made this reader blush. One dav di Giovanni overheard someone ask Borges ‘whether he had ever worked with any of his other translators the way he was working with me. No, never, he said.’ Or ‘Once, when I read him the finished draft of his celebrated story “The Circular Ruins”, Borges wept. “Caramba,” he said, “I wish I could still write like that.”‘ In di Giovanni, Borges has bequeathed to us a translator who cannot help but see himself in the mirror of his master’s prose. On the strength of this book he certainly deserves his own place in the Borges corpus – an entry, say, in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Is Norman Thomas cl1 Giovanni the ultimate Borges hoax?

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