14/11/2009

Library Nights

Alberto Manguel was sixteen years old and worked in a bookshop. The shop was called Pygmalion and it was an Anglo-German bookshop, if that is of any significance. One night he was propositioned by this shabby-genteel old geezer. Come over to my place and we'll have a right good time, the geezer said. Alberto, being an adventurous youth, went - even though he knew that the old geezer was in the habit of propositioning right and left. Just about anybody would do. He wasn't that particular. He just couldn't get enough.

The city was Buenos Aires. The old geezer was called Jorge Luis Borges. Alberto's task: to read aloud to Borges. Sometimes he even got to write down poems and bits of prose Borges had composed in his head. When the poem or story was finished Borges used to stick it between the pages of a book. That's where he stored things. Also his money. When money was need he went to his bookshelf, pulled out a book and paid whatever needed paying. Sometimes he found his banknotes. Often he didn't.

These encounters obviously had a profound effect on Alberto. He himself grew up to become a writer. One of the books he wrote, a slim and elegant volume, is called With Borges. In it he recounts his sessions and what conversing with Borges meant to him.

I re-read this volume recently, while re-reading Borges. I keep re-reading Borges all the time, just about, because he's one of the very few authors that absolutely demand it, but this time it was because I came across a slightly battered volume of Kerrigan's Ficciones (which I'd never read) at the local library where somebody had left it for anyone to pick it up for free. Which I did, without missing a beat, even though I of course have all the stories in several translations and several languages. And a most of them in Spanish too; a language I am not particularly familiar with, fluent in or cognizant of. But still one tries. It's always nice to see what the man wrote. I mean really wrote. Word for exact word.

One grasps nary a syllable of it but it's still nice. One sees things, one hears things with the inner ear: there are always the rhythms, the patterns, the alluringly exotic words which seem to carry deep and resounding significance. Not perhaps quite what the author intended but significance nonetheless. It becomes like music. One needn't understand every bar, one need but enjoy them.

And the translations all taste quite different. Reading Borges in English is nothing like reading him in Swedish. And reading Borges in Finnish is really remarkably bizarre as the language is in no way related to Spanish nor any other Indo-European language. It's like transposing a classical symphony for a Balinese gamelan group. There are similarities, of course, but these seem sporadic and almost unintentional. The pitch is different, the orchestration off and none of the rules apply any longer.

But in the Borgesian world this is normal. One never can read the same book twice. The book is always different. Every time. That's because the reader never stays the same but changes. This automatically alters the book as well. One cannot step in the same river twice. That's what makes Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote such a mind blowing experience: because it applies to everyone and all reading. The experience never can be repeated. Therefore every book is infinite. There is no end to how often it may be read or in how many ways.

Dare I say: every book is all books?

One thing that rather amazed Manguel when he stepped into the sanctum sanctorum that was Borges's apartment was the smallness of his library - merely a few shelves. That was incredible: this man who was the archetypal librarian (and former head of the National Library), this man whose entire universe was a library. This man who seemed to write about nothing other than books, libraries and writing. And there were so few books in his home.

"For a man who called the universe a library, and who confessed that he imagined Paradise 'bajo la forma de una biblioteca', the size of his own library came as a disappointment, perhaps because he knew, as he said in another poem, that language can only 'imitate wisdom'. Visitors expected a place overgrown with books, shelves bursting at the seams, piles of print blocking the doorways and protruding from every crevice, a jungle of ink and paper. Instead they would discover an apartment where books occupied a few unobtrusive corners."

There were the encyclopedias: the Encyclopaedia Britannica (eleventh edition, with essays by De Quincey and Macauley, purchased in 1928), the Brockhaus, the Meyer, the Bompiani. On the lower shelves there was fiction: Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling. Wells, Wilkie Collins, James Joyce. Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll. And of course detective fiction. Fairly much of that actually. And Don Quixote.

But still, far far less books than anybody had a right to expect. I mean, this was Borges. Mr. Library himself.

And he owned so few books.

This was, naturally, because Borges believed reading was essentially re-reading. He constantly read (or had read to him) the same old favourites, the same books he now knew by heart. He was Pierre Menard. The books constantly changed. They lived for him. He lived so they lived. He changed so they changed.

The game isn't reading as much and as widely as one can. It's about reading as deeply and as profoundly as one can. Therefore re-reading is essential. One might almost go as far as saying: re-reading is reading.

That, I suspect, is also why Borges never ceases to return to his old themes, the ones he's used so frequently in the past in every variation imaginable. Rewriting is writing. Or maybe I go to far.

I already mentioned Manguel became a distinguished writer in his own right. I hunted down another book he wrote. It's called The Library at Night. And it's about - libraries. Seems very interesting indeed.

And if it does turn out to be as good as it looks I may even consider re-reading it.

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