Borges’ prologue to Adolfo Bioy-Casares’ The Invention of Morel (from the NYRB edition). This is the second time I’ve read the novel(la?) and while I can’t quite share Borges’ enthusiasm I do support his line of reasoning from this intro (minus the Proust comment):
AROUND 1880 Stevenson noted that the adventure story was regarded as an object of scorn by the British reading public, who believed that the ability to write a novel without a plot, or with an infinitesimal, atrophied plot, was a mark of skill. In The Dehumanization of Art (1925) Jose Ortega y Gasset, seeking the reason for that scorn, said, “I doubt very much whether an adventure that will interest our superior sensibility can be invented today,” and added that such an invention was “practically impossible.” On other pages, on almost all the other pages, he upheld the cause of the “psychological” novel and asserted that the pleasure to be derived from adventure stories was nonexistent or puerile. This was undoubtedly the prevailing opinion in 1880, 1925, and even 1940. Some writers (among whom I am happy to include Adolfo Bioy Casares) believe they have a right to disagree. The following, briefly, are their reasons.
The first of these (I shall neither emphasize nor attenuate the fact that it is a paradox) has to do with the intrinsic form of the adventure story. The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility. In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of realism. There are pages, there are chapters in Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each day. The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to transcribe reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.
I have given one reason of an intellectual sort; there are others of an empirical nature. We hear sad murmurs that our century lacks the ability to devise interesting plots. But no one attempts to prove that if this century has any ascendancy over the preceding ones it lies in the quality of its plots. Stevenson is more passionate, more diverse, more lucid, perhaps more deserving of our unqualified friendship than is Chesterton; but his plots are inferior. De Quincey plunged deep into labyrinths on his nights of meticulously detailed horror, but he did not coin his impression of “unutterable and self-repeating infinities” in fables comparable to Kafka’s. Ortega y Gasset was right when he said that Balzac’s “psychology” did not satisfy us; the same thing could be said, of his plots. Shakespeare and Cervantes were both delighted by the antinomian idea of a girl who, without losing her beauty, could be taken for a man; but we find that idea unconvincing now. I believe I am free from every superstition of modernity, of any illusion that yesterday differs intimately from today or will differ from tomorrow; but I maintain that during no other era have there been novels with such admirable plots as The Turn of the Screw, The Trial, Voyage to the Center of the Earth, and the one you are about to read, which was written in Buenos Aires by Adolfo Bioy Casares.
Detective stories—another popular genre in this century that cannot invent plots—tell of mysterious events that are later explained and justified by reasonable facts. In this book Adolfo Bioy Casares easily solves a problem that is perhaps more difficult. The odyssey of marvels he unfolds seems to have no possible explanation other than hallucination or symbolism, and he uses a single fantastic but not supernatural postulate to decipher it. My fear of making premature or partial revelations restrains me from examining the plot and the wealth of delicate wisdom in its execution. Let me say only that Bioy renews in literature a concept that was refuted by St. Augustine and Origen, studied by Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and expressed in memorable cadences by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
In Spanish, works of reasoned imagination are infrequent and even very rare. The classics employed allegory, the exaggerations of satire, and, sometimes, simple verbal incoherence. The only recent works of this type I remember are a story in Leopoldo Lugones’s Las fuerzas extranas and one by Santiago Dabove: now unjustly forgotten. The Invention of Morel (the title alludes filially to another island inventor, Moreau) brings a new genre to our land and our language.
I have discussed with the author the details of his plot. I have reread it. To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.
— Jorge Luis Borges