To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole

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

A limited sector

From An Evening with Ramon Bonavena in the the Borges and Bioy Casares co-authored Chronicles of Bustos Domecq.  All the sections are simpler versions of the paradoxes of literary creation and content that continued to fascinate him through his solo writings so it’s surprising that none have made it into the various Borges collections I’ve seen or have ever, that I can tell, been reprinted.  This one covers an author who writes a multi-volume descriptive work on the contents of the corner of his own writing desk.

“My plan, at the beginning, did not exceed the bounds of literature, or, even worse, of realism. I wanted—there was nothing out of the ordinary about this, really—to produce a novel of the land, straightforward, with deeply human characters and the usual protest against absentee landowners. … Working my way into my subject, I came to realize that the major difficulty lay not in the characters’ names but rather was of a psychological order. How was I to put myself into my neighbor’s head? How was I to guess what others were thinking without abjuring realism? The answer was clear, but at first I could not see it. Then I considered the prospect of a novel in which the characters were domestic animals. But once again, how was I to intuit the cerebral processes of a dog, how was I to enter into a world perhaps less visual than olfactory? At a loss, I fell back on myself and thought that the one remaining possibility rested in autobiography. But even here lay the labyrinth. Who was I? Today’s self, bewildered; yesterday’s, forgotten; tomorrow’s, unpredictable? What could be more unattainable than the mind? If I am self-conscious as I write, self-consciousness creeps in, a new factor; if I surrender to free association, I surrender to chance. I don’t know whether you recall the story told, I believe by Cicero, of a woman who went to a temple to consult with an oracle and unaware of it spoke the very words of the answer she sought. Something similar happened to me here in Ezpeleta . Not so much in search of a solution but one day looking for something to do, I read over my notes. And there lay the key I was after. There, in the words limited sector. When I wrote them, I was simply using a commonplace; when I reread them, a sudden revelation dazzled me. A limited sector . . . What sector could be more limited than a corner of the deal table at which I worked? I decided then to restrict myself to one corner, to what that corner might offer. I measured with this carpenter’s rule—which you may examine at your pleasure—the leg of the aforementioned table and verified that it stood at thirty-one inches above floor level, a height I deemed adequate. To have gone on indefinitely upward would have meant to knock my head against the ceiling, then the roof, and quite soon astronomy; to have delved down would have sunk me into the basement, out onto the subtropical plain, if not into the very bowels of the globe. The chosen corner, at least, offered no lack of interesting possibilities. The copper ashtray, the blue-and-red pointed pencil, and so on, et cetera.”

Some footnotes

These are all the footnotes from Borges and Bioy-Casares’ Six Problems for Don Isidoro.  Like the excerpt a few days ago mocking trends in experimental poetry, the authors here are playfully taking the piss on a practice that has only grown worse since their time – the useless footnote.

[1] Affectionate nickname for H. Bustos Domecq used among his intimates. [Footnote by H.B.D.]

[2] See footnote 2. [Footnote by H.B.D.]

[3] Carlos Anglada’s commendable bibliography also comprises the following: the crude naturalistic novel Drawing-Room Flesh (1914), the magnanimous palinode Drawing-Room Spirit (1914), the long since superseded manifesto Words to Pegasus (1917), the travel notes In the Beginning Was the Pullman Car (1923), and the four numbered numbers of the review Zero (1924-27).

[4] Mario is sometimes so aggressive. [Footnote contributed by Dona Mariana Ruiz Villalba de Anglada.]

[5] Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate—Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity. [Footnote submitted by Dr. William Ockham.]

[6] Not at all. We—contemporaries of the machine gun and biceps—repudiate this delicate rhetoric. I should say, with the finality of a bullet, “I put salesroom and atelier on the ground floor. I lock the Chinamen upstairs.” [Footnote written in the hand of Carlos Anglada.]

[7] In fact, the doctor smiled and gave a greeting. [Author’s note.]

[8] The duelists have crossed swords. The reader can already hear the clash of rival steel. [Marginal note by Gervasio Montenegro.]

[9] A bucolic touch. [Original note by José Formento.]

Footnote 1 – the ‘author’ references himself in third person.

Footnote 2 – points recursively to itself.

Footnote 3 – for no logically apparent reason continues an unfinished list started in the main text.

Footnote 4 – a useless aside from a recurring character in the stories

Footnote 5 – a quotation ‘submitted’ by the semi-disguised fourteenth century philosopher William of Ockham.

Footnote 6 – another useless aside from a recurring character.

Footnote 7 – ‘author’s’ correction of his narrator’s sequence – “the face that now greets you and smiles.”

Footnote 8 – a third useless aside from a third recurring character.

Footnote 9 – a fourth useless aside from a fourth recurring character.

Some Borgesian banter

From The God of the Bulls in Six Problems for Don Isidoro by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares.

Unlike the reader, Parodi was unacquainted with Carlos Anglada. Don Isidro had not looked into the sonnets of The Senile Pagodas (1912) or the pantheistic odes of I Am All Others (1921) or the capital letters of I Spy with My Little Eye (1928) or the telluric novel The Cahiers of a Cowhand (1931) or a single one of the Hymns for Millionaires (five hundred numbered copies, plus the popular Catholic Boy Scouts Press edition, 1934) or the Antiphon of the Loaves and Fishes (1935) or—outrageous as it may seem—the learned imprint of Test Tube Editions, Inc. (Loose Leaves of a Diver, Collected and Edited by the Minotaur, 1939).* It pains us to confess that in the course of twenty years of imprisonment, Parodi had not had time to study Carlos Anglada’s Itinerary, The Genesis and Development of a Lyric Poet. In this indispensable study, José Formento, advised by the master himself, documents Anglada’s various periods: his modernist beginnings; his assimilation (at times transcription) of Joaquin Belda; his pantheistic fervor of 1921 when, thirsting for complete communion with nature, the poet rejected any sort of footwear and limped, bruised and bleeding, among the flower beds of his attractive villa out in Vicente López; his rejection of impersonal intellectualism—those now celebrated years when Anglada, in the company of a governess and a Chilean version of D. H. Lawrence, paid many an intrepid visit to the lakes in Palermo Park, childishly dressed in a sailor suit and armed with a hoop and a scooter; his Nietzschean reawakening, which germinated in Hymns for Millionaires, a work that was based on an article by Azorín and upheld aristocratic values but which Anglada would ultimately disown when he became the popular catechumen of the Eucharistic Congress; and finally, his altruistic forays into the provinces, where the master submits to the scalpel of criticism the latest unpublished generation of poets, for whom Test Tube Editions, Inc., provides a forum thanks to its nearly one hundred subscribers and projected handful of thin-nish booklets.

*Carlos Anglada’s commendable bibliography also comprises the following: the crude naturalistic novel Drawing-Room Flesh (1914), the magnanimous palinode Drawing-Room Spirit (1914), the long since superseded manifesto Words to Pegasus (1917), the travel notes In the Beginning Was the Pullman Car (1923), and the four numbered numbers of the review Zero (1924-27).