On being a great writer and how almost dying made Borges try short stories

“Not because I think my own stuff particularly good, but because I know that I can't get along without writing. If I don't write, I feel, well, a kind of remorse, no?” - Jorge Luís Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luís Borges is one of those big names in literature who should need no introduction. In his books I found the recurrence of themes like time, infinity, labyrinths and the doppelganger. Expert in ancient english literature and philosophy, many of his book cast doubt over the border between fiction and non fiction, between the realism and the fantastic.

The love for reading that is clear even in his writings found limitations in his progressive blindness. However, it wasn't enough to hinder his habit of reading and writing even when he was already very debilitated in July of 1966, five years after receiving his first big premiation, the Formentor Prize. In this date he gave an interview to the writer and translator Ronald Christ published by The Paris Review.

His stories are short, complex and profoundly philosophical and granted him the title of the”writer who writes for writers”. But as he tells in the interview, it was only after an almost death experience, due to an accident at the Christmas of 1938, that he first tried to write short stories:

Borges, 21 years old.

“Yes, I was very timid because when I was young I thought of myself as a poet. So I thought, “If I write a story, everybody will know I'm an outsider, that I am intruding in forbidden ground.” Then I had an accident. You can feel the scar. If you touch my head here, you will see. Feel all those mountains, bumps? Then I spent a fortnight in a hospital. I had nightmares and sleeplessness—insomnia. After that they told me that I had been in danger, well, of dying, that it was really a wonderful thing that the operation had been successful. I began to fear for my mental integrity—I said, “Maybe I can't write anymore.” Then my life would have been practically over because literature is very important to me. Not because I think my own stuff particularly good, but because I know that I can't get along without writing. If I don't write, I feel, well, a kind of remorse, no? Then I thought I would try my hand at writing an article or a poem. But I thought, “I have written hundreds of articles and poems. If I can't do it, then I'll know at once that I am done for, that everything is over with me.” So I thought I'd try my hand at something I hadn't done: If I couldn't do it, there would be nothing strange about it because why should I write short stories?”

Even after this extreme start he rememorate the acceptance of his books in an account that made me remember the way he deals with numerology and mathematic in his books. When “History of eternity” was released he still had no idea that in the future his works would be translated to dozens of languages and even the sales of 37 copies left him surprised and touched:

“At first I wanted to find every single one of the buyers to apologize because of the book and also to thank them for what they had done. There is an explanation for that. If you think of thirty-seven people—those people are real, I mean every one of them has a face of his own, a family, he lives on his own particular street. Why, if you sell, say two thousand copies, it is the same thing as if you had sold nothing at all because two thousand is too vast—I mean, for the imagination to grasp. While thirty-seven people—perhaps thirty-seven are too many, perhaps seventeen would have been better or even seven—but still thirty-seven are still within the scope of one's imagination.”

During all the interview Borges speaks a lot through quotations, refering to positions that ilustrates his own views, quoting the authors and sometimes even the book where he read that. It's this way that he merge his ideas with the words of other writers to tell what he considers essential to write a great book:

Borges in New York.

“I think that Mark Twain was one of the really great writers, but I think he was rather unaware of the fact. But perhaps in order to write a really great book, you must be rather unaware of the fact. You can slave away at it and change every adjective to some other adjective, but perhaps you can write better if you leave the mistakes. I remember what Bernard Shaw said, that as to style, a writer has as much style as his conviction will give him and not more. Shaw thought that the idea of a game of style was quite nonsensical, quite meaningless. He thought of Bunyan, for example, as a great writer because he was convinced of what he was saying. If a writer disbelieves what he is writing, then he can hardly expect his readers to believe it.”

In this interview Jorge Luís Borges also talks about his studies of ancient english and nordic literature, comments what he considers essential to poetry and to fantastic literature. The writer for writers manages to be a remarkable presence even outside his work. After reading books like “The Aleph” and “Ficciones” I can only recommend kep recommending him everywhere.

I also talked here about an interview from the brazilian writer Lygia Fagundes Telles who met Borges in person. In this interview she also speaks about her last encounter with the argentinian writer before his death.

Reference: Full Borges interview.