Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday 17 August 2009

Doctor Brodie's Report

Penguin Book Cover In his short essay on Borges (pronounced Bor'hes in case you're in any doubt), Gabriel Josipvici opens with this sentence:

The name of Borges, among readers of modern literature, has always been synonymous with labyrinths, babelic libraries, gardens of forking paths, parallel universes, refutations of time and all sorts of cunning intellectual paradoxes. - Borges and the Plain Sense of Things

Likwise Gene H. Bell-Villada, in Borges and his Fiction, states:

A ficción starts from some eccentric notion, curious premise, or unlikely situation such as immortality, absolute memory, a completely idealist world, or a library with all possible letter combinations in all possible books.

If that is the Borges you're looking to experience then this is not the book for you. Borges's short story collection Doctor Brodie's Report was published in 1970; these were the first short stories he had written since 1953; they were actually written at the end of the sixties. In the book's preface, he explains what he was trying to do was:

. . . to write straightforward stories. I do not dare state that they are simple; there isn't anywhere on earth a single page or a single word that is, since each thing implies the universe, whose most obvious trait is complexity.

And that is what he has done. One Amazon reviewer calls it “Borges for the masses” and that's a fair assessment but I'm not sure the masses would necessarily appreciate these stories. Whether they are “laconic masterpieces” to use the description he himself used when talking about the stories of Kipling (who he greatly admired), I cannot say. They have the feel of transcripts of conversations he has overheard or been party to rather than works of fiction that an author has carefully crafted; there is a journalistic “as told to our correspondent” quality to most of them. The story 'Juan Muraña' is presented as a tale told to someone called 'Borges' by someone called 'Trápani' during a train journey to Morón. And even that tale he suggests contains . . . what shall we call them? . . . elaborations:

Certain devices of a literary nature and one or two longish sentences led me to suspect that this was not the first time he had told the story.

So, what shall we call it? Creative journalism? The 'Borges' in the story may or may not be the author – who is to say? – but Borges deliberately sets all of these tales “some distance off in time and space” to allow him some elbow room so he is not a slave to petty detail. So although all the stories are presented as if they are factual accounts – and indeed once you get the afterword you discover that “[t]hree of the stories are taken from life.” – it is clear they are not to be trusted or at least only trusted up to a point which is pretty much how most people view journalism these days anyway. And this feeling permeates this slim volume.

All the stories appeared in periodicals before being collected in this volume, most in The New Yorker, and I would suggest that that is where they would be best served. These stories are like prose poems: sitting and reading one right after another has a tendency to make them blur into one long list of hard to pronounce South American names. I found a recording of the first story online and was horrified to find how poorly I had pronounced them in my head. (I have the same problem with Russian authors.)

I first read this book circa 1976 and with the singular exception of the first story, 'The Gospel According to Mark', which Borges himself admits is “perhaps the best of this collection,” the rest made no impression on me at all and when I reread them to prepare for this article I realised that, as with the Beckett I read about that time, I was too young to appreciate the subtleties of these short pieces. I thought they were pretty boring and I suspect that "the masses" will find them boring too. I still have that paperback from 1976 and I still think the cover is excellent. It was what drew me to the book in the first place. I had no idea who Borges was.

mini-Dr_Brodies_Report_Peter_Goodfellow DOCTOR BRODIE'S REPORT by Peter Goodfellow

It's a violent little book. It may not be especially graphic but a lot of people die between its covers. Confrontations are a recurring theme in the book from the actual duels in 'The Meeting' and 'The End of the Duel' to more “delicate” duels such as the subtle sparring between the two society women in 'The Duel' or the civilised head-to-head between two academics in 'Guayaquil' which although the narrator, himself one of the academics, insists was neither “a physical or even a moral duel” it is still a duel. And where there are no contests there is at least verbal parrying. These we find out about by means of confessions years later as in 'The Unworthy Friend' (to a casual acquaintance in an antique shop), 'Rosendo's Tale' (to a stranger met in a grocery store) or 'Juan Muraña' (to an old schoolmate on a train journey).

In 'The Meeting' and 'Juan Murana' people are turned into weapons (knives) and weapons into people. Borges acknowledges the connection is the afterword, the notion that a knife could in effect, take on a life of its own, a notion, he admits (this time in the preface) that has “pursued [him] down through the years.” A similar thought is explored in 'Guayaquil' where the two men could be seen as morphing into the two dead generals they are discussing. Hand to hand combat is clearly something that is a part of the culture. As Rosendo Juárez says in 'Rosendo's Tale':

I first learned to handle a knife the way everyone else did, fencing with a charred stick. If you jabbed your man, it left a mark. Soccer hadn't taken us over yet – it was still in the hands of the English.

Considering the brevity of all these stories – 11 stories in 85 pages – the degree of preamble is striking. There seems to be a need to provide a full history of events leading up the point in time where the story proper begins. A quarter of 'The Elder Lady' slips by before our narrator says:

I pass over grandchildren and great-grandchildren; it is enough that my reader picture a family that is honourable, that has come down in life, and that is presided over by a heroic shade and by a daughter born in exile.

But even then we have four more pages of background information before the story proper which takes a mere two pages to unfold.

There is also a strong Scottish connection: Doctor Brodie is an Aberdonian missionary who makes his 'report' in Glasgow; The Gutres, in 'The Gospel According to Mark' are descendants of the Guthries, natives of Inverness; one of the women painters in 'The Duel' is Clara Glencairn and one of the combatants in 'The Meeting' is a Duncan.

My problem with this book are its settings. Had Borges been brought up in Glasgow I think I might appreciate him better. Of course he writes, as do we all, of what he knows but I've never been especially fond of the South American mindset and culture. I had similar problems with Steinbeck's The Pearl. It is always difficult when faced with a book from a very different culture to connect with the events being played out on the page. Feuds and fights happen the world over though there aren't many men I know of who'd share their woman with their brother:

Cristián said to Eduardo, 'I'm on my way over to Farías' place, where they're throwing a party. Juliana stays here with you. If you want her, use her.'

His tone was half commanding, half friendly, Eduardo stood there a while staring at him, not knowing what to do. Cristián got up, said goodbye – to his brother, not to Juliana, who was no more than an object – mounted his horse, and rode off at a jog, casually.

This scenario also appeared in Ma Jian's Stick Out Your Tongue – set in Tibet – and I had a similar problem with that. The interesting thing about 'The Intruder' – the story concerning the two brothers – is that this is the only story where the conflict finds resolution without either brother losing either face or life.

The weakest story in the collection is, ironically, the title story which is based on Swift's Gulliver's Travels and is purportedly part of a manuscript written by a Scottish missionary talking about his time with the Yahoos. To my mind it doesn't fit with the tone of the rest of the collection its action being set elsewhere; all the other stories are based in South America. The best is the first story, 'The Gospel According to Mark', even if it does wear its symbolism on its sleeve. Most of the others concern small incidents in the lives of small people but fancy settings don't stop small diamonds being small diamonds. As one would expect from a writer of Borges's maturity (he was seventy when he wrote these) each story contains a germ that has been built up and framed with skill but these germs concern people and events I found little to care about.

I can understand a mature writer aiming to simplify his writing style. Beckett is the finest example of that. (In 1961 Borges shared with Samuel Beckett the $10,000 International Publishers Prize.) But whereas Beckett refined his style filtering out all traces of Joyce I am not sure what Borges was aiming for here except to emulate the Kipling, who he so admired, and also Henry James in a couple of stories. So why then would he write in the preface: "I believe I have found my own voice."? It seems contradictory.

What we can say about the translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni is that it was done at the time of writing in collaboration with the author who was very familiar with English himself and so we can trust that what we have is what Borges intended for us to have. You can read an essay by di Giovanni here where he talks about how the book came about and why it contains so few stories.

If the stories lack wit it is not that the humour was lost in translation, it is that there is very little humour to be found in these pages and what little there is is grim. René de Costa attests to this in his book Humour in Borges where he states: “More than half of the eleven narratives in Doctor Brodie's Report are humorous, some grotesquely so.” Let me illustrate, although it does mean giving away the ending of one of the stories:

The narrator tells a story that a writer has told him of a prank played by Juan Patricio Nolan in Uruguay in the late 19th century. The writer himself was not witness to the events; these were related to him by a foreman who worked for his father who had formulated the story from various accounts he had been told. So, that makes the story at least fourth-hand. It involves two gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira. They had maintained a feud for years although neither could say what started it. "Like the roots of other passions, those of hatred are mysterious." Eventually, during a civil war battle the two men, who end up fighting on the same side (although not out of any sense of patriotism), are taken prisoner. The captain of the opposing side, Nolan, apparently aware of the rivalry between the two men informs them: "I'm going to stand you up and have your throats cut and then you'll run a race." Learning of the race the rest of the prisoners send a representative and ask that their executions be postponed by a day so they can learn the outcome. Their request grated they begin betting as if there was no tomorrow. The next day the two men are found at the starting line “eager” – that is the word Borges uses – to begin. As their throats are cut they dash forward a number of steps before tumbling face down. "Cardoso, as he fell, stretched out his arms. Perhaps never aware of it, he had won."

Is that funny? Yes, I suppose it is. But the humour is very dark. Borges said, commenting on this story, “That is what always happens. We never know whether we are victors or whether we are defeated.” (Borges on Writing) In actuality he'd had the story going around in his head since, as a child, he'd heard it while on holiday in Androgue near Buenos Aires.

What is particularly interesting is comparing the nature of the man to the nature of the stories in this collection:

borges It is another paradox that Borges writes about such things. He has no direct experience with the hard edges of life. First, he lives, and has lived, a thoroughly bookish, sheltered, and internal existence, Secondly, he is the product of a long line of oligarchs. There is not a saloon fighter in the family tree. He has never known poverty, not a hint of desperation. He spent his early years in Switzerland and Spain (1914—1922) taking on the lacquered continental education expected of young men of his class. He flirted only briefly with leftist ideology, found it required too much energy, and abandoned it by the time he returned to Argentina. - Richard O'Hara, Literature's Mozart

I think really he answers his own question when further down the page he says: “Borges has read everything, especially what nobody else reads any more.” To be fair what he is dealing with in these stories are universal themes and many of the characters are archetypes. Most of the scenes would transfer to down the Gallowgate in Glasgow, no problem. Men have been fighting the world over and usually over something or nothing.

One should not assume because these stories were written by Borges that they were universally praised. They were not.

As J M Coetzee noted, there's much tired writing in them and they “add nothing to his stature”. Earlier, the critic Michael Wood thought the same: Borges's later work was close to boredom, much overrated. - Jason Wilson, Jorge Luis Borges

The thing is, a poor story by someone like Borges is a good story by anyone else's standards.

There is another translation by Andrew Hurley and, having compared one of the stories, there are significant differences although I didn't find that the story suffered as most of these were just changes in sentence structure. This was published in 1999 and drops the “Doctor” from the collection's title; the order is also different as are the titles to a number of the stories.

As I said at the start of this article, if you are looking for the Borges everyone talks about then find yourself a copy of Ficciones which is probably the best introduction to his work.

Further reading

The Garden of Forking Paths

A Dictionary of Borges

The Borges Centre


Dick said...

I've meant to read Borges for years but have always felt that some sort of orientation prior to entering his distinctive and demanding territory would be necessary. Here it is. Thanks for this, Jim. I now have an entry point via the short stories.

Art Durkee said...

I know an otherwise smart poet who thinks Borges is a terrible writer because his short stories don't fit into any of the usual standards or styles of narrative fiction, or what we expect a short story to be. (Although "Funes the Memorius" was included in an annual anthology of The World's Best Science Fiction in the 1960s—which was how I discovered Borges.) This otherwise smart poet has no clue that Borges wasn't even trying to write your typical short stories. He also doesn't seem able to grasp that what Borges was always doing was a kind of meta-fiction rather than regular fiction. This otherwise smart poet pretty much rejects "meta-fiction" as an entire genre or style, too.

My point here is that this otherwise smart poet has made a fundamental category error: he is comparing apples to oranges. He assumes that Borges is a bad writer merely because Borges isn't writing like Raymond Carver or Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. He assumes Borges to be ignorant of the conventions of narrative literature, when in fact Borges was probably better-read in narrative fiction than you or I or any other ten people combined. In other words, my poet friend assumes Borges is in error when in fact Borges's meta-fictions are not even intended to be fictions. They never were.

People often make this mistake about Borges. He himself stated in interviews that his writings are a personal labyrinth in which he is exploring himself. They're not intended to be autobiographical stories, they're intended to ask questions about consciousness, about the nature of perception and reality, about the questions raised by what it means to be self-aware (or have a doppelganger, or to meet one's younger self). Borges is an explorer, not a fiction writer per se. Everything he writes is a question, not an answer. Borges once said that his "Ficciones" were not stories, but experiments in consciousness and memory. His narrators are almost always unreliable. His stories often refer to archaic texts and lands that never actually existed, as far as we know. He could be very playful about this. Some of his stories are quite funny when you realize that he's having fun with your expectations of what a story should be or do. Borges does let us in on the joke, but we need to be alert.

Needless to say, Borges is one of my favorite writers. My writing style is nothing like his, but his viewpoints and questions have influenced me deeply. At least as much if not more so than Beckett, or Octavio Paz.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm the same, Dick, I may even have a copy of Labyrinths kicking around somewhere but even if I'd found it I wanted to reread this one because it's been thirty years since I read it and I was curious if anything was still there. One of these days I will read some typical Borges but not just now.

And, Art, it does seem as if I've picked the least typical book Borges ever wrote. After all the research I did for this article I've certainly piqued my own curiosity. Where would you suggest a beginner start with him? Was I right to suggest Ficciones?

jonathan pinnock said...

When I read Labyrinths around thirty years ago, it was the first thing I'd ever read of Borges, and I thought it was pretty much the best thing I'd ever read. I was (perhaps unsurprisingly) massively disappointed with Dr Brodie's Report, but I'm now thinking of picking it up and having another go. I've got the same edition with that excellent cover, too.

Unknown said...

“It is always difficult when faced with a book from a very different culture to connect with the events being played out on the page.” This statement strikes me as I’ve never been to Scotland, and the Scot portion of the family got to America shortly after the Mayflower, but I find reading Stranger than Fiction to be one of the most comfortable and familiar of reads, in an almost eerie and unsettling manner, that I have ever had. I was telling my son so when we were walking through a mall today to seek him out a hat wherein he mentioned to me he was reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but that he would gladly read your book next in line after. Trust me, I am not reading it while driving.

I have at one time or another read a share of Borges, but not this particular collection. Your comments on his attempt to write a ‘normal’ kind of fiction interests me in the sense of say if Van Gogh attempted to paint what he thought of as a normal painting. Conjecture only, not necessarily my opinion, if Borges failed miserably in constructing what many readers would consider a normal fiction, but he succeeded admirably in creating what he thought of as a normal fiction. By doing so may he have created something not particularly readable? The presumption of ‘normal’ in literature is what I find most curious here.

I think it was around 1981 when I was working on a project north of NYC and my wife went into Manhattan to visit a writer friend of hers that she had known from her days hanging at St. Marks. I was working long hours at the time. She gave me a call and told me Borges was going to be speaking at NYU that night. Told me if I wanted to drive down her friend could get us in to the lecture. So I cleaned up quickly and drove down, an hour and a half or so. Middle of the week and I had to be back that night and up early the next day. Her friend, a bookish fellow, was intent on that we absolutely had to go to a particular pizza parlor in the Village. It took forever to get the pizza and it was not all that outstanding of one. So we go over to the hall where Borges was to speak and the place was already packed to capacity. We had to stand outside and listen to him speak over a loudspeaker. I was irritated, to say the least, not to even get to see the man off in the distance... but somehow it all seemed the appropriate level of irony. I thank you for reminding me of that adventure.

Art Durkee said...

Yes, I think it's good to suggest starting with "Ficciones."

I also recommend "A Personal Anthology" which is Borges own selections from his work. It's fiction, essay, poetry, and his "sketches" which are indefinable.

But I would also offer the suggestion that, since they've been published now for a few years, one might start with "Collected Fictions" or "Selected Non-Fictions," both of high merit, and both should be available at libraries if one doesn't want to invest much at first.

If you can find it—it's rare—there is a fantastic book called "Borges at Eighty: Conversations" edited by Willis Barnstone. It consists of 11 full-length conversations (they're a bit more casual and wide-ranging than formal interviews), in which Borges talks openly about his ideas and his work with a candor that's rare in any author. This is what I was referring to earlier, when I mentioned things Borges had said about his own work. It's a terrific book.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Jonathan, I'm glad my review piqued your interest. I was a bit worried I'd get hit with a pile of flack for not being appropriately reverent enough but I called it as I saw it. I think it might even have been better because I was unfamiliar with his other work; it got reviewed purely on its own merits. Had I read his 'better' stuff then I likely would have been more disappointed.

Gabe, that you would be recommending my book to someone else without even having finished it flatters me. I had been worried sick that it wouldn't live up to people's expectations after the first one. Will you let your son read that first? It doesn't really matter. I'd be very curious to see if the book works on its own with the short synopsis I include at the start.

I actually thought about Beckett when I started researching this piece and the way in later years he kept simplifying and simplifying. Borges was working with a limited palette because he was limited, having to dictate his work to another. I can, in part, see him enjoying the challenge. I suppose it's like Stravinsky's interpretation of jazz based on the sheet music that come into his possession which bore little relation to what he heard when he finally did get to hear it played live.

And, Art, thanks for the recommendations. I've added Fictions to my wish list and we'll see what Xmas brings; I have more than enough to keep me going until then.

Unknown said...

Jim: I will loan my son the first soon as I find it. You and Carrie know how my books are... when I set one down it can take me two years to find it again. I know it cannot be too far distant. I am on the case.

Used to be if I suggested he read a book it would never happen (his wife would read it)... but recently he picked up on the Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War that I gave him 10 years ago and it hit the spot for him. I think it dawned on him if I suggest a book might interest him there may be something to it.

Out on the LI South Fork along the road in a field, like in almost no place, there is a very large red metal 'modernist' sculpture. I keep saying it is the head of a rooster, he keeps saying, "What rooster. It is a deer head." We talk about what we each think it is and refuse to admit the other is right. So today I wanted to tell him about The Big Pointy Thing and he stopped me, "Hey, you said you were going to let me read the book. Be quiet."

Jim Murdoch said...

The 'Big Pointy Thing', Gabe, was actually a late addition to the book. It was a piece of modern sculpture where my daughter and her pals used to congregate and that's how they referred to it. Hope you manage to find Living with the Truth in that bomb site in which you work. It was only a year ago so there should only be a couple of hundred book on the top of it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your comment, Gustavo. Sorry to take so long to respond but your comment was awaiting moderation and I hadn’t checked there for months. (Google really could make it a bit clearer when comments need moderating.) Don’t worry about your English. I’m a Scot and our English leaves a lot to be desired. It’s been a while since I posted this. I really must find some time to read some more Borges. I know I have one book on my to-read shelf but I keep getting caught up with other things. Too many books, too little time.

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