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THURSDAY, 01 MARCH 2012 09:36

The Borges Centenery Circus

The following is extracted and adapted from the introduction to the second edition of The Lesson of the Master, a memoir and essays on Borges and his work, published by the Friday Project in January this year.

 

In the closing year and a half of the past century Buenos Aires and the entire Argentine literary scene rode high on a tsunami of euphory over the mammoth celebrations to commemorate the Borges centenary. The affair, designated el año Borgeano – the Year of Borges – was arranged to span twelve months.

        The festivities began on the twenty-fourth of August 1998, the date of the master’s ninety-ninth birthday, with an evening of ‘anecdotes and testimony’ at Buenos Aires’s San Martín Cultural Centre. Here, Borges was remembered by friends and – most incongruously – by politicians, a breed he held in utter contempt.

        Two days later, as reported in the pages of La Nación, a book to herald the Year of Years was launched at the city’s Museum of Decorative Arts. The volume, an illustrated edition of El Aleph, Borges’s best collection of stories, was an extravaganza of bookmaking. Twelve years in production, the tome was limited to twenty-five copies and was on sale for $25,000. The artwork employed, among other techniques, water-colour, etching, lithography, pencil, oil, and acrylic. The enterprise was masterminded by two Argentine magnates – one the founder of a ski resort and the other an ex-industrialist in metals. La Nación went on to describe the book as ‘unique of its kind because each copy has been painted in an exclusive way, leaf by leaf. No one of the 4,000 pages that make up the edition is like any other.’

        It was a case of life imitating art. A few years earlier, Borges had devised a Book of Sand consisting of an infinite number of pages of which none was the first and none the last. The volume bore countless small illustrations two thousand pages apart, but no one of them could be found twice. Borges dubbed his creation monstrous, ‘a nightmarish object, an obscene thing’.

 

In 2003, in the wake of this year-long apotheosis, Buenos Aires was still basking in the heady afterglow of Borges’s deification. It was at this time that my book, translated by Marcial Souto as La lección del maestro, appeared on the scene. Several River Plate reviewers lost no time in rounding on me. To them, my essays laid a heretical claim to my having sat at the right hand of God. That was of course both absurd and impossible; the Borges I had written about was the Borges of several decades earlier, who was merely a god-in-waiting.

        Something of this same resentment seemed also to rub off on English reviewers, who did not want to believe that I could have played the part I described in Borges’s life. My memoir about this, ‘In Memory of Borges’, was written from jottings in notebooks of the period. In their breezy shorthand I wanted to reflect the rush of our lives, of our compressed and packed days. I also wanted to provide examples of the sort of playful irony and humour that Borges and I shared and that were his hallmarks. This somehow rankled. When I wrote, meaning just the opposite, that a certain article in a Buenos Aires weekly was about me and not about Borges, the essay was branded ‘quite transparently a work of aggrieved limelight seeking.’ Unfortunately the reviewer had missed the joke.  I had never had to seek the limelight, because from the very outset of my career with Borges I had been thrust squarely into it.

        Other reviewers were more overt. ‘Some Borges aficionados are irritated (to put it mildly)’, reported one, ‘that di Giovanni’s association with Borges developed from the role of passive translator to active collaborator.’ Borges himself had no such qualms. He once told an audience, ‘When we attempt a translation, or re-creation, of my poems or prose in English, we don’t think of ourselves as being two men. We think we are really one mind at work.’ For ‘irritated’, perhaps ‘envious’ would have been the better word choice – again the right-hand-of-God syndrome.

        Someone else found the book ‘burdened with grudges’ and complained that I had ‘scores to settle with executors, editors, translators and academics, who are accused of being mean-minded, middling, incompetent and obfuscating respectively.’ On one of these counts I do bear a grudge, and why should I not have aired it? Borges’s executor refused to honour his word; I was informed by the American publisher of his fiction that ‘the estate would not allow us to republish Borges under the old . . . terms.’ On the spot, my formal contractual agreements of twenty or more years were unilaterally declared null and void. Decades of my work, a significant portion of it also Borges’s, had been consigned to the dustbin.

        I have not been the only person incensed by this turn of events. Many readers of Borges also feel cheated. Susan Sontag took the trouble to write to me that ‘As a fervent Borgesian, I purchased the Viking Penguin three volumes the moment they came out. And it was obvious to me, just reading here and there among old favorites . . . that the whole enterprise was incoherent and indigne. Contemptible. A travesty.’

       Nor was the criticism restricted to my work with Borges. My book contained a short essay called ‘A Translator’s Guide’. An Argentine reviewer berated me for not naming the errant translators quoted in the text. But my purpose was not to blacken the reputation of any individual, only to draw attention to certain common failings and pitfalls that plague most prose translation. As stated in the piece, I was attempting to throw a lifeline to monolingual publishers’ editors and, possibly, to the apprentice translator.

 

Readers of ‘Borges and His Autobiography’, another of the book’s essays, must be let in on something that I deliberately omitted the first time round. The Barcelona firm that tried to publish a translation of the autobiography without my permission was forced to lock horns with me in a protracted lawsuit. They did not dispute that I owned fifty per cent of the said work but claimed that Borges had made me a gift of it. Of necessity they held that I was not its co-author. (At stake in this distinction – for them – was the matter of my damages.) María Kodama, executor of the Borges estate, waded in with an affadavit stating that it did not seem to her that I had co-written the essay. Why should it have seemed so to her? When the piece was composed in 1970 she was far from occupying centre-stage in Borges’s life and had no idea what he and I were up to in our daily work sessions.

       The Spanish publisher’s claims were all the more bizarre when set alongside the introduction to the book by its translator, the Latin-American professor Aníbal González. He pointed out that the autobiography ‘is the product of a collaboration with another writer, the translator di Giovanni. It is, then, not just a text written in another language but also in part, literally, by someone else.’ To close this sordid episode on a sunny note, let me report that the Spanish Supreme Court eventually found in my favour. 

       It was unfortunate but working with Borges, as I came to learn, proved a dangerous occupation. On many occasions the role aroused the envy of erstwhile friends, who turned on me overnight. Rumours and lies about my relations with Borges spread like wildfire. Gossip was set out as fact, and nasty, outlandish things were bandied about without any details being checked or corroborated or any of the perpetrators bothering to ask for my side of events.

       In one instance, on the strength of one word, my work – a dozen or so volumes of stories and poems – was  dismissed as hopelessly misrepresenting Borges. Stephanie Merritt, gunning for me in the Observer, said my prose ‘was artless to a degree that makes you wonder how Borges ever put his own work into this man’s hands.’ By coincidence, Sebastian Shakespeare, in the Literary Review, also found my prose clumsy and wondered ‘why Borges entrusted his masterpieces to di Giovanni’s safekeeping’, which according to him was like entrusting a precious Ming vase to a chimpanzee. Neither reviewer seems to have been aware of the fact that my translations of Borges were written in full collaboration with him.

       With English reviewers one never knows to what extent they are merely attempting to be clever. In Merritt’s case she could not have read past p. 56 of my book, but she certainly managed to display some impressive erudition about famous literary mentor relationships; more than half of her review roamed from Boswell-Johnson to Theroux-Naipaul.

        One would never have expected the extravagance of the Borges centenary to have reached these shores. Alas, it did.     

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