by Hattie Hammans
|Jorge Luis Borges|
Artifice is teasingly apparent throughout the work of Jorge Luis Borges, frequently leading the narrative and twisting itself to imitate other voices or stories. Supposed borders between reality and imagination are persistently blurred, contorted, and elegantly confused. It is unsurprising that Borges, the Argentine author of ‘Ficciones’ and ‘Artificios’, was meticulous as a writer, composing draft after draft for each paragraph; his sparse yet erudite prose, even in translation, as John Stark describes, “makes his work seem eerie and unreal”, highlighting his playful awareness of his fiction’s absurdity and indeed, unreality. Vladimir Nabokov, a contemporary of Borges, similarly exploited the idea of ‘artifice’ in his work. However, in comparison, Nabokov’s style is elaborate, at times richly ornate, concocting an artificiality through allusion, a linguistic playfulness, typified through recurring devices such as puns. The closest parallels between the authors indeed lie in what Patricia Merivale described as their “flaunting of artifice”; the broadest stylistic trait that ties their work together in their ‘irrealidad’ (as Borges would call it) is the trope of the imaginary book, or the ‘inner manuscript’. The unreal literature in the works of both Borges and Nabokov draws attention to the parallels between the ‘imagined’ and the ‘real’. This trope pulls the reader into further fictive realms; ultimately working as a metafictional device that reminds the reader of the entire work’s nature as an artefact itself. The writers play with these ‘meta-conventions’ of their literature through their narrators and parodies, and even by constructing the stories to function on multiples levels of interpretation. This delight in metafictional devices becomes, in both author’s work, a theme in itself.
‘Suave’ Dr John Ray, Jr. ‘pens’ the foreword to Nabokov’s novel Lolita. Written by a fictional editor, the 3 page long, erudite introduction frames Humbert Humbert’s ‘remarkable memoir’. This fictional scaffolding alerts the reader to the fact that Humbert Humbert himself wrote the manuscript that forms the weight of the novel. Furthermore, the prologue acknowledges that the book was written in his weeks of ‘legal captivity’ before his death from coronary thrombosis. This transforms the novel into Humbert’s ‘Confession of a White Widowed Male’, which stimulates the reader’s justified questioning of the reliability of Humbert Humbert’s self-conscious narration. The ‘found manuscript’ of Lolita is Nabokov’s opportunity to bring into focus the nature of storytelling, and the inevitable ‘unreality’ of such narratives. Attention is brought to the ‘writing’ of the tale, by Nabokov providing a frame for its narrative existence. Of course, through Humbert’s consistent return to the theme of writing itself (For example, page 40, ‘I jotted down each entry in pencil (with many erasures and corrections)’), the fiction is self aware: Nabokov never lets the borders between reality and imagination become too well defined.
In a remarkably similar fashion, Borges’ short story El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan opens with a short foreword-like introduction, which explains that of “the statement which follows”, “the two first pages… are missing”. This statement or manuscript, which goes on to comprise the remainder of the story, is therefore explicitly presented as an artefact; “dictada, releída y firmada poor el doctor Yu Tsun, antigun catedrático de inglés en la Hochschule de Tsingtao” (“Dictated, reread and signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, a former professor of English in the Hochschule at Tsingtao”). Borges does not avoid the opportunity to make the document seems unreal, or at least obscured, by its incomplete nature. In typical Borgesian fashion, however, there are further complex riddles relying on easily overlooked, yet significant details. Yu Tsun is a character borrowed from Tsao Hsue-Kin’s 1791 novel Hung Lu Meng, which is mentioned in the text. As D.L Shaw suggests, “this fact re-emphasises his unreality as an active human being”, undermining the pseudo-authenticity of the ‘introduction’. Paradoxically, however, it could be argued that Borges’ mischievous, hidden intimations of the real world are an attempt to draw his literature closer to reality. Borges is a ‘stoic artificer’ trying to make his ‘book mirror the world’. However, these “disturbingly effective philosophical-fantastic tales” merely seem to reinforce the fact that ‘la irrealidad… es el condición del arte’. (Unreality is the condition of art’)
Jaromir Hladík’s unfinished play ‘Los Enemigos’ (‘The Enemies’) of ‘El Milagro Secreto’ (The Secret Miracle’ ) is perhaps a less explicit example of the imaginary ‘book’. In this case, an imagined ‘drama en verso’ is merely explained by the unidentified narrator, (perhaps Borges himself). Crucially, it was uncompleted when the author of the play and protagonist of Borge’s story, Hladík, was arrested and sentenced to death. In the supernatural plot twist of the story, God grants Hladík’s wish to to be given a single year in which to complete the work, in the moment before his death. Present time is ‘stopped’, in a Borgesian moment of eternity, in which Hladík can achieve fulfillment by completing his play. However, when the year is up, time resumes and the drama dies with him. The story explores the contrast between the search for finality via creative work, and its inevitable frustration. Borges signals the theme of the story through the mention of the secret tower, a symbol within his writing for futility and circularity. This explicit use of symbolism, and even the focus on completion and futility are examples Borges playful reference to artificiality within his texts. Los Enemigos is a work of imagination inside a work of imagination, which is connected with Hladík’s situation by the fact that it takes place in Kubin’s mind only (the central character of the play). ‘Hladík’s death in the moment of his creative fulfilment are of obvious negative significance’, suggests D. L Shaw: Borges seems to be undermining the self-justification that Hladík achieves by implying the futile nature of writing itself.
Nabokov explores a similar theme in his Novel Pale Fire, as John Shade is murdered after writing line 999 of the fourth Canto. Kinbote writes in the Foreword “I shall even assert… that there remained to be written only one line of the poem which would have been identical to line 1”, paradoxically revealing that the inner artefact of the novel is uncomplete, and that Kinbote was no authority over Shade’s ‘true’, calculated structure of the poem. The trope of the ‘unfinished’ manuscript is perhaps the ultimate symbol of artifice: what reader can read it without wondering the ‘author’s’ intention for the work, and enjoy it despite its incomplete nature? In Pale Fire, of course, the poem stubbornly maintains a life of its own; it juxtaposes its own New England realism with Kinbote’s opulent fantasy. Kinbote’s commentary becomes confession, in a similar fashion to Humbert’s of Lolita; it becomes an opportunity for self-justification, and unconscious self-revelation. Pale Fire is perhaps the most intricate and sophisticated example of the imaginary book. The novel appears to be a poem of 999 lines, attributed to John Shade, with a critical commentary and an index. The plot appears through the “elaborate exegesis” of Charles Kinbote, the appropriating editor. An intellectual vertigo is created through the counterpoint between poem and commentary, as the two internal authors seem to wrestle for dominance over the text, most evidently where Kinbote makes consistent claims of where in the poem he has exerted his influence (“I could make out the outlines of some of my images in the shape his genius might give them”).
Kinbote’s commentary is a “wild intensification of the worst imaginable excesses of scholarship”, and its absurd failings contribute to both the characterisation of the narrator and its metafictive qualities. The vain Kinbote, (in some readings, simply functioning as a mask for the Russian scholar Botkin), fails to understand in his notes the obvious in the poem; furthered by his egoistic insistence on his own themes, at the expense of the putative author of the poem, John Shade. Nabokov, the ever playful ‘poet-conjuror’ never lets us forget the absurdity of this structure. J. Morris explains in Genius and Plausibility: Suspension of Disbelief in Pale Fire that the unreliable, explicitly myopic and digressive “Great Beaver” is Nabokov’s exploration of the nature of scholarship: “The question of just how texts come to be written and presented to the public is a central thematic concern in Pale Fire, and both Shade and Kinbote demonstrate… different variations on this theme”. Pale Fire, the novel, (as explored in Brian Walter’s Synthesizing Artistic Delight: The Lesson of Pale Fire,) seems to comprise an “extended commentary on the nature of reading”, which never lets the reader escape its self-conscious literariness. It is important to note that Borges called his short stories ‘notas sobre libros imaginarios’, or ‘Notes on imaginary books’: it seems that neither author, in their writings, were able to avoid the realm of text, of scholarship or literature. The style of these writers embody the postmodernist aesthetic: playfulness is at the heart of Pale Fire, Lolita and Ficciones. The pseudo scholasticism of ‘Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain’ (Examination of the works of Herbert Quain) reflects Borges’ interest in irony and parody: Shown through the contemptuous florishes, such as multiple literary references (to books that don’t exist), and the ultimate self important smirk of ‘Yo cometí la ingenuidad de extraer Las Ruinas Circulares, que es una de las narraciones del libro El Jardin de senderos que se bifurcan’ (‘I was ingenious enough to extract “The Circular Ruins,” which is one of the stories in my book The Garden of Forking Paths.’). Borges seems intent to undercut every idea of storytelling and novel writing, rendering all meaning unstable by its dependence on arbitrary, or ultimately fictional signifiers (such as the referenced, yet fictional books). He parodies his own voice, by writing through this cool, erudite persona (who indulges in pompous criticisms of Quain’s work such as ‘no admirables por las virtudes de la pasion’/hardly admirable for their strength of passion’). Borges consistently brings ‘la irrealidad’ into his writing through pastiche and parody. For example, the imitation of the detective story, most famously in ‘La muerte y la brújala’(‘Death and the compass’) subverts convention by both placing the detective Lönnrot as the investigator and the victim, and allowing the villain to take the detective’s role of explaining the true story. Borges as the illusionist is perhaps his finest ‘flaunting of artifice’.
Borges has been said to build a “world of shadows” in his fiction, and it is the parable of ‘La Biblioteca de Babel’ [“The Library of Babel”] which seems to embody Borges’ “aventura indefinida/Insensata y antigua”(‘indefinite, sensless and ancient adventure’). The library contains every conceivable combination of twenty-five symbols, and stretches out perhaps to the size of the universe itself (‘Yo afirmó que la Biblioteca es interminable”/I declare that the library is endless’). The library’s bookshelves contain ‘(“todo lo que es dable expresar: en todos los idiomas”/All that is able to be expressed, in every language’). Borges’ obsession with the formless and chaotic, explored in his rational and horrid tales, reflects his philosophy: ‘Artifice, the realist thing we can know, is the only thing that can make reality endurable’. The Argentinean’s existential bewilderment is qualified by the humour of his short stories, but he uses an empirical to answer his own questions: Borges wrote that “nos hemos acercado a la metafísica: unica justificación y finalidad de todos los temas” (We have approached metaphysics: the sole justification and end of all themes). Nabokov would not agree with this solution, this ‘purpose’ for artifice: As Merivale argues, the ‘heroes’ of Nabokov’s fictions continue ‘projecting fantasies simply because they must’, and exist merely for the ‘aesthetic conjurors fun of it’. The artifice is explored for different ends: where Borges chases the tales into their disturbing, futile conclusions, Nabokov the stage-manager revels in the instability of language, never allowing his actors to escape the unreal realm of storytelling.
This article was shortlisted for the Ithaka Prize.
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