lunes, 15 de abril de 2013

Borges francófobo

"Borges francófobo"
by Juan José Saer
France, 1990

In anticipation of what I hope will prove to be a long-term commitment to bringing you more literary criticism and literary history to ooh and ah about here on Caravana de recuerdos, here's a quick, inaugural highlight reel of Juan José Saer's stupendous 1990 piece on fellow Argentine countryman Jorge Luis Borges.  Saer's "Borges francófobo" ["Borges, Francophobe" or "Francophobic Borges," take your pick], inspired by the 1986 publication of the Borges anthology Textos cautivos (a collection of book reviews and book talk Borges wrote from 1936-1939 as head of the "Foreign Books and Authors" section of the Buenos Aires-based "society" weekly El Hogar), is a short, smart, and often funny piece of essay writing that pleased me for the way it subverts the trusty book review format to draw attention to Borges' inordinate disdain for the giants of French literature (note: those who only know Saer from his excellent but abstruse novels may be surprised at how down to earth his literary criticism is).  For our purposes, at least three points Saer makes about JLB are worth repeating for readers without any Spanish.  First, I was tickled by Saer's almost trash-talking depiction of Borges' near "obsequious" Anglophilia.  "Su inclinación conocida por ciertos escritores de segundo orden (H.G. Wells, Chesterton, Leon Bloy) es complementada en esta antología por la exaltación o la mención de autores de tercero, de cuarto e incluso de ene-orden" ["His well known inclination for certain second-rate authors (H.G. Wells, Chesterton, León Bloy) is complemented in this anthology by the exaltation or mention of authors of third-rate, fourth-rate and even bottom-tier status"] (30-31).  Among the recipients of Borges' often dubious English-language esteem, Saer cites Ellery Queen and Mae West--whom he claims Borges praised for her contributions to "modern literature" and not to the art of film.  Second, I was equally amused by the way Saer links Borges' English-friendly literary preferences to Borges' intensely squeamish opposition to almost anything French.  As Saer puts it on pages 31-32 (ellipses added in the longer citation that follows), "una sola pasión puede compararse en intensidad a la anglofilia de Borges: su francofobia" ["only one passion can be compared in intensity to Borges' Anglophilia: his Francophobia"]:

Si no vacila en ser neutro con Mae West, complaciente con un tal Alan Griffiths (título de su novela: Of Course, Vitelli!), es implacable con Corneille, sangriento con Breton, desdeñoso con Baudelaire.  Llama a Isidore Ducasse "el intolerable conde de Lautréamont" y afirma que Rimbaud fue "un artista en busca de experiencias que no logró"....  A pesar de que ya estamos en 1939 no se encuentra, en las 338 páginas del volumen, la menor referencia a Gide o a Proust.  Dos autores se salvan de la hecatombe: Henri Duvernois, porque su libro "acaso no es inferior a los más intensos de Wells", y Robert Aron, autor de una novela llamada La Victoria de Waterloo, título que podría explicar el entusiasmo de Borges, que no se priva de ilustrar a sus lectores: "el título puede parecer paradójico en París, pero para nosotros, los argentinos, Waterloo no es una derrota".  A simple vista, adivinamos una especie de alergia a lo que Thomas De Quincey --uno de los maestros de Borges-- llamó "las normas parisinas en material de sentimiento".

[If he doesn't hesitate to be neutral regarding Mae West, kindly disposed to one Alan Griffiths (title of his novel: Of Course, Vitelli!), he is unrelenting toward Corneille, cruel with Breton, contemptuous toward Baudelaire.  He calls Isidore Ducasse "the intolerable Count of Lautréamont" and states that Rimbaud was "an artist in search of experiences that he did not achieve."...  In spite of the fact that we're already in the year 1939, there isn't the slightest reference to either Gide or Proust to be found in the 338 pages of the volume.  Two authors are saved from the bonfire: Henri Duvernois, because his book "perhaps is not inferior to the most vivid of Wells'," and Robert Aron, author of a novel by the name of The Victory at Waterloo, a title which might explain Borges' enthusiasm, although that doesn't prevent him from making this clear to his readers: "the title might seem paradoxical in Paris, but for us Argentineans Waterloo isn't a defeat."  At a glance, we can foretell a sort of allergy to what Thomas de Quincey--one of Borges' masters--called "the Parisian norms in sentimental matters."]

Finally, the third major highlight of "Borges francófobo" that I think is worth noting is the eye-popping crossover dribble Saer makes in between describing Borges' frequent irritability regarding Paul Valéry and the end of the essay where the critic contends that the author of Monsieur Teste was probably Borges' negative role model for the title character in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."  Although I won't take the time to share most of Saer's "evidence," I'll let him describe the gist of the argument at his leisure (34):

Ese cuento ha servido a muchos estudiosos para deducir de él la quintaesencia de la poética borgiana, su manifiesto sobre la figura del creador y de su concepción de la literatura.  En rigor de verdad, la idea que Borges tiene de la literatura es exactamente opuesta a la de Pierre Menard: su cuento es una satira de "las normas parisinas en materias de sentimiento" y el personaje principal una caricatura, o una reducción al absurdo, de Paul Valéry.  Comparar a Borges con su criatura sería, más que una equivocación crítica, una verdadera ofensa: para Borges, Pierre Menard es, en el major de los casos, un frívolo, y, en el peor, un plagio y un charlatan.  "Pierre Menard..." es uno de los hechos más curiosos de la literatura contempóranea: un texto al que la crítica, que sin embargo rara vez deja de percibir su intención satirica, se obstina en interpretar al revés de lo que el autor se ha propuesto.

[That short story has obliged many scholars to deduce the quintessence of Borgesian poetics from it--his manifesto on the creator figure and on his conception of literature.  Strictly speaking the truth, the idea that Borges has about literature is the exact opposite of what Pierre Menard has: his tale is a satire of "the Parisian norms in sentimental matters" and the main character a caricature, or a reductio ad absurdum, of Paul Válery.  Comparing Borges with his creation would be, more than just an error in criticism, a true offense: for Borges, Pierre Menard is, in the best of cases, a frivolous person, and, in the worst, a plagiarist and a charlatan.  "Pierre Menard..." is one of the most curious matters in contemporary literature: a text in which the critics, who rarely stop perceiving its satiric intentions, are however obstinate in interpreting it in the reverse way in which the author has proposed.

Whatever you make of Saer's argument here (I realize that it's difficult to assess through an intermediary, and I've intentionally left out a lot of other good stuff and/or contradictory evidence due to sheer lack of time), one of the most compelling ideas that I took away from it is Saer's contention that "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is "un arreglo de cuentas con la literatura francesa  --o con la idea que Borges se hacía en los años treinta de la literatura francesa" ["a settling of accounts with French literature--or with the idea of French literature that Borges had in the 1930s"] (36).  Saer mentions symbolism and Paul Valéry as Borges' particular targets before concluding that, "excepción hecha de Flaubert, de algunos versos de Verlaine y del inenarrable Leon Bloy, Borges consideraba la literatura francesa como artificial y frívola" ["with the exception of Flaubert, of some of Verlaine's verses, and of the inexpressible León Bloy, Borges considered French literature as artificial and frivolous"] (36).  The irony of all this?  According to Saer, it's the fact that Borges' work well post-"Pierre Menard" "comienza a ser apreciada en Francia en pleno auge del formalismo estructuralista y postestructuralista, que ha puesto de relieve, preferentemente, una version intelectualista de sus escritos" ["began to be appreciated in France at the peak of structuralism and post-structuralism, which has put in relief, preferentially, an intellectualized version of his writings"] (37).  Saer, for his part, was a nouveau roman fan who liked Borges' book regardless of its "dislates" ["nonsense"], "manías" ["manias"] and "extraños caprichos reunidos" ["collection of strange whims"]--saying that, as strange as it may seem, Textos cautivos deserves to be ranked among Borges' best on account of its "sensatez teórica" ["theoretical sensibleness"], its "gracia verbal" ["verbal charm/gracefulness"] and its "humor constante" ["constant humor"] (32).  Sounds like a good recommendation to me--and maybe it's about time to reread "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" while I'm at it.  That story, whatever its true meaning, never grows old, you know?


"Borges francófobo" appears on pages 30-37 of Juan José Saer's 1997 El concepto de ficción (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2012), my copy of which came in a whopping 3rd edition print run of--get this--only 500 copies.


27 comentarios:

  1. I really like when an artist in their own right engages in literary criticism, I find that one can learn a lot about both the subject and the critic.

    Based upon the passages that you have quoted, Saer's essay does indeed seem lively.

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    1. I used to be more on the fence about writers engaging in serious criticism about other writers, Brian, but I have long since come around to your point of view in large part for the very reason you mention here: "one can learn a lot about both the subject and the critic." Saer's essay is indeed lively as evidenced by the fact that even my watered-down summary of it seems to have gotten the usually mild-mannered Miguel up in arms about it!

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    2. Brian, I pretty much only read literary criticism written by actual fiction writers. They knew more, they have a more interesting relationship with the subject, they're clear, and don't hide behind incomprehensible fashionable jargon that immediately dates them.

      Borges, Calvino, Sena, Kundera, Eco - those for me are the only critics worth reading. Exceptions made to the great Mikhail Bakhtin, and Roberto Calasso.

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  2. Your constant re-excavation of the same territory is a rejoinder to gadflies like myself that blogs can become a passionate rejoinder to the shallow silken entanglements of the web and push us to really deepen our engagement with writers and their work. This makes literary criticism sound essential. No mean feat as I come out in a skin rash at the thought of reading any of the stuff. Too much, too young, as The Specials would say.

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    1. Thanks for your backhanded compliment about me going to the well too often, Séamus! All kidding aside, I think this is the first time anybody has ever namedropped the Specials on my blog, so that alone makes this post something of a success for me. Of course, there are all kinds of literary criticism and I myself am not particularly enamored of literary theory-centric criticism at this stage of the game; however, good criticism, whatever its nature or focus, increasingly seems to me to be just as capable of being essential, inspiring or rousing as a short story or a poem in terms of making one excited about reading/rereading/rethinking things in a very compressed format. Saer's essay is just one testament to that effect that can be produced.

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  3. With all due respect, I'm calling bullshit on Saer's thesis.

    Borges was a highly intellectual writer with very conservative tastes and a fondness for non-intellectual, marginal literature. His taste also tended mainly to 19th century authors he read in his youth. The 'second-rate' English writers he loves (and I think it's sheer ignorance to call Chesterton second rate) are no different from Leon Bloy, Marcel Schwob, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Cazotte, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and other hardly 'top-tier' French writers he promoted in his essays, articles and lists.

    I can't remember any mention of Proust, but if Saer is shocked that Borges doesn't care enough about avant-garde literature, I wonder what he makes of his put down of Finnegans Wake, arguing Lewis Carroll had done all those tricks before Joyce? This anti-intellectual bias was constant and coherent in his life - as Alberto Manguel reports, he didn't care much for Gabriel García Márquez either. Also, Borges includes André Gide's The Counterfeiters in his Personal Library.

    Other things in these quotes also seem coherent to me, if you happen to know Borges. Cruelty to Breton? Borges despised dada and surrealism, he makes that clear in his dialogues with Osvaldo Ferrari, why should he like surrealism's founder? And Count of Lautréamont? The precursor and patron saint of surrealism? What are the chances he'd give a fig about him? For him the 20th century had sacrificed beauty in favour of innovation; his poetry is remarkable for how conservative in form it is, because he preferred to capture a beautiful idea or verse than dazzle readers with verbal pyrotechnics.

    At a first glance, I don't think this is a good essay at all. Saer is judging Borges for not having the literary tastes he wants, instead of accepting Borges' tastes. Who is Saer to tell Borges which writers he should admire and champion? Everything about Borges, from his poetry to his tastes to his essays are incredibly coherent in their vision of his personal and very unusual aesthetics. If Saer can't accept Borges for who he was, it's a waste of his time blaming him for not being the writer he'd like him to be.

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    1. Miguel, I've done a disservice to Saer if you walk away from this post thinking he was an an enemy of Borges' or anything like that. I buried the comment near the end, but he did say that he thought Textos cautivos was one of Borges' best works. In another book of essays I have by him, he says that his three touchstones throughout his career as a writer have been Borges, Arlt, and Onetti. He was a fan of Borges'. That being said, I don't think there's anything wrong with him pointing out that Borges might have had an anti-French literary streak to go along with his pro-Anglo affinities. You don't have to agree with Saer, but it's not at all a matter of him not accepting Borges "for who he was" as a writer or "judging him for not having the literary tastes he wants"; to me, it's more like you or me ribbing a mutual friend who has an inexplicably crappy taste in movies or something along those lines. It is curious, isn't it, that Borges would rave about the unknown author who penned something called The Victory at Waterloo while ignoring Proust and badmouthing Baudelaire and many of the other commonly acclaimed movers and shakers of modern French literature? I think it's funny myself. Schwob, of course, is a good counterargument to Saer's thesis as is Gide's presence in that other book by Borges you mention, and even Saer admits that Borges says the occasional nice thing about Paul Valéry elsewhere and that all writers have their quirks in matters of tastes. Still, admit it, Borges was a Francophobe! Just kidding. By the way, I'll answer your Finnegan's Wake question in a separate comment because I want to make sure I leave myself enough time to search for and then translate the pertinent quote. À bientôt!

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    2. You don't have to agree with Saer, but it's not at all a matter of him not accepting Borges "for who he was" as a writer or "judging him for not having the literary tastes he wants"; to me, it's more like you or me ribbing a mutual friend who has an inexplicably crappy taste in movies or something along those lines.

      Richard, have you failed to realize that many of those 'crappy' writers I have read myself and liked too? You may wish to rethink your argumentative strategy if you want to win me over...

      ... ha ha, that was me being intensely serious.

      I never thought Borges' tastes required allowances or friendly ribbing. I've always found them honest, original and interesting. There's absolutely no showing off - he doesn't mind publicly admitting he doesn't understand Finnegans Wake, he doesn't pay lip service to the great modernists. That's so courageous and refreshing.

      Richard, have you read Schwob, Bloy, Garnett, Papini, Chesterton? Most of the 'second-rate' writers he recommends are quite interesting, and instead of bemoaning Borges' bad taste I prefer to praise Borges for revealing hidden gems that circumstances have kept from readers. I'm glad I finally encountered, after years of searching, Alan Griffith's 'Of Course, Vitelli!' again, that's a novel I'd kill to read, Borges' description makes it look like a comical masterpiece. And who knows, maybe he's right, maybe it deserves to be re-read and re-appraised.

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    3. Miguel, I'm glad to see we've moved from you being "mad" at Saer to you being "mad" at me. I can deal with that! As far as the "ribbing" about Borges' tastes goes (and again, that was my characterization rather than Saer's), I generally find Borges' likes and dislikes quite interesting and "honest" but I still don't find him entirely trustworthy when it comes to the French. I tend to side with Saer on that point, I guess, but I hold no ill will toward Borges or you if you guys would prefer to champion Of Course, Vitelli! or the Waterloo book as the standard-bearer of French lit rather than Swann's Way or Maldoror or Les fleurs du mal or whatever. I do like what I've read of Schwob so far, but I don't think I've ever read the other authors you mention. Doesn't mean I wouldn't want to read them some day, but I'm not necessarily in a hurry just because Borges thinks they're all great either. In any event, here's a belated answer to your Finnegan's Wake question if you or anybody else is still curious about Saer's comment. Saer quotes Borges as saying Finnegan's Wake is a "concatenación de retruécanos cometidos en un inglés onírico y que es difícil no calificar de frustrados y incompetents" ["chain of puns committed in an oneiric English which is difficult not to qualify as failed and incompetent"]. Saer merely adds that, in the face of such an exacting standard set for Joyce, it's interesting to note how much "admiración, benevolencia o imparcialidad" [admiration, benevolence or impartiality"] Borges bears for writers like "Ellery Queen, Louis Golding, Countee Cullen, Eddna Ferber [and even] Mae West" (31). That's not too misguided a critique, is it?

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    4. I don't see what's so hard to understand. Borges liked books with story; he likes detective novels, mystery, horror, the supernatural. Borges took his clear and straightforward style from the great 19th century storytellers - Haggard, Kipling, Stevenson, Wells - why would he care about a plotless string of puns like Finnegans Wake? Like I wrote before, it's totally coherent with his vision.

      A while ago I posted excerpts from Borges's conversations with Ferrari, where he discusses Kafka and Joyce. Borges makes it very clear where he stands on 'verbal games':

      http://storberose.blogspot.pt/2012/09/borges-on-kafka-shakespeare-joyce-and.html

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    5. Assuming you're not just yanking my chain at this point, Miguel, your point isn't hard to understand at all. It's just that not everybody would privilege Borges' love for "the story" as much as you claim he did--otherwise, we might all be reading Jack London novels right now, you know? I think one of Saer's mostly hinted at points is how ironic Borges' dislike for much French literature is given that (and now it's me talking rather than describing Saer's argument) much of Borges' best work is cerebral and "modernist" from the viewpoint of its openendedness rather than story-centric like the "straightforward" writers Borges claimed to love so much. He was more "French" that way rather than "Victorian British" if you will. In any event, thanks for your passionate defense of Borges' reading interests; we can take on his conservative politics next time out--that should be a fun one!

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    6. I certainly couldn't live on a diet of Jack London books, and I doubt Borges could either. It is an extraordinary irony that he was first discovered by the French rather than the spiritual country, England. This reminds me of Fernando Pessoa, who was discovered in France, Spain and Italy but had a hard time being accepted in England, although that had been his wish ever since he wrote poetry.

      Still I think we make too much of Borges' modernity and intellectualism. I think his stories are first and foremost wonderfully entertaining stories, tailor-made to book lovers. I don't think, like others do, that Borges was a writer's writer. I think he was first a writer's reader, then a reader's writer, and maybe a writer's writer. As someone who's struggled with Joyce, Sterne and Fuentes, I can say I never had difficulties reading and enjoying Borges.

      So for me the greatest irony is that Borges, for all his clarity and evident pleasure in writing science-fantasy, was discovered by the same people who invented the nouveau roman and deconstructionism. Why he appealed to them is what I'd like to know.

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    7. Miguel, interesting to hear about that connection between Borges and Pessoa. I didn't realize that was the case with the latter (i.e. wishing to be accepted in England). I'll prob. be focusing on some of Borges' nonfiction later in the year, but our discussion over the last couple of days has naturally made me want to finally finish Ficciones and return to Bioy Casares' Borges diary that I've been reading off and on for forever. Also, I'll let you know if I run across anything explaining why the deconstructionist crowd fell in love with him--however, he obviously appealed to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.

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  4. Very ooh-ey and ah-ey post. Love it! And on a totally digressive note, I was rooting for Angel Cabrera in the Master's yesterday, and Jim and I got into it over whether I was in favor of the Angentine or the Angentinian. Care to weigh in on that debate?

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    1. Thanks, Jill, but I hope you were directing the ooh-ey and the ah-ey accolades to Saer for his criticism and not the author of the post about the ooh-ey and the ah-ey stuff. I'm barely just a spectator here! As far as your debate question, I much prefer "Argentinean" but sometime use "Argentine" just to mix things up. :D

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  5. thanks for intro richard,all the best stu

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    1. You're welcome, Stu--by the way, I recommend giving Saer's novels a try if you ever run across one. The ones I've read so far have all ranged from quite good to excellent.

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  6. That Borges bit about Finnegans Wake is awfully close to Nabokov's judgment.

    I took a good part of Saer's argument ironically. He is exploring a stance, or pitting one stance against another. He is not necessarily sincere, just as I assume Miguel's attack on critics-as-such is a provocation, since he does, after all, read literary criticism on book blogs.

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    1. Tom, is Saer "exploring a stance, or pitting one stance against another"? Definitely. Is he doing it "ironically"? Probably, but who can say how much? Ditto for Miguel's "provocation," but at least we can still ask Miguel about that. P.S. I haven't read much of Joyce, but I did read a lot of Ellery Queen as an adolescent. I might be more of a Borgesian reader than Miguel suspects, but please don't let him in on that secret!

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    2. I think book blogging shares many of the best qualities of literary criticism by writers: lack of jargon, genuine love, no secret ideological agendas. No one in the circles I move in is using books, which become secondary utensils in this context, to prove his allegiance to whatever fad is running rampart in the corridors of academia, whether it be deconstructionism, gender studies, Marxist theory, etc. In book blogging, it's just a passionate reader, a book and a lot of common sense.

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  7. My personal favourite comment on Finnegan's Wake (or at least I took it as such) was Joyce's saying, having finished the Wake, that his favourite short story was How Much Land Does a Man Need? by Tolstoy. I think he sensed that ambition had overstretched achievement.
    After meeting Joyce Frank O'Connor said that he thought Joyce had a form of associative mania. Joyce and he discussed Cork, where O'Connor and Joyce's father were from and Joyce proudly showed him a picture of the city framed in, you guessed it, cork, which Joyce had gone to great lengths to have made.
    My target for this year is to read Finnegans Wake so that I can be pretentious with the best of them, but I have to admit to some trepidation, having tried and failed before. However, I've read and love all his other works.

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    1. Séamus, if you want some company for your Finnegan's Wake read, please let me know--I might be up for it later in the year if the timing's right. I hope to give Ulysses a shot first, though--been a looong time since I read any Joyce (prob. right around the date of release of that Undertones album you just reviewed!). Loved your two Joyce anecdotes, by the way.

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  8. Great post and great, intense discussion above. For me, Borges's literary criticisms/essays can best be enjoyed as fiction, and vice versa. Even his reviews of fake books have the authority of a first rate critic. Borges may be too much of a multiculturalist/internationalist to bother with categories like "French literature".

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    1. That's true, he admired Japanese, Chinese, Italian, French, Portuguese, US, British, Spanish, Belgian literature. Although he clearly identified more with Anglo-American literature, certainly because his father was the son of an English immigrant, had a library full of English-language books which were young Borges' first readings, and because he was taught at home by an English teacher.

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    2. Rise, thanks--it was a lot more animated a discussion than I would have anticipated, both in terms of the number of people leaving comments and the raging hormones level of Borges enthusiasm on display. A pleasant surprise! Borges the Critic does seem to be underrated--except by his fans, who clearly know better. :D

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  9. I see Saer stole my ideas on Pierre Menard; he must have read my post.

    A lot of Borges' second-rate writers are also notable for being fine practitioners of the short story - particularly the short story in the old Arabian Nights understanding of the concept.

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    1. Obooki, don't you hate how people from the past keep stealing ideas from us people of the present? Annoying! Obviously, I need to look into this "second-rate" writer thing to see whether Saer or you and Borges and Miguel are correct in your appraisals of them (bribes, in pint-size or six-pack formats, would naturally help me decide which team I'm on). Cheers!

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