by Vlady Kociancich
For this second Spanish Lit Month 2014 overtime get together in a row (a quick reminder: the event has been held over and will run throughout the first half of August), I'd like to switch gears from review mode to library rat/literary history mode to bring you a few excerpts from Vlady Kociancich's warm, engaging "Borges y Bioy: libros y amistad" ["Borges and Bioy: Books and Friendship"], which is the transcription of a public lecture the Argentinean novelist and critic and longtime friend of Borges y Bioy (pictured with JLB in 1960 above) delivered one Tuesday night in 2006-2007 at the Jorge Luis Borges room of Buenos Aires' Biblioteca Nacional. How I wish I could have been there and downed some bottles of Quilmes and a couple of empanadas with one of those bookish, invariably über attractive porteñas afterward! In any event, Kociancich, who first met Borges and Bioy Casares at the beginning of the 1960s when she was a teenage student in one of the then 60-something Borges' Old English classes, starts things off by noting that "Borges siempre decía que la amistad es la gran pasión argentina" ["Borges always used to say that friendship is the great Argentinean passion"]. To corroborate this, Kociancich adds, Borges "no sólo podría haber tomado ejemplos de nuestra literatura, de sus muchos amigos, sino mencionar particularmente su amistad con Adolfo Bioy Casares, que duro más de cincuenta años y sin interrumpirse" ["not only could have offered examples from our literature or of his many friends but in particular by mentioning his friendship with Adolfo Bioy Casares, which lasted more than fifty years without interruption"] (279). An impressive amount of time by any standard, no? One of the things I liked best about Kociancich's talk was her ability to bring home the childlike enthusiasm Borges & Bioy Casares felt about spending time discussing books in each other's company--or what she calls "la envidiable juventud de su conversación" ["the enviable youthfulness of their conversation"]. "Esa larguísima amistad" ["That longlasting friendship"], she explains, was in reality "una larguísima conversación entre escritores que no perdería nunca lo mejor de la juventud: la curiosidad y la rebeldía" ["a longlasting conversation between writers who would lever lose the best things of all about being young: curiosity and rebellion"] (Ibid.). Naturally, a couple of the other things I liked best about the talk were the range and the quality of the anecdotes. Borges, for example, apparently "raramente salía de la literatura, que le parecía más real, en términos de comprensión del misterio que somos, que la ofrecida por la vida" ["rarely departed from the world of literature, which seemed more real to him--in terms of unraveling the mystery of who we are--than that offered by life"] (281). To illustrate the point, Kociancich tells us of the night she was reading Conrad's The End of the Tether out loud to her onetime teacher and of how a description of the lead character's penchant for cigarettes prompted this outburst from Borges: "Caramba, así que el pobre Capitán Whalley fumaba, como usted" ["Caramba, so poor Captain Whalley smoked just like you"]. According to Kociancich, with Borges one often felt as if "los personajes habían entrado en la sala, que desde la lectura compartían la conversación" ["the characters had stepped into the room, that they were a part of the conversation via the reading"] of a story (282). Elsewhere, Kociancich observes that it was probably not their likes but their dislikes that united the English literature-loving Borges and the French literature-loving Bioy Casares aesthetically as friends "en esa segunda patria que es la literatura" ["in that second homeland which is literature"] (287, a lovely phrase). Both rejected "la vanidad, ante todo" ["vanity above all"]. Ditto "cualquier esnobismo" ["any snobbery"]. In a wonderful follow-up to this, Kociancich remarks that Borges didn't hesitate to employ "su ingenio más perverso" ["his most perverse ingenuity"] to make fun of these traits, "una actitud que no era la más apta para conquistar simpatías o empujar una carrera literaria" ["an attitude which wasn't the most appropriate for eliciting sympathy or furthering a literary career"]. However, "también coincidían en que eso, la carrera literaria, era una afrenta a la literatura" ["they also agreed that the 'literary career' itself was an affront to literature"] (284). Being a writer was about the private act of writing and not the public art of self-promotion. Easier to say when you come from a background of privilege than of poverty, I suppose, but the point is still well taken. Before wrapping up, one of the things I really ought to mention is the attention Kociancich draws to the pre-media circus times in which Borges and Bioy Casares came of age as writers: "La sola idea de tener secretarios que hablaran en su nombre les parecía ridículo" ["Just the idea of having secretaries who would speak on their behalf seemed ridiculous to them"], she says. "Creo que Borges y Bioy nunca salieron de aquel tiempo, al menos psicológicamente, en que los escritores gozaban de un relativo anonimato. La exposición mediática, como la fama, les llegó a los dos en la vejez" ["I don't believe that Borges and Bioy ever left those times, at least psychologically, in which writers enjoyed a relative anonymity. The media exposure, like fame, came to both in their old age"] (285). But let's return to that "great Argentinean passion": friendship. Kociancich concludes her lecture with some touching final remarks on the supernatural conversation she can imagine taking place between her own friends Borges and Bioy in the hereafter. Together, "citando autores" ["citing authors"] and "recordando calles de Buenos Aires" ["remembering Buenos Aires streets"] and the like, the two old friends poke fun at the "pedantería del diablo" ["pompousness of the devil"] and at the "esnobismo de los ángeles" ["snobbery of the angels"] before finding one final irony in the midst of the imagined conversation. The set-up is exquisite. As is the payoff. Borges to Bioy: "Caramba. ¿No te parece raro verla a Vlady dando una conferencia sobre nosotros?" ["Caramba. Doesn't it seem strange to see Vlady giving a lecture about us?"] (288).
Borges y Bioy
Vlady Kociancich's "Borges y Bioy: libros y amistad," chapter 16 of 23 in the anthology of lectures La literatura argentina por escritores argentinos: narradores, poetas y dramaturgos, appears on pp. 279-288 of the volume coordinated by Sylvia Iparraguirre (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Biblioteca Nacional, 2009). An interview of Kociancich, conducted by Ángel Berlanga, appears after the talk transcription.