jueves, 13 de octubre de 2011

Borges & Bioy Casares Draw Up a List of Lifelike Characters for Your Reading Delectation or at Least Mine

Although I was thinking about letting a couple of more days go by before plundering Bioy Casares' Borges diary for yet another almost completely readymade post, its literary shop talk is just too good not to share.  I hope you get a kick out of this.  The date: Sunday, January 15, 1956.  The setting: Borges' house, where Bioy Casares has gone in search of his friend and collaborator and finds that some sort of a "women's meeting" is in session.  The set-up: Bioy Casares has just penned a review of L.P. Hartley's 1955 A Perfect Woman in which he makes the claim, cited in a footnote but only touched on in the actual diary, that "Los personajes de Hartley no tienen la sólida realidad de algunos de Balzac, de Don Quijote, de la Luisa del Primo Basilio, de la Sanseverina de Stendhal, pero siempre son verdaderos" ["Hartley's characters don't have the solid reality of some of Balzac's characters, of Don Quixote, of Luisa from Cousin Basilio, of Stendhal's Duchess of Sanseverina, but they are always true"].  This critique naturally leads to a discussion with Borges of various writers' strengths and weaknesses at developing characters, and after some back and forth on Samuel Butler and Dostoevsky and Maupassant, the following list of "personajes verosímiles" [credible, plausible or what I have hopefully not too controversially translated as "lifelike" characters] emerges:

Pinkerton, de The Wrecker; el padre de The House with the Green Shutters de Douglas; el zapatero de Lament for a Maker; la heroína del Primo Basilio; la Sanseverina de La Chartreuse de Parme y Madame de Rénal de Le Rouge et le Noir; el doctor indio de A Passage to India y el bengalí que dice: "Suppose you prosecute" del "Cuento más hermoso del mundo"; don Quijote; Hamlet; Schomberg de Victory; Shylock; acaso el rey Lear (no Macbeth); Babbitt; Roy Richmond de The Adventures of Harry Richmond de Meredith; Watson y no Sherlock Holmes; los personajes de Maupassant; Martín Fierro; Grandet y Eugénie; le père Goriot; M. de Charlus; personajes de Shaw (el poeta y el marido, de Candida; Mrs. Dubedat de The Doctor's Dilemma); Jesús; el conde Fosco y el tío paralítico de The Lady in White; según mi padre, Félicité de "Un coeur simple" de Flaubert y la mujer que hay en El crimen del Padre Amaro.

[Pinkerton from The Wrecker; the father from Douglas' The House with the Green Shutters; the shoemaker from Lament for a Maker; Cousin Basilio's heroine; the Duchess of Sanseverina from La Chartreuse de Parme and Madame de Rénal from Le Rouge et le Noir; the Indian doctor from A Passage to India and the Bengali who says "Suppose you prosecute" from "The Finest Story in the World"; Don Quixote; Hamlet; Victory's Schomberg; Shylock; perhaps King Lear (not Macbeth); Babbitt; Roy Richmond from Meredith's The Adventures of Harry Richmond; Watson and not Sherlock Holmes; Maupassant's characters; Martín Fierro; Grandet and Eugénie; le père Goriot; M. de Charlus; Shaw's characters (Candida's poet and husband, Mrs. Dubedat from The Doctor's Dilemma); Jesus; Count Fosco and the paralytic uncle from The Lady in White [sic]; according to my father, Félicité from Flaubert's Un coeur simple and the woman that's in The Crime of Father Amaro.]

Perhaps inspired by that unexpected Jesus-Count Fosco segueway above, Borges and Bioy Casares then move on to the subject of "real characters who received their reality from books" ["personajes reales pero que recibieron realidad de libros"] like Dr. Johnson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whom the diary writer, obviously on a first-name basis with the philosopher, amusingly refers to only as "Jean-Jacques").  However, Bioy Casares then concludes, "muy pronto encontramos que la realidad parece venir, sobre todo, de que sabemos que fueron reales, y que no es ecuánime comparar personajes históricos con personajes ficticios" ["very soon we ran into the problem that their 'reality' seems to come, above all, from the fact that we knew they were real, and that it's not fair to compare historical characters with fictional ones"].  Discussion on lifelike characters over, it's back to business as usual for Borges and Bioy Casares for the diary entry mundanely ends: "Escribimos unos párrafos de nuestro cuento" ["We wrote a few paragraphs for our short story"].
Today's list comes courtesy of the as yet untranslated into English Borges by Adolfo Bioy Casares.  Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 2006, 154-155.

9 comentarios:

  1. A fascinating list. Interesting that from the whole of Proust, Charlus is the character they pick out as most believable. I think probably lots of readers view him as a caricature...not that real people never come off as caricatures of themselves. Same deal for Count Fosco! What a card that guy is.

  2. Oh, this is just what I'm writing about tomorrow. Fosco and Fairlie are the real characters in Woman in White. The hero and heroine are from novels. I am 100% with B & BC.

    Proust does have the Duchesse de Guermantes as well as Charlus. And Françoise.

    And they're spot-on about Forster's Prof. Godbole and the monstrous father in The House with the Green Shutters. The lifelikeness of the heroine of Cousin Basilio is extraordinary, too. What a good list.

    Now, what in the devil is The Lament for a Maker? An "Inspector Appleby" mystery. Huh.

  3. Great topic. And great that they were able to put together a list with characters from short tales as well as two-ton novels (Felicité in "Un coeur simple," for example - what a fantastic choice).

  4. *Emily: I don't know what kind of a mischievous sense of humor might be hiding behind some of these picks, but I can definitely see M. de Charlus as both caricaturish AND believable depending on the situation (like when Charlus lays the groundwork for hitting on Marcel all while claiming that he just wants a young man to disinterestedly share his cultured ways with). As for Count Fosco, he's such a card that you almost wish that he were real! Maybe that was the point Borges and Bioy Casares were getting at, what do you say?!?

    *Tom: What excellent synchronicity from you and Borges and Bioy Casares and Wilkie Collins--will now look forward even more eagerly to your post tomorrow! Where do you see Marian Halcombe fitting into the lifelike/non-lifelike part of the character spectrum, though? She's certainly more well-rounded a figure than Laura Fairlie, isn't she?

    *Scott: I've yet to read that Flaubert nouvelle, but almost everybody who's mentioned it to me the last few years has had nice things to say about it. Intriguing! Should try to get around to it one of these days, I guess, but in the meantime I'm looking forward to the next "great topic" Borges and Bioy Casares have in store for us all. Cheers!

  5. Marian is a generic adventure novel heroine, subdivision: plucky and resourceful. She doesn't faint all the time, a big plus. That she is far more interesting than Walter or her sister is not such a difficult creative achievement. Your old review of the novel is spot on.

  6. *Tom: Since it'd be rather rude to argue with somebody who said I was "spot on" about something, I will merely thank you for the two lines in the middle of your comment. LOL. Until your post tomorrow, I hope we can all agree that the art of character construction in particular and novel writing in general both improved when fainting and/or "the vapors" stopped playing such a large role in fiction!

  7. When I read Borges I thought it was Jose Borges. The discussion here is educative.

  8. Just devoured your post. And completely with Emily on the Charlus count. Mischievous humor indeed. Proust is rife with the incredible, the implausible characters where it is difficult to separate whether that be from Proust writing them as such or the almost magical occurrence of them seeming to write themselves (for they certainly aren't working on those novels!).

  9. *Nana: Borges' full name is Jorge Luis Borges, so you weren't really far off! He was a very interesting thinker as well as a writer, so I'm glad you found this discussion fruitful. Cheers!

    *Frances: I'd hoped that that unusual highlighting of M. de Charlus might pull some of the Proust fans out of the woodwork, so I'm so glad that you weighed in with a comment here. Loved hearing your thoughts about the incredible and maybe implausible characters in Proust and thinking about how they might have come to life as virtually self-written characters--what a lovely idea!