by Juan José Saer
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.