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On Writing

Jorge Luis Borges

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To purchase On Writing

Title: On Writing
Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Genre: various
Written: (Eng. 2010)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: On Writing - US
On Writing - UK
On Writing - Canada
  • These pieces were originally published between 1921 and 1985; most previously appeared in Selected Non-Fictions (also: The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986)
  • These pieces were translated by a variety of translators
  • Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Suzanne Jill Levine

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Our Assessment:

A- : good, varied -- if still too limited -- selection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 21/1/2011 Martin Schifino
Wall St. Journal . 20/10/2010 Alexandra Cheney

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is nowhere near as varied, or as well selected, as The Total Library. And compared to the earlier volume, it is deficient in two key respects. It lacks an index, which is unforgivable for a writer who quotes constantly and constantly recycles quotations; and it is not buttressed by an insightful introduction, which means that an ideal opportunity to appraise Borges the critic has been missed." - Martin Schifino, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       On Writing collects a variety of pieces of Borges "on what writers do and what writers are", as Suzanne Jill Levine puts it. There are seven sections, on subjects such as translation, 'The Critic at Work', and 'The Perfect Plot', and a total of thirty-eight pieces. It's a bit of a hodgepodge (with five different translators having a hand at it) -- and, unfortunately, much of the material is familiar, most of it having appeared in the already very selective Selected Non-Fictions; only ten of the pieces are new translations.
       Among the newly translated pieces is the first one, the 'Ultra Manifesto' which Borges subscribed to in his very early years. Some of this is typical tired youthful stuff -- "Our audacious and deliberate credo is not to have a credo" -- but there are also some nice ideas here that give some insight into the young author's thinking, beginning with the opening statement:

     Two aesthetics exist: the passive aesthetic of mirrors and the active aesthetic of prisms. Guided by the former, art turns into a copy of the environment's objectivity, or the individual's psychic history. Guided by the latter, art is redeemed, makes the world into its instrument, and forges -- beyond spatial and temporal prisons -- a personal vision.
       Borges' prism-approach continues to apply, both in his reading and, for example, attitude towards translation. He always makes clear his preference for the refracted and diffuse rendition, rather than the picture-perfect, reality (or other) mirroring representation.
       In 'The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader' he warns against the supposed perfection afforded by style, where every word and representation is exact, precise, and correct:
The perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all. Changes in language erase shades of meaning, and the "perfect" page is precisely the one that consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away. On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version.
       Among the most interesting pieces are those on translation, with Borges endorsing a very free-handed approach -- though it should be noted that, for example, in offering his thoughts on the subject he sees fit to mention that he is: "of the opinion the even poetry is translatable" (something that, in the usual debate about translation, is more or less taken as a given). Among the nicely-made points Borges is offers is this demolition of the usual hard-sell of the wonder of the translated work:
Delight in the faraway, a homey voyage through time and space, the wardrobes of foreign places, all are promised to us by the literary translations of ancient works, a promise that generally remains in the prologue. The announced purpose of truth makes the translator a charlatan since to maintain the strangeness of what he's translating, he finds himself obliged to thicken the local color, to roughen the rough edges, to sweeten the sweetness, and to emphasize everything including the lie.
       In some areas the mix of pieces isn't quite as satisfying: 'The Critic at Work' only offers a sliver of Borges' critical pieces, for example. A piece on 'Paul Valéry' is just one in a series of 'capsule biographies' Borges wrote (and one already familiar from the Selected Non-Fictions ...), and while it is arguably the most 'writerly' among them it is still immensely frustrating to know that so many more of these (and Levine's endnotes usefully provides a list of all of them) remain unavailable in English.
       The pieces, ranging from the very beginning of Borges' career to near the end, do offer a good overview of Borges as writer and reader -- and it's fascinating to be reminded how set in his ways he already was early on, as in the 1927 piece -- when he still had some six decades of reading ahead of him, and long before blindness imposed any limitations on him ! -- where he admits:
I must confess (not without remorse and conscious of my deficiency) that I reread with the pleasure of remembering and that new readings do not enthrall me.
       On Writing is a good, insightful collection, but there's too little here, and too little that is new; it amounts to a bit more than just re-packaged older stuff (and hence Borges-fans will want to add it to their libraries), but not much. With so much of Borges' non-fiction still untranslated, a more generous selection -- or, better yet, that long, long overdue collected-works edition -- would have been welcome. Enough with yet another slim collection of 'selected' non-fiction: give us all of it !

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 June 2010

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On Writing: Jorge Luis Borges: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was awarded the 1961 Prix Formentor, as well as the Jerusalem Prize. A talented poet and essayist he is best known for his short fiction.

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