Suzanne Jill Levine is a noted translator of creative, innovative, adventurous Latin American Fiction from authors like Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. She’s also a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the general editor and co-translator of Penguin Classics’ five new volumes of nonfiction and poetry from widely respected Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: On Writing, On Mysticism, On Argentina, The Sonnets, and Poems of the Night. Her own book The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction has been recently reissued by Dalkey Archive. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes]
Purely as a reader of Latin American fiction, leaving aside all the issues of translation for one moment, where does Borges reside in the Latin American fiction map in your mind, relating to all the other authors you’ve read?
He has often been called the father of the Latin American novel. Certainly the new Latin American novel, as of the mid-20th century. I think that’s very correct; that’s a good way of putting it. I hate to use biological or patriarchal terms here, but he truly was such an amazing inventor, such an amazing adventurer in the world of literature, that his ideas, his concepts, his way into literature really inspired all these writers. He directly inspired García Márquez, but even the generation before that: Julio Cortázar, Bioy Casares. So many writers were impacted by Borges and his way of dealing with literature and writing.
What’s interesting about him is that he really was first a poet, and always considered himself a poet. I think his approach to writing, no matter whether it’s fiction, poetry, essays, is in some ways poetry. I think that’s what makes the Latin American novel what it was, so special, so innovative. It was how it was dealing with language, how it was renewing language. That’s what made it exciting, bringing in these obviously new genres like magical realism, of which Borges is definitely a precursor.
Borges inspired those older than him, he’s inspired so many younger, he continues to inspire, people haven’t stopped going back to him. He has a bigger audience than ever, arguably. Is it the poetry that causes this? Is it his use of language, specifically, that people find in Borges that draws them to it?
He really is, conceptually, a revolutionary, and I think he just invented a way of looking at literature that was always there, except he made us conscious of it. He made us aware of it. For example, people have said, “Well, Borges invented the World Wide Web.” In a way, you could say he has.
That’s a bold claim.
It’s a bold claim. Borges invented the notion that we are all inside the text. The text is everything and there’s no originality — of course, he’s one of the most original writers there is! He’s also so paradoxical. People are intrigued by the paradoxes that come up time and again in Borges. And yet, his paradoxes are as old as Socrates, and even older. It’s just that he knew how to bring all of culture in to the 20th century. At first, he kind of rejected it. In On Writing, my anthology, the very first statement is the Ultra Manifesto — remember, he was an Ultraist.
Two or three years after being an Ultraist, he rejected the posturing of the avant-garde, but he says here something I really think sums up who he is. He says, “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.” There, of course, he sums up all of realism, no? “Guided by the latter, art is redeemed, makes the world into its instrument and forges, beyond spatial and temporal prisons, a personal vision.” That’s Borges. This idea of this “personal vision”: he says here, “Let’s throw out everything and start anew,” but what he actually discovers is, “Let’s take in it all and start anew!” And that’s why people love him. They can always start from anywhere and start anew. I think that’s what is so Borgesian.
It can sound rarefied to someone who hasn’t read Borges. We talk about how much he’s getting into his works, and what sounds like very intellectual concepts he uses. Yet he touches such a wide range of readers. It seems like the way he uses these ideas and the way he uses these techniques couldn’t be that rarefied. How does he get such a wide appeal?
It’s true; it’s not that rarefied. It’s sort of the way he says things. People are suddenly struck by a new way of looking at things. It’s not so much what he says; it’s how he says it. Another text in On Writing, which nobody has read before in English — and even very few people in Spanish — is this 1926 text. Here, the guy was like 26, he was very young. It’s called “Stories from Turkestan”. He basically announces magical realism way before anybody was talking about it. And in the most concrete terms! This is what makes him delightful.
Look what he says here: “The essence of the stories from Turkestan is generosity, a virtue of the plains and the shepherds.” He goes on to say, “Time, in these chimerical stories of Turkestan, not only expands but has the loose shape of dreams.” It’s the way he makes language so concrete. Even though he’s writing prose, it’s poetry in the way he uses images in such a concrete way. I think he brings home these concepts with his taste for language, his ability to make language speak.
What was your first encounter with Borges’ work?
Way back. I went to Spain when I was a young student, and then when I got back to college my senior year, the professors were talking about Borges. This is, like, in the late sixties. I already was aware of Borges, like many of us who were studying Spanish and Latin American literature. But then I met this wonderful critic who became a very important influence in my early life as a literary critic, as a scholar, and as a writer, really. His name was Emir Rodriguez Monegal. He was a Uruguayan critic, also a professor at Yale, who really brought Borges home to all of us. He was somebody who discovered him at age fifteen. The first book I actually engaged with in a more specific way was an early work of fiction of his called The Universal History of Infamy. Which was hysterical, because it’s this tiny book with seven short stories, and he’s calling it the universal history of crime, basically! You have to be draw to this.
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