Idler Academy course tutor Henry Eliot unravels the work-shy genius of Jorge Luis Borges
A writer’s work is the product of laziness,’ declared Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian librarian. ‘[. . .] A writer’s work essentially consists of taking his mind off things, of thinking about something else, of daydreaming.’
Cultivate your imagination through inactivity, he advises, before you write anything down. And don’t write too much. Borges did as little writing as possible. His short stories are impressively short: the longest is a mere nineteen pages; some are less than one. Writing an entire book he considered ‘a laborious madness’.
Borges preferred a more efficient system: he imagined the books he might write, pretended they already existed and wrote brief summaries. Here are some of my favourite books that Borges never wrote:
The God of the Labyrinth, by Herbert Quain, is a murder mystery in which the detective’s solution is wrong. The reader is encouraged to reread the book and deduce the true murderer. In 1970, the author Colin Wilson wrote a 300-page mystery novel called The God of the Labyrinth, inspired by Borges’s fictional title.in ‘A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain’ (1941), 6 pages
The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, by the Bombay lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali, is a novel in which a law student commits a murder and then travels around India seeking spiritual enlightenment. The second edition was published in London with the subtitle A Game of Shifting Mirrors and a foreword by Dorothy L. Sayers.
in ‘The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim’ (1935), 7 pages
Urkunden zur Geschichte der Zahirsage, by Julius Barlach, is a history of the ‘Zahir’, a mythical object that inspires obsession. At various times the zahir has taken the form of a tiger, an astrolabe, the bottom of a well and a twenty-centavo coin. In 2005, the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho wrote a 300-page novel called The Zahir.
in ‘The Zahir’ (1949), 10 pages
The Garden of Forking Paths, by the Chinese philosopher Ts’ui Pen, is both a novel and a labyrinth. When characters are faced with alternatives, they choose all of them simultaneously, creating parallel narratives that proliferate and fork and occasionally re-converge. In 1976, Edward Packard launched the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ series of books in America; Peter Howitt’s film Sliding Doors was released in 1998.
in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941), 12 pages
The Encyclopaedia of Tlön is a forty-volume encyclopaedia of a fictional world, compiled by a secret organisation in order to prove that a universe can be conceived without the existence of God. In 1981, the Italian artist Luigi Serafini created a 400-page encyclopaedia, the Codex Seraphinianus, written in an imaginary language.
in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940), 18 pages
The Catalogue of the Library. If the universe were an infinite library, containing every permutation of letters in an infinite number of books, one of those books would necessarily contain the catalogue of the library: the formula and compendium of all the other books. And the man who read that book would be a god.
in ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941), 9 pages
The Poem of the Palace, now lost, was written when the Emperor showed the immortal poet around his palace. Incredibly, the poet produced a composition that captured every last detail of the palace and consisted of just one line, or perhaps even a single word. When the Emperor heard the poem, he had the poet executed.
in ‘The Parable of the Palace’ (1956), 2 pages
The Book of Sand has an infinite number of infinitely thin pages. It is impossible to turn to the first or the last page: it has no beginning and no end. Each page unfolds into more pages; the inconceivable middle page has no reverse. It is hidden among the shelves of the Argentinian National Library, where Borges was the librarian.
in ‘The Book of Sand’ (1975), 5 pages
These short stories are available in the anthologies Fictions, The Aleph and The Book of Sand, all published by Penguin Modern Classics. Henry Eliot is the author of three books: The Penguin Classics Book, Follow This Thread: A Maze Book to Get Lost In and Curiocity: An Alternative A-Z of London. He is an editor of the Penguin Classics series and presents an ‘Introduction to Jorge Luis Borges’ online course through the Idler Academy. Click here to find out more.