An Introduction to Borges with Henry Eliot

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Enter the mind-bending world of Jorge Luis Borges with Penguin Classics editor Henry Eliot

Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian writer and librarian, was a master of the short story. But despite their brevity, his genre-contorting tales can intimidate the first-time reader. How can we get to grips with the work of this giant of postmodern literature?

Join Penguin Classics Creative Editor Henry Eliot as he takes you through the life and work of Jorge Luis Borges. In this accessible and illuminating guide, Henry shows how Borges fundamentally challenged the way we think about space, time and identity. Beginning with Borges’s library desk in Buenos Aires and finishing at his grave in Geneva, Henry takes you through the span of the great writer’s biography and writing.

Over the course of the lessons, you’ll see how Borges used the library to explore ideas of infinity, come to understand how going blind gave him new creative vision, explore how the Argentine questioned our sense of identity and belonging, and learn why he returned again and again to the theme of labyrinths.

Few writers have redefined a genre in the way that Borges reinvented the art of the short story. By the end of this course, you’ll be well-equipped to appreciate his distinctive genius.

This is what participants have said about the course:

“a brilliant course … inspiring from start to finish.”

“Wonderful course!”

Henry Eliot is Creative Editor at Penguin Classics and the author of The Penguin Classics BookFollow This Thread and, with Matt Lloyd-Rose, Curiocity: An Alternative A-Z of London, which Philip Pullman described as the “most ingenious, insightful, inspiring, intoxicating, and simply interesting guide to the great city that I have ever seen”.

The course outline:

Lesson One: Libraries (31 minutes)

Borges was the director of the Argentine National Library for almost twenty years, and books and libraries appear again and again in his stories. In this lesson we look at ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941) and ‘The Book of Sand’ (1975) and explore ideas of infinity and the impossible quest for meaning.

 Lesson Two: Memories (26 minutes)

Borges went completely blind in his fifties, after which he had to rely heavily on his memory. Several of his stories examine the unreliable, fragmentary nature of recollection. In this lesson we look at ‘Funes the Memorious’ (1942) and ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ (1983) and ask to what extent literature can solve the problems of memory.

Lesson Three: Infinities (26 minutes)

Many of Borges’s stories lead us up to the cliff edge of vertiginous infinities, sending our thoughts spinning and making our brains hurt. We look at two of his best-known stories, ‘The Aleph’ (1945) and ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) to discuss ways in which he embraces the infinite in both space and time.

Lesson Four: Identities (28 minutes)

Who are you? Who am I? These questions troubled Borges. Through circular dreams and fantasies, he questions our sense of our own identities. We focus on ‘The Circular Ruins’ (1940) and ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940) to navigate the slippery relationship between author, character and reader, and the blurred line between reality and fiction.

Lesson Five: Mirrors (24 minutes)

Borges was fascinated by concepts of the copy and the original, the map and the territory, and for him these uneasy distinctions are concentrated in the mirror and the land we glimpse through the looking glass. In this lesson we examine ‘The House of Asterion’ (1947) and ‘August 25, 1983’ (1983) to think about doppelgangers, descriptive writing and conversion rates on maps.

 Lesson Six: Labyrinths (25 minutes)

Of all the motifs that recur in Borges’s stories, the most pervasive is the labyrinth, and he chose the title Labyrinths for his first anthology translated into English. We pick our way through ‘The Immortal’ (1947) and ‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’ (1939) to discuss Borges’s different forms of labyrinth and the ways in which he plays with mazes in his fiction.

You can watch the course as a series video lessons, or you can download audio files to each lesson and learn on the go.