I just finished reading if on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino (tranlsated by William Weaver). A great book, certainly, and one that I would have enjoyed in any circumstances, yet I was fortunate enough to, for no reason other than my own gratification, also be reading the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley). The effect is complementary.
In the introduction to his collection, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), Borges writes: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them… A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.”
And so Calvino has wrote the openings to imaginary books, with their own contexts and authors and influences. But what struck me was a line from Borges’ story, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain, in which the narrator states: “For those ‘writers manqués,’ whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories of Statements. Each of them prefigures, or promises, a good plot, which is then intentionally frustrated by the author.”
Not only is my reading of Calvino enriched by this, so too is my reading of Borges enriched by knowledge of its influence (or at least reflection) in Calvino’s novel. Another connection that springs immediately to mind, tying the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges in 1941, to the Italian Italo Calvino in 1979, is the American John Barth in 1967, who states in his famous essay, The Literature of Exhaustion: “I suppose the distinction is between things worth remarking and things worth doing. ‘Somebody ought to make a novel with scenes that pop up, like the old children’s books,’ one says, with the implication that one isn’t going to bother doing it oneself.”
This essay (obviously including the majority of which not reproduced here) not only unites these two novels in a particular sense, that of suggestion and execution, but also connects them to that movement we call postmodernism, retroactively or in its future. Which is all a really long way of getting to the fact that influence and interpretation work retroactively. Borges himself said, in his essay Kafka and His Precursors: “the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. The second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem "Fears and Scruples" by Browning foretells Kafka's work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics' vocabulary, the word 'precursor' is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”