Jay Parini: “Borges and Me: An Encounter”

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Author, Jay Parini. Photo courtesy of the author.

Seventy-one-year-old Jorge Luis Borges as seen through the eyes of twenty-one-year-old Jay Parini in “Borges and Me: An Encounter.” If you can believe it: Parini was unfamiliar with Borges upon meeting him! In this book a great literary figure is a thrillingly unusual and crazy old man—Parini says the book flew out of his thoughts and memories and dreams from the fifty years since the events transpired. Parini calls his book an act of language, and echoes Borges, who said anything that passes through memory is fiction. As Borges gave Parini a weird tour of his fiction, so Panini gives the reader a tour of the Borges fictive universe: libraries, encyclopedias, riddles, labyrinths and mirrors.

“Borges and Me: An Encounter” by Jay Parini.

I sat Borges down at a table. “It’s so comfortable here,” he said. “I smell the burning coals.  It is a smell I love so much.  My grandfather’s house in the countryside, it was full of blazing wood. He was a figure in the army, a hero in Argentina.  The old men, they would often bow as he passed.  This is respect!”

“What will you have, Borges?”

“Typical Scottish beer from the pump.” 

“The tap,” I said.

He wrung his hands in a peculiar fashion, as if they belonged to someone else.  “I don’t usually drink strong beverage.  Once, when I was a student, they said:  Borges is a drunkard.  Since then, I am so careful not to shame myself.  But I am feeling quite free of that young man, that Borges.”

What a relief it would be, I thought, to feel free of my own young self. How soon would that day come? 

“This Borges,” he continued, “this much older man, he would like to drink on this journey.”  He rapped his knuckles on the tabletop.  “But I am not a drunkard!”

I quickly agreed that he was not, and fetched two pints of Export:  the flat, warm beer with a tawny color that students drank in vast quantities in St. Andrews.  I watched Borges bend over the glass, both hands around it and lightly trembling.  He sniffed the foamy head of the brew, stirred it with one finger, then tasted it. 

“It is good,” he said.  “Mild, and not too cold.  This is the mistake we have made in Argentina.  The beer is too cold, and it prevents us from tasting.  This is true of food as well.  I don’t like food when is too hot.  Moderation!”

“I like moderation.”

“Then you have an instinct for wisdom.  Confucius said the doctrine of the mean was the highest virtue, and rare among men.  The Buddhists call it the Middle Way.  Aristotle saw moderation as the essence of virtue.  I say, moderation in all things, even moderation.  So enough of that.”

He took a long slow drink and smiled, wiping the foam from his lips on the sleeve of his jacket. The blank eyes bulged in his head.

“Good lord, no.  I write in extremes—only the smallest of stories. Some of them only a page in length, or less than a page.”

“So you haven’t written novels?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound too dismissive.

“Never,” he said, with a smile that vanished as quickly as it came.  “But you must know:  I hoped for many decades to write an epic story of the Pampas.  There would be gauchos and prostitutes, and many criminals.  A saga of family life over many generations, with failed love affairs, and incest, and spectacular achievements, too.  Wars would come and go. There would be fratricide, of course, and matricide.  Even patricide, the worst of sins.  The volume would require perhaps a thousand pages to encompass everything I wished to say.”

“So what happened?” 

“It never came, this novel.  It was so frustrating. Decades passed.  But then, one day – one day! -- I woke early and went to my desk.  In perhaps an hour or less I wrote a one-page review of this great novel, and that satisfied the impulse.”

Borges and Me: An Encounter Copyright © 2020 by Jay Parini. Reprinted courtesy of Doubleday