Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Jorge Luis Borges' "Professor Borges": Book Review

Professor Borges Cover
These 25 lectures from 1966, editors Martin Arias and Martin Hadis confess in their introduction, defied easy transcription. For they were taken from tapes (now erased) by students in Jorge Luis Borges' fortieth term of teaching English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. The garbled nature of the names and verses set down, especially in the Old English dominating the first half of the course, must have challenged both the Spanish-speaking audiences and the scholars searching sources. Borges, nearly blind, knew these texts intimately. Amazing to think that he lectured mostly from memory, and that quality, so memorialized in his fiction as well as his criticism, informs this.

The talks themselves vary in length, perhaps due to whomever wrote them down. The classes appear oddly tilted. For after half a dozen sessions with very in-depth coverage of the Anglo-Saxon era, we jump from the eleventh to the eighteenth century.  You get a look at Samuel Johnson, then it's off for Blake, Coleridge, Carlyle, Dickens, Browning, Rossetti, lots of William Morris, and R.L. Stevenson.

Therefore, the Argentine audience must have come away with an intimate if skewed examination of key authors. The idiosyncratic nature of the course, as in the latter lessons when students recite portions of Morris' poetry, must have made the presentations come alive. One wishes the tapes were extant, but this anthology compiles what Borges was like in the classroom, an aspect we lack otherwise much record of. Despite some typos, this is a useful compilation. The footnotes are extensive and helpful. And even experienced students of the literature may pick up some factoids.

For me, I forgot that Beowulf comes from the typical Norse phrasing for "bee+wolf," or bear. A simple reminder, but one many professors never mention. Learning how Dr. Johnson hoisted and threw a folio volume at a bookseller, with Borges' wry aside that such a tome was indeed difficult to toss, makes the lexicographer's orneriness come alive. And realizing that such disparate texts as Morris' "The Earthly Paradise" and Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" have in common the silence of respectively Chaucer and Shakespeare due to their eminence reminds us of Borges' vast knowledge. (Amazon US 12/3/16)

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