With Borges

Nachtigall, Liebe, Herz, you can read Heine without the help of a dictionary," he said. And he enjoyed the possibilities German allowed of making up words, as Goethe's Nebelglanz, "the glimmer of the fog." He would let the words resound in the room: "Füllest wieder Busch und Thal still mit Nebelglanz *Š." He praised the transparency of the language, and he reproached Heidegger for having invented what he called "an incomprehensible dialect of German."

He loved detective novels. He found in their formulae the ideal narrative structures that allow the fiction writer to set up his own borders and to concentrate on the efficiency of words and images made of words. He enjoyed significant details. He once observed, as we were reading the Sherlock Holmes story "The Red-Haired League," that detective fiction was closer to the Aristotelian notion of a literary work than any other genre. According to Borges, Aristotle had stated that a poem about the labors of Hercules would not have the unity of the Illiad or the Odyssey, since the only uniting factor would be the single same hero undertaking the various labors, and that in the detective story, the unity is given by the mystery itself.

He was not above melodrama. He would cry at westerns and gangster films. He sobbed at the ending of Angels With Dirty Faces when James Cagney accepts to behave as a coward when they take him to the electric chair, so the boys who idolize him will not look up to him any longer. Standing on the edge of the pampas, the sight of which he said affected Argentines as the sight of the sea affected the English, a tear would roll down his cheek and he would mutter: "Carajo, la patria!" (*ŠñBy God, my homeland!'). His breath would stop when he would come to the line where the Norwegian sailor says to his king as the mast of the royal ship cracks: "That was Norway breaking/ from thy hand, O king!" (in a poem by Longfellow, a line-Borges pointed out-then used by Kipling in "The Most Beautiful Story in the World"). He once recited the Lord's Prayer in Old English, in a crumbling Saxon chapel near Dr. Johnson's Lichfield, "to give God a little surprise." He wept at a certain paragraph by the forgotten Argentinian writer Manuel Peyrou because it mentioned Calle Nicaragua, a street close to where Borges was born. He enjoyed reciting four verses by Rubén Darío, "Boga y boga en el lago sonoro/ que en el sueño a los tristes espera/ donde aguarda una góndola de oro/ a la novia de Luis de Baviera," because in spite of the long vanished gondolas and royal brides, the rhythm brought tears to his eyes. He confessed many times that he was unabashedly sentimental.

But he could also be pointedly cruel. Once, as we were sitting in the living room, a writer whose name I don't want to remember came to read to Borges a story he had written in his honor. Because it dealt with knife fighting and hoodlums, he thought Borges would enjoy it. Borges prepared himself to listen; the hands on the cane, the slightly parted lips, and his eyes staring upwards suggested, to someone who did not know him, a sort of polite meekness. The story was set in a tavern filled with low-life characters. The neighborhood police inspector, known for his bravery, comes in unarmed and, merely through the authority of his voice, forces the men to give up their weapons. Then the writer, with enthusiasm, began listing them, "A dagger, two revolvers, one leather nightstick*Š." Borges picked up in his deadly monotone voice, "Three rifles, one bazooka, a small Russian canon, five scimitars, two machetes, a mean cap-pistol *Š" The writer managed a small laugh. But Borges continued relentlessly, "Three sling-shots, one brickbat, an arbalest, five pole axes, one battering-ram*Š" The writer stood up and wished us good night. We never saw him again.

From With Borges (Canada: Thomas Allen Publisher, 2004; London: Telegram Books, 2006). Published by arrangement with the publishers. All rights reserved.