Posts Tagged ‘The Library of babel’

On reading – or not reading – fantasy (continued)

August 27, 2016

51-r1hfIqeL._AC_US174_And then I remembered Philip Pullman, and Philip Reeve and Jorge Luis Borges, and therefore needed to think a bit more…

The Northern Lights trilogy is surely fantasy – it’s certainly not science fiction in any extrapolative sense that I know, and yet it’s also anchored in our reality, in the sense that it’s set in a parallel universe (or even several of these) resembling our own but different in key ideas, too. So there is an Oxford University that’s not quite like the one a couple of hundred miles from here, and the idea that humans can have souls that are creatures and physically visible is intriguing, fascinating even, but definitely not within the realms of the possible or probable. Philip Reeve’s rapacious mobile cities are a marvellous setting for his novels. And Borges’ imagination is utterly out of this world, flights of fantasy and imagination that are vertiginous, bizarre, thought-provoking… and lightyears from reality. The Library of Babel contains every book that has been and could be written in its myriad rooms, and, thanks to a computer programmer with an imagination, can actually be visited here.

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So, I’m at least partly back with my choices and my prejudices here, having been used to looking down on fantasy as being less serious than real science fiction, or any other form of literature. Having had my fill of Tolkien at a very early age and never having felt moved to bother with Harry Potter (cue gasps from various directions) I’ve sidelined a whole genre. Just like I’ve sidelined various other kinds of writing which you haven’t read me blogging about, and about which I’m now old enough to use the feeble excuse ‘I don’t have the eyeball time for that…’

More seriously, now. The Name of the Wind was slow to start and took a long while to get into, but once I did, I found myself enjoying it much more than I expected to. Most of the novel is actually ‘backstory’, its narration rather crudely contrived, but well-told and engaging; when the real story occasionally intrudes, it’s much cruder and less interesting. It was a good yarn, escapist, with some interesting characters, encounters, rivalries and so forth. I wanted to know what happened, so plot drew me inexorably to the end. What the book didn’t do – couldn’t do? – and what I think left me ultimately unsatisfied, was to make me think. Because the characters and their adventures, entertaining as they were, didn’t really matter to me. There are clearly intended to be several more very long volumes in a series, but I was not convinced that the writer fully knew how he intended to develop or conclude his story.

To try and flesh this judgement out further, I’ll draw a comparison with The Northern Lights. The idea of, the possibility of parallel universes I find fascinating: how might they be just oh so slightly different from our own? The idea of sin or evil being seen as physical matter in the ‘dust’ and its link to the ideas of innocence and experience in the Blakean sense nags away at me each time I re-read. To be able to shift from one universe to another. The idea that organised religion is some overt conspiracy to enslave the mind and spirit, that we may perhaps seek to free ourselves from. I know I oversimplify grossly here, but these are exciting ideas to wrangle with, and Pullman draws me in, interests me, makes me really care about all his characters, and leaves me gutted as the hero and heroine part forever… this is fantasy of another order. And I cannot get away from the feeling that it’s because Pullman’s novels are somehow connected to and anchored in our world even while not being of it, that engages me so deeply…

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Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.

 

 

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