John Barth on Calvino and Borges

wood s lot points to the Dalkey’s reprinting of “The Parallels!” Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges by John Barth, a bit of a unfocused celebration of both of them. Barth gives a slight edge to Calvino for his weightless sense of fantasy, which Borges lacks. I give the edge to Borges for super-high-calorie prose. I grow suspicious at metaphorical comparisons of this sort:

It seems to me that Borges’s narrative geometry, so to speak, is essentially Euclidean. He goes in for rhomboids, quincunxes, and chess logic; even his ubiquitous infinities are of a linear, “Euclidean” sort. In Calvino’s spirals and vertiginous recombinations I see a mischievous element of the non-Euclidean; he shared my admiration, for example, of Boccaccio’s invention of the character Dioneo in the Decameron: The narrative Dionysian wild card who exempts himself from the company’s rules and thus adds a lively element of (constrained) unpredictability to the narrative program.

I’m not certain what makes narrative geometry Euclidean versus Riemannian; if you really wanted to make the analogy, the shape it forms in my head is that Borges’s geometry is Riemannian and Calvino’s is Lobachevskian, which is to say that Borges gets myriad usages out of every single atom of his pieces, while Calvino is more expansive. Barth’s point only seems to be that Calvino was considerably more interested in metafictional conceits than Borges, which is true. With a few Lewis Carollesque exceptions (“Borges and I”), Borges was a narrative traditionalist and simply pressed the materials to maximum usage.

Barth makes one point in passing that bears some examination, which is that Calvino and Borges’s shops aren’t where you go for character:

Neither writer, for better or for worse, was a creator of memorable characters or a delineator of grand passions, although in a public conversation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1975, in answer to the question “What do you regard as the writer’s chief responsibility?” Borges unhesitatingly responded, “The creation of character.” A poignant response from a great writer who never really created any characters; even his unforgettable Funes the Memorious, as I have remarked elsewhere, is not so much a character as a pathological characteristic. And Calvino’s charming Qwfwq and Marco Polo and Marcovaldo and Mr. Palomar are archetypal narrative functionaries, nowise to be compared with the great pungent characters of narrative/dramatic literature.

Barth seems to undercut his case by mentioning the two of the most memorable characters in Borges’s repertoire, Funes and “The Secret Miracle”‘s writer-til-death Jaromir Hladik; are they only pathologies? Looking through Borges’s non-fiction, he pays little direct attention to the neuroses of the writers under examination (Swedenborg, Dunne, etc.). Instead, he dissects their belief systems logically and dispassionately, as though the shapes of their imaginations were the key to their souls rather than their “personality.” Likewise with characters: with Dante’s Ugolino (towards the end of the Inferno), Borges abandoned questions of motivation and even fact to locate him as an ambiguous creation intended for a particular effect. Borges isolates his subjects, creating an archipelago of intensely personal islets of private reason. Influences are felt but processed into unrecognizability (see “Kafka and His Precursors”).

From this follow his characters. Asterion of “The House of Asterion” may be a particular product of his unique circumstances, but he is no more pathological than Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. (And I think Asterion is more memorable.) What’s missing is the emphasis on a psychological character that represents an inner nature, rather than someone who is fully the product of his external circumstances or peculiar gifts. The main difference in Borges’s conception of characters is the lack of alternatives; there is hardly ever a sense of how a character could have been otherwise. Holding out that possibility, the chance that a character in Cervantes or Ariosto could suddenly have the veil drop from their eyes and see themselves as having trod an path based less in fate and more in personal flaws and neuroses.

But this difference seems to spring from a modern conception of psychology rather than any historical conception of character, and the history of fatalism far outweighs that of characters with the psychological depths to evince a simulacra of free will. From Heinrich von Kleist’s madmen and victims to Olaf Stapledon’s exemplars of fantastic conceits, contradiction and inner vexation have usually played a minor role. Borges does abstract the tradition further to remove nearly all arbitrary particulars, but to locate character in those particulars is self-defeating: the overlay is arbitrary.

The charge of characterlessness actually seems more substantiated in Calvino’s later work, where he is striving for aesthetic effect over narrative (moreso than Borges ever did), but that’s still discounting his earlier work, particularly the airy nobleman of The Baron in the Trees, who is as much a character as anyone in Ariosto.

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