Morel’s inventions

1: The Invention of Morel (1940), a novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

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Cover art by Norah Borges.

A fugitive hides on a deserted island somewhere in Polynesia. Tourists arrive, and his fear of being discovered becomes a mixed emotion when he falls in love with one of them. He wants to tell her his feelings, but an anomalous phenomenon keeps them apart. (more)

Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of The Screw and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy’s novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious. Inspired by Bioy Casares’s fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own.

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The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel….Bioy Casares’s theme is not cosmic, but metaphysical: the body is imaginary, and we bow to the tyranny of a phantom. Love is a privileged perception, the most complete and total perception not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.

Octavio Paz


2: Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a feature film directed by Alain Resnais.

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What are these images, actually? They are imaginings; an imagining, if it is vivid enough, is always in the present. The memories one “sees again”, the remote places, the future meetings, or even the episodes of the past we each mentally rearrange to suit our convenience are something like an interior film continually projected in our own minds, as soon as we stop paying attention to what is happening around us. But at other moments, on the contrary, all our senses are registering this exterior world that is certainly there. Hence the total cinema of our mind admits both in alternation and to the same degree the present fragments of reality proposed by sight and hearing, and past fragments, or future fragments, or fragments that are completely phantasmagoric.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1961

In the mid-Fifties, when Casares’ novel was translated into French, it was read by Robbe-Grillet. We know this since he wrote a favorable review of the book in 1955. In 1961, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were interviewed by filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who commented on the link between Morel and Marienbad, parallels briefly acknowledged by Robbe-Grillet (who didn’t elaborate). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet had evidently never discussed this, as indicated by Resnais’ comment that he was unfamiliar with the book! An English translation of this interview was readily available to all New York critics in 1961, but none of them picked up on the significance of those few sentences.

Rosetta Stone to Last Year in Marienbad

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Louise Brooks, Delphine Seyrig.

L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) is an adaptation that became a theft. It is plainly based on La Invención de Morel (1940), and this was immediately apparent to the critics who first viewed it. The Cahiers du cinéma that came out with Marienbad is full of references to Morel, of critics saying how immediate the connection was. And on a biographical level, it’s pretty obvious: in 1953, the screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet asked his editor at Critique magazine if he could write about an interesting Argentinean novel; he wrote an admiring but mixed review about the importance of the themes of solitude, memory, and the modifiable past, and how he hoped another artist could do them more justice; and seven years later, he wrote a screenplay with the same setting, characters, motifs, and themes, complete with, in first drafts, Hispanic names.
But the orthodox view about this connection, on the exceedingly rare occasions it is mentioned outside of the Hispanic world, is summarily dismissive: as a recent master’s thesis summarizes, “Since the release of Last Year at Marienbad in 1961, some critics have taken to circumventing the difficulty of the film by drawing on The Invention of Morel as the alleged inspiration for the film.”

Ann Manov, The Invention of Marienbad: Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Morel, and Adolfo Bioy Casares on the Left Bank

Without Morel, Marienbad is mostly an exercise in formalism; however, with the intertextual juxtaposition of the two, it becomes another, different work. It becomes an early false reality film, perhaps the first.

Thomas Beltzer


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The Others, a film by Hugo Santiago

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The Others (1974) is the second of the feature-length collaborations directed by Hugo Santiago from screenplays developed with Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges. The film was produced in Paris with a French cast, together with two of Santiago’s collaborators from Invasion: cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich and composer Edgardo Cantón. The association of Borges with this one seems to have been little more than providing a very simple idea which I won’t reveal here since doing so would give away the entire story. In later years Borges was dismissive about film adaptations derived from his works but this one is still creditably Borgesian even if it isn’t as satisfying as Invasion.

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The story concerns one Roger Spinoza (Patrice Dally), a middle-aged man with a very Borges-like name who runs a bookshop, Librairie des Ameriques, in the centre of Paris. The abrupt and apparently meaningless suicide of Spinoza’s son, Mathieu (Bruno Devoldère), precipitates for the bookseller a personal and possibly metaphysical crisis which prompts him to visit his son’s friends in the hope of discovering an explanation for the tragedy. Spinoza’s visits to Mathieu’s girlfriend, Valérie (Noëlle Chatelet), develop into a romantic relationship which brings him into conflict with Moreau (Daniel Vignat), a lawyer who was Mathieu’s rival for Valérie’s affections. (Valérie works at an astronomical observatory which gives her a natural affinity with Spinoza, a man who shares a name with the Dutch philosopher who supported himself by grinding lenses for Christiaan Huygens’ telescopes.) These events are complicated and rendered mysterious by the presence of “the others”, a number of strange men who individually shadow Spinoza’s investigations while harassing Mathieu’s friends and acquaintances. The actions and identities of the men remain inexplicable until the very end when an explanation—the original idea from Borges—makes everything clear. The philosophical side of Borges’ suggestion is absent, however, which makes the explanation seem both glib and fantastic, but it has the effect of presenting all the events of the past two hours in a very different light.

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So why is this not as satisfying as Invasion? In part because Santiago sporadically interrupts his narrative with brief scenes that show the film itself in the process of creation. These are continuations of a 10-minute prologue of outtakes, scene setups, rehearsals, Santiago’s asides to the camera, and so on, all of which are differentiated from the film proper by the cold blue/green cast you get from film footage that hasn’t been filtered for daylight. There was a lot of this kind of Brechtian fourth-wall breaking going on during the 1970s, usually without achieving very much. Santiago’s story is confusing enough without being further fragmented by distracting interruptions. Another distraction is the Edgardo Cantón score which follows Invasion in its use of musique concrète as well as more conventional orchestral scoring. But where the Invasion soundtrack complemented the action the score here works against the film, especially when the sounds and snatches of music are more abrasive than they were previously. I can put up with all manner of directorial eccentricities but this example tested my patience. It’s hard to see why a story such as this would warrant a Brechtian treatment, which suggests that the distractions are more of a result of the director’s lack of faith in his screenplay.

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Bioy Casares, Borges and Santiago.

Flaws aside, The Others isn’t without attractions for Borges readers. The film is truer to the spirit of Borges than many of the adaptations of the author’s stories: mirrors abound, and play a significant part in the narrative, while Borges’ words are present in the Grove Press edition of Ficciones seen on a shelf in the bookshop, and in the character of Valérie who informs Spinoza that she was born in Buenos Aires. After the pair have spent the night together Valérie recites in Spanish the Borges poem Spinoza. “Do you know that poem,” she asks. “Yes,” says Spinoza, “it’s from a fellow librarian.” The librarian himself is seen at the very beginning of the film during the production prologue, talking (silently) to Santiago and Adolfo Bioy Casares.

In a note about Death and the Compass, Borges said that most stories should stand or fall by their general atmosphere rather than their plot. The Others would have succeeded very well on this level if not for its flaws; the events are persistently intriguing and the streets of Paris are effortlessly photogenic, a sombre city captured at angles and cropped views by Aronovich’s camera. Three years later Aronovich was photographing another series of enigmas for Alain Resnais in Providence. Like the Resnais film, The Others has been unavailable for far too long but may now be viewed with English subtitles here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Invasion revisited
Goodfellow and Borges
The Rejected Sorcerer
The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
The Library of Babel by Érik Desmazières
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

Invasion revisited

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More Borges. Recent posts about the Venerable Jorge had me searching again for a subtitled copy of Hugo Santiago’s Invasion, the feature film he made in Argentina in 1969 from a script co-written with Borges and the latter’s friend and frequent collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares. Subtitled copies of Invasion are now easier to find than they were when I wrote about the film back in 2014; there’s one here although this wasn’t the copy I was watching at the weekend so I can’t vouch for the quality of the subtitles. As before, this is the précis:

In 1957, a small group of middle-aged men fight a clandestine battle against forces quietly invading and taking control of their city, Aquilea. Enigmatic in its story-telling, Hugo Santiago’s once-lost film obscures the motivations of either side, leaving only a series of moves and counter-moves that evokes past dictatorial oppression and those still to come.

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Don Porfirio (Juan Carlos Paz).

“Aquilea” is Buenos Aires masquerading as a fictional city, with a name borrowed from Roman history. For Borges readers the views of the city are fascinating in themselves since they show us the streets and café interiors which are settings for many of the writer’s stories; we also see one of his books, El Hacedor, prominently situated on a shelf. Beyond this, the fictionalising of the city pushes the story away from Argentina’s turbulent political history towards the fantastic and the mythic, as does the lack of any background information about the life-and-death struggle we’re witnessing.

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The writer visits the set. Left to right: Hugo Santiago, Ricardo Aronovich, Jorge Luis Borges and Lautaro Murúa.

This was Hugo Santiago’s debut feature, made after several years working in France as an assistant to Robert Bresson. For a debut it’s an impressively assured piece of work, a fast-moving thriller of a type you wouldn’t expect Bioy Casares and Borges to be involved with; less time is devoted to dialogue than there is to gunfights and assassinations. Reviewers tend to compare Invasion to Alphaville but this is misleading; Aquilea may be an invented setting but there’s nothing about the place that’s futuristic or unreal beyond the surreptitious invasion which is being staged and resisted in the midst of an oblivious citizenry. A direct influence was a long-running and very popular Argentine comic strip, Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s The Eternaut, in which the surviving inhabitants of Buenos Aires fight against alien invaders; but this is a typical science-fiction scenario, with most of the human beings wiped out and the survivors battling a variety of monsters. Santiago’s film is more elusive than this, although Lautaro Murúa as Herrera, the leader of the resistance, physically resembles the stern protagonist from the comic. Invasion is deadly serious in a way that Alphaville never is, free of the quotation marks that frame all of Godard’s fictional excursions. The photography by Ricardo Aronovich is the high-contrast chiaroscuro of a late film noir like Kiss Me Deadly, as is the atmosphere of doom, paranoia and escalating urgency; characters are shown continually marching or running towards their destinations. Murúa strides through his scenes with the grim determination of Lee Marvin in Point Blank; in fact Boorman’s film is a better comparison than Alphaville, a spare and elliptical neo-noir that was one of the first Hollywood features to embrace the innovations of the Nouvelle Vague.

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The harsh separation between black and white extends to the white raincoats of the invaders and the black suits of the resistance, the latter being directed by Don Porfirio (Juan Carlos Paz), an elderly man who spends most of the film in his apartment where he plans operations while talking to his black cat and drinking maté tea (a South American habit frequently referred to in Borges’ stories that you seldom see on screen). Most surprising of all is the soundtrack by Edgardo Cantón, a musique-concrète assemblage of animal cries, metallic shrieks and electronic tones. The inexplicable presence of these sounds complements the inexplicable nature of the scenario while resisting easy interpretation.

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Invasion‘s ambiguities may help the film sidestep an overtly political reading but they were deemed threatening enough by the Argentine dictatorship of the 1970s for the negative to be seized and kept from circulation for many years. (Parts of the film are also disturbingly prophetic: the invaders base their operations—which extend to torture and murder—in the city’s athletic stadium; a few years later similar South American stadia were being repurposed as venues for mass execution.) Restoration work on the film in 1999 led to the copies that circulate today. Borges wouldn’t have seen anything of this during his lifetime, his blindness was almost total by 1969, but we’re more fortunate. If you enjoy unusual thrillers this is one I recommend.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Goodfellow and Borges
The Rejected Sorcerer
The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
The Library of Babel by Érik Desmazières
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

Goodfellow and Borges

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Last week’s story search had me looking through this handful of Penguin volumes again, all of which have cover illustrations by Peter Goodfellow. These were the first Borges books I bought, beginning with the Labyrinths collection in 1985. The Book of Sand is two volumes in one—The Book of Sand and a late poetry collection, The Gold of the Tigers—with cover art suitable for both. I used to think that the covers of the other books were pastiching or quoting well-known artists but now I’m not so sure. Two of them definitely are quotes or pastiches: The Book of Imaginary Beings is a play on the weird growths you find in Hieronymus Bosch, while Doctor Brodie‘s contemplative skeleton is from the famous anatomical engravings in De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, with some Chinese or Japanese landscape details added to the background.

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Two positive artistic references suggested that the other covers might follow suit, so I used to take the Labyrinths cover as a vague reference to the anomalies that Salvador Dalí would situate in his desert vistas, while A Universal History of Infamy was de Chirico, perhaps, although this no longer seems certain at all. Those columns look like Bernini’s double colonnade from Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, not a Turin arcade, and the picture lacks the disjunctive perspectives you find in de Chirico’s “Metaphysical” paintings. The pastiche thesis is further diluted when you discover that Goodfellow had been quoting from Bosch as far back as his cover for Ursula Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World in 1972, while he borrowed another skeleton from Vesalius for Structures by JE Gordon. Sometimes you can reach too far for meaningful connections.

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The Bosch-like cover does seem to have had an enduring influence, however. When Penguin published the Collected Fictions in the UK in 1999 they used a detail from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights for the artwork. Bosch details turned up on a later edition of A Universal History of Infamy, and have subsequently appeared on a series of Turkish Borges editions. Not a bad choice for a writer whose fictions offer universes of possibility.

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Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Rejected Sorcerer
The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
The Library of Babel by Érik Desmazières
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

The Rejected Sorcerer

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Cover art by Ed Emshwiller.

More Borges. While checking the details of yesterday’s post I discovered this oddity, an American SF magazine that published a two-page Borges story in March 1960, and put the author’s name on the cover even though few of the magazine’s readers would have heard of him at the time. The issue, which turned out to be the final one, lacks an editorial page so there’s no indication as to how the story found its way there. The story itself concerns an encounter in modern-day Spain between two men, one of them an established magician (in the occult sense), the other a neophyte hoping to gain similar powers. The piece is as much a moral fable as a work of fantasy, and as such appears out of place in a magazine with flying-saucer artwork on its exterior and a Virgil Finlay illustration inside (not for the Borges, unfortunately).

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I thought at first that I might not have read this one before, the title wasn’t familiar but the story was one I recognised immediately. I was also surprised to find that I have it in four different collections under different titles, and with two of the printings appearing at first to disguise the author. In Black Water: An Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1983), edited by Alberto Manguel, the story appears as The Wizard Postponed, with the writer given as “Juan Manuel”; in The Book of Fantasy (1988), an updated version of the Antología de la Literatura Fantástica edited in 1940 by Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, the same piece appears as The Wizard Passed Over, with the author credited as “Don Juan Manuel”. The latter turns out to be the original author, a medieval Spanish writer, although “original” here is a debatable term when the story is Manuel’s adaptation of a piece he found in a book of Arabian tales. Borges rewrote this together with several other short reworkings which appear in the Etcetera section at the end of A Universal History of Infamy, its third appearance on my shelves (once again as The Wizard Postponed).

The fourth appearance is in the Collected Fictions (1998), or the cursed volume as I tend to think of it. I often feel bad about traducing the efforts of translator Andrew Hurley every time Borges is mentioned here but this story provides a good example of why his work is so unsatisfying to readers familiar with the stories from older editions. In its original Spanish the story is El brujo postergado, a short title for which The Wizard Postponed or The Wizard Passed Over would seem like reasonable analogues. Hurley expands this to The Wizard That Was Made to Wait, a lumbering, graceless phrase that’s typical of the lumbering gracelessness elsewhere in Collected Fictions. These tin-eared translations are the ones approved by the Borges estate so they’re present in all the reprints of the past 20 years. Fortunately for readers, most of Borges’ books were widely reprinted in English translations that the author approved, and some of which he even assisted with. Reject the conjurations of maladroit sorcerers, that’s my advice.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges on Ulysses
Borges in the firing line
La Bibliothèque de Babel
Borges and the cats
Invasion, a film by Hugo Santiago
Spiderweb, a film by Paul Miller
The Library of Babel by Érik Desmazières
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance