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
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
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges

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“This City” (I thought) “is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way even jeopardizes the stars.”

This is the kind of thing I love to find: a BBC adaptation of a story by Jorge Luis Borges which I didn’t even know existed until this week. The Immortal was written in 1947 and published in the fourth collection of the writer’s fiction, El Aleph, in 1949. Anglophone readers will be more familiar with the story from Labyrinths, the most popular Borges collection, and the book I always recommend to those curious about his work. (And with the usual nagging proviso: avoid the Andrew Hurley translations if you can.)

Borges’ immortal is a Roman soldier during the reign of Diocletian whose life is recounted via a manuscript discovered in 1929 inside a volume of poetry. (The volume is Pope’s translation of The Iliad; Homer is never far away in Borges-land, especially in this story.) Disappointed by his military career, the soldier leaves his legion to go in search of the legendary City of the Immortals which is reputed to lie somewhere in the African desert; he finds the city, of course, and also (inevitably) receives more than he bargained for. Borges’ other fictions are seldom as traditionally fantastic as this, although the story’s philosophical musings are enough to set it apart from similar tales, as is the author’s habit of owning up to his recondite literary borrowings, like a magician revealing the secret of a trick at the end of a performance. Even so, The Immortal was generic enough to turn up in an American paperback collection in 1967, New Worlds of Fantasy edited by Terry Carr, along with stories by Roger Zelazny, John Brunner, JG Ballard and others. The Ballard story, The Lost Leonardo, is an uncharacteristic piece about another immortal character, Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, cursed to roam the world until the Second Coming of Christ. Ahasuerus was a popular character in the 19th century, whose legend and predicament was enough to sustain Eugène Sue for 1400 pages in a ten-volume historical saga, Le Juif Errant. Borges alludes to Ahasuerus via the name “Joseph Cartaphilus” although this is one obscure reference that he doesn’t explain for the reader. By contrast with the logorrhoeic Monsieur Sue, Borges requires a mere 15 pages to deal with 2000 years of history.

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Given the challenges of staging a complex historical drama on a TV budget Carlos Pasini’s film is little more than a 22-minute sketch of its source material, but Borges adaptations are scarce enough that there’s a thrill in seeing the material presented at all, as with the brief dramatisations in the Arena documentary, Borges and I. The Immortal was given a single broadcast on 20th November, 1970, as part of a now-forgotten BBC 2 arts programme, Review, where it was intended as an introduction to the author’s writing following the UK publication of The Book of Imaginary Beings. Mark Edwards plays the Roman soldier whose narration is taken verbatim from the story. Borges’ international reputation had reached a plateau of popularity at this time, after growing steadily during the 1960s. 1970 was also the year that Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance was released, a film that quotes verbally and visually Borges’ Personal Anthology while also featuring a photo of the man himself. A year later, Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius collection, The Nature of the Catastrophe, included the dedication “For Borges”; Jerry Cornelius is another immortal (or timeless) character, one of whose progenitors may be “Joseph Cartaphilus”. Pasini’s adaptation can’t compete with these heavyweights but as a taster of Borgesian prose and ideas it serves its purpose. The director has made it available for viewing here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
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
Books Borges never wrote
Borges and I
Borges documentary
Borges in Performance

Weekend links 584

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Cover for the 1970 US edition of Moonchild by Aleister Crowley. No artist credited (unless you know better…). Update: The artist is Dugald Stewart Walker, and the drawing is from a 1914 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Thanks to Mr TjZ!

• “…a very mid-Seventies cauldron of Cold War technology, ESP, sociology, black magic and white magic, experimental science and standing stones, secret radar and satanic rituals, whirring aerials and wild moors: a seething potion of Wyndham and Wheatley.” Mark Valentine on The Twelve Maidens, a novel by Stewart Farrar.

• “The line in the song ‘feed your head’ is both about reading and psychedelics. I was talking about feeding your head by paying attention: read some books, pay attention.” Grace Slick explains why those three little words have been attached to these pages since 2006.

Freddie deBoer reposted his “Planet of Cops” polemic, a piece I linked to when it first appeared in 2017, and which used to come to mind all the time before I absented myself from the poisonous sump of negativity that we call social media.

• RIP Charlie Watts. The Rolling Stones’ last moment of psychedelic strangeness is Child Of The Moon, a promo film by Michael Lindsay-Hogg featuring an uncredited Eileen Atkins and Sylvia Coleridge.

• Old music: A live performance by John Coltrane and ensemble of A Love Supreme from Seattle in 1965 that’s somehow managed to remain unreleased until now.

• A short film about Suzanne Cianni which sees her creating electronic sounds and music for the Xenon pinball machine in the early 1980s.

• “I’ll be in another world”: A rediscovered interview with Jorge Luis Borges.

Steven Heller explains why Magnat is his font of the month.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins on the allure of toy theatre.

• New music: Vexed by The Bug ft. Moor Mother.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Nikola Tesla Festschrift.

Moon Child (1964) by The Ventures | Moonchild (1969) by King Crimson | Moonchild (1992) by Shakespears Sister

George Barbier’s Imaginary Lives

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It’s always satisfying when one perennial subject here connects to another. Imaginary Lives is a story collection by Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob that George Barbier lavishly illustrated in a new edition published in 1929. Wikipedia has a précis which conveniently explains the connection:

Imaginary Lives (original French title: Vies imaginaires) is a collection of twenty-two semi-biographical short stories by Marcel Schwob, first published in book form in 1896. Mixing known and fantastical elements, it was one of the first works in the genre of biographical fiction. The book is an acknowledged influence in Jorge Luis Borges’s first book A Universal History of Infamy (1935). Borges also translated the last story “Burke and Hare, Assassins” into Spanish.

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This is one of the best of Barbier’s illustrated editions, and the only one which allows him to combine his favoured references to the graphic styles of the ancient world with those of later centuries. The nude figures are also more explicitly detailed than in his earlier drawings, something only seen previously in his illustrations for an overtly erotic title, Les Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs. The final full-page illustration is a further departure for the generally light-hearted Barbier, a drawing that so closely resembles something from Edgar Allan Poe it makes me wish he might have attempted a Poe edition of his own.

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Empedocles, Supposed God.

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Erostate, Incendiary.

Continue reading “George Barbier’s Imaginary Lives”