Rivka Galchen is one of those way too smart, “go to medical school before you finish your undergraduate degree and then get your MFA in creative writing” types. Her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, was published in 2008. So it seems apropos that a polyglot mind writes about another—in this case, Galchen on Jorge Luis Borges.
In her recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, she states her view of the unrivaled dullness of literary worship (I so don’t agree!) before continuing her homage the extraordinary mind that was Borges.
More than any other 20th-century figure, Borges is the one designated — and often dismissed as — the Platonic ideal of Writer. His outrageous intellect is cited as proof of either his genius or of his bloodless cerebralism…But perhaps Borges’s most glorious and provocative “fault” was that he lived to be 86 and never wrote a novel. “It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one,” he wrote, in the introduction to a 1941 collection of his short stories, “the madness of composing vast books…The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them…Reading was faith; writing a call-and-response form of prayer. To love a text: isn’t that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?”
He certainly did read vast books, however. For us Borges may be the ur-writer, but he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading.
Turns out Borges adored Robert Louis Stevenson. Who knew? In a mirrored discussion of Borges’ favorite Stevenson novel, The Wrecker, Galchen brings it in with this observation: “So why did Borges read and reread “The Wrecker”?… Borges’s readerly attention re-invents Stevenson, just as his writerly attention created those vast unwritten books that Borges chose not to write, but just to imagine and comment on.”
These unwritten books that are only imagined are like the unpainted paintings that live in my mind’s eye like an ambient, perpetually unrolling canvas. They have a power and a presence for me, but it isn’t one I’ve been able to leverage with the grand gesture that was Borges’. Reading Galchen’s essay offered some solace and credence however to the validity of that invisible and imaginary domain.