borges interviews

Paris Review, “Jorge Luis Borges: The Art of Fiction No. 39”


Ah, that’s right. Because if you ask me questions about the younger contemporary writers, I’m afraid I know very little about them. For about the last seven years I’ve been doing my best to know something of Old English and Old Norse. Consequently, that’s a long way off in time and space from the Argentine, from Argentine writers, no? But if I have to speak to you about the Finnsburg Fragment or the elegies or the Battle of Brunanburg . . .


Would you like to talk about those?


No, not especially.


What made you decide to study Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse?


I began by being very interested in metaphor. And then in some book or other—I think in Andrew Lang’s History of English Literature—I read about the kennings, metaphors of Old English, and in a far more complex fashion of Old Norse poetry. Then I went in for the study of Old English.

Nowadays, or rather today, after several years of study, I’m no longer interested in the metaphors because I think that they were rather a weariness of the flesh to the poets themselves—at least to the Old English poets.


To repeat them, you mean?


To repeat them, to use them over and over again and to keep on speaking of the “road of the whale” instead of “the sea”—that kind of thing—and “the seawood,” “the stallion of the sea” instead of “the ship.” So I decided finally to stop using them, the metaphors, that is;

but in the meanwhile I had begun studying the language, and I fell in love with it. Now I have formed a group—we’re about six or seven students—and we study almost every day. We’ve been going through the highlights in Beowulf, the Finnsburg Fragment, and The Dream of the Rood. Also, we’ve gotten into King Alfred’s prose.

Now we’ve begun learning Old Norse, which is rather akin to Old English. I mean the vocabularies are not really very different: Old English is a kind of halfway house between the Low German and the Scandinavian.

the witness

In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening’s customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder – and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

Hengist wants men, A.D. 449

Hengist wants men.

They will rally from the edges of sand which dissolve into
broad seas, from huts filled with smoke, from threadbare
landscapes, from deep forests haunted by wolves, in
whose vague centre Evil lurks.

The ploughmen will abandon the plough and the fisher-
men their nets.

They will leave their wives and their children, for a man
knows that anywhere in the night he can encounter the
one and engender the other.

Hengist the mercenary wants men.

He wants them to subdue an island which is not yet
called England.

Cowed and vicious, they will follow him.

They know him always to have been the first among men
in battle.

They know that once he forgot his vow of vengeance and
that they gave him a naked sword and that the sword
did its work.

They will try their oars against the seas, with neither
compass nor mast.

They will bear swords and bucklers, helmets in the like-
ness of the boar’s head, spells to make the cornfields
multiply, vague cosmogonies, legends of the Huns and
the Goths.

They will conquer the ground, but never will they enter
the cities which Rome abandoned, for these are things
too complicated for their primitive minds.

Hengist wants them for the victory, for the pillaging, for
the corruption of the flesh and for oblivion.

Hengist wants them (but he does not know it) for the
founding of the greatest of empires, for the singing of
Shakespeare and Whitman, for Nelson’s ships to rule
the sea, for Adam and Eve to be banished, hand in hand
and silent, from the Paradise they have lost.

Hengist wants them (but he cannot know it) so that I
may form these letters.

From The Book of Sand

icelandic alphabet pronunciation

a is similar to a in father.
á like ow in down.
e like e in bed.
é like ye in yes.
i like i in hid.
o like aw in law
ó like oh.
u pronounce “i” with rounded lips.
ú like o in who.
y like i in hid.
ý like ea in heat.
æ like i in hide.
ö pronounce e (bed) with rounded lips.
ei like a in came.
ey like a in came.
au pronounce i with rounded lips.
b like english b with more breath.
d like d with more breath.
ð like th in father.
f like f in father.

g at the beginning of a word, just breathe more.
g between vowels or between a vowel and r, it has a gutteral sound.
g in the middle of a w word before t or s, it sounds like ch in loch.

h in he.
j like y in yes.

k at the beginning of a word, just a hard k.
k in the middle of a word between vowels or at the end, pronounce g with lots of breath.
k in the middle of a word before t or s, pronounce the gutteral g sound.

l like land
m like mother

n can be like n in night
or like n in sing.


poem found written in a copy of Beowulf

At various times I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.
Used up by the years my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.
Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast encompassing
circle can take in all, accomplish all.
Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Selected Poems, p. 207

german kennings

“[Germanic] poetry had developed another hierarchical poetic instrument: that is, kennings – descriptive, crystallized metaphors.”

Poetic themes and elements were very redundant, and they did not begin or end with similar sounds, so the usual poetic rhythm was hard to establish.

“For this poetry, which was only epic, they formed compound words to denote things whose names did not begin with the requisite letter. These kinds of formations are quite possible, and normal, in the Germanic languages. They realized that these compound words could very well be used as metaphors.”

sea = whale-road, fish-bath
ship = sea-stallion, sea-stag

“In Scandinavia [poets] carried them to their final stage: they created metaphors out of metaphors by using successive combinations… This is how an extremely complicated and obscure poetry evolved.”

“Here’s a fairly simple kenning: ‘the swan of the beer of the dead,’ which, when we first see it, we don’t know how to interpret. So, if we break it down, we see that ‘beer of the dead’ menas blood, and ‘swan of the blood’ means the bird of death, the raven… And in Scandinavia, whole poems were written like this and with increasing complexity.


reading list – books already in my possession

  • Borges. Selected Poems
  • Priest. An Introduction to Non-Classical Logic
  • Teach Yourself. Complete Icelandic
  • Follett. German-English dictionary
  • Borges. Collected Fictions
  • Woodall. The Man in the Mirror of the Book: A life of Jorge Luis Borges
  • Borges. Selected Non-fictions
  • Flesch. The Art of Readable Writing
  • Harvard Classics. Plutarch’s Lives
  • Gordon. An Introduction to Old Norse
  • Borges. Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature
  • Dixson. Essential Idioms in English
  • Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars
  • Bantam dual-language. German Stories :: Deutsche Novellen
  • White. The Book of Merlyn
  • Salinger. Franny and Zooey
  • Casares. The Invention of Morel
  • Friess. Non-Christian Religions A – Z
  • Rilke. Rilke’s Book of Hours
  • Bellairs. The Face in the Frost
  • Harvard Classics. Plato • Epictetus • Marucus Aurelius

Submissions are welcome.

sometimes it’s not about the cat


padilla – “true heroism shows itself spontaneously somewhere in the space between courage and absurdity.”

That’s such a good space. When you want to say something or do something that’s bubbling up from the strange and secret depths of who you are, but you’re not sure if it will be a social failure or a communicative flop.

You’re afraid your self-expression or sense of humor may not be understood as you intend it, and you don’t feel like you have the skills to translate it into the communal, public language that we use to express ideas to other people. It’s so deeply yours, and it may end up being missed by those around you, just another offering to the universe and whoever’s watching – because nobody around you is – but you can’t feel right about holding back. You’ve got to express yourself and let that crazy-uncertain thing loose, even if it’s clumsily, even if you end up looking like a loon. You’re a hero, standing there, balancing, trying.


Are you sure the world doesn’t really actually go dark when you blink? Have you ever opened your eyes a micro-split second sooner than usual and seen the dark flip back to light? Remember competing with the fridge door as a kid?


That quick dipping-in moment, that return of feeling good about things, that can come with a shower and a mug of coffee and a song with that honey-catch in it (that warm bite that gives honey all its magic, I mean, and makes it so much more than sweet). It’s such a temporary little mild pleasant feeling, but I think it’s a quietly powerful shaper of our lives. A brief smell of home. Why else do we buy lattes and watch sitcom reruns and love our sunglasses and the radio and nail polish and junky magazines – all our habitual patterns, the minor routines that structure so much of our lives without our noticing?