July 24, 2016

La memoria de Shakespeare

"Shakespeare's Memory" (1983) in Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Andrew Hurley

What if you are to be gifted with the memory of Shakespeare, the bard, the playwright, the inventor of the human? Wrong question, maybe. What if you are to be cursed with the memory of Shakespeare, the poet, sonnet writer, inventor of postmodern consciousness? The possibility alone is disorienting. The sudden rush of literature sickness or vertigo must be enough to tempt the reader.

The story can be told very briefly. It begins in the East, in a field hospital, at dawn. The exact date is not important. An enlisted man named Adam Clay, who had been shot twice, offered me the precious memory almost literally with his last breath. Pain and fever, as you know, make us creative; I accept his offer without crediting it—and besides, after a battle, nothing seems very strange. He barely had time to explain the singular conditions of the gift: The one who possesses it must offer it aloud, and the one who is to receive it must accept it the same way. The man who gives it loses it forever.

The narrator accepted the memory and, like anyone who entered into a Faustian contract, paid the consequences. It is analog memory after all, full of subjective fantasies and objective myths. Professor Emeritus Herman Sörgel, former soldier and now a librarian, is writing the story in 1924. No external hard drives or Universal Serial Bus for memory storage yet. The human brain as giddy receptacle or canister for encyclopedic knowledge, for metaphors and puns, word plays and play words, is just as unreliable as the psyche of Hamlet or of the King of Scotland.

No one may capture in a single instant the fullness of his entire past. The gift was never granted even to Shakespeare, so far as I know, much less to me, who was but his partial heir. A man's memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities. St. Augustine speaks, if I am not mistaken, of the palaces and the caverns of memory. That second metaphor is the more fitting one. It was into those caverns that I descended.

Memory—pale representation of reality—is indefinite. It can betray, as it often does, even the most ardent seeker of knowledge. It cannot strive for comprehensiveness or clarity. It glosses over things. It elides the specific and offers platitudes. The story is full of them: "The exact date is not important"; "such specifics are in fact vaguenesses"; "an undistinguished place that might have been any pub in London." The whole premise is open to interpretation, just like the gift received.

By being Shakespeare, the professor cheats by looking ahead at the solution to the crossword puzzle instead of wrestling with the tragedies and comedies themselves. Where is the challenge in that? The unattainable is suddenly within reach. Or so he thought.

I realized that the three faculties of the human soul—memory, understanding, and will—are not some mere Scholastic fiction. Shakespeare's memory was able to reveal to me only the circumstances of the man Shakespeare. Clearly, these circumstances do not constitute the uniqueness of the poet; what matters is the literature the poet produced with that frail material.

Stranded in a cave, human memory gets shaky. Mental adventures cannot cope with the rush of words in a literary minefield. The dual personality in him, Shakespeare and his own, clashes. In Shakespeare's biographical cave he is lost, unable to find his literary bearings. The professor was overwhelmed by the material of the poet's life and times, but he "[does] not know how to tell a story. I do not know how to tell my own story, which is a great deal more extraordinary than Shakespeare's."


How often a reader was disappointed with the creator of stories. The stories themselves are brilliant fictional narratives that often provoke or provide a good enough dose of distraction. But the writer or the writer's life was inconsequential, not even necessary to the fictions. The writer was extraneous and needed to be edited out of the narrative.


There's nothing like Spanish Literature Month in full swing to break one's vacation from blogging. Stu and Richard again host this exciting fixture in the blog world.

"Shakespeare's Memory" is a titular story from the final collection of ficciones by Borges that includes three more stories. The translation by Andrew Hurley appears in Collected Fictions (Penguin, 1998). The original can be found in Obras completas, 1975-1985 (Emece Editores, 1989).

I cannot vouch for the merits of Hurley's translations. Tim Parks, in his review of a Korean novel, offers a right-hand rule when evaluating translations from a language one does not speak.

Unable to compare translation and original or even to check single English words against the corresponding Korean, since I cannot distinguish one Korean character from another, I have but one resource. I must consider the relationship between content and style in the English translation. In a literary text a certain content manifests itself in a certain style. There is no separating the two. The difficulty with translation is always to reconstruct that relationship. The danger is that one winds up with a voice that may be fluent, but that sits uneasily with the content.

I have read only about a dozen or so stories of Borges in Hurley's translation. I suppose the blind writer's tropes are as recognizable in his version as in those by others. If both content and style—as well as their relationship—are merely reconstructed in a translation, then what is translation criticism but a bold enterprise of second-guessing. Content is recognizable, style is harder to detect, their relationship more so. The difficulty with translation criticism (if one has not read the original or does not speak the original or is unable to compare the original from its by-product), is always to reconstruct the reconstructed relationship between style and content.

But I find it's not only these two poles—style and content—that need to be weighed. One would have to have the memory of the blind writer to perfectly capture his vision of the world. As Bolaño has mentioned about Don Quixote, Cervantes may be badly translated or incompletely translated, certain pages ripped apart or missing, but his vision will still come across in a flawed translation. He is still intact and whole in those pages. In the combination of style and content that reveals a certain perspective or worldview.

What if you are gifted with the memory of Borges? Would you be a constant interpreter of a writer's dreams, of mirrors and shadows? Beset by doubles and knife fights, mazes and forked paths? The universe of possibilities contained in a portable kernel or seed. Earn the Argentine verse and the English imagination both at the same time. Why be Shakespeare if you can be Borges?


  1. "Why be Shakespeare if you can be Borges?" What a great question. Thanks for coming out of blogging retirement, Rise. I enjoyed this Borges and I-styled riff about the creative artist and the "mere" man behind the artist.

  2. Thanks, Richard. I suppose the bookish memory of Borges would be the perfect image of a labyrinth. But then, Pierre Menard's memory would have been an interesting proposition as well.