10 June 2013

On the telling of a tale and the singing of verses

Nowadays, when certain book reviewers and blurb-spitters describe a book as an "epic novel", more likely than not it means that the book is too long to finish in a few sittings. Say, 500 pages at the minimum, in small print. Maybe the story continues through the next installments, each book in the now-expanding series stretching the story in ridiculous directions. More likely it's a sprawling historical romance or intergenerational family saga, maybe a space opera, populated by a dozen characters (humans or aliens) whose individual stories intertwine and whose destinies collide in an extravagant, show-stopping ending.

Such "epic stories" are more or less the bestseller kind; it may even be full of sobering surprises and shattering exposés about the human condition. But ultimately devoid of richness in the telling, of a rhythmic and singing prose style. A story that was just that: without linguistic intent. The epic in epic novels has been turned into a soap-like slipperiness, predictable in its unpredictability. The epic is robbed of its essential qualities, disabused of its traditional conceptions, becoming now a genre based on page count and spine thickness. This species of the novel, if it exists, must be returned to its literal rendering. The epic has to seek its epicenter.

In an epic lecture—third in a series—called "The Telling of the Tale", Borges, again:

If we think of the novel and the epic, we are tempted to fall into thinking that the chief difference lies in the difference between verse and prose, in the difference between singing something and stating something. But I think that there is a greater difference. I think the difference lies in the fact that the important thing about the epic is a hero—a man who is a pattern for all men. While, as Mencken pointed out, the essence of most novels lies in the breaking down of a man, in the degeneration of character.

Borges believed that there are only a few patterns or finite number of metaphors in rhymed verses. From this idea he also deduced that there are only a few templates for the plot of an epic story. The first requirement is the hero, along with the well-used elements—villains, heroine, sidekick, insurmountable odds, true tests of character and strength, stupendous fight scenes. The second is the form. It is in verse, and it must be sung.

The modern hybrid "epic novel" therefore must integrate the conventional epic requirements into prose. The hero is easy to come by, but telling the tale in a singing prose, not a prosaic prose, is another species of telling altogether. Predictably, Borges finds the modern novels are an epic fail.

We come now to our time, and we find this very strange circumstance. We have had two world wars, and somehow no epic has come from them—except perhaps The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom—and I find many epic qualities there—in The Seven Pillars the book is hampered by the fact that the hero is the teller, and so sometimes he has to belittle himself, he has to make himself human, he has to make himself far too believable. In fact, he has to fall into the tricks of a novelist.

The need for the epic (or for the mode of the epic) to weave into the fabric of fiction is necessary for Borges because he sees in the novelistic literature the possibility of gaining a heroic quality. But postmodern narrative tendencies irritate him.

I think that the novel is breaking down. I think that all these very daring and very interesting experiments with the novel—for example, the idea of the shifting of time, the idea of the story being told by different characters—all those are leading to the moment when we shall feel that the novel is no longer with us.

It may not be surprising that the old man prefers the grand style and the great storytelling tradition of heroes and deeds and the singing of them. His brand of fiction romanticizes the mythopoetic tradition. He almost apologizes for his preference, saying he may be an old-fashioned man from the nineteenth century. But myth-making has been with us since time immemorial. As long as the tales are being spoken and sung, handed down from singers to listeners, myths are created and recreated, over and over. After the words of the painter Whistler, Borges proclaims: "Art happens every time we read a poem." Which can be tweaked in this case: A myth is reborn every time we sing an epic novel.

I'm not sure whether Borges will consider João Guimarães Rosa's Grande Sertão: Veredas an epic novel. I'm almost sure he did not even read it. In the exacting terms he give for his type of novel, it fails in several respects. For one, it is told by the hero Riobaldo. And it is full of time shifts, with the muddled Riobaldo criss-crossing time and space in an always apologetic telling. He withholds information from the reader. He deliberately delays the story for—it's really rather irksome—the full impact of the outcome of—the way he always breaks off his narrative—every staggering showdown.

Ah, but hold on, wait a minute: I'm getting off the track. I was about to forget Vupes! My story would be neither accurate nor complete if I left out Vupes, for he comes very much into the picture.

Riobaldo is always getting off the track, circling around his long-drawn out story like a thirsty vulture to the corpse of his memory. Random thoughts assail him. Riobaldo, the hero, the ceaseless teller, belittles himself. He almost surely falls into the tricks of novel writing, making himself too believable.

I know that I am telling this badly, just hitting the high spots. I ramble. But it is not to cover up; don't think that. About serious matters, the normal ones, I have told you almost everything. I have no hesitation. You are a man who judges others as you would yourself; you are not one to censure. And my past deeds have been invalidated, proscribed. My respectability is solid. Now I am like a tapir in a pool; nobody can catch me. Little of my life is left to me. I am talking foolishness.

His words can be endearing and exasperating at the same time. They often linger like an unspoken commentary on the poverty and brutality of people around him. But whether his story ultimately describes the "breaking down of a man" or "degeneration of character" (as Borges cites Mencken) is debatable. I'm not even sure if Riobaldo is the hero of the novel.

Yet in many ways Guimarães Rosa tips the balance of the novel toward epic proportions. There is singing, and there are songs of old excerpted in it, ballads and lyrics. Riobaldo names his horse after a singer whose song haunts him. There are myths, myth-making from his own mouth, bygone stories of great jagunço chiefs. His is not a totally scripted tale. The seeming spontaneity underpins the deep sorrows of his heart. His stories follow the course of a river from the headwaters to the rapids, feeding into countless tributaries, according to the dictates of a compassionate memory.

As I think of them that is how I relate them. You are very kind to listen to me. There are hours long past that remain much closer to us than other more recent ones. You know yourself how it is.

The trickery of the modern novelist usually lies in the handling of memory and in the investigation of a hero's fallibility. And the modern novel, epic or otherwise, is full of these tricks.

The modern epic novel that Borges described is probably a hypothetical one. It was once possible, but modern writing has split the two tasks—the telling of a tale and the singing of verses as mutually exclusive ways of storytelling. Nowadays epic singing in prose is an ideal, like a perfect translation, impossible to write. But he is just too full of hope to give up his dream of the epic. His prophecy of its inevitable comeback, in the form of a novel, is a challenge both to writers and the readers who will sing them.

I think that if the telling of a tale and the singing of verse could come together again, then a very important thing might happen.


I have optimism, I have hope. And as the future holds many things—as the future, perhaps, holds all things—I think that the epic will come back to us. I think that the poet shall once again be a maker. I mean, he will tell a story and he will also sing it. And we will not think of those two things as different, even as we do not think they are different in Homer or in Virgil.

That is from his lecture of 1967 or 68. Riobaldo, his precursor, is amenable on the aspect of songs bearing the heroes out. In his own novelistic way, Riobaldo sings his own tale.

"The war was a big one, it lasted a long time, it filled this sertão. Everybody is going to talk about it, throughout the North, in Minas and the whole of Bahia, and elsewhere, for years to come. They are going to make up songs about the many deeds."


Sô Candelario looked up with wonder on his face, and in an oddly quiet way spoke from his heart, in a pleasant voice:

"Let there be fame and glory. Everybody will talk about this for many years and in many places, giving praise to our honor. They will make up verses about it in the market places, and it might even be written up in city newspapers."

And maybe in novels too—who can say?


  1. Whether Borges would have enjoyed GS:V or not is a wonderful question to take up. It has so many things Borges would seem to like: epic storytelling, Dante references, a delight in language. And yet so many things he wouldn't: experimentation with form, shifting times, novelistic trickery. I also wanted to take up the question of whether GS:V should be considered a Boom novel toward the end of my last post and then as a follow-up in another one, but I might be all partied out writing about the novel now (not talking about it--just writing about it). "Epic fail," very funny!

    1. Richard, that would be a very good question to ponder, GS:V as part of the Boom (or pre-Boom?) tradition. The party is still in full swing, I think.

    2. My familiarity with Borges is far more limited than yours (both of you), but I'd argue that JGR manages to take these experimental elements Borges might not have liked and managed to make them likable. I actually didn't find much "novelistic trickery" in GS:V. The shifting times, for instance, aren't some abstract narrative experiment, but a completely believable portrait of how someone might tell a story - "Oh wait, wait, I forgot the part about the...". Even the "Joycean" language volcano isn't pretentious, but rather ingeniously placed in the mouth of a Character (with a capital "C") not unlike a few elderly people I've known whose enjoyment of telling tales from their past is like performance, with impersonations of voice and inventive colloquialisms and colorful figurative language and lots of sound effects. I'd be willing to bet Borges would have liked GS:V. And it may well be the modern epic for which he'd been looking. But it's also not just an epic, just as it's not just a romance.

    3. Rise, you--and Scott's recent arrival at the party--have encouraged me to stay and pull another beer out of the fridge and write at least one more post on the pseudo-question of whether GS:V is a Boom or pre-Boom novel or not. Hopefully, I'll find some time for that this weekend because I've found just the criticism foil for it.

      Scott, I think many of these points you make are great. However, Borges could be an unpredictable critic. I'd have to think about this a lot more, so I'm glad the Borges thing was Rise's idea and not mine! :D

    4. That may be the case, Scott. Borges would probably have liked the novel. For its plot alone, it's obvious JGR is a teller of a tale. Because--what a tale it is! JGR was also first a poet before a novelist, so the poetic tendencies in his fiction must have come from the "maker" of verse in him. Borges also predicted that this novel will come from America. And maybe there are some out there which already satisfied his criteria. One candidate I can think of is The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy.

      Richard, I look forward to toasting a few more glasses with the readers.

  2. Interesting, in Jorge Amado's Showdown the people of Tocaia Grande also live on as heroes in songs and folktales after they're exterminated by the authorities.

    It doesn't surprise me Borges prefer epic poems to novels. The epic doesn't deal with the messy, grimy aspects of human life that aren't found in his short-stories either. At the same time he had a romantic view of men, he idolized the Buenos Aires street ruffians who bore scars from knife fights and he loved to sing songs celebrating these men who died for honour and to show their bravery. How similar they are to an Odysseus, who massacres all the men who court his beloved Penelope. On reading these ancient heroes, there's something exciting about relishing their simple way of solving problems, something primal that leaves us satisfied. At the same time, I don't think their methods would be very truthful in our era. Characters have become far more complex since then, which I realize could upset a writer who never had much use for characters.

    1. "Primal" is the word, yes. Borges would go all-out for the courageous hero, he would be skeptical of anti-heroes. And weapons like knives would be more exciting. No guns for him.

    2. Well, he gets a whole maelstom of knives near the end of GS:V.