Sunday, October 17, 2010

A literary mystery, or Borges keeps on giving...

at first blush, i was excited to find this anthology because nothing would suit me better than to sit at Jorge Luis Borges' knee, and have him tell what his favourite stories were, or even have him read them to me. of course, this book was not just edited by Borges, but also Silvina Ocampo, and Adolfo Bioy Casares, who is quoted thusly by Ursula K. Le Guin in the intro, saying the book came out of a conversation "about fantastic literature... discussing the stories which seemed best to us. One of us suggested that if we put together the fragments of the same type we had listed in our notebooks, we would have a good book."

and so i began. i read the first story, and liked it. then i read the second. it is quite short, so i include it for your enjoyment here:

A Woman Alone With Her Soul
Thomas Bailey Aldrich

A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The door bell rings.

i stopped. i read it again. i thought, "who is this Thomas Bailey Aldrich? why haven't i heard of him?" i read the short biographical info provided by his name: Thomas Bailey Aldrich, North American poet and novelist, was born in New Hampshire in 1835 and died in Boston in 1907. He was the author of Cloth of Gold (1874), Wyndham Tower (1879), and An Old Town by the Sea (1893). i thought, "okay... maybe this story was never published in his lifetime. i didn't expect people were writing stories like this in the 19th century." and, "wow. doorbells have been around a long time. this story seems like it could have been written by Ben Loory when my back was turned except this anthology has been around since 1940, and the last revision was in 1976. okay. i'd better do a google search on Aldrich, a man writing stories that could have been written yesterday."

and so i researched. i found that Aldrich has been given a lot of credit: the first appearance of a detective in english literature (The Stillwater Tragedy - 1880), and that critics feel the semi-autobiographical novel he wrote in 1870 (The Story of a Bad Boy) anticipated Huck Finn. All this despite the fact he was primarily a poet (rhyming verse), editor, and writer of travel books. i began to suspect that Aldrich was eldritch.

i kept on, looking through materials at Project Gutenberg, hoping to find other stories by Aldrich like "A Woman Alone With Her Soul" but nothing read like it did. i kept looking for the collected volume cited in the sources and acknowledgements of my anthology, and found that all 322 pages of vol. 9 had been scanned by somebody at the University of Toronto library (for some reason i found this creepy) and posted online. there was a 'search text' function so i copied the title of the story in and there were no matches. i was confused. i flipped through pages of the book; again, nothing read like this story read, or was as short as it was... nothing matched up. i stopped, pondered, and did another web search, this time for the story's title, and found it in a listing of sci fi stories had the following note: "this is most likely by Jorge Luís Borges" with no further elaboration. i found this statement on a couple of other sites, and then i began to think that Borges was making me believe in books that didn't actually exist again (his own "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" appears in this anthology, with its tricksy encyclopedia). i wrote Ben, asked him if he had written the story, told him that Borges might have, apologized for bothering him, and searched on, and finally came upon a trail of emails by a Dennis Hien, from a mailing list called Project Wombat that gave me something. somebody had been searching for the shortest sci fi story ever written there, at Project Wombat, in 2004 and Hien did some research (though he couldn't find the initial conversation string... the text i read was from 2007. it turned out another one of my favourites, Dashiell Hammett, in an introduction to an anthology he had edited called "Creeps By Night" in 1931, said,

"One of my own favorites is that attributed, I believe, to Thomas Bailey Aldrich

A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.

That has, particularly, the restraint that is almost invariably
the mark of the effective weird tale.",

There is no reference to the title of the story as it appears in my anthology, and I will need to seek out the Hammett anthology to see if it can provide any further clues. My gut tells me that Borges/Ocampo/Casares must have stumbled upon this story in Hammett's anthology, at some point in the nine years that elapsed between the publication of the two, and decided to use it. and yet, this story was not in the vol. 9 text. but Hien cast further light (i imagine through his own researches because no references were included) by revealing that the kernel of the story idea was Aldrich's, that it was published in his essays "Leaves from a Notebook" collected in a book called the Ponkapag Papers, which was in its turn collected in that self-same volume 9, that i had discovered on line. The text that Aldrich wrote is as follows:

"Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, New York or London. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell!"

and so, this is not the story attributed to Aldrich i had read. it is a seed yes, but the differences are striking, and it is not the idea, but that micro short that resounds in my mind (and in others' minds: i found a lengthy blog entry from 2007 dissecting the tiny gem in the course of my research). it seems to me that this was as close as Borges felt he could get to finding the genesis of the story that Hammett shared, that originated with Aldrich, and so he referenced the works vol 9, and it seems likely that Borges invented the title, and finally, led me on this merry chase seventy years later. i wonder if Hammett actually read the story the way he quoted it or if i respond to it because this version is his version of what he had read in Aldrich. i still have many questions and am doubtful that i will find answers. i realize this is not really a review of the Book of Fantasy. i am after all, only on page 16, and there are many stories to read but this chase has reminded me of my passion for Borges, and how razor-sharp the line between truth and fiction is, that life is mystery, and reverberating in my mind is PKD quoting Dante in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer: God is the book of the universe".

i am tempted to give the book five stars right now though. i mean, how can i not?


i just realized i never came back and finished the review for this. i did end up changing my rating to four stars: i was really blown away by some of these stories:

- "the man who collected the first of september", 1973 by tor age bringsvaerd i've already re-read several times since first finding it in this book, and can't quite get over it.

- b. traven, another favourite of mine has a story "macario" included which i'd never read before that has really reverberated in my mind, and i can't recommend enough.

then there was a sleeper: months later, walking down the street, i found myself preoccupied by the recollection of the story called "the horses of abdera" by leopoldo lugones (i've subsequently realized borges had written a biography about him). i was also thrilled to find included stories i already adored by may sinclair, rudyard kipling, saki, and wilde, and of course, borges himself.

there was also the inclusion of a waugh story called "the man who liked dickens" which i recognized as the ending of his novel a handful of dust, which had seemed out of keeping with the rest of the novel when i first read it (my review of that is here: finding the publication history made me realize waugh had published that story on its own before marrying it to his novel which really explains a lot. another literary mystery solved!

i did not love the story contributions of borges' fellow editors, bioy casares, and ocampo as much. i found some of the minor authors they added to the collection perhaps could not stand up against the finesse and craft of the greats i've already mentioned, and others by our old pals tolstoy, poe, and de maupassant. i'm pretty sure borges only loved the ones i do, anyway. :) that said, i think this is an impressive collection that is a requisite for anyone who loves the bent, and the strange, the fable and the twilight.

yet another update:

i just found out something exciting! as i said in the review, and my status updates as i read this collection, how thrilling it was to find that borges liked the same stories as i do, and i was convinced that he selected the ones i liked best. as i noted above, one selected was from a collection i had happened upon six months earlier, the haunting short story by may sinclair, "where their fire is not quenched" i was looking up obscure books today, and decided i needed to try to find may sinclair's novel, the dark night, and while i was searching, this came up on alibris:

Cuentos Memorables Segun Jorge Luis Borges
by Jorge Luis Borges

In a 1935 magazine article, celebrated author Jorge Luis Borges explained why he chose Mary Sinclair's short story "Donde su fuego nunca se apaga" as the most memorable story hed ever read, while he mentioned 11 other of his personal favorites. Inspired by Borges statements in the article, this anthology gathers an array of magnificent short stories by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and O. Henry, among others.*listing*more&full=1

how exciting! will we love the same o. henry story? I'LL FIND OUT!!! :)

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This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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