- Borges and Joyce: An Infinite Conversation by Patricia Novillo-Corvalán
Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce: two blind authors who, in their irrepressible inventiveness, celebrate their cities and their local roots, while embracing the span of a literary tradition reaching all the way back, through William Shakespeare and Dante, to another blind bard, Homer. This is the subject of Patricia Novillo-Corvalán’s Borges and Joyce, a book of criticism on the two writers of comparative literature, world literature, and reception studies. The subtitle, An Infinite Conversation, is a precise encapsulation of the author’s theme and method: she shows Borges to have been conversant with all of Joyce’s works; she puts the writers in dialogue with each other; and she demonstrates how this conversation extends to an infinity of other texts and textual versions, because—like Pierre Menard’s Quixote, like Kafka’s precursors1—the authors of the past are constantly being re-written and re-created anew.
Novillo-Corvalán follows Borges’s engagement with Joyce from his 1925 first review of Ulysses and translation of fragments from “Penelope” until 1982, when the 83-year-old Argentine author took part in the International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin on the centenary of Joyce’s birth.2 Through his essays and ficciones, Borges is revealed as one of the finest critics of Joyce; Borges and Joyce are shown to be agents in the constant transformation of tradition—in the same way that, for example, Dante was an agent in the transformative evolution of the epical tradition of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Statius into his rich medieval poem, La Divina Commedia. What emerges is a wide set of relations—extremely complex and precise, sometimes nearly invisible but surprisingly strong, like the threads of a spider’s web—between this tradition and the encyclopedic, expansive work of Joyce, on the one hand, and the miniaturist work of Borges, on the other. As Novillo-Corvalán argues, if Joyce took from Dante the universal, all-encompassing scope of the work, Borges points out that Dante invented the compressed encounter, the short episode that [End Page 689] contains a world in a nutshell.
In Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translation, Patrick O’Neill argues that when translations of Joyce’s works appeared early (as in France and Germany) they represented conservative forces that stifled, rather than encouraged, new versions.3 Novillo-Corvalán’s book shows that the early translations and promotions of Ulysses in France nevertheless paved the way for more innovative, adventurous adaptations of Joyce’s work, stimulating the creativity of other authors in faraway contexts to produce masterpieces that can rightfully take their place alongside Joyce’s, not as epigones but as equals, opening up new horizons for their own national literatures. Thus chapter 1 charts the initial Argentine reception of Joyce, thanks to Borges’s receiving a copy of Ulysses, recently published in Paris, from the Argentine writer Ricardo Güiraldes, who had, in turn, received the copy from his friend Valery Larbaud (12). Borges’s review of the novel in the avant-garde journal Proa in 1925 appeared alongside his translations of “obscene” fragments of “Penelope” that were being censored elsewhere (13). Accurate analyses of these are accompanied by Novillo-Corvalán’s informative discussion of the Argentine literary context. All this is very interesting in itself; what I found additionally intriguing was the role that Larbaud, a promoter of Joyce in continental Europe, had in this operation of cultural transmission to another continent (he was also fluent in Spanish).
The story of Borges’s writings about the Irish author continues in chapter 2, where it is narrated with many more fascinating details. Borges remained the advocate for Joyce in South America, publishing articles about him (including his obituary in 19414), about his works (including reviews of Finnegans Wake5), and about translations (such as José Salas Subirat’s 1945 complete translation of Ulysses6). He did so both in literary journals such as Proa and Sur and in a mass...