15/03/2018

The Indispensable Edgar

It's always heartening to find oneself in agreement with a genius, though said genius on another hand may find it depressing depending on how bright one are. I hope Jorge Luis Borges wouldn't be too ashamed to be associated with yours truly. But I digress; let's get straight to the point.

Jorge Luis Borges 
Borges was famously a fan of detective fiction (I stress "detective" as other forms of crime fiction didn't seem to appeal to him as much) and it was thus inevitable that he addresses the subject in one of his conferences, which he did. Sadly the text doesn't appear to be available in English (though it is in French) and the content is too meaty for an extensive summary here; I may come back to it in future posts. What concerns us here is what he says about the putative father of the genre, Edgar Allan Poe. Borges credits him with being one of only two writers, both American as it happens, without which modern literature as we know it wouldn't exist and also for inventing a new kind of reader, one that doesn't take what the author says at face value. Borges then proceeds to show what such a reader would make of the famous opening of Don Quixote which admittedly allows itself particularly well to such a reading. The first point, however, is of particular interest as it is the one in which I have been in agreement with Borges even before I read him. 


English-speaking readers and critics, especially American ones, are often skeptical of Poe's literary value and bemused at his continued popularity, ascribing it either to the sensational and thus appealing nature of his work or to improvement in translation. Rarely do they take him seriously as a founding figure of American literature; they rather grant that status to the more literarily respectable Hawthorne or Melville. 

And yet Poe, as Borges saw, is indispensable in a way that neither Nathaniel or Herman are. The influence of both writers, and I'm saying that as a fan of the former*, is mostly limited to North American literature. Poe on the other hand is a global phenomenon, his heirs are to be found all over the world and many of them were major players in their own right. Strike him out and suddenly there is no Baudelaire, Stevenson, Dostoyevsky, Verne and of course Borges - to name just a few - at least as we know them. He is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for the existence of genres that didn't or barely existed before him - crime fiction of course, but also science-fiction, horror and even adventure in its modern sense. Finally, he contributed to the rise of the tale or short story as a viable and legitimate form of fiction. Now it doesn't necessarily make him a writer of Hawthorne's or Melville's caliber on purely literary grounds (I think it does, but I'm open to discussion) but his legacy is far more important and enduring. 

Not bad for a guy who died at 40 in abject poverty and near obscurity.


4 commentaires:

Mike Gray a dit…

Xavier - "Indispensable" is the right word for Poe, and kudos to Borges for pointing this out. Too many litterateurs dismiss him out of hand, possibly out of jealousy. Poe may have been erratic in his personal life, but when it came to achieving that singularity of effect which he regarded as of paramount importance in the short story he had—and still has—no peers. Compared to Poe, Lovecraft is a pale—and verbose—imitation. Perhaps you'll be able to offer the Borges paper in translation in the near future. — Best regards, Mike

Christophe a dit…

What is the reference to the text by Borges in French?

Xavier a dit…

Christophe --

The essay can be found in this book:

http://www.gallimard.fr/Catalogue/GALLIMARD/Folio/Folio-essais/Conferences



Christophe a dit…

Thanks, Xavier.