jorge luis borges: 2 posts

Perfume in the Library : Danilo Kis and De Profundis

There are two reasons for me to bring Danilo Kiš’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead into my scented library. First of all, his short stories were recommended by a Bois de Jasmin reader, Maja. Second, Kiš (pronounced as Kish) is a master at describing the intangible and the evanescent. Born in Subotica, Danube Banovina, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Kiš (1935–1989) came from a family that he described as “an ethnographic rarity,” an artifact of the disappearing world–his father was of Hungarian Jewish origin, while his mother came from Montenegro. The lack of precision and neatly defined categories that mark the countries on the crossroads, the borderlands, are sometimes seen as problematic. But Kiš’s work, with its complex panoply of inspirations and traditions, shows that nebulous boundaries can produce many riches.

danilo-kis-lutens

The Encyclopedia of the Dead, written in 1983, contains 9 stories. Kiš insisted that he was writing neither science fiction nor fantasy, placing himself in the magical realism tradition of Jorge Luis Borges. There are references to many different writers such as James Joyce, Bruno Schulz, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivo Andrić and Miroslav Krleža, but inspiration from Borges is the main leitmotif. Some stories answer Borges’s puzzles, others take up Borges’s challenges–“let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it…” (Borges, “Averroës’ Search”).

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Beautiful Prose

Halfway through my graduate studies, I remember experiencing an intense craving for beautiful prose. I was training as a political scientist, and the texts on politics and economics, written by academics for other academics in a dry style favoring passive construction, began to make me listless. Respite arrived in the form of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which remains one of my favorite pieces of writing–clear, concise, powerful.

books

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, or reader. When I think of the books that left the biggest impression on me, they are written in a crystalline clear style, poetic but without unnecessary embellishments. Beautiful prose to me is a harmony between substance and style.

I don’t intend to compile a comprehensive list, merely a snapshot of my favorites today, but if I were to create an anthology of beautiful writing, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) would be one of the star contenders. Set before the Second World War, it is the story of one man’s infatuation with the aristocratic family and their world. There is passion, loss, betrayal and reflections on faith and religion. Waugh’s most introspective novel and also his most masterful, it combines beautiful writing with sharp observations on upper class society and its decline.

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