Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations (Literary Conversations Series)

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Borges, Burgin, and Infinity

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The first thing you notice is the books. They line the walls of Richard Burgin’s house. His large foyer is uncluttered and, one gets the sense, rarely used. But just beyond that is a room with a large desk against one wall, a piano against the other. Stacks spill over from all sides of the bookshelves: a Japanese translation of one of Burgin’s books, a candid photo of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a poster in French for a reading Burgin gave in Paris in 2011. This is all evidence of an eclectic, accomplished life.

The life is also an eccentric one. Burgin, who has authored nineteen books, does not use a computer. Every few weeks an assistant takes his spiral notebooks of prose and types them into word documents. He’s never learned to drive a car. He’s intrigued by technology but not adept at its use. He occasionally has to call his assistant and ask that she log into his NetZero account and read him his emails remotely. Back in his 20s in New York, he once invited his literary friends to an apartment party but on the day of the gathering a romantic entanglement in Boston caused him to miss his flight home. He called a neighbor who had a spare key to his apartment and asked him to leave the door open. Burgin later heard his party had been a hit.

Ask Burgin when his life in letters began, and he’ll tell you that an early pivotal moment was as an undergraduate in a Spanish class at Brandeis University when he was assigned “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. This was 1967. Borges was read widely in Latin America and Europe, but much of what would make him famous in the United States was not yet widely available in English.

“The Aleph” rearranged Burgin’s conscious the way a grenade could be said to rearrange a room. The story, like most of Borges’ work, is fantastical. Its protagonist seeks to write a poem that describes every square inch of the entire planet down to the minutest detail. To do this he utilizes an object called the Aleph, through which he can see everywhere at once. Even if one were able to experience the infinite, the story posits, it would be impossible to convey this experience to another human. Infinity is therefore linked to isolation, and it was this perspective on infinity that most fascinated Burgin. Within weeks he’d read everything else Borges had written that had been translated to English. He considered Borges a literary god. This reaction to Borges had everything to do with the fact that Burgin, only twenty, had already been contemplating the idea of infinity for several years.

Burgin’s parents were both child music prodigies. His mother, Ruth Posselt, was a violin soloist and his father (also Richard) served as concertmaster for 42 years for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Burgin’s father used to tell his son that art is the last illusion. He said that artists who acted as if their work would be remembered after their death were fooling themselves. Maybe someone’s work would last a hundred years but not five hundred, not a millennium. It won’t last forever. Artists delude themselves about the impermanence and importance of their work. What artists make isn’t going to endure. It’s not the usual fodder of father-son chats, but Burgin’s father was nothing if not a serious man. And Burgin felt his father had a point. He’d always been a voracious reader and, even as a young man, it irked him that this fundamental truth of artistic mortality went unacknowledged in fiction. The avoidance of the topic seemed proof that art was, as his father said, all based on a lie. Burgin came to think of this as the conundrum of infinity.

Then Borges appeared. Finally, Burgin thought, someone writing about the conundrum, rather than writing around it.

Then, while Burgin was still an undergraduate, Borges accepted the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard, which was only a twenty-minute drive from Brandeis. Upon hearing the news, Burgin was so ecstatic that he ran without stopping all the way from Harvard Square to his student housing in Central Square a mile away. It was a spring day, the warming weather lent itself well to optimism. He’d spend the summer preparing for Borges’ arrival.

“These were the days when people still listed their numbers,” Burgin says. “Writers, even famous ones, didn’t hide behind answering machines and caller ID.”

As part of the Harvard fellowship, Borges would give six public lectures in Boston — but Burgin wasn’t content to be only a spectator. He called Borges one afternoon and though Burgin’s memory of that initial conversation is clouded by the excitement he felt at the time, whatever introduction he made worked. He and Borges set a date for a drink.

Burgin first laid eyes on the man through a window on the ground floor of the building where Borges was staying. The 67-year-old was being helped into an elevator. He walked with a cane. But despite his age and being nearly completely blind, Borges exuded an easy gravitas. His genius was palpable. He put those around him at ease. As a gift that first meeting Burgin brought a vinyl recording of Bach’s fourth and fifth Brandenburg concertos on which his father played violin. Burgin wrote about this first meeting: “[Borges] always makes you feel that it is he who is the grateful one, and that your company is the only gift he needs.”

What blossomed that first meeting wasn’t a friendship, per se, but Burgin was invited back. For the second meeting he brought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, hoping to save some of Borges’s words and create an audio souvenir. The second meeting went as well as the first. The two men discussed Borges’s stories, of which Burgin had a near encyclopedic knowledge. Back at his apartment, listening to the tapes, Burgin realized that Borges’ words, even in casual conversation, were art.

The realization led Burgin to subsequent meetings, which he again recorded. Burgin transcribed by hand the interviews and compiled them into a book, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, published in 1969. The book runs 150 pages and covers Borges’ thoughts on a host of writers, from Henry James to Kafka to Sartre. He discusses the bombing of Hiroshima and the Nazis. He talks with Burgin about the problem of time and, of course, infinity.

The timing of Conversations could not have been better. More of Borges’ works were becoming available in English. Literary Americans were becoming Borges fanatics and regarded Burgin’s book as an important contribution to the understanding of this new preeminent voice in world literature. Borges is accessible, but he is also an endless riddle. Reading Borges tends to begat reading more Borges which eventually leads to reading about him in hopes of finding something that will explain the mind from where it all comes. At the time of its publication, Burgin’s book was practically the only book in English about the Argentinian. It sold well for a book of its kind. It was reviewed positively in Harper’s and The New Yorker and many other outlets. The New York Times ran two pieces on it, one in the daily and the other in the Sunday book review. In 1969, Burgin was only 21, less than a year out of college.

“I thought it would always be that easy,” Burgin says. His next book would take him fifteen years.

After Boston, Burgin lived in New York before moving to Philadelphia, where he taught at Drexel University. At Drexel he founded Boulevard, an internationally distributed literary magazine currently in its thirty-second year of publication. John Updike, John Ashberry and Singer were in early issues, Joyce Carol Oates in its most recent. Former U.S. Poet laureates Charles Simic and Billy Collins are frequent contributors. In 1996, the magazine moved from Philadelphia to St. Louis when Burgin took a teaching job at St. Louis University. Ranking literary magazines is a fickle business, but on most lists of journals Boulevard can typically be found somewhere in the top twenty.

Fifteen years after Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, Burgin published his second book, also a book of interviews. This time they were with Singer, who had won the Nobel Prize several years earlier. Burgin’s first book of short fiction, Man Without Memory, came out later in the eighties, and the nineties saw two more collections and a novel. He’s published steadily since. Several of his stories have won prizes. He composed music prolifically. His career is a success by any reasonable measure.

Still, if you talk to him long enough he’ll mention that none of his books were ever picked up by a big New York publishing house, that innovations in individual stories were never recognized by the literary establishment. None of his books of fiction got the attention that the Borges book did. But, he says with a smile, “I’ve never met a writer who feels like he or she got as much as they deserved.”

You get the sense that this lack of recognition gnaws on him, that ambition can turn in on itself and become something like bitterness. However, it needs to be said that this is an aspect of his personality that will only reveal itself if you talk to him over the course of several weeks for several hours at a time. If you talk to him for just a few minutes, he’s going to tell you about his son.

Burgin, like his father before, talks to his own son about how an artist should regard infinity and the impermanence of what they make. These conversations aren’t purely academic. Burgin’s son (who goes by Ricky) is a budding filmmaker. In the fall of 2016 the two of them adapted Richard’s story “Do You Like this Room?” into a short film titled All Ears. The story concerns a man and a woman after their second date, back at the man’s house. The woman is a therapist and the man could be easily categorized as someone in desperate need of therapy. He suggests they play “the god game,” in which one person plays the part of god and the other plays the fearful believer. The conversation quickly turns dark and then the action does too. Richard worked with his son in adapting the story into a script and at one point in the writing process the younger Burgin crossed out half the dialogue his father had written. Richard responded by telling his son, “I think you’re extremely talented and I have no doubt your talent will one day eclipse mine. But I’ve published nineteen books and you’re 19 years old. Do you really think you write better dialogue than me?”

“Yes,” his son replied. “I do.”

All Ears has been received favorably thus far. Ricky has submitted it to festivals and it’s currently viewable on YouTube. The 16-minute film is solid work for a filmmaker of any age, but it’s especially accomplished given the project was helmed by a college sophomore. Ricky recruited the entire cast and used his father’s house as a shooting location. He designed the sets and transformed his father’s unused foyer into a troubled man’s bachelor pad. He hung lights, storyboarded and blocked shots.

The first day of filming came. The man and woman leads arrived along with the film’s small crew. Richard disappeared. He wanted to give his son space to direct, though he couldn’t resist eavesdropping. He listened through a wall as his son gave measured, astute feedback. The set was filled with actors and professionals who were all in their late twenties and early thirties, but it was the nineteen-year-old who owned the room for the ten hours of shooting that day.

Burgin’s face glowed as he recounted this later. “He was so frighteningly good,” he said. “I could never have done that, had that confidence at his age. I was stunned.”

And when he talks to his son about the conundrum of infinity?

“He says it makes his head hurt. He asks me why anyone would waste their time with such an idea when there’s so much work to do.”

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