It is not surprising that when you come across a tidbit someone said or wrote that is in complete agreement with what you already think, that this discovery fills you with a small amount of joy. Over the past few days I have been rereading a series of speeches that Jorge Luis Borges made (I think sometime in the 1970’s) and were later put into a volume titled, This Craft of Verse.
Among the many gems I find in this book my favorite (of the moment of course) is one concerning the modern novel and its failings. Borges makes the statement that all of the very clever things being done with the structure of the novel may very well be its undoing. In short, what once was merely a form of telling a story has become something rather different and distorted. The comparison he makes is between Joyce’s Ulysses and a line or two of either Shakespeare or Dante. The point he makes, and I find it a very succinct summary of what I knew but did not realize I knew, is that the failing of Ulysses is that the reader knows thousands of things about the two main characters but never really knows the characters themselves. Whereas in Shakespeare or Dante some characters live and die within a few lines, the reader feels that they know these characters intimately.
A few days ago I finished the novel, “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” and although I take issue with other aspects of the book, this point made by Borges neatly covers what bothered me most about the novel. Borges quotes Mencken as saying (and I am not directly quoting here although I am using quotation marks) “The purpose of the modern novel is the breaking down of the characters.” That is to say, most modern novels are more concerned with the psychology of their characters and the eventual unraveling of some aspect of their lives. This unraveling may in fact be quite interesting, but the point Borges is making (I believe) is that this is not as important as the telling of a good story.
All of this is contained within a speech concerned with Epic poetry. I was reading this while my In-laws were visiting and I was so taken with it that I decided to try and share the gist of this section with everyone. While I felt it was a straightforward commentary on the state of the novel and what those writing today (whether poetry or prose) should aspire to, I found myself presented with a question: what is the definition of an Epic? I think this question was made in response to Borges’ claim that out of the two World Wars only one work could attempt to the claim being an epic. Borges felt that, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” has the qualities of an epic. So to try and be very clear I have visited Bartleby’s website and below is their definition of epic.
A long narrative poem written in elevated style, in which heroes of great historical or legendary importance perform valorous deeds. The setting is vast in scope, covering great nations, the world, or the universe, and the action is important to the history of a nation or people. The Odyssey, and the Aeneid are some great epics from world literature, and two great epics in English are Beowulf and Paradise Lost. 1 ‡ Figuratively, any task of great magnitude may be called “epic,” as in an “epic feat” or an “epic undertaking.”
Now to try and briefly clarify, Borges knew that Lawrence’s book was not a poem. Earlier in his speech he makes a point of explaining how poetry has changed since the time of Homer, how a split occurred. This split put lyrical poetry on one side and the telling of a story (the novel) on the other. So when he makes the claim that this non-fiction book is the only work resembling an epic I do not think he is confusing the issue of what an epic is because this is in fact only one definition.
Borges offers a number of theories as to why this is and but I will stop attempting to reconstruct this speech. I recommend this book to anyone who writes or is interested in writing. At worst it is a short, somewhat entertaining read that covers numerous languages and flits throughout the twentieth century and I am sure there are worse ways you could spend an afternoon than delving into such reading material.