Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Jorge Luis Borges' The Library of Babel

In my last post, Tom providentially brought up Jorge Luis Borges’ other collection: The Library of Babel. Although I knew the collection by name and knew a few details, this seemed like the right time to learn more about it. Turns out that Grant Munroe, at The Rumpus, has already done a splendid job investigating it. But he overlooks a few facts that I can add to give it a fuller picture. Munroe made the understandable mistake of assuming that, because Borges wrote in Spanish, he would find the answers in Spanish. Actually the origins of the mysterious Library of Babel begin in Italy.

In 1974, Franco Maria Ricci, an Italian editor who did much to introduce Borges’ work in Italy, asked him to edit and write the prologues for a collection of fantasy books. Borges wanted the collection to be called Colección del hombre (roughly a man’s collection), but Ricci, to Borges’ chagrin, insisted in using the title of his famous short-story. Thirty-three books were released, between 1975 and 1985. In1983 the Spanish publisher Siruela, owned by Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, count of Siruela, starts publishing them in Spanish. The count was a fantasy aficionado because in 1987 he created his own fantasy collection, called “El ojo sin párpado,” now mythical amongst Spanish book collectors for its rarity.

But back to Borges. He only wrote twenty-nine prologues; four of the books were edited by Ricci without Borges’ assistance, but more on that later. Then the prologues were published in Italian in book form and next in Spanish. Although I own a four-volume set of the so-called complete works of Jorge Luis Borges, these prologues are not anywhere in them. And that makes me feel indignant.

Since Ricci first published the collection, other publishers have reprinted it. Mondadori, in Italy, did it in the early ‘90s. I’ve also discovered collections in France, Germany, and even Turkey. A couple of years ago Portugal started publishing it too, but I embarrassingly confess I haven’t bought a single volume yet. Remarkably, it seems every country uses the original Italian covers… except for the evil Germans. And it’s understandable why the original covers are so popular, they’re gorgeous works of art! Ricci and Marcella Boneschi designed them, and what immediately strikes me is that they all share an identity, in spite of the varied palette, you just have to look at them and know they belong to the same collection. I’ve found a set with 30 of the covers so you may marvel at them:

Now for the actual books: acquiring them is a difficult task. One of the main difficulties was to find out what each book contained, since they were anthologies edited by Borges and others. Thanks to Grant Munroe, now we know. Even so, many of the texts aren’t available in English, or they’re likely out of print. So it helps knowing a couple of foreign languages. But even if you do know the foreign languages, that won’t do you a lot of good because they’re also out of print in their own countries. I bitterly discovered that when I tried to order Giovanni Papini books from Amazon Italy. There’s really no pardon for people who let books go out of print! They’re the scum of the Earth. But don’t despair, with patience, perseverance and luck, maybe one day we Borges fanatics can obtain them all.

My order differs from the English one. As I understand it, English sources are based on Eliot Weinberger’s book Selected Non-Fictions, which obviously uses the order of the Siruela editions. But the original FMR editions used a slightly different order. The ones I’ve read are in bold:

Jack London, The Concentric Deaths
Giovanni Papini, Lo specchio che fugge
Léon Bloy, Histoires désobligeantes
Gustav Meyrink, Der Kardinal Napellus
Arthur Machen, The Shining Pyramid
Jacques Cazotte, The Devil in Love
Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener
Pedro Antonio de Alarcon, El amigo de la muerte
Franz Kafka, The Vulture
William Beckford, Vathek
Charles Howard Hinton, Scientific Romances
G.K. Chesterton, The Eye of Apollo
Voltaire, Micromegas
Rudyard Kipling, The Wish House
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Isle of Voices
Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Leter
Pu Songling, The Tiger Guest
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Great Stone Face
Jorge Luis Borges, Venticinque agosto 1983 e altri racconti inediti
Henry James, The Friends of the Friends
Leopoldo Lugones, The Pillar of Salt
Saki, The Reticence of Lady Anne
Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Le Convive des dernières fêtes
H.G. Wells, The Door in the Wall
Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
Antoine Galland, The Arabian Nights
Richard Burton, The Arabian Nights
Argentinean Tales
Lord Dunsany, The Country of Yann
Russian Tales
J.L. Borges & A.B. Casares, Nuevos cuentos de Bustos Domecq
The Book of Dreams
Jorge Luis Borges, A/Z

Some words on four of the books: Venticinque agosto 1983 e altri racconti inediti was a special translation of previously unpublished Borges stories in Italy, to celebrate the author’s 80th birthday. For that reason this book didn’t have a prologue by him. These four short-stories are in his last book, Shakespeare’s Memory.

The last three books don’t have prologues either because they were added by Ricci after Borges had finished editing the collection. Russian Tales, the last book edited by Borges, was from 1981. The last three came out in 1985. For A/Z, the most elusive of them, I can offer two explanations: from what I’ve read in Italian, it’s a compilation of the prologues Borges wrote for this collection; it was edited by Gianni Guadalupi, who co-wrote The Dictionary of Imaginary Places with Borges scholar Alberto Manguel. But I’ve read it elsewhere described as a ‘Borgesian dictionary,’ which sounds great! Furthermore the Spanish edition had another editor, one Antonio Fernandéz Ferrer, and from what I’ve gleaned from reviews, it’s a collection of sentences, paragraphs, quotes, interview excerpts by Borges, organized as a thematic dictionary of his thoughts. I want to believe two different editors created two different books with the same title, in the same collection; that would be truly Borgesian. But it’s probably some mix-up.

And that’s that. There’s a lot of overlap with the other list, many of the same authors, but this list is more fiction-oriented, no essays, no poetry, no non-fiction, just straight up narratives. It’s pure entertainment: crime, horror, adventure, mystery, and general weirdness. I think I actually like this one more. It also seems I’m closer to finishing it. Instead of leaving my thoughts of on the books here, I’ll create separate entries for each one. Just thinking about them lately, I feel like re-reading them. So stay tuned. And let me read your thoughts if you’ve read any of them.


  1. Nice work! Those covers are great, but that's not surprising given that the series was put out by FMR, which has published some of the most beautiful books I've ever seen.

    I spent the last half hour or so looking into the French edition; after the first few volumes, publication apparently shifted from FMR to the now defunct Éditions du Panama (I'm grateful to have learned about this publisher - looks like they put out a lot of other interesting work before they went under).

    You're right - these books appear to be extremely difficult to find today. Sticker shock at the price of the one second-hand volume of A/Z I could find on-line (over 400 Euro) almost made me stop looking, but I did find a copy of the Papini for about 1/50th of that price.

  2. Wow, The covers are fantastic. When I looked at your post they were the first thing that caught my eye. The selection of books also looks great. I have only read Poe's The Purloined Letter but I would love to read them all!

  3. I love it how everyone raves about the covers; that's why I put them all up. They're really something, aren't they! I wish I could find bigger ones so everyone could truly marvel at the details, but that's that best I could find.

    Brian, do give a chance to them. I personally recommend Saki, Lord Dunsany and Chesterton, they're easier to acquire.

  4. From this post and your previous, a very interesting list, although between the two of them, I think I've only read one book, The Moonstone. So many titles (or authors) catch my eye though--this could be a fascinating project. It's a pity so many books are difficult to come by.

    1. Amanda, hello, great to have you here.

      The Moonstone is a great novel, the way Collins puts keeps up the suspense until the end reveals the mark of a great storyteller. It's a worthy successor to The Woman in White.

      Yes, many of the books are hard to find, but it's like I wrote, with a bit of patience and luck one eventually stumbles upon when one least expects :)

  5. Borges' friend, Bioy Casares recently published a 1600 page selection from his diaries called "Borges", in it Bioy mentions a similar "library" that he and Borges put together listing their favorite neglected books. From pages 381, 467, 469,727, 742 and 1208 (comprising entries from the '60s) :
    An experiment with time: Dunne, Of Heaven and Hell: Swedenborg, Note-Books: Samuel Butler, A trip to the Pampas: Armaignac, Symbolic logic: Susanne Langer, History of Classical Indian Literature: Pisari, The croquet player: H. G. Wells, A Brazilian Mystic: Cunninghame Graham, A perfect woman : L.P. Hartley, Horace in Spain: Menendez y Pelayo, The Noh Theater: Waley, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides: Johnson and Boswell, Isis and Osiris: Plutarch, The heretic's bride (la novia del hereje): Vicente Lopez, Brief Story of Chinese philosophy: Fung Yu-lan; and anthologies of short pieces by Kipling, James and Stevenson.


    Henry James: The great good place, The figure in the carpet, The Coxon fund, The Beldonald Holbein, The real thing, The friends of the friends, The birthplace, The abasement of the Northmores, A turn of the Screw.

    Kipling: FALSE DAWN, THE HOUSE OF SUDDHOO, THE RUNES ON WELAND'S SWORD, THE ROMAN CENTURION'S SONG, A SONG TO MITHRAS, HARP SONG OF THE DANE WOMEN, THE VILLAGE THAT VOTED THAT THE EARTH WAS FLAT, WELAND'S SWORD, THE EYE OF ALLAH, UNPROFESSIONAL, Friendly Brook, Mary Postgate, The tomb of his ancestors, The manner of men, The strange ride of Morrowbie Jukes, The lost legion, On the great wall, The gate of the hundred sorrows, Beyond the pale, A matter of fact, The dog Hervey, Wireless, The Wish House, A Madonna of the trenches, Dayspring Mishandled, A Sahib's war, The church that was at Antioch, The Gardener, The finest story in the world, The brushwood boy.

    1. Thanks for this information! I wish I could read Bioy Casares' 'Borges,' it must have so much fascinating information about Borges.

    2. You're welcome. There is a lot of fascinating material in those diaries, even poems and a couple of short stories from Borges not published anywhere else. If you don't mind, next time there are Borges related posts I'll append some of that material in the comments. Oh, and thank you for the great blog and entertaining postings.

    3. Thanks for the kind words, I'm glad you think my blog is worth reading :)

  6. 13 of these books were published in Croatia as well, in late 1980s, by GZH, "with special authorisation from Ricci Publishing". First ten were the same size and layout as the original Italian books, then second ten started with first three (I know one was Melville) but resized (double smaller pocket edition), and then GZH went into bancrupty during the dissolve of Yugoslavia (GZH stands for Graphical Institute of Croatia, that was state publisher under Communist government).
    First ten were: Papini, Voltaire, Stevenson, Beckford, Kafka, Cazotte, de l'Isle-Adam, Poe, London and De Alarcon.
    The book are virtually unknown, obscure, and hard to find. Cazotte, Isle-Adam and Alarcon are available in used bookstore, others are rare, Kafka never seen.
    Second row had three books but I know (and have) only Melville.

    1. Dear Tomsak, welcome and thank you for sharing this! It's most interesting to know how this collection was partially published in Croatia in the late 1980s. It's extraordinary how Borges' collection reached so many different countries. I wish I'd know stories from around the globe.

      By the way, Tomsak, are you Croatian?

  7. Yes, writing from Zagreb:)
    Actually, in the same time GZH published COMPLETE Borges oeuvre, in 5 or 6 books, translated by ten leading scholars for his work here... Borges is and was quite famous in Croatia, when he was published in the 60s, the whole generation of Croatian fantasy writers took name "Borgesians" influenced by him.
    Ricci series was indeed translated by leading Italian Literature scholars, and Borges' introductions were translated by his usual local translators.

    1. That's quite fascinating to know. I had no idea Borges could be so important in Croatia. Could you give me a few names of those fantasy writers? Perhaps I can find their books.