Reading books from 1944
1944 is the year in which Britain lifted the prohibition on married women working as teachers; Mount Vesuvius erupted killing 26 and causing thousands to flee their homes; Hans Asperger published his paper on Asperger syndrome; and World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history, dragged into its fifth sanguinary year.
There was a scarcity of resources during the Second World War, especially paper, but this did not prevent people from wanting to read. Indeed, the demand for books increased significantly and it was a surprisingly fertile period for lovers of literature. Some of the titles first published in 1944 were: Colette’s Gigi, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Enid Blyton’s The Island of Adventure, Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man and Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End – to name but a handful.
The 1944 Club is the latest in a series of bi-annual reading events hosted by bloggers Karen Langley and Simon Thomas, which have previously covered 1924, 1938, 1947, 1951, 1968 and 1977. Participants are encouraged, over a period of one week, to read, review and share on social media books first published in a predetermined year. This time, Karen says: “We got as far as the 1970s before deciding to go for a random year earlier in the 20th century, and 1944 came out of the hat!”
The book I have chosen for the challenge was written by the Argentine author, essayist, poet and translator, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). He was a pivotal figure in 20th century Spanish language literature and the magical realism movement of Latin America, receiving the first Formentor prize (Prix International) in 1961, which he shared with Samuel Beckett, and the Jerusalem Prize in 1971. Ficciones was voted one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.
“From the far end of the corridor, the mirror was watching us; and we discovered, with the inevitability of discoveries made late at night, that mirrors have something grotesque about them.”
My 1962 hardback edition of Borges’ most popular short story collection, Ficciones (published by Everyman’s Library) was acquired second-hand from Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. It’s in excellent condition save for a few insignificant squiggles made with a blue biro and the occasional underlining of words such as tremulous, simulacrum and cosmogonic.
Before the stories commence, there is a superb Introduction from the late John Sturrock, in which he describes the collection as “unlikely and delectable”; a comprehensive Chronology; and an original Prologue (worth reading for Borges’ comments on “imaginary books”, of which there are many), signed off in Buenos Aires on 10th November 1941. Its various parts have been rendered into English by a variety of translators.
It is a book of two halves and many segments. Part One is entitled ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, after the 1941 story of the same name, and contains a Prologue and eight short pieces. Part Two, named ‘Artifices’, has nine shorts plus a Prologue, but ‘The End’, ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ and ‘The South’ weren’t included in the original edition, having been added by the author in the 1950s.
In this sinuous compilation Borges riffs on interconnected themes such as libraries, dreams, mirrors, fictional writers and mythology. His stories are fantasies that stray into the realms of the believable; they are difficult and deceptive but also lyrically rich and utterly remarkable.
I was particularly taken with ‘The Form of the Sword’ (1942), the story of an Irishman, known to his Uruguayan neighbours as “the Englishman of La Colorada”, recounting how he received the “rancorous scar” on his face, described as “a near perfect ashen arc which sank into his temple on one side and his cheek on the other.” Also, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940), a work of speculative fiction in which its narrator reveals his discovery of a mysterious world.
The epochal short stories in Ficciones are metaphysical, highly elaborate and, at times, almost overwhelmingly enigmatic – it took every ounce of my concentration to read these pieces with the due attention they deserved. However, my mental exertions were rewarded because they are the creations of an ingenious writer at the pinnacle of his creative powers. His clever yarns left me emotionally charged and cerebrally sated.
In addition to the 1944 Club, this is my third choice for The Classics Club.
Categories: Readathons / Challenges
Great post, Paula! I’m reading this collection at the moment and I think it’s outstanding – worth the effort, definitely! 🙂
Thank you, Karen. I hadn’t previously read anything by Borges, so wasn’t too sure what to expect. It’s quite mind blowing at times. Amazing!
This is part of my Le Monde Reading Challenge so it’s great to hear how highly you rated it Paula! I’m really looking forward to reading it 🙂
I must nip over and look at your Le Monde Reading Challenge, it sounds interesting. 😊
It’s slooooow going – I lose momentum with it, but its ongoing 😀
I don’t agree with all this rushing about malarky. Far better to take one’s time and gain maximum enjoyment from the experience! 😌
Borges was definitely a master of complex, evocative, and ultimately very rewarding stories. Great review, Paula!
Thank you, Ola. It’s my first experience of Borges but I will definitely seek out more of his work in the future.
I’m glad it was worth the effort, Paula, and I love the idea of this “club.” Terrific review! 🦋
Many thanks, Jennifer. Yes, the Club is a great idea – Karen and Simon do a grand job of hosting the event! 🌺
Wow! Strong stuff! A while back, I was compiling a post about doodling and came across a self-portrait by Jorge Luis Borges penned after he went blind. I shed a tear, and included it to remind myself how lucky I am.
Thank you, Gretchen. Gosh, I must look out for that sketch. I have a very dear friend who has gradually been losing her sight since she was in her early 20s (a hereditary condition, I’m afraid). She has little vision left now but in order not to miss a single thing she dashes about having adventures (she almost stepped off into the Grand Canyon earlier this year but was grabbed, thankfully, by people admiring the view) and travelling to different parts of the world before her sight goes completely. She seems to have no fear – or she hides it well. I often look at her and wonder if I would be so positive if it were me. Well, of course, the reading would be a big issue, but I’d like to think I would adapt. Learn braille, perhaps. It’s a terrifying thought. You’re right, we’re very lucky.
What a wonderful lady. I admire people who just get on with it, I’m sure I’d be a total wimp. On the subject of Braille, it’s no longer available in most places in Australia. It’s being phased out by audio and other electronic gizmos. Happily, you can still get a Guide Dog!
I have a feeling braille is being phased out here, too. It would be a truly dark day if Guide Dogs were to be done away with!
I’m planning on reading a Maigret book from 1944 – has the advantage of being a quick, easy read for me, which is all I can manage right now.
Thanks for the background info about 1944 – you’ve set the scene nicely 🙂
Thank you, Brona. Maigret sounds like an excellent, choice. I hope from what you say that all is well. 😊
We’ve just had one of those years Paula were several things have come together at the same time. Exhausting but we will survive. Thanks for checking 🙏🏽
I know exactly what you mean by “one of those years”! When the bad fairy comes to call she makes herself at home. I hope everything becomes easier for you, Brona. Thinking of you. 🤗
How fortuitous that it counts for both challenges/events. That’s always nice. This is one that I’ve only dabbled in and I agree that some of them take considerable attention (and maybe rereading). I can sympathize with longer words being underlined but the random squiggles would annoy me I’m sure, especially in a book that I was having trouble concentrating on to begin with.
Luckily there were only a few squiggles, so they didn’t really detract from the stories. 😊
Hi Paula – I’m in the boat with other commenters who like the way you set up the historical and literary 1944! Jorge Luis Borges is a writer whose work I attempted to read years ago but found too challenging. I’d like to try again, sometime.
Thank you, Leslie. Borges is certainly challenging but I persisted and eventually latched on to his way of thinking.
Great review! Ficciones is such a great book. I was thinking about rereading it for the 1944 club myself, but picked John Hersey’s A Bell For Adano, which I’m loving at about halfway through.
Great choice, Reese. You’ve bagged yourself a Pulitzer Prize winner!
Excellent review! Well done.
Many thanks indeed, Lisa.