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.