john ashbery | re-visited

29 05 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 236 | May 29, 2008


Additional bio, resource info, & commentaries can be found here…

Norbert Blei

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norbert blei | basho’s road

28 05 2008

Thanks to so many of you for all the positive comments regarding the introduction to the new site, /Basho’s Road/. The initial essay (“Basho’s Road, Part I” ) has now been archived by Monsieur K. (Click to the link at the bottom of the page “*ABOUT BASHO’S ROAD*” for those who missed it or may want to pass it on) or just here…

Speaking of Monsieur K, he deserves accolades galore in supporting the launching of this new site, not to mention his acumen in design and layout. We both worked hard to find the right graphics. And, as usual, he saw what I saw. /Merci, Monsieur K, from me and many others./

The first poem on this site belongs to Basho, deservedly so, since he is the inspiration for all I hope to present here. Since I mentioned the ‘problem’ of translations in Part I of the introductory essay (Parts II and III, in progress). I thought we might take a look at two translations of the same poem–a poem appropriate enough for this time of year as I see it, looking out at my own woods in May, considering the ‘many variations on the theme of green.’ Norbert Blei


Thanks for these. There is so much here. Among my Basho favorites:

A fishy smell–
perch guts
in the water weeds.


Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.

and from Issa

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.

Thanks again, Norb. Gar

oku-no-hosomichi — very cool….the journey begins…

norb, this is absolutely exquisite… ronald

Sometimes it feels too painful to live in this world. So I have been having a very very sad day. And then I just got this message. It has helped me to try to think beyond my sadness and beyond the meaning of anything. Once again, thank you Norb. m


….this one is a real sparkler and a terrific piece of craftwork…Zeeee


I will get this link up for you in my site. Had a chance to catch any of the shows yet? Best, Jane

Gorgeous site–I will make it one of my regular stops. J

The graphics are so perfect and beautiful for the content. How do you find time to do all this? Everything about it is exquisite. The background color, the white and red of the words, the stretch and pull haiku’s demand, The you entwined with the ancient mysteries and disclosures of zen. The way all of it is there in stillness. Creating stillness on a page. No explanation of how such a thing can ever be done, and yet, somehow done. I’m quite amazed with this. –b

That’s a stunner! Even the paintings make me want to write. I’m linking from SUFFOLK PUNCH. -BH

I am impressed. MB


A great start to an intriguing journey…I look forward to going along for the ride. –BILL

Beautiful. Wondered what you were doing with all your spare time. (HA !) I’ve already made a link from Keep the short stuff coming. – R.

Oh I love it, read it sometime around two in the morning, have to go back and look but I especially liked the essay…..e.

your first installment on haiku & the short poem is splendid. e.m.

On my way out of town for a few days, so just giving it a glance. I’m loving that you’re doing this. lv,s

This is soooooo beautiful, Norb. Thank you. A. E.

Norb, Excellent! I too am a fan of Basho. I have a translation of his “Narrow Road to the Interior” which is quite small (about 4.5 x 5). His interweaving of the journal with haiku seems so – fitting. One which I enjoy (all are enjoyable) is:

Speechless before
these budding green spring leaves
in blazing sunlight

Yes! Bill

-wow… i was just at the library the other day and got ‘rustic roads’ cause i see you have an essay in it…then i get this note from you about this neat new project…on a related note, inspired by our mutual buddy, jeff winke, i’ve been going through my road notes puling out incidents that I can use as the basis for haibun… charlie

thanks for this –here is what it prompted from today’s garden. rvf

Swallow in garden
injured and waiting for dusk
it’s mate swoops farewell

Dear Norbert,

Your new website is such a thing of beauty, I’m stunned and have nothing but ohs and ahs in reply.

It’s interesting that haiku lends itself so nicely to translation. It has to be the briefness of the poem, so that once all the parts are there (water, frog, sound) the translator doesn’t have a lot of margin for error, as it were, in terms of excess language, boneheaded interpretation, missed point. Clint studied and wrote about and translated the poetry of a couple of Bengali poets, both of which were leading lights in their respective areas (lyric and epic). The one extolled Bengal in poems absolutely revered by Bengalis and, as far as I can tell, almost impossible to translate into an English that touches us even marginally. Clint is good at what he does, and comparisons of his efforts with those by Bengalis and Bengali-wallahs prove the case that you have to be the equivalent of a native speaker in both languages in order successfully to cross the divide, which he does in several poems.

There’s an excellent memoir on translation by Gregory Rabassa (“If This Be Treason”) who is the premier translator of Latin American prose, specifically that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called him “the best Latin American writer in the English language.” Had I known the dangers and pitfalls of translation, I’m not so sure I would have tackled my dissertation topic’s text, a killer of a 7th-century Sanskrit narrative. Even so, I got something out there that no one else would have attempted (you have to love such a work to allow yourself to become immersed in it and in the labor of showing it off to your fellow English speakers). It’s whatchma call a “contribution.”

As is all that you do, Norb. Your contributions to journalism and literature and to the promotion and support of other writers and poems are immense. As are your efforts to make our little corner of paradise, as many see it, a better place. Keep truckin’. Love, Gwen

When I went to Japan to visit my brother 3 years ago, Barbara Larsen gave me Basho’s book of travels. Mark took me part of the way where Basho walked, so we read his writing, and haiku’s. I also enjoyed Knappen’s review of your new issue of Meditations, I guess I must send for that one, too. g

Don’t know if I responded to this. This is great. Michael

Love the paintings / especially the one on the first “Basho” site ~~ the house / village in the mountains, as well as the Ticht Naht Hahn comments: observing a tangerine. This is like getting “University of the Air” on Haiku / via email. Many strange and wonderful things float up from out that woods out there … the one about 200 feet from where I sit … thank you. xojg

You cannot imagine how poignant I find either version! I fear I’m looking out at a half-dead orchard of some 500 Montmorencys which will produce no measurable fruit and precious few leaves…the drought of 2007. Since we hand planted and pruned them all, it’ll be like a death in the family. Jean the druid

thanks for doing this work. you’ve forced me back to my Basho. Al DeGenova

Thanks Norb. I much prefer the first translation. The translator’s art is crucial to the success of literature in another tongue. It must be especially difficult in poetry to capture the poet’s thought and feeling, to make the work evoke what the poet intended, and to make it scan satisfyingly in another language.

In many of the big opera houses today, there are translated “supertitles” projected above the proscenium. Several years ago at a performance of “Tosca” at Lyric Opera the audience roared at a translator’s gaffe. Tosca is in the church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle watching her lover, the artist Cavaradossi painting an image of the Madonna. Tosca, a raven-haired singer with dark eyes, is angered that the model he used had blue eyes, and she adjures him to darken the orbs of the lady in the painting. What cracked the audience up was the translated line, “Give her black eyes.” Marty

Lovely format! I assume you saw the National Geographic Magazine article about Basho this spring. It is nice, too. Thank you for choosing that lovely haiku for the first poem. g

You do
good work
sharp as a small
paring knife


william topaz mcgonagall | rises from the ashes, his critics of yore he doth bashes or oh ye of little faith

18 05 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 235 | May 17, 2008


Oh Ye of Little Faith

Norbert Blei

BIO: Born in Edinburgh, of Irish parentage, McGonagall was working as a handloom weaver in Dundee, Scotland when an event occurred that was to change his life. As he was later to write:

The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877.

It was with this that he wrote his first poem An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan, which showed all the hallmarks that would characterise his later work. Gilfillan commented

“Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.”

McGonagall has been widely acclaimed as the worst poet in British history. The chief criticisms of his poetry are that he is deaf to poetic metaphor and unable to scan correctly. In the hands of lesser artists, this might simply generate dull, uninspiring verse. However, McGonagall’s fame stems from the humorous effects these shortcomings generate. The inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary, and ill-advised imagery combine to make his work amongst the most spontaneously amusing comic poetry in the English language.

“Poet-baiting” became a popular pastime in Dundee, but McGonagall seemed oblivious to the general opinion of his poems, even when his audience were pelting him with eggs and vegetables. It is possible, however, that he was shrewder than he is given credit for, and was playing along to his audience’s perception of him, in effect making his recitals an early form of performance art. He died penniless in 1902 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. A grave-slab installed to his memory in 1999 is inscribed:

SAMPLE POEM: Lines in Memoriam Regarding the Entertainment I Gave on the 31st March, 1893, in Reform Street Hall, Dundee

‘Twas on the 31st of March, and in the year of 1893,
I gave an entertainment in the city of Dundee,
To a select party of gentlemen, big and small,
Who appreciated my recital in Reform Street Hall.
The meeting was convened by J. P. Smith’s manager, High Street,
And many of J. P. Smith’s employees were there me to greet,
And several other gentlemen within the city,
Who were all delighted with the entertainment they got from me.
Mr. Green was the chairman for the night,
And in that capacity he acted right;
He made a splendid address on my behalf,
Without introducing any slang or chaff.
I wish him success during life;
May he always feel happy and free from strife,
For the kindness he has ever shown to me
During our long acquaintance in Dundee.
I return my thanks to Mr J. P. Smith’s men,
Who were at my entertainment more than nine or ten;
And the rest of the gentlemen that were there,
Also deserves my thanks, I do declare.
Because they showered upon me their approbation,
And got up for me a handsome donation,
Which was presented to me by Sir Green,
In a purse most beautiful to be seen.
Which was a generous action in deed,
And came to me in time of need.
And the gentlemen that so generously treated me
I’ll remember during my stay in Dundee.

LATE BREAKING NEWS FROM THE LONDON TIMES, MAY 16, 2008: McGonagall Proves His Worth After All

From The Times. May 16, 2008. McGonagall proves his worth after all. by David Lister

Acclaim of a sort has finally come to William Topaz McGonagall, otherwise known as the world’s worst poet, after a collection of 35 of his original poems beat expectations to sell for £6,600 to a mystery buyer at auction yesterday.

McGonagall, who has been credited with some of the most heinous crimes ever perpetrated against the English language, found himself in esteemed company at Lyon and Turnbull in Edinburgh, where his poems fetched more than a collection of Harry Potter first editions signed by J.K. Rowling. Dating from 1882 to 1899 the poems, which had a guide price of £4,500-£6,500, were snapped up within minutes by a buyer who asked not to be identified. Sold as one lot, they included 15 originals not held by the National Library of Scotland.

The auction is just the latest proof that the “Tayside Tragedian”, whose public readings were so excruciating that they left audiences rolling on the floor with laughter and even provoked riots, is finally achieving the popularity that the author – despite the derision of the literary establishment – always believed he deserved.

Also at the auction were 27 first and second edition Ian Fleming novels, including a first edition of Diamonds Are Forever and a first edition of From Russia with Love, which sold for a total of £27,000.

jorge luis borges | the destiny of borges

15 05 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.143 | May 15, 2008


Just when I think everyone’s heard ort or read Jorge Luis Borges, I run into people who have near heard him or not read him in years.

I’d say, if you’re a serious writer (poetry, fiction, essay), you put Borges on that special shelf of writers to read at least once a year, writers who exercise the thinking/dreaming mind. Borges, along with Rilke, Transtromer, Neruda, Kafka…don’t get me started. Norbert Blei

From an interview with Jorge Luis Borges, in Habitus 03, conducted in 1984 at the University of Buenos Aires by philosophy professors Tomas Abraham, Alejandro Russovich, and Enrique Man. Translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Acker.


JORGE LUIS BORGES: In the beginning, bereshit bara elohim, no?

RUSSOVICH: Bereshit bara elohim et ha’shamayim v’et ha’aretz, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

BORGES: No, the gods created.

RUSSOVICH: Ah, “gods.” Elohim is plural. Borges knows more. [Laughter.]

TOMAS ABRAHAM: Today, philosophy invites poetry to a discussion. We have a poet—

BORGES: Supposedly.

ABRAHAM: A supposed poet, then, of whom we can ask what relationships exist between philosophy and poetry.

BORGES: Some time ago I said that philosophy is a fantastic branch of study. But I didn’t mean anything against philosophy. On the contrary, it can be said that it is exactly the same as poetry, although the syntax is from two distinct places, and that philosophy deserves a place in the order of aesthetics. If you look at theology or philosophy as fantastic literature, you’ll see that they are much more ambitious than poetry. What works of poetry are comparable to something as astonishing as Spinoza’s god: an infinite substance endowed with infinite attributes? Every philosophy creates a world with its own special laws, and these models may or may not be fantastic, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve entered into poetry, and also fables— that is, I’m not a novelist. I’ve read very few novels in my life; for me the foremost novelist is Joseph Conrad.

I’ve dedicated my life to reading. My father showed me his library, which seemed to me infinite, and he told me to read whatever I wanted, but that if something bored me I should put it down immediately—that is, the opposite of obligatory reading. Reading has to be a happiness, and philosophy gives us happiness, and that is the contemplation of a problem. The world continues to be more enigmatic, more enchanting. For me reading and writing are two equally pleasurable activities. When writers talk about the torture of writing, I don’t understand it. For me writing is a necessity. When I was young, I thought about what I considered the heroic life of my military elders, a life that had been rich, and mine—the life of a reader—seemed to me a poor life. Now I don’t believe that. The life of a reader can be as rich as any other life. Suppose Alonso Quijano had never left his library, or bookstore, as Cervantes called it, I believe that his life reading would have been as rich as when he conceived the project of turning himself into Quixote.

For him the latter life was more real, for me reading about him has been one of the most vivid experiences of my life. And since I have committed the indecency of turning eighty-five, I confirm without melancholy that my memory is full of verses and full of books. I can’t see past the year 1955—I lost my reader’s vision—but if I think about my past life, I think of course about friends, lovers also, but I think most of all about books. My memory is full of quotes in many languages, and I think, returning to philosophy, that we are not enriched by its solutions, as these solutions are doubtful, they are arbitrary, but philosophy does enrich us by demonstrating that the world is more mysterious than we thought. Now other questions, and I hope I can answer them with fewer digressions, more concretely. But clearly, I’m a little nervous. I’m very timid. I’m a veteran of timidity. I was timid when I was young. Now that I’m eighty-five, I’m seriously terrified. [Laughter.]

ENRIQUE MARI: Among the important philosophical enigmas, in spite of the fact that there are many, there is one—

BORGES: I would say there’s nothing else—

MARI: Among these enigmas, one is the enigma of truth, the other is the enigma of death.

BORGES: For me death is a hope, the irrational certitude of being abolished, erased, and forgotten. When I’m sad, I think, What does it matter what happens to a twentieth-century South American writer? What do I have to do with all of this? You think it matters what happens to me now, if tomorrow I will have disappeared? I hope to be totally forgotten. I believe that this is death. Yet perhaps I’m wrong, and what follows is another life on another plane, no less interesting than this one, and I will accept that life too, just as I have accepted this one. But being younger, I would prefer not to remember this one in the other.

from HARPER’S Magazine/April 2008

Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges

(24 August 1899 – 14 June 1986) was an Argentine writer. His output includes short stories, essays, poetry, literary criticism, and translations. He was influenced by Dante Alighieri, Miguel de Cervantes, Franz Kafka, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Schopenhauer, G. K. Chesterton, Leopoldo Lugones, and R. L. Stevenson.

Borges’s mother, Leonor Acevedo Suárez, came from an old Uruguayan family. His 1929 book Cuaderno San Martín included a poem “Isidoro Acevedo,” commemorating his maternal grandfather, Isidoro de Acevedo Laprida, a soldier of the Buenos Aires Army who fought against Juan Manuel de Rosas. A descendant of the Argentine lawyer and politician Francisco Narciso de Laprida, Acevedo fought in the battles of Cepeda in 1859, Pavón in 1861, and Los Corrales in 1880. He died in 1905 of pulmonary congestion in the same house in Serrano Street, Buenos Aires, where his grandson Jorge Luis Borges was born.

Borges’s father, Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam, was a lawyer and psychology teacher with literary aspirations. (“…he tried to become a writer and failed in the attempt,” Borges once said, “…[but] composed some very good sonnets”). His father was part Spanish, part Portuguese, and half British; his father’s mother was British and maintained a strong spirit of English culture in Borges’s home. In this home, both Spanish and English were spoken and from earliest childhood Borges was bilingual, reading Shakespeare, in English, at the age of 12. He grew up in the then somewhat poor neighborhood of Palermo, in a large house equipped with an extensive English library. The family name Borges may have been derived from the English surnames Burroughs or Burgess, analogous to the transformation of the surname Evans into Ibanez.

Jorge Guillermo Borges was forced into early retirement from the legal profession owing to the same failing eyesight that would eventually afflict his son, and in 1914, the family moved to Geneva. Borges senior was treated by a Geneva eye specialist, while his son and daughter Norah attended school. There Borges junior learned French, initially with some difficulties, and taught himself German. He received his baccalauréat from the Collège de Genève in 1918.

Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires to an educated family descended from famous military figures in Argentina’s history; in accordance with Argentine custom, he never used his entire name. His family was comfortably wealthy, but not quite wealthy enough to live in downtown Buenos Aires. Instead, they lived in the then suburb of Palermo, famous for its knife-fights, where urban space gave way to the countryside.

In 1914 the Borges family went to Europe and stayed until 1921 because of World War I and domestic unrest in neutral Argentina. First in Switzerland and later in Spain, Borges came into contact with several authors who would impact his writing, Arthur Schopenhauer and Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem (1915) being key examples. After World War I ended, the Borges family spent three years living in various cities: Lugano (Switzerland), Barcelona, Majorca, Seville, and Madrid. In Spain, Borges became a member of the avant-garde Ultraist literary movement (anti-Modernism, which ended in 1922 with the cessation of the journal Ultra). His first poem, “Hymn to the Sea,” written in the style of Walt Whitman, was published in the magazine Grecia (“Greece”, in Spanish). There he frequented such notable Spanish writers as Rafael Cansinos Assens and Ramón Gómez de la Serna.

In 1921, Borges returned with his family to Buenos Aires where he imported the doctrine of Ultraism and launched his career as a writer by publishing poems and essays in literary journals in the Criollismo style. In 1930, Nestor Ibarra called Borges the “Great Apostle of Criollismo.” His first published collection of poetry was Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). He contributed to the avant-garde review Martín Fierro (whose “art for art’s sake” approach contrasted to that of the more politically-involved Boedo group); co-founded the journals Prisma , a broadsheet distributed largely by pasting copies to walls in Buenos Aires), and Proa ). Later in life Borges would come to regret some of these early publications, attempting to purchase all known copies to ensure their destruction.

By the mid-1930s, his writings began to deal with existential questions, and with what Ana María Barrenechea has called “irreality.” Borges was not alone in this task. Many other Latin American writers such as Juan Rulfo, Juan José Arreola, and Alejo Carpentier investigated these themes in their writings, influenced by the Phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger or the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Even though existentialism saw its apogee during the years of Borges’s greatest artistic production, it can be argued that his choice of topics largely ignored existentialism’s central tenets. To that point, Paul de Man has written:

Whatever Borges’s existential anxieties may be, they have little in common with Sartre’s robustly prosaic view of literature, with the earnestness of Camus’ moralism, or with the weighty profundity of German existential thought. Rather, they are the consistent expansion of a purely poetic consciousness to its furthest limits.

He was, from the first issue, a regular contributor to Sur, founded in 1931 by Victoria Ocampo, then Argentina’s most important literary journal. Ocampo herself introduced Borges to Adolfo Bioy Casares, another well-known figure of Argentine literature, who was to become a frequent collaborator and dear friend. Together they wrote a number of works, some using pseudonyms (H. Bustos Domecq), including a parody detective series and fantasy stories.

Also during these years Macedonio Fernández became a major influence on Borges, who inherited the friendship from his father. The two would hold court in cafés, country retreats, or Macedonio’s tiny apartment in the Balvanera district.

In 1933 Borges gained an editorial appointment at the literary supplement of the newspaper Crítica, where he first published the pieces later collected as the Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy). This involved two types of pieces. The first lay somewhere between non-fictional essays and short stories, using fictional techniques to tell essentially true stories. The second consisted of literary forgeries, which Borges initially passed off as translations of passages from famous but seldom-read works. In the following years, he served as a literary adviser for the publishing house Emecé Editores and wrote weekly columns for El Hogar, which appeared from 1936 to 1939.

In 1937, friends of Borges found him working at the Miguel Cané branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library as a first assistant. His fellow employees forbade Borges from cataloging more than 100 books per day, a task which would take him about one hour. The rest of his time he spent in the basement of the library, writing articles and short stories.

Borges’s Cosmopolitanism allowed him to free himself from the trap of local color. The varying genealogies of characters, settings, and themes in his stories such as “La muerte y la brújula” were Argentine without forcing them to be Argentine by pandering to his readers. In his essay “El escritor argentino y la tradición” Borges notes that the very absence of camels in the Koran was proof enough that it was an Arabian work, inferring that only someone trying to write an “Arab” work would purposefully include a camel. He uses this example to illustrate how his dialoguing with universal existential concerns was just as Argentine as writing about gauchos and tangos (both of which he also did).

Borges’ father died in 1938, a tragedy for Borges: father and son were very devoted to each other. During Christmas Eve 1938, Borges suffered a severe head wound: during treatment, he nearly died of septicemia. While recovering from the accident, he began tinkering with a new style of writing, for which he would become famous. The first story penned after his accident was Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote in May 1939. In this story, he examined the relationship between father and son and the nature of authorship.

His first collection of short stories, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths) appeared in 1941, composed mostly of works previously published in Sur. Though generally well received, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan failed to garner for him the literary prizes many in his circle expected. Ocampo dedicated a large portion of the July 1941 issue of Sur to a “Reparation for Borges”; numerous leading writers and critics from Argentina and throughout the Spanish-speaking world contributed writings to the “reparation” project.

When Juan Perón became President in 1946, Borges was dismissed, and “promoted” to the position of poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal market (he immediately resigned; he always referred to the title of the post he never filled as “Poultry and Rabbit Inspector”). His offenses against the Peronistas up to that time had apparently consisted of little more than adding his signature to pro-democratic petitions, but shortly after his resignation he addressed the Argentine Society of Letters saying, in his characteristic style, “Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.”

Without a job, his vision beginning to fade due to hereditary retinal detachment, and unable to fully support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer. Despite a certain degree of political persecution, he was reasonably successful, and became an increasingly public figure, obtaining appointments as President of the Argentine Society of Writers, and as Professor of English and American Literature at the Argentine Association of English Culture. His short story Emma Zunz was turned into a film (under the name of Días de odio (English title: Days of Wrath), directed in 1954, by the Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson). Around this time, Borges also began writing screenplays.

In 1955, and after the initiative of Ocampo, the new anti-Peronist military government appointed him head of the National Library. By that time, he had become completely blind, like one of his best known predecessors, Paul Groussac (for whom Borges wrote an obituary). Neither coincidence nor the irony escaped Borges and he commented on them in his work:

Nadie rebaje a lágrima o reproche
esta declaración de la maestría
de Dios, que con magnífica ironía
me dio a la vez los libros y la noche.

Let neither tear nor reproach besmirch
this declaration of the mastery
of God who, with magnificent irony,
granted me both the gift of books and the night.

The following year he received the National Prize for Literature from the University of Cuyo, the first of many honorary doctorates. From 1956 to 1970, Borges also held a position as a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, while frequently holding temporary appointments at other universities.

His eyesight deteriorating, he relied increasingly on his mother’s help. When he was not able to read and write anymore (he never learned the Braille system), his mother, to whom he had always been devoted, became his personal secretary.

A story of Borges was first translated into English in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; the story was “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the translator Anthony Boucher. Though several other Borges translations appeared in literary magazines and anthologies during the 1950s, his international fame dates from the early 1960s. In 1961, he received the first International Publishers’ Prize Prix Formentor, which he shared with Samuel Beckett. While Beckett was well-known and respected in the English-speaking world, and Borges at this time remained unknown and untranslated, English-speaking readers became curious about the other recipient of the prize. The Italian government named Borges Commendatore; and the University of Texas at Austin appointed him for one year to the Tinker chair. This led to his first lecture tour in the United States. The first translations of his work into English followed in 1962, with lecture tours in Europe, and in subsequent years the Andean region of South America. In 1965, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom appointed him O.B.E. In 1980 he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; numerous other honors were to accumulate over the years, such as the French Legion of Honour in 1983, the Cervantes Prize, and even a Special Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, “for distinguished contribution to the mystery genre”.

In 1967, Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, thanks to whom he became better known in the English-speaking world. He also continued to publish books, among them El libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings, (1967, co-written with Margarita Guerrero), El informe de Brodie (Dr. Brodie’s Report, 1970), and El libro de arena (The Book of Sand, 1975). He also lectured prolifically. Many of these lectures were anthologized in volumes such as Siete noches (Seven Nights) and Nueve ensayos dantescos (Nine Dantesque Essays).

Borges’s change in style from criollismo to a more cosmopolitan style brought him much criticism from journals such as Contorno ), a left of center, Sartre-influenced publication founded by the Viñas brothers (Ismael & David), Noé Jitrik, Adolfo Prieto, and other intellectuals. Contorno “met with wide approval among the youth […] for taking the older writers of the country to task on account of [their] presumed inauthenticity and their legacy of formal experimentation at the expense of responsibility and seriousness in the face of society’s problems” (Katra:1988:56).

Borges and Eduardo Mallea were criticized for being “doctors of technique”; their writing presumably “lacked substance due to their lack of interaction with the reality […] that they inhabited”, an existential critique of their refusal to embrace existence and reality in their artwork.

When Perón returned from exile and was re-elected president in 1973, Borges immediately resigned as director of the National Library. In 1967 Borges married the recently-widowed Elsa Astete Millán. It was commonly believed that his mother, who was 90, and anticipating her own death, wanted to find someone to care for her blind son. The marriage lasted less than three years. After a legal separation, Borges moved back in with his mother, with whom he lived until her death at age 99. Thereafter, he lived alone in the small flat he had shared with her, cared for by Fanny, their housekeeper of many decades.

After 1975, the year his mother died, Borges began to travel all over the world, up to the time of his death. He was often accompanied in these travels by his personal assistant María Kodama, an Argentine woman of Japanese and German ancestry.

Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer in 1986 in Geneva and is buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Plainpalais). A few months before his death, via an attorney in Paraguay, he married Kodama. After years of legal wrangling about the legality of the marriage, Kodama, as sole inheritor of a significant annual income, has control over his works. Her administration of his estate has bothered some scholars; she has been denounced by the French publisher Gallimard, by Le Nouvel Observateur, and by intellectuals such as Beatriz Sarlo, as an obstacle to the serious reading of Borges’ works.

J. M. Coetzee said of Borges: “He more than anyone renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists.”

Though reputed to be a perennial contender, Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Especially in the 1980s, when he was clearly growing old and infirm, this became a glaring omission. It was speculated that he was considered unfit to receive the award for his political views.

Although this political stance stemmed from his self-described “Anarcho-Pacifism”, it placed him in the distinguished company of Nobel Prize in Literature non-winners, a group including, among others, Graham Greene, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy and Alfonso Reyes. He did, however, receive the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, awarded to writers who deal with themes of human freedom and society.

In addition to his short stories for which he is most famous, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, several screenplays, and a considerable volume of literary criticism, prologues, and reviews, edited numerous anthologies, and was a prominent translator of English-, French- and German-language literature into Spanish (and of Old English and Norse works as well). His blindness (which, like his father’s, developed in adulthood) strongly influenced his later writing. Paramount among his intellectual interests are elements of mythology, mathematics, theology, and, as a personal integration of these, Borges’ sense of literature as recreation — all of these disciplines are sometimes treated as a writer’s playthings and at other times treated very seriously.

Since Borges lived through most of the 20th century, he was rooted in the Modernist period of culture and literature, especially Symbolism. His fiction is profoundly learnéd, and always concise. Like his contemporary Vladimir Nabokov and the older James Joyce, he combined an interest in his native land with far broader perspectives. He also shared their multilingualism and their playfulness with language, but while Nabokov and Joyce tended–as their lives went on–toward progressively larger works, Borges remained a miniaturist. Also in contrast to Joyce and Nabokov, Borges’ work progressed away from what he referred to as “the baroque,” while theirs moved towards it: Borges’ later writing style is far more transparent and naturalistic than his earlier works.

Many of his most popular stories concern the nature of time, infinity, mirrors, labyrinths, reality, philosophy, and identity. A number of stories focus on fantastic themes, such as a library containing every possible 410-page text (“The Library of Babel”), a man who forgets nothing he experiences (“Funes, the Memorious”), an artifact through which the user can see everything in the universe (“The Aleph”), and a year of time standing still, given to a man standing before a firing squad (“The Secret Miracle”). The same Borges told more and less realistic stories of South American life, stories of folk heroes, streetfighters, soldiers, gauchos, detectives, historical figures. He mixed the real and the fantastic: fact with fiction. On several occasions, especially early in his career, these mixtures sometimes crossed the line into the realm of hoax or literary forgery.

Borges’ abundant nonfiction includes astute film and book reviews, short biographies, and longer philosophical musings on topics such as the nature of dialogue, language, and thought, and the relationships between them. In this respect, and regarding Borges’ personal pantheon, he considered the Mexican essayist of similar topics Alfonso Reyes “the best prose-writer in the Spanish language of any time.” (In: Siete Noches, p. 156). His non-fiction also explores many of the themes found in his fiction. Essays such as “The History of the Tango” or his writings on the epic poem Martín Fierro explore specifically Argentine themes, such as the identity of the Argentine people and of various Argentine subcultures. His interest in fantasy, philosophy, and the art of translation are evident in articles such as “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights”, while The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thoroughly (and obscurely) researched bestiary of mythical creatures, in the preface of which Borges wrote, “There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” Borges’ interest in fantasy was shared by Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967, sometimes under different pseudonyms including H. Bustos Domecq.

Borges composed poetry throughout his life. As his eyesight waned (it came and went, with a struggle between advancing age and advances in eye surgery), he increasingly focused on writing poetry, since he could memorize an entire work in progress. His poems embrace the same wide range of interests as his fiction, along with issues that emerge in his critical works and translations, and from more personal musings. This breadth of interest can be found in his fiction, nonfiction, and poems. For example, his interest in philosophical idealism is reflected in the fictional world of Tlön in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, in his essay “A New Refutation of Time”, and in his poem “Things.” Similarly, a common thread runs through his story “The Circular Ruins” and his poem “El Golem” (“The Golem”).

As already mentioned, Borges was notable as a translator. He translated Oscar Wilde’s story The Happy Prince into Spanish when he was nine, perhaps an early indication of his literary talent. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of the Prose Edda. He also translated (while simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, André Gide, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, and G. K. Chesterton. In a number of essays and lectures, Borges assessed the art of translation, and articulated his own view at the same time. He held the view that a translation may improve upon the original, may even be unfaithful to it, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally valid.

Borges also employed two very unusual literary forms: the literary forgery and the review of an imaginary work. Both constitute a form of modern pseudo-epigrapha.

Borges’ best-known set of literary forgeries date from his early work as a translator and literary critic with a regular column in the Argentine magazine El Hogar. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works after the style of the likes of Emanuel Swedenborg or The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, originally passing them off as translations of things he had come upon in his reading. Several of these are gathered in the Universal History of Infamy. He continued this pattern of literary forgery at several points in his career, for example sneaking three short, falsely attributed pieces into his otherwise legitimate and carefully researched anthology El matrero.

At times, confronted with an idea for a work that bordered on the conceptual, rather than write a piece that fulfilled the concept, he wrote a review of a nonexistent work, as if it had already been created by some other person. The most famous example of this is “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”, which imagines a twentieth-century Frenchman who tries to write Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote verbatim—not by having memorized Cervantes’ work, but as an “original” narrative of his own invention. Initially he tries to immerse himself in sixteenth-century Spain, but dismisses the method as too easy, instead trying to reach Don Quixote through his own experiences. He finally manages to (re)create “the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two.” Borges’ “review” of the work of the fictional Menard uses tongue-in-cheek comparisons to discuss the resonances that Don Quixote has picked up over the centuries since it was written, by way of overtly discussing how much “richer” Menard’s work is than that of Cervantes, even though the actual words are exactly the same.

While Borges was certainly the great popularizer of the review of an imaginary work, it was not his own invention. Borges was already familiar with the idea from Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a book-length review of a non-existent German transcendentalist philosophical work, and the biography of its equally non-existent author. This Craft of Verse (p. 104) records Borges as saying that in 1916 in Geneva he “discovered — and was overwhelmed by — Thomas Carlyle. I read Sartor Resartus, and I can recall many of its pages; I know them by heart.” In the introduction to his first published volume of fiction, The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges remarks, “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” He then cites both Sartor Resartus and Samuel Butler’s The Fair Haven, remarking, however, that “those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.” [Collected Fictions, p.67]

Borges’ work maintained a universal perspective that reflected a multi-ethnic Argentina, exposure from an early age to his father’s substantial collection of world literature, and lifelong travel experience. As a young man, he visited the frontier pampas where the boundaries of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil blurred, and lived and studied in Switzerland and Spain; in middle age he traveled through Argentina as a lecturer and, internationally, as a visiting professor; he continued to tour the world as he grew older, ending his life in Geneva where he had attended high school (he never went to university). Drawing on influences of many times and places, Borges’ work belittled nationalism and racism. An Argentinian, Borges set some of his historical fiction in Uruguay.

He grew acquainted with the literature from Argentine, Spanish, North American, English, French, German, Italian, and Northern European/Icelandic sources, including those of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. He also read many translations of Near Eastern and Far Eastern works. The universalism that made him interested in world literature reflected an attitude that was not congruent with the Perón government’s extreme nationalism. That government’s meddling with Borges’ job fueled his skepticism of government (he labeled himself a Spencerian anarchist in the blurb of Atlas). When extreme Argentine nationalists sympathetic to the Nazis asserted Borges was Jewish (the implication being that his Argentine identity was inadequate), Borges responded in “Yo Judío” (“I, a Jew”), where he said, while he would be proud to be a Jew, he presented his actual Christian genealogy, along with a backhanded reminder that any “pure” Castilian just might likely have a Jew in their ancestry, stemming from a millennium back.

Borges’ Argentina is a multi-ethnic country, and Buenos Aires, the capital, a cosmopolitan city. At the time of Argentine independence in 1816, the population was predominantly criollo, which in Argentine usage generally means people of Spanish ancestry, although it can allow for a small admixture of other origins. The Argentine national identity diversified, forming over a period of decades after the Argentine Declaration of Independence. During that period substantial immigration came from Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Syria and Lebanon (then parts of the Ottoman Empire), the United Kingdom, Austria-Hungary, Portugal, Poland, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, North America, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and China, with the Italians and Spanish forming the largest influx. The diversity of coexisting cultures characteristic of the Argentine lifestyles is especially pronounced in Six Problems for Don Isidoro Parodi, co-authored with Adolfo Bioy Casares, and in the unnamed multi-ethnic city that’s the setting for “Death and the Compass”, which may or may not be Buenos Aires. Borges’ writing is also steeped by influences and informed by scholarship of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, and Jewish faiths, including mainline religious figures, heretics, and mystics. For more examples, see the sections below on International themes in Borges and Religious themes in Borges.

If Borges often focused on universal themes, he no less composed a substantial body of literature on themes from Argentine folklore, history, and current concerns. Borges’ first book, the poetry collection Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), appeared in 1923. Considering Borges’ thorough attention to all things Argentine — ranging from Argentine culture (“History of the Tango”; “Inscriptions on Horse Wagons”), folklore (“Juan Muraña”, “Night of the Gifts”), literature (“The Argentine Writer and Tradition”, “Almafuerte”; “Evaristo Carriego”) and current concerns (“Celebration of The Monster”, “Hurry, Hurry”, “The Mountebank”, “Pedro Salvadores”) — it is ironic indeed that ultra-nationalists would have questioned his Argentine identity.

Borges’ interest in Argentine themes reflects in part the inspiration of his family tree. Borges had an English paternal grandmother who, around 1870, married the criollo Francisco Borges, a man with a military command and a historic role in the civil wars in what is now Argentina and Uruguay. Spurred by pride in his family’s heritage, Borges often used those civil wars as settings in fiction and quasi-fiction (for example, “The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz,” “The Dead Man,” “Avelino Arredondo”) as well as poetry (“General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage”). Borges’ maternal great-grandfather, Manuel Isidoro Suárez ), was another military hero, whom Borges immortalized in the poem “A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suárez, Victor at Junín.” The city of Coronel Suárez in the south of Buenos Aires Province is named after him.

Borges contributed to a few avant garde publications in the early 1920s, including one called Martín Fierro, named after the major work of 19th century Argentine literature, Martín Fierro, a gauchesque poem by José Hernández, published in two parts, in 1872 and 1880. Initially, along with other young writers of his generation, Borges rallied around the fictional Martín Fierro as the symbol of a characteristic Argentine sensibility, not tied to European values. As Borges matured, he came to a more nuanced attitude toward the poem. Hernández’s central character, Martín Fierro, is a gaucho, a free, poor, pampas-dweller, who is illegally drafted to serve at a border fort to defend against the Indians; he ultimately deserts and becomes a gaucho matrero, the Argentine equivalent of a North American western outlaw. Borges’ 1953 book of essays on the poem, El “Martín Fierro”, separates his great admiration for the aesthetic virtues of the work from his rather mixed opinion of the moral virtues of its protagonist. He uses the occasion to tweak the noses of arch-nationalist interpreters of the poem, but disdains those (such as Eleuterio Tiscornia) whom he sees as failing to understand its specifically Argentine character.

In “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”, Borges celebrates how Hernández expresses that character in the crucial scene in which Martín Fierro and El Moreno compete by improvising songs about universal themes such as time, night, and the sea. The scene clearly reflects the real-world gaucho tradition of payadas, improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes — as distinct from the type of slang that Hernández uses in the main body of Martín Fierro. Borges points out that therefore, Hernández evidently knew the difference between actual gaucho tradition of composing poetry on universal themes, versus the “gauchesque” fashion among Buenos Aires literati. Borges goes on to deny the possibility that Argentine literature could distinguish itself by making reference to “local color”, nor does it need to remain true to the heritage of the literature of Spain, nor to define itself as a rejection of the literature of its colonial founders, nor follow in the footsteps of European literature. He asserts that Argentine writers need to be free to define Argentine literature anew, writing about Argentina and the world from the point of view of someone who has inherited the whole of world literature.

Borges uses Martín Fierro and El Moreno’s competition as a theme once again in “El Fin” (“The End”), a story that first appeared in his short story collection Artificios (1944). “El Fin” is a sort of mini-sequel or conclusion to Martín Fierro. In his prologue to Artificios, Borges says of “El Fin,” “Everything in the story is implicit in a famous book [Martín Fierro] and I have been the first to decipher it, or at least, to declare it.”

To exaggerate Borges’ universalism might be as much a mistake as the nationalists’ questioning the validity of his Argentine identity. His writing was evidently more influenced by some literatures than others, reflecting in part the particular contents of his library his father had amassed, and the particular population composition of Argentina during his lifetime. A review of his work reveals far more influences from European and New World sources than Asian-Pacific or African ones.

Few references to Africans or African-Americans appear in his work; rare mentions include an idiosyncratic inventory of the latter-day effects of the slave trade in “The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morrell” and a number of sympathetic references to a person of African descent killed by the fictional outlaw Martin Fierro. Indigenous Amerind sources are poorly represented, owing to the near-destruction of that population and culture in the Southern Cone region of South America; rare mentions include a captive Aztec priest, Tzinacán, in “The God’s Script” and Amerinds who capture Argentines in “Story of the Warrior and the Captive” and “The Captive”. “Lo Gauchesco” (Gaucho culture, translates as “that which is Gauchesque”), has, however, a big presence throughout his work. Gauchos are the cowboys of Argentina, the men who herded the cattle and were generally of mixed blood (Spanish and indigenous) and have always been associated with the wild, indigenous and unruly elements of Argentine culture.

In contrast to his scholarship in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist sources, Borges’ view of Hinduism and Hindus seems to have been formed by peering through the sympathetic lens of the works of Rudyard Kipling, as in Borges’ “The Approach to Al Mutasim”.

There has been discussion of Borges’ attitudes to sex and women. Herbert J. Brant’s essay “The Queer Use of Communal Women in Borges’ ‘El muerto’ and ‘La intrusa'”, has argued that Borges employed women as intermediaries of male affection, allowing men to engage each other romantically without resorting to direct, homosexual contact. For instance, the plot of La Intrusa was based on a true story of two friends, but Borges made their fictional counterparts brothers, excluding the possibility of a homosexual relationship. Borges dismissed these suggestions.

There are, however, instances in Borges writings of heterosexual love and attraction. The story “Ulrikke” from The Book of Sand tells a romantic tale of heterosexual desire, love, trust and sex. The protagonist of “El muerto” clearly relishes and lusts after the “Splendid, contemptuous, red-haired woman” of Azevedo Bandeira. Later he “sleeps with the woman with shining hair”. “El muerto” (“The Dead Man”) contains two separate examples of definitive gaucho heterosexual lust. James Woodall and Edwin Williamson have each written a biography of Borges, each of which is titled Borges, a Life. Their investigations of his actual relationships and his personal correspondence elaborate on the debate surrounding Borges’ sexuality.

A growing number of literary commentators argue that in his short stories Borges curiously prefigured the World Wide Web. In an article for the New York Times on January 6, 2008, Noam Cohen discusses these trends. According to Cohen, many of Borges tales, such as “The Library of Babel,” describe a “symmetrically structured library” that “represents the universe as conceived by rational man with illegible books that refers to man’s ignorance.” In the story “Tlon,” the universe is based on an “imaginary encyclopedia, a labyrinth devised and deciphered by man.” Borges invites his readers to become active participants in his stories, somewhat like the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Also, according to commentators, his characters describe their lives “like a blog,” where “nothing is forgotten.” Finally, Borges describes in “The Library of Babel,” a universal library that contains all of the secrets of the universe. Literary critics see this universal library as the internet itself where searchers can find the answers to all of their questions.


Selected works:

  • * LUNA DE ENFRENTE, 1923
  • * DISCUSIÓN, 1932
  • * LAS KENNIGAR, 1933
  • * HISTORIA UNIVERSAL DE LA INFAMIA, 1935 – A Universal History of Infamy
  • * HISTORIA DE LA ETERNIDAD, 1936 – History of Etenity
  • * trans.: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, 1937
  • * trans.: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, 1937
  • * ed.: Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, 1938
  • * trans.: William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, 1941
  • * SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI, 1942 (with Bioy Casares under the preudonym H. Bustos Domecq)
  • * EL JARDÍN DE SENDEROS QUE SE BIFURCAN, 1941 – Haarautuvien polkujen puutarha
  • * SEIS PROBLEMAS PARA DON ISIDRO PARODI, 1942 – Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi
  • * FICCIONES, 1944
  • * ANTIGUAS LITERATURAS GERMÁNICAS, 1951 (with Delia Ingenieros)
  • * OTRAS INQUISICIONES 1937-1952, 1952 – Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952
  • * LOS ORILLEROS, 1955
  • * MANUAL DE ZOOLOGIA FANTASTICA, 1957 – The Book of Imaginary Beings (1969)
  • * EL HACEDOR, 1960 – The Doer/The Dreamtigers
  • * ANTOLOGÍA PERSONAL, 1961 – A Personal Anthology
  • * EL OTRO, EL MISMO, 1964
  • * INTRODUCCIÓN A LA LITERATURA INGLESA, 1965 (with María Esther Vásquez)
  • * LITERATURAS GERMÁNICAS MEDIAVALES, 1966 (with María Esther Vásquez)
  • * CRÓNICAS DE BUSTOS DOMECQ, 1967 – Chronicles of Bustos Domecq
  • * EL LIBRO DE LOS SERES IMAGINARIOS, 1967 – The Book of Imaginary Beings
  • * EL OTRO, EL MISMO, 1969
  • * EL INFORME DE BRODIE, 1970 – Dr. Brodie’s Report – suom. Hiekkakirja
  • * EL CONGRESO, 1971
  • * EL ORO DE LOS TIGRES, 1972 – The Gold of Tigers
  • * Borges on Writing, 1973
  • * EL LIBRO DE ARENA, 1975 – The Book of Sand – suom. Hiekkakirja
  • * LA ROSA PROFUNDA, 1975
  • * LIBRO DE SUEÑOS, 1976
  • * ANDROGUÉ, 1977
  • * TIGRES AZULES, 1977
  • * PROSA COMPLETA, 1980
  • * screenplay: The Intruder, dir. by Carlos Hugo Christiansen, 1980
  • * SIETE NOCHES, 1980 – Seven Nights
  • * LA CIFRA, 1981
  • * OBRA POETICA, 1923-1977, 1983
  • * Y OTROS CUENTOS, 1983
  • * LOS CONJURADOS, 1985
  • * OBRAS COMPLETAS, 1989 (2 vols.)
  • * Selected Poems, 1998
  • * Collected Fictions, 1998
  • * Selected Non-Fictions, 1999

much more about Jorge Luis Borges can be found here…

norbert blei | mother love

11 05 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND…No. 142 | May 11, 2008




Norbert Blei

Mothers are all fiction.

There are mothers and sons and mothers and daughters. Fathers do not enter this picture in the same way.

There are American mothers, Black Mothers, Hispanic mothers, Native American mothers, Asian mothers, English mothers, Canadian mothers, Eskimo mothers, French mothers, Scandinavian mothers, Italian mothers, Russian mothers, Slavic mothers, German mothers, Greek mothers, Mediterranean mothers, Jewish mothers—all unique and universal.

There are horrible mothers; there are beautiful mothers; there are invisible.

There’s your mother and there’s my mother. Night and day.

Anyone expressing himself in the arts is always carrying his mother around with him, listening to her trying to get her two words or more in there. “There” being
whatever the writer, composer, painter is trying to tell the world for its sake, his sake, his mother’s sake. Mothers never stop telling you something.

Even after they’ve left the scene, as mine did, twenty-five years ago. “Don’t forget…”

One of the main tasks of the writer: to remember.

All memoirs are fiction. To remember is to forget. In the forgetting comes the fiction. The making-believe.

At this point in my life I have written more about my father, an office worker, who was more silent, more distant, than my mother. But I was closer to my mother in what I do, even though she was a factory worker. Her life was all fiction.

Her influence upon my life, my work, seems far greater. She was always telling me something when I didn’t appear to be listening, which is the nature of the mother-child relationship, how one eventually creates his own identity.

Will you listen! Do you hear what I’m telling you?

When I wrote the book, NEIGHBORHOOD, I included a chapter, based on a newspaper feature I had written about my father, a white-color worker who was an employee of the same bank (his first job) for almost 50 years. There is no story in the book about my mother. Which I regret. But I wasn’t prepared to tell her story.

My mother was all fiction. My father was all non-fiction.

The only in-depth piece of writing I ever did ‘about’ my mother is a short story that appeared in the second collection of short stories, THE GHOST OF SANDBURG’S PHIZZOG.

The story is called, “This Horse of a Body of Mine” m published originally in Tri-Quarterly magazine,, and published after her death. “This horse of a body of mine,” is something I heard my mother say any number of times in anger or desperation. She was always on a diet. She spent her life working the nightshift on a factory assembly line to earn enough money so that we both had what we needed which might make our lives in some way better. She was a clothes horse. A shoe freak. A woman who never saw a piece of jewelry that didn’t look good on her. She always wanted to be a dress-size smaller. Thinner. More beautiful. Free to be who she thought she was.

I could tell you stories and stories ‘about her.’ I smile as I write this. I see her, Sundays, sitting at the kitchen table, wearing an apron, beautifully dressed, her hair done-up, blonde, lipstick, rouge, nails painted, smoking a cigarette. She was going somewhere. She was always somewhere else. And that’s important.

She was drinking coffee, nibbling on a piece of poppy seed cake she baked, after cooking a traditional Czech dinner of roast pork, dumplings and sauerkraut for just the three of us…the beer glasses empty, the radio tuned to her songs, her coffee cup continually refreshed…my dad headed out the back door to put the garbage in the alley. She’d take a deep drag, exhale a large cloud of smoke over the table, and sigh: “I tell you…that father of yours…He never wants to do anything.”

I could tell stories and stories ‘about her’ but, so far, I have written only one that attempted to ‘resemble her,’ while at the same time, more importantly, capture a woman whose spirit refused to die. Which is where the fiction came in and why
she remains so much a force in everything I write.

At six the next morning, I rise to drive to Wisconsin. I see mother in the light of the kitchen, her robe, her gray hair, saying the rosary. She has a small statue of the Blessed Mother in front of her along with a votive candle, an ashtray, her cigarettes and coffee.

I move quietly behind her, press my hands into her shoulders, bend down to kiss her on the cheek. “Don’t bother with anything, “ I whisper. “I’m all right.”

With the rosary wrapped in her fingers, she squeezes my hand, attempts to rise, and begins to say, “Don’t forget…” in the midst of her prayers, while I press harder into her flesh for her to continue, to remain just where she is.

from THE GHOST of SANDBURG’S PHIZZOG and Other Stories, Ellis Press, 1986

Blei’s stories well up from the secret places of the writer’s psyche . . . and the reader’s. His characters are people we have met every day, but in his hands they touch magically and mysteriously the dark realms of legend; the World War II vet introducing his long-haired son, just returned from Vietnam, to buddies at the VFW; the mad Irishman defying his own mortality with his “chair trick”; the mother, dying of cancer, stuffing herself with smoked fish, roast lamb, salami, cheese, and bakery.

This book was a 1986 Pushcart Foundation “Writer’s Choice” selection and was selected for the NEA Literature Program’s 1987 Buenos Aires Book Fair exhibit of New American Writing.

“Blei’s powerful, uneven, brooding interest dwells two streets down from Nelson Algren, a block away from Harry Mark Petrakis, and along the busy line from Ernest Hemingway to Carl Sandburg, a few versts from Chekov.”Chicago Sun-Times

“Blei may be expected to make a significant contribution to the American short-story heritage. This is a good book.”Choice

“The man is very, very good, a true son of the Middle West who descends from the brawny (and brainy) line of Sandburg and Hemingway . . . he is a grand story-teller.”Frederick Busch

“Overall, these stories in a traditional mold, often containing subtle, experimental variations on language, present a refreshing alternative to much of the autobiographical fiction written today.”New York Times Book Review

“Each of Blei’s stories is different, each breathes life into characters whose flesh and voice and spirit fill your room, your home, your heart.”Andre Dubus

clarice lispector | mother’s day, a pious invention

10 05 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 234 | May 10, 2008



Location – Refuge for Abandoned Children; an old building in colonial style; innumerable pavilions with spacious rooms; high ceilings; barred windows.

Number of Children — Six hundred.

Age of Children — Varied.

History – Founded around 1778.

Founder – A Portuguese millionaire who owned the mansion and felt something must be done to rescue abandoned children.

Aims of the Refuge – To house, educate and bring up orphans or children abandoned by their parents.

Director — Sister Isabel, a nun of the Order of St Vincent: white habit; medium height; plump, smiling, imaginative, energetic and loquacious; an expressive face which becomes solemn when she is worried; she moves briskly and with remarkable agility in her white habit, which is always immaculate; a born leader; in no sense conventional; a lively creature who finds a ready solution to every problem. To all appearances oblivious of her own intelligence, she is open and spontaneous: she believes nothing is impossible and once she has made up her mind she acts without a moment’s hesitation. She never shrinks from hard work.

The Facts – Sister Isabel has just been appointed Sister Superior of the Refuge for Abandoned Children, in other words, the Director. She is gradually finding her way around the Refuge. There are six hundred files to be read, one for each child. She notices that in the majority of cases, the parents of the children are unknown. An average file reads: Joao de Deus, born the tenth of December, 1965. Place of birth: State of Guanabara. Colour: black. Parentage: none. There is a blank space. She is gradually getting to know the children, one by one. Most of them ask her: Who is my mummy? To conceal her embarrassment, Sister Isabel changes the subject. But the children are insistent: Who is my Mummy? Sister Isabel thinks hard. Much distressed, she searches for some impossible solution. For hours she stands lost in thought before that enormous filing cabinet, biting her lips.

Result – She reaches a decision. She goes through the cards one by one, undeterred by the fact that there are six hundred of [km to be read. And wherever there is an empty space after the word Parentage she invents a mother for every parentless child. She writes in over and over again names like Maria, Ana, Virginia, Helena, Maddalena, Sofia, etc.

Conclusion – She sends for each child without parents and informs them: Your mummy’s name is Maria, or Ana, or Sofia, etc. The children are overjoyed: now they all have a mother and they are so happy that they do not even mind if she never comes to see them. Sister Isabel always finds some excuse to explain why their mother cannot be with them. A pure invention, those mothers are a fiction and non-existent. They only exist on paper yet they are somehow alive, caring and affectionate.

Finale – Here my story ends and there is nothing more to tell you.

from SELECTED CRǑNICAS, New Directions, 1996, 212 pp. $12.95

Clarice Lispector (December 10, 1920 – December 9, 1977) was a Brazilian writer. Acclaimed internationally for her innovative novels and short stories, she was also a journalist and a translator. A legendary figure in Brazil, renowned for her mystical writings, her great personal beauty, and her eccentric personality, she is now considered (with João Guimarães Rosa) one of the two most outstanding Brazilian prose writers of the twentieth century.

Chaya Lispector was born in Chechelnyk, Podolia, a shtetl in what is today Ukraine. She was the youngest of three daughters of Pinkhas Lispector and Mania Krimgold Lispector. Her family suffered terribly during the pogroms that followed the dissolution of the Russian Empire and the Russian Civil War, circumstances later dramatized by her older sister Elisa Lispector’s autobiographical novel No exílio (In Exile, 1948). They eventually managed to escape to Romania. In Bucharest, they were issued a passport for Brazil, where her mother Mania had relatives. They sailed from Hamburg and arrived in Brazil in the early months of 1922, when Chaya was little more than a year old.

The Lispectors changed their names upon arrival. Pinkhas became Pedro; Mania became Marieta; Leah became Elisa, and Chaya became Clarice. Only the middle daughter, Tania, (April 19, 1915 – November 15, 2007), kept her name. They first settled in the small northeastern city of Maceió, Alagoas. After three years, during which Marieta’s health deteriorated rapidly, they moved to the larger city of Recife, Pernambuco, settling in the Jewish neighborhood of Boa Vista.

In Recife, where her father continued to struggle economically, her mother finally died on September 21, 1930, at age forty-two. Clarice was nine years old. She attended the Colégio Hebreo-Idisch-Brasileiro, which taught Hebrew and Yiddish in addition to the usual subjects. In 1932, she gained admission to the Ginásio Pernambucano, then the most prestigious secondary school in the state. A year later, she “consciously claimed the desire to write,” under much influence from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

In 1935, Pedro Lispector decided to move with his daughters to the then-capital, Rio de Janeiro, where he hoped to find more economic opportunity. The family lived in the neighborhood of São Cristóvão, north of downtown Rio, before moving to Tijuca. In 1937, she entered the Law Faculty of the University of Brazil, then the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the country.

Her first known story, “Triunfo,” was published in the magazine Pan on May 25, 1940. Soon afterwards, on August 26, 1940, as a result of a botched gall-bladder operation, her beloved father died, age 55.

While still in law school, Clarice began working as a journalist, first at the official government press service the Agência Nacional and then at the important newspaper A Noite. There she came into contact with the younger generation of Brazilian writers, including Lúcio Cardoso, with whom she fell in love. Cardoso was homosexual, however, and she soon began seeing a law school collegue named Maury Gurgel Valente, who had entered the Brazilian Foreign Service, known as Itamaraty. In order to marry a diplomat, she had to be naturalized, which she did as soon as she came of age. On January 12, 1943, she was granted Brazilian citizenship. Eleven days later she married Maury.

In December 1943, she published her first novel, Perto do coração selvagem (Near to the Wild Heart). The novel, which tells of the inner life of a young woman named Joana, caused a sensation. In October 1944, the book won the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize for the best debut novel of 1943. One critic, the poet Lêdo Ivo, called it “the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language.” Another wrote that Clarice had “shifted the center of gravity around which the Brazilian novel had been revolving for about twenty years.” “Clarice Lispector’s work appears in our literary world as the most serious attempt at the introspective novel,” wrote the São Paulo critic Sérgio Milliet. “For the first time, a Brazilian author goes beyond simple approximation in this almost virgin field of our literature; for the first time, an author penetrates the depths of the psychological complexity of the modern soul.”

When the novel was published, many claimed that her stream-of-consciousness writing style was heavily influenced by Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, but she had read neither of these authors. The title, and the epigraph from Joyce, were suggested by Lúcio Cardoso. This novel, like all of her subsequent works, was marked by an intense focus on interior emotional states.

Shortly afterwards, Clarice and Maury left Rio for the northern city of Belém do Pará, at the mouth of the Amazon. There, Maury served as a liaison between the Foreign Ministry and the international visitors who were using northern Brazil as a military base in World War II.

On July 29, 1944, Clarice left Brazil for the first time since she had arrived as a child, destined for Naples, where Maury was posted to the Brazilian Consulate. Naples was the staging ground for the Brazilian troops of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force who were fighting on the Allied side against the Nazis. She worked at the hospital in Naples taking care of wounded Brazilian troops. In Rome, she met the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, who translated parts of Near to the Wild Heart, and had her portrait painted by Giorgio de Chirico.

In Naples she completed her second novel, O Lustre (The Chandelier, 1946), which like the first focused on the interior life of a girl, this time one named Virgínia. This longer and more difficult book also met with an enthusiastic critical reception, though its impact was less sensational than Near to the Wild Heart. “Possessed of an enormous talent and a rare personality, she will have to suffer, fatally, the disadvantages of both, since she so amply enjoys their benefits,” wrote Gilda de Souza e Mello.

After a short visit to Brazil in 1946, Clarice and Maury returned to Europe in April, 1946, where Maury was posted to the embassy in Berne, Switzerland. This was a time of considerable boredom and frustration for Lispector, who was often depressed. “This Switzerland,” she wrote her sister Tania, “is a cemetery of sensations.” Her son Pedro Gurgel Valente was born in Berne on September 10, 1948, and in the city she wrote her third novel, A cidade sitiada (The Besieged City, 1946).

In Switzerland, in Berne, I lived on the Gerechtigkeitsgasse, that is, Justice Street. In front of my house, in the street, was the colored statue, holding the scales. Around, crushed kings begging perhaps for a pardon. In the winter, the little lake in the middle of which the statue stood, in the winter the freezing water, sometimes brittle with a thin layer of ice. In the spring red geraniums … And the still-medieval street: I lived in the old part of the city. What saved me from the monotony of Berne was living in the Middle Ages, it was waiting for the snow to pass and for the red geraniums to be reflected once again in the water, it was having a son born there, it was writing one of my least liked books, The Besieged City, which, however, people come to like when they read it a second time; my gratitude to that book is enormous: the effort of writing it kept me busy, saved me from the appalling silence of Berne, and when I finished the last chapter I went to the hospital to give birth to the boy.

The book Lispector wrote in Berne, The Besieged City, tells the story of Lucrécia Neves, and the growth of her town, São Geraldo, from a little settlement to a large city. The book, which is full of metaphors of vision and seeing, met with a tepid reception and was “perhaps the least loved of Clarice Lispector’s novels,” according to a close friend of Lispector’s. Sérgio Milliet concluded that “the author succumbs beneath the weight of her own richness.” And the Portuguese critic João Gaspar Simões wrote: “Its hermeticism has the texture of the hermeticism of dreams. May someone find the key.”

After leaving Switzerland in 1949 and spending almost a year in Rio, Clarice and Maury Gurgel Valente traveled to Torquay, Devon, where Maury was a delegate to the on GATT. They remained in England from September, 1950, until March, 1951. Lispector liked England, though she suffered a miscarriage on a visit to London.

In 1952, back in Rio, where the family would stay about a year, Lispector published a short volume of six stories called Alguns contos (Some Stories) in a small edition sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Health. These stories formed the core of the later Laços de família (Family Ties), 1961. She also worked under the pseudonym Teresa Quadros as a women’s columnist at the short-lived newspaper Comício.

In September, 1952, the family moved to Washington, where they would live until June, 1959. They bought a house at 4421 Ridge Street in the suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. On February 10, 1953, her second son Paulo was born. She grew close to the Brazilian writer Érico Veríssimo, then working for the Organization of American States, and his wife Mafalda, as well as to the wife of the ambassador, Alzira Vargas do Amaral Peixoto, daughter of the former Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas. She also began publishing her stories in the new magazine Senhor, back in Rio. But she was increasingly discontented with the diplomatic milieu. “I hated it, but I did what I had to […] I gave dinner parties, I did everything you’re supposed to do, but with a disgust …” She increasingly missed her sisters and Brazil, and in June, 1959, she left her husband and returned with her sons to Rio de Janeiro, where she would spend the rest of her life.

In Brazil, Lispector struggled financially and tried to find a publisher for the novel she had completed in Washington several years before, as well as for her book of stories, Laços de família. This book incorporated the six stories of Some Stories along with seven new stories, some of which had been published in Senhor. It was published in 1960. The book, her friend Fernando Sabino wrote her, was “exactly, sincerely, indisputably, and even humbly, the best book of stories ever published in Brazil.” And Érico Veríssimo said: “I haven’t written about your book of stories out of sheer embarrassment to tell you what I think of it. Here goes: the most important story collection published in this country since Machado de Assis,” Brazil’s classic novelist.

A Maçã no escuro (The Apple in the Dark), which she had begun in Torquay, had been ready since 1956 but was repeatedly rejected by publishers, to Lispector’s despair. Her longest novel and perhaps her most complex, it was finally published in 1961 by the same house that had published Family Ties, the Livraria Francisco Alves in São Paulo. Driven by interior dialogue rather than by plot, its purported subject is a man called Martim, who believes he has killed his wife and flees deep into the Brazilian interior, where he finds work as a farm laborer. The real concerns of the highly allegorical novel are language and creation. In 1962, the work was awarded the Carmen Dolores Barbosa Pize for the best novel of the previous year.

Around this time she began a relationship with the poet Paulo Mendes Campos, an old friend. Mendes Campos was married and the relationship did not endure.

In 1964, she published one of her most shocking and famous books, A paixão segundo G.H., about a woman who, in the maid’s room of her comfortable Rio penthouse, endures a mystical experience that leads to her eating part of a cockroach. In the same year, she published another book of stories and miscellany, The Foreign Legion.

On September 14, 1966, she suffered a terrible accident in her apartment. After taking a sleeping pill, she fell asleep in her bed with a lit cigarette. She was badly wounded and her right hand almost had to be amputated.

The fire I suffered a while back partially destroyed my right hand. My legs were marked forever. What happened was very sad and I prefer not to think about it. All I can say is that I spent three days in hell, where–so they say–bad people go after death. I don’t consider myself bad and I experienced it while still alive.

The next year, she published her first children’s book, O Mistério do coelho pensante, (The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit, 1967), a translation of a book she had written in Washington, in English, for her son Paulo. In August, 1967, she began writing a weekly column (“crônica”) for the Jornal do Brasil, an important Rio newspaper, which greatly expanded her fame beyond the intellectual and artistic circles that had long admired her. These pieces were later collected in the postumous work A Descoberta do mundo (The Discovery of the World, 1984).

In 1968, Lispector participated in the political demonstrations against Brazil’s hardening military dictatorship, and also published two books: her second work for children, A Mulher que matou os peixes (The Woman Who Killed the Fish), in which the narrator, Clarice, confesses to having forgotten to feed her son’s fish; and her first novel since G.H., Uma Aprendizagem ou O Livro dos Prazeres, a love story between a primary teacher, Lóri, and a philosophy teacher, Ulisses. The book drew on her writings in her newspaper columns. She also intensified her journalistic activity, conducting interviews for the glossy magazine Manchete.

In 1971, Lispector published another book of stories, Felicidade clandestina, (Covert Joy), several of which hearkened back to memories of her childhood in Recife. She began working on the book that many would consider her finest, Água viva, though she struggled to complete it. Olga Borelli, a former nun who entered her life around this time and became her faithful assistant and friend, recalled:

She was insecure and asked a few people for their opinion. With other books Clarice didn’t show that insecurity. With Água viva she did. That was the only time I saw Clarice hesitate before handing in a book to the publisher. She herself said that. When the book came out in 1973, it was instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece. “With this fiction,” one critic wrote, “Clarice Lispector awakens the literature currently being produced in Brazil from a depressing and degrading lethargy and elevates it to a level of universal perennity and perfection.”

In 1974, Lispector published two books of stories, Onde estivestes de noite (Where Were You at Night) – which focuses in part on the lives of aging women – and A Via Crucis do corpo (The Via-Crucis of the Body). Though her previous books had often taken her years to complete, the latter was written in three days, after a challenge from her publisher, Álvaro Pacheco, to write three stories about themes relating to sex. Part of the reason she wrote so much may have had to do with her having been unexpectedly fired from the Jornal do Brasil at the end of 1973, which put her under increasing financial pressure. She began to paint and intensified her activity as a translator, publishing translations of Agatha Christie, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe. And in 1975 she was invited to the First World Congress of Sorcery in Bogotá, an event which garnered wide press coverage and increased her notoriety. At the conference, her story “The Egg and the Hen”, first published in The Foreign Legion, was read in English.

“The Egg and the Hen” is mysterious and does indeed have a bit of occultism. It is a difficult and profound story. That is why I think the audience, very mixed, would have been happier if I had pulled a rabbit out of my hat. Or fallen into a trance. Listen, I never did anything like that in my life. My inspiration does not come from the supernatural, but from unconscious elaboration, which comes to the surface as a kind of revelation. Moreover, I don’t write in order to gratify anybody else.

In the mid-seventies, Lispector worked on a book called Um sopro de vida: pulsações (A Breath of Life: Pulsations) that would be published posthumously. The book consists of a dialogue between an “Author” and his creation, Angela Pralini, a character whose name was borrowed from a character in a story in Where Were You at Night. She used this fragmentary form for her final and perhaps most famous novel, A Hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star, 1977), piecing the story together, with the help of Olga Borelli, from notes scrawled on loose bits of paper. The Hour of the Star tells the story of Macabéa, one of the iconic characters in Brazilian literature, a starving, poor typist from Alagoas, the state where Lispector’s family first arrived, lost in the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. Macabéa’s name refers to the Maccabees, and is one of the very few overtly Jewish references in Lispector’s work. Its explicit focus on Brazilian poverty and marginality was also new.

Shortly after The Hour of the Star was published, Lispector was admitted to the hospital. She had inoperable ovarian cancer, though she was not told the diagnosis. She died on the eve of her 57th birthday and was buried on December 11, 1977, at the Jewish Cemetery of Cajú, Rio de Janeiro.


  • * Perto do Coração Selvagem (1943) – Near to the Wild Heart
  • * O Lustre (1946) – The Chandelier
  • * A Cidade Sitiada (1949) – The Besieged City
  • * A Maçã no Escuro (1961) The Apple in the Dark
  • * A Paixão segundo G.H. (1964) – The Passion According to G.H.
  • * Uma Aprendizagem ou O Livro dos Prazeres (1969) – An Apprenticeship or the Book of Pleasures
  • * Água Viva (1973) – The Stream of Life
  • * A hora da Estrela (1977) – The Hour of the Star
  • * Um Sopro de Vida (1978) – A Breath of Life


  • * Alguns contos (1952) – Some Stories
  • * Laços de família (1960) – Family Ties. Includes works previously published in Alguns Contos.
  • * A Legião estrangeira (1964) – The Foreign Legion
  • * Felicidade clandestina (1971) – Covert Joy
  • * A imitação da rosa (1973) – The Imitation of the Rose. Includes previously published material.
  • * A Via-crucis do corpo (1974) – The Stations of the Body
  • * Onde estivestes de noite (1974) – Where Were You at Night
  • * Para não esquecer (1978) – Not to Forget
  • * A Bela e a fera (1979) – Beauty and the Beast

Children’s Literature

  • * O Mistério do Coelho Pensante (1967) – The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit
  • * A mulher que matou os peixes (1968) – The Woman Who Killed the Fish
  • * A Vida Íntima de Laura (1974) – Laura’s Intimate Life
  • * Quase de verdade (1978) – Almost True
  • * Como nasceram as estrelas: Doze lendas brasileiras (1987) – How the Stars were Born: Twelve Brazilian Legends

Journalism and Other Shorter Writings

  • * A Descoberta do Mundo (1984) – The Discovery of the World. Lispector’s newspaper columns in the Jornal do Brasil.
  • * Visão do esplendor (1975) – Vision of Splendor
  • * De corpo inteiro (1975) – With the Whole Body. Lispector’s interviews with famous personalities.
  • * Aprendendo a viver (2004) – Learning to Live. A selection of columns from The Discovery of the World.
  • * Outros escritos (2005) – Other Writings. Diverse texts including interviews and stories.
  • * Correio feminino (2006) – Ladies’ Mail. Selection of Lispector’s texts, written pseudonymously, for Brazilian women’s pages.
  • * Entrevistas (2007) – Interviews.


  • * Cartas perto do coração (2001) – Letters near the Heart. Letters exchanged with Fernando Sabino.
  • * Correspondências (2002) – Correspondence
  • * Minhas queridas (2007) – My dears. Letters exchanged with her sisters Elisa Lispector and Tania Lispector Kaufmann.

Further reading

  • * Efraín Kristal, The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel, Cambridge University Press (2005), ISBN 0521825334 – includes a chapter on The Passion According to G.H.
  • * Earl E. Fitz, Sexuality and Being in the Poststructuralist Universe of Clarice Lispector: The Différance of Desire, University of Texas Press (2001), ISBN 0292725299