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Seven Nights Paperback – October, 1984
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― Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights
I have read all of Borges' fiction and poetry, and am currently making my way through his non-fiction. My reading of Borges, by the way, began at least 15 years ago, and I still have quite a few books to go; one should not rush with this author. I have all of his books, so when I feel like reading him I pick up one of them from the shelf. This time, it was the turn of _Seven Nights_. I'll put it simply: this is one of the most wonderful books I've ever read, and one of the jewels of Borges' oeuvre.
The lectures collected in _Seven Nights_ were delivered in 1977 (a notably violent year in Argentina) at the Teatro Coliseo. In the course of seven nights, Borges talked about seven topics that were almost obsessions for him. One of the most evident qualities of this magnificent book is the personal nature of the lectures. _Seven Nights_ is, in more than one way, an autobiographical volume. (Borges might have said the same was true of every single book he wrote, but that's another issue.) I never had the chance to hear Borges speaking--I was just a kid when he passed away--but from a reading of his talks he comes across not only as an excellent orator, but also as a very amiable one. He was definitely one of those people one can listen to for hours without getting the least bit bored. In addition, Borges exhibits a crucial trait that so many orators lack: humility. Regarding the subjects he chose for his talks, these are exquisite. It's quite a decision actually: if you were asked to lecture on seven topics, which would you choose? Borges' knowledge was erudite. These are his topics:
* The _Divine Comedy_: Probably my favorite lecture of the collection. He talks not only of the book itself, but of the way he reads it, and he examines episodes that he enjoyed particularly, such as the story of Paolo and Francesca, and that of Ulysses (or Odysseus).
* Nightmares: Borges looks at the word "nightmare" itself in different languages. He gives examples of his own nightmares, and talks about some from literature.
* The _Arabian Nights_: I have not explored this immortal and endless work, but I can't think of a better person to introduce me to it than Borges. I feel like starting to read it right now. A key point here is the relationship between East and West. Borges also talks about the influence the _Arabian Nights_ had on other authors, such as Stevenson, Chesterton, and of course, Borges himself.
* Buddhism: Borges is a bit ambiguous when he gets into metaphysical territory. He knows about and expounds on so many conflicting theories, and he never takes sides. I get a little frustrated at this, but that is my fault. As Chesterton points out, choosing one thing means rejecting everything else. Borges probably didn't want to let go of anything; all knowledge was good for him. I know quite a bit about Buddhism, so there was not much new material for me in this lecture. Still, it was great to "listen" to Borges talk about a topic so apparently alien to him.
* Poetry: Quite a broad topic, of course, but Borges approaches it in a personal way, without intending to exhaust such a vast area. I like the importance he gives to the word as a unit. "Cada palabra es una obra poética." This lecture includes a personal reading of two sonnets, one by Francisco de Quevedo, and one by Enrique Banchs. (The latter, by the way, is an interesting case. Pretty much unknown outside Argentina, he published his work--four books of poetry--between 1907-1911, and passed away in 1968.)
* The Kabbalah: Virtually all the material here was new to me. The notion that absolutely nothing in the Torah is casual or accidental is simply amazing. If every word counts (or should count) in poetry, according to the Kabbalah every *letter* of the Torah counts, and this includes reading them in different orders. In this lecture, Borges also refers a story that he loved: that of the Golem.
* Blindness: Without a doubt the most personal of the lectures. At the time, Borges eyesight was limited to partial vision with only one eye. He would dictate much of his work, which explains why during his last years he wrote mostly poetry and prologues. He reflects on the irony of being appointed librarian of the National Library in Buenos Aires, and knowing that he wouldn't be able to read the books he had at hand (I'm reminded of that famous Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough at Last;" there is so much of Borges in The Twilight Zone, I keep wondering whether he was aware of it, and what his thoughts were). One must keep in mind, though, that Borges also considered his blindness a gift.
Borges is always a delight to read. He has done so much work for his reader, too. When you read one of his essays, you feel as if you've studied five books or more. _Seven Nights_ comprises volumes of knowledge, and these are delivered to you with joy and humility in a few pages. If you can read in Spanish, there's another slim volume of lectures by Borges that won't disappoint you, titled _Borges oral_ (1979). The talks included on this one are: "The Book," "Immortality," "Emanuel Swedenborg," "The Detective Story," and "Time." _Borges oral_ has unfortunately not been translated into English (yet), but you can find the lectures "Immortality" and "The Detective Story" in the collection _Selected Non-Fictions_, published by Penguin.
One final word about Borges, who is sometimes described as a "difficult" author: the best thing to do in order to understand Borges, is to... read more Borges.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!
Each lecture can stand alone, but references to prior topics abound.
I first encountered "Seven Nights" some years ago. Having just read Dante's Inferno for the first time, I was having difficulty articulating the powerful impact that Dante's great work had made on me. In his first lecture, "The Divine Comedy", Borges provided the words.
He says, the Middle Ages "gave us, above all, the Divine Comedy, which we continue to read, and which continues to astonish us, which will last beyond our lives, far beyond our waking lives." He describes the joy of reading Dante's work as a narrative, ignoring - at least during the first reading - the extensively documented literary and historical criticism. "The Commedia is a book everyone ought to read. Not to do so is to deprive oneself of the greatest gift that literature can give us."
"Dreams are the genus; nightmares are the species. I will speak first of dreams, and then of nightmares." So begins lecture two. Borges takes us on a journey through history, literature, and poetry in search for understanding of that so common, but so unusual event, that we call dreams.
"A major event in the history of the West was the discovery of the East." And so begins lecture three on that great work that defines the mystery that is Arabia. "These tales have had a strange history. They were first told in India, then in Persia, then in Asia Minor, and finally were written down in Arabic and compiled in Cairo. They became The Book of a Thousand and One Nights."
Borges lectures travel an elliptical orbit around his topic, sometimes approaching directly, other times looking outward, away from his stated subject. In his lecture on poetry (number five) he comments on literature in general: "A bibliography is unimportant - after all, Shakespeare knew nothing of Shakespearean criticism. Why not study the texts directly? If you like the book, fine. If you don't, don't read it. The idea of compulsory reading is absurd. Literature is rich enough to offer you some other author worthy of your attention - or one today unworthy of your attention whom you will read tomorrow."
His other lectures, "Buddhism", "The Kabbalah", and "Blindness", are equally intriguing. In once more rereading "Seven Nights" I found myself again astounded by Borges, by his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of literature, by his capability to forge unexpected connections, and by his provocative statements. He has obviously given considerable thought to his conclusions, although Borges is anything but dogmatic. I enjoy a quote from a concluding paragraph in NIghtmares. "We may draw two conclusions, at least tonight; later we can change our minds."
Whether you are familiar with Borges or not, I highly recommend "Seven Nights". Borges is simply without peer, and I do not expect to change my mind later.
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But "Seven Nights" is no dry collection of stiff monologues.Read more