Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges: An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain


by Jorge Luis Borges,
Magical realism/Short stories
576 pages
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Click here to see my other posts on this book.

Today, I’ll share my thoughts on two stories:

An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain

On the occasion of the death of the author Herbert Quain, the narrator talks about his works and compares him to other authors. Two of his books have a title featuring recurring themes in Ficciones: The God of the Labyrinth, and The Secret Mirror.

The end of the story actually reveals that Quain is a fictitious Borges himself, but as the real author of one of the previous stories, The Circular Ruins. And there are a lot more parallels between Quain and Borges. We are never far from metafiction with Borges!

I think there might be self-allusions in passages like this one:

He was very clear-headed about the experimental nature of his books: he thought them admirable, perhaps, for their novelty and for a certain laconic probity.

Could the following be Borges’s opinions ?:

Quain was in the habit of arguing that readers were an already extinct species…

He also affirmed that of the various pleasures offered by literature, the greatest is invention.

The Library of Babel

The story is about the Universe, aka the Library, “made of six-sided galleries containing 20 bookshelves”. It is “composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries”. With a set number of books on shelves, 410 pages per book, 40 lines per page, about 80 letters per line.
And obviously, there’s an important mirror in this library! And we find the expression “a labyrinth of letters”.
Bu this infinity of books is not necessarily positive. In fact, the narrator fears it may lead to total chaos and lack of meaning.
The ambiance of the story is rather sad – although the story has an epigraph coming from a real book proposing study as a cure to melancholy.
So I’m not totally sure what to make of this story.

It focuses on language.
Could this Library contain all existing, or all potential books, if you rearrange the letters differently, in all languages? This is a story en abyme, typical of Borges’s style.

If you are wondering why Borges talks about the 22 letters of the alphabet, know his reference is the Hebrew alphabet.
And incidentally, Borges worked many years as a librarian.

To go more in depth, check the Course Hero page on this book.
Come back tomorrow for my thoughts on the last story of Part 1: The Garden of Forking Paths.


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