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PART OF THE Inner Space ISSUE

‘God was the first and only librarian.’

Jay Parini takes us back 50 years, when he fled the United States for Scotland. Through unlikely circumstances, he met famed Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. As the duo travelled, the charmingly garrulous Borges took Parini on a grand tour of western literature and ideas while promising to teach him about love and poetry, with their escapades taking a surreal turn. Borges and Me is a classic road novel, based on true events, but also a magical tour of an era in which uncertainties abound – read an excerpt below.

Extract taken from Borges and Me: An Encounter
By Jay Parini
Published by Canongate Books

 

As we passed the Carnegie Library, Borges insisted we stop “for a wee snoop.” It was a gloomy sandstone building, and I described the architecture as best I could, working to find the exact and imagistic details, grasping for metaphors. “It would seem to sulk,” I said, “with the windows like heavily lidded eyes. The roofline is a brow that sags. There is disapproval here.” 

“We seem small by comparison, inadequate,” said Borges, nodding as I led him into the entrance hall, where a snowy-haired man in a tweed suit with the texture of chain mail lurched toward us. He seemed startled to have visitors, and his look was faintly dismissive. 

“I’m Mr. Dunne,” he said. “I suppose you would like a tour? Of course you would.” 

He could see that Borges was blind, and this handicap earned us a degree of forbearance. “This was the first of more than two thousand and five hundred libraries that Mr. Carnegie funded,” he explained. 

“That is too many,” said Borges. “One would have been enough.” 

Mr. Dunne frowned, but I resisted describing his expression to Borges. 

“God was the first and only librarian,” Borges added. 

“The first librarian here was Mr. Peebles,” insisted Mr. Dunne, quoting from an invisible script in his head. “They had over two hundred applicants for the job, but he was a remarkable man, forty years old at the time.” 

“I began to work in a library at the age of thirty-eight,” said Borges. “So Mr. Peebles and I have this in common. My father’s health had declined rapidly, and I had no choice but to find a profession. I was a librarian by nature. I’m still a librarian in my heart. But these first years were not so happy. Nine years of sadness and restlessness. A minor branch of the municipal library. I worked as first assistant to the man in charge of cataloguing. But we had few books and too much time. This is the problem of the universe, Mr. Dunne. There is so much time and so little to do.” 

Our tour guide said, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.” 

“Oh, my dear Dunne. Do you believe in such a proposition? Life is propositions about life, of course. But your proposition is faulty. Idle hands are God’s hands, I’m quite sure of this. God is the head librarian, and he invites us to waste our time in his stacks.” 

“Are you a Christian, sir?” Dunne asked. 

“I love Jesus. Do you?” 

“He is my Lord and Savior.” 

“Ah, then,” said Borges, “you have much in common with your cousin, the great poet and cleric. ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God.’ ” 

“We’re not related,” said the tour guide. “My name is 

spelled D-u-n-n-e.” 

“A pity,” said Borges. “But let me advise you, the work of our Lord is to help us find the lost books, the ones that hold the key.” 

Mr. Dunne sighed, leading us dutifully into the reading room, where he offered us coffee. I could see that he was intrigued by Borges in spite of himself. “You are from where exactly?” he asked. 

“I’m an Argentinian, and former director of the National Library.” 

With this Mr. Dunne snapped to full attention, as if a general had walked unexpectedly into the barracks. Even the curtains in the windows stiffened in an invisible breeze. 

He handed us coffee, and Borges stirred the hot liquid with his finger and licked it. 

“This is wonderful,” he said. “Thank you! I have been freezing since I arrived in this country. My grandmother used to say that nobody in Scotland is warm.” He sipped, looking around the room. “I smell the books,” he said, his nostrils expanding. 

“There are books on shelves all around us,” I said. 

“Can you see any titles?” 

“There’s a row of Sir Walter Scott, the Waverly novels.” 

“Not as good as Stevenson. But the world took notice! Even the great Russians, they admired Scott.” 

“And I see the Encyclopedia Britannica.” 

“Which edition?” 

I went over to examine one volume of the twenty-nine. 

“1911.” 

“The finest encyclopedia in creation! The most accomplished scholars on each subject were brought together in those pages. One could live forever in that edition, and never leave. I would happily die there. In the municipal library, I worked for only one hour each day. Then I would retreat to the basement, where they kept the encyclopedias.” 

He began to move toward the shelves, and I assisted him. “Here is the row of Scott,” I said, drawing one of his hands toward the books. 

He plucked a volume and began greedily to lick the spine, his tongue like that of a cat. There was, I thought, lust in his eyes. 

“What are you doing, sir?” asked Mr. Dunne. Centuries of disapproval crossed his face. 

“Some books should be tasted,” Borges said. “I like to sample them.” His tongue traced the length of the leather spine. 

“This is impossible,” Mr. Dunne said. 

“Show me into the stacks,” Borges said. “Take me, dear Dunne!” 

I felt certain our guide would kick us out of the building, but instead he obeyed, opening the door to a room with a dizzying array of shelves. There were numerous side rooms as well, each of them opening into further rooms. Borges touched one of the shelves, as if finding his way by his fingertips, then leaned his forehead against the spines of several books, as one might lean one’s head against a cross on Good Friday. 

“You must not lick them, please,” said Mr. Dunne. “It isn’t allowed.” 

Borges and Me by Jay Parini is published by Canongate Books, priced £14.99

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