Jack Vance and Jorge Luis Borges
A. Mark Palmer
Copyright May 1st, 2006, Paraparaumu, New Zealand.
Of all writers, Borges and Vance have been my most constant companions. Both men wrote beautiful fantasies, but while Vance is considered light reading, Borges is always counted very hard, but ultimately rewarding, work.
Jack Vance wrote "science fiction", which is to say that in his work are to be found the elements of futuristic dreams: spaceships, aliens, and the fascinating cultures of the peoples of distant stars. Vance also wrote of fairy people, magic, the love of young men and maidens; his theme is the triumph of youthful courage over established evil. His women are beautiful and sometimes full of charming whimsy; his male heroes (in his developed, later work) are morally aware, competent in the face of overwhelming odds; they never lose heart, and tend to excellence in single combat. In the best romantic tradition, Vance's novels are played out in the context of richly depicted alien environments, whose unforgettable flavour is entirely Vance's own.
Perhaps my favourite thing about Vance is his insistence that life must be lived fully. He puts words into the mouths of his protagonists to explain that every day, every minute and each very second must be milked for every drop of meaning that it has, and that the wastage of time is the most heinous of crimes.
Borges' stories are, from the first, cerebral, and have been called an intellectual feast. As a very young man I heard of his reputation as a fantasist, and one payday I brought home a volume of his stories, "Fictions" which I tried to read that night over a bottle of wine.
Really, it makes me wonder if I can be any better now… certainly I lacked the honesty to put the stories aside and admit that I found them incomprehensible. Rather than relax and do something more likely to be productive, I tried hard and long to gain a understanding of Borges' work, which required a far greater intellectual and emotional maturity than I was able to bring to my reading at 21 years of age. Luckily for me, I knew no-one else, when I was 21, who claimed an interest in Borges. I would certainly have made a great fool of myself had I attempted discussion of his work.
Thirty years later, I am still amazed by the richness of Borges' conceptions. The stories are so dense as to be almost impenetrable: full of dazzling internal reflections and hidden, haunting similarities. More than any other writer I know, Borges provides for the reader's appetite for paradox and infinitudes. Where he uses magic, Borges makes no mystery of it, he is matter-of-fact. Borges makes the impossible seem commonsense. I come away from Borges at least half-believing that what he has written might be true.
After decades, having read some of his stories perhaps twenty times, I find that Borges' work calls me into reflective contemplation, perhaps on the matter of human perception, perhaps on the humanity which lies in the rebellious heart of a pirate. Hidden within the labyrinthine architecture of his conceptions, I now seem to hear the voice and see the gentle eyes of an ordinary man, possessed of a dry and ironical humour, who enjoyed scholarship and quiet evenings with his friends.
Perhaps the key to Borges', and all human literature, is in compassion.
I read and write because of my desire for like-minded company. Had I a close companion here and now, with whom I could discuss the things of my heart, I would not at this moment be writing to you. (Would you read these words in preference to enjoyment of companionship with your own close friend, with your family?)
In reading Borges at 21, I imagined myself in conversation with the author; enjoyed imaginary triumphs over his thankful appreciation of my insightful remarks, day-dreamed his pleased responses to my clever questions. How wise I knew I was!
Reading a fresh Jack Vance, I took care to choose a place where I would not be disturbed, preferably in the sun, somewhere secret… I would be full of excitement at the thought of a whole new dish of his delightful phrasings and incomparably beautiful visions; anticipation must have made my face shine.
In a later age of my life, I met a man who had recently returned from Argentina, where he had lived for a time in Buenos Aires. This man told me that he had met the ancient and blind Borges, had actually found himself shanghaied into taking the old man for his evening walk! Of course I desired details… but now I digress, for I must admit that in the intervening decades I had come to a new set of insights, which, if only in honour of the master, I admit are equally wrong. "How was it, to walk with Borges? " I asked. "Was he as you had thought?"
By that time, I had begun to admit to myself that I was not the rarity of mental strength that I had once desperately hoped. I had merely, like many young men, sought a hiding-place from loneliness in intellectualism. Perhaps it was much the same for my visitor, he who had walked with Borges.
"No, he wasn't anything like what I had expected" the young man said. "I had thought he would be full of marvelous insights, gems of understanding which I could treasure and examine secretly forever, but although I asked him my best question his only reply was a dismissive grunt."
Contrast the experience of the college students who, finding themselves in California, took courage to telephone Jack Vance, whose name they found in the local telephone directory. Vance did not hesitate to invite the young men to his home, where he and his wife showed them wonderful hospitality, feeding them and giving them a bed for the night. Vance opened up to them on the subject of his work, allowing them to hear the patterns of his speech which, the boys were a little disappointed to observe, lacked the summative grace of his characters' utterances. The students wrote an essay on their night at Vance's home, which they posted on the World Wide Web for the benefit of all. I benefited from their generosity, even you yourself have now so gained.
I cannot say that I know either Vance or Borges well. I know that my judgements are, as always, arrogant, jejune. These wonderful authors have both shown me resplendent fantasies in which I have forgotten the world for a time.
Yet I have seen that while I drink from the clear, deep wells of his invention I am never able to entirely lose my sensibility of Borges' terrible isolation: a blind man, without wife or family… while through Vance's work I feel the unmistakably tropical breeze of a happier life spent with his wife and son, in their California hillside home, to the sweet sound of early jazz.