Almost Shadow

Amongst the possibilities bestowed upon me by such simplicity we call fate, I sauntered off Third Promenade into the quiet glory of Santa Monica Boulevard to chance upon an uncommon, moderately hefty bookstore dabbling in unwilling solitude. I surveyed the shelves, seeking both the familiar and the infrequent, and above all, the volume that, even if already acquainted with, may spell brief joy when recognized, just like an old, cherished abettor. Borges greeted me from the unassuming cover, a looming demigod, leaning forward in mirror-laden thoughts, arms crossed in labyrinthine perplexity.

A Personal Anthology was published in 1961, a time when Borges had already been turned into Borges the Writer and Borges the Sage, an icon of bibliolatry, an ageless literary rune to withstand the coming era of literary infirmity. Borges stated in his prologue that preferences alone had dictated the contents of the book, and chided critics who would have preferred to judge an author so much more committed to national trivialities, like local colour and other apocrypha. The anthology’s gist has been aptly summarized by Edoardo Sanguineti in Scribilli: a Crocianesque maze-like concept of aesthetic limitations (un’ aspirazione chiusa nel giro d’una rappresentazione), the secret symbol we may aspire to mention or imply but never to fully voice, as access to the divine Word has been precluded by the very jealousy of those who dwell in Olympus. Borges ever relapses in his profession of Platonic faith: in A Yellow Rose he has Giambattista Marino wither away his last few hours of life in a Spanish bed with carved bedposts, surrounded by a garden, marble, water, and a serene balcony that faces the cardinal point that lies closer to the night, the west. Before revelation is granted to him, he utters the few lines of his L’ Adone his feeble immortality will be built upon: Porpora de’ giardin, pompa de’ prati, (Borges could not pass up the alliteration), gemma di primavera, occhio d’aprile. The elogio della rosa is now complete and il Marino may, after glimpsing the Rose beyond mere representation, inaccurate description, and futile expression, depart in peace to join the ranks of Homer and Dante. Such is Plato’s whisper choosing Borges’s murmur to remind the world that the world is a dream with almost a sense.

The book in my hands has somehow been borne from New York to Los Angeles. Utter care has been dispensed on its spine and pages by the previous owner; a slight yellowish sheen slithers over the cover and the back, a hue that would have pleased Borges’s blindness. Very few annotations found their way to the margins of a page: anomalous was described as irregular or abnormal; fulgent equalled dazzling; a hypogeum was better explained as a catacomb. The unnamed reader’s eyes were quizzed by a word in A Yellow Rose and labeled it almost shadow. The word is penumbra:

“…los altos y soberbios volúmenes que formaban en un ángulo de la sala una penumbra de oro…”

Borges’s anthology was put into English in 1967; Anthony Kerrigan and Alastair Reid took it upon themselves to carry out the rather pleasurable task of rendering Borges into an alien (by no means to the author himself) language. A Yellow Rose would endure, mostly gladly, several translations: if we are to believe Borges’s first English-speaking amanuensis, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, he set about it soon after he met Borges in December 1967. The Maker (El hacedor,1960), Borges’s collection of deep, short gems, few longer than a score of lines, was the volume where Marino’s rose was presented in its Spanish original. Somewhere on his website di Giovanni dates his English version of A Yellow Rose to 1956, which is plainly impossible. Quite likely, both the di Giovanni and the Kerrigan renderings are contemporary and perhaps simultaneous; di Giovanni may boast, to his solace, that while at work he could count on Borges overseeing his labour in noisy Buenos Aires. The word he (or they, both di Giovanni and Borges) picked for penumbra is haze:

“…the tall proud volumes casting a golden haze there in a corner of the room…”

El Hacedor became Dreamtigers in 1964 by virtue of the University of Texas Press. Dear to Borges’s recollections, the city of Austin evolved into his very own America in America, his native land in a foreign land, and forged for him a new translation. Mildred Boyer wrote:

“…the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner…”

We might be tempted to side with di Giovanni, since haze suggests the quality of drowsiness, the stupor of near-death, the somnolence dripping over a lonely man dying painlessly.

Anthony Kerrigan unapologetically culled from Classical Antiquity: paene umbra (almost shadow, as our anonymous reader appropriately jotted down). He rewarded us with the unchanged form of a favourite species of the Borgesian thesaurus: the dark. Let us recall that In Praise of Darkness is derived from a Spanish original written as Elogio de la sombra (1969). Thus:

“…the tall proud tomes that cast a golden penumbra in an angle of the drawing room…”

Be it fog and haze, dark shadow, Latin-inclined penumbra, the small miracle has been worked: a handful of individuals unsuspectingly and happily conspire to earn sense and meaning and expression in lines whose ultimate fate might be neglect or oblivion, but whose fragility is nonetheless a mark of beauty, which perhaps we are allowed to envision but never convey. As Borges puts it at the end of his prologue, we are granted no more than mention and allusion.


*Rembrandt van Rijn: Landscape with a Castle, ca. 1650. Department of Paintings of the Louvre, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

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