Tag Archives: Fiction

Discovery and Insight: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

In the preface to the Penguin modern classics edition of Borges’s Labyrinths, Andre Maurois writes, “His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges has read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound—he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas—-but it is vast.”  This vast erudition is evident in the forty pages of essays that are included in this collection.  Argentine, Chinese, Spanish, German, American and ancient literature are all matters of interest for Borges.  His essay on Kafka’s sources was a particular favorite.  We always think of Kafka as being so unique, in a literary vacuum, without any predecessors.  But Borges argues that Zeno’s paradox against movement, the writings of Kierkegaard and Brownings “Fears and Scruples” all contain hints of which authors Kafka had in his mind.

The short stories felt to me like a journey through the labyrinth of Borges’s mind which was always thinking about language and literature.  At the center of almost every story is a book or a series of books or a library.  The Garden of Forking Paths begins with, “On page 252 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by the thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for 24 July 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th.”  The rest of the story is told by a Chinese professor of English named Dr. Yu Tsun.  Tsun is a spy who has been found out and is trying to get a message to his German commanders before he is executed.  Tsu takes the train to the village of Ashgrove where he meets up with an imminent Sinologist who happens to be studying Tsu’s famous ancestor.  Ts’ui Pen was a civil servant of the Emperor but gave up his position to write an immense novel and to construct a labyrinth.  The Sinologist realizes that Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth, his “garden of forking paths” was the novel itself: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them.  He creates, in his way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.”  I suspect that the literary threads running through Borges’s mind might be described in the same way.

My favorite story in the collection, which I have read and taught with before, is The House of Asterion which gives a background story that is compassionate and sympathetic to the Minotaur.  He is lonely and isolated and wants to be put out of his solitary misery.  Borges is influenced by Ovid’s Theseus and Ariadne story, but gives us the Minotaur’s point of view.  He tells us that every nine years a group of men enter his home but fall and die on their own.  One of them prophesies Asterion’s escape:

Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise about the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries and fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? Will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no long even a vestige of blood.

‘Would you believe it, Ariadne?’ said Theseus. ‘The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.’James E. Irby, the editor of this edition, sums up Borges’s writing in this collection best:  “His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; these are achieved at times gradually, at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect.”  The effect is just as striking for the reader as for the characters in Borges’s stories.


Filed under Essay, Literature in Translation, Short Stories, Spanish Literature

Review and Giveaway: A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison

My Review:
A Small IndiscretionAnnie Black has been married to the same man for 20 years, they have 3 happy and healthy children together and she owns her own business.  So why in the world would she do anything to jeopardize the happy life she has worked so hard to build?

A SMALL INDESCRETION is written as a letter from Annie to her oldest son Robbie who has just spent the last year recovering from a horrible car accident.  In order to fully explain to her son and the rest of her family why she has so disrupted their lives, she must start by telling them about the 6 months she spent in London when she was 20 years old.

In 1989 Annie is feeling restless and wants to travel and have new adventures in Europe.  When she reaches England she begins working as an office manager for a man named Malcolm who is a wealthy builder.  I was riveted for the first half of the book while Annie tells us about her time in London and the impulsive mistakes she makes that involve alcohol and sex.  She is young, naïve, and compulsive and her inexperience goes a long way towards understanding her indiscretions.

Fast forward 20 years and what Annie calls a “small indiscretion” cannot be explained away by the stupidity of youth.  I felt that her mistake, which becomes fairly obvious about half way through the book, was more stupid than small.  Annie spends a lot of time feeling sorry for herself when her husband moves out and she has to share custody of her children with him.  She is lonely and lost.  But she is an experienced adult who should have known better and it is hard to feel any sympathy for her and the awful circumstances which she has created.

A SMALL INDISCRETION is an interesting read about which I have mixed feelings.  I had more interest in Annie’s story as a young woman, but the second part of the story which describes grown-up, adult Annie felt anticlimactic.  Scroll down to the end of my post to enter to win your own copy of the book.  I would love to know what others think about the plot of this novel.

About The Author:
Jan EllisonJan Ellison lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband of twenty years and their four children. Jan’s first published short story won a 2007 O. Henry Prize. Her work has also been short-listed for the Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize. After her children were born, she spent seven years taking classes at San Francisco State and finally earned her MFA.

Jan had a brief career in her twenties at a Silicon Valley startup, marketing risk management software to derivatives traders. The company went public, Jan became a mother, and instead of leaning in she leaned out, became a stay-at-home mom, and began to write.

Before that, Jan abandoned a job in investment banking before she even started it to spend two years waitressing in Hawaii, temping in Australia, and backpacking through Southeast Asia. Her college days were spent at Stanford, where she earned a degree in History, but wishes it was in English. She left Stanford for a year at nineteen to live on a shoe-string in Paris and work in an office in London. She scribbled notes on yellow legal pads, and years later those notes provided the inspiration for her debut novel, A Small Indiscretion, published this January by Random House.

I am giving away one paperback copy of A Small Indiscretion to one reader in the U.S.  Just leave me a comment below and let me know that you want to win!  The winner will be notified via e-mail and will have 48 hours to respond.  Giveaway ends 2/26.

The Winner is: Suanne L.  Thanks to everyone that entered!


Filed under Literary Fiction

Review: Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

I received an advanced review copy of this book from Yale University Press through NetGalley. This book is the compilation of three French novellas that have been translated into English by Mark Polizzotti.

My Review:

Suspended SentencesI love to review short stories as well as longer works of fiction.  These three stories by Patrick Modiano occupy the space somewhere between a short story and a full length work of fiction.  This collection of stories, or novellas, are all set in Paris in the mid-twentieth century.  They are all told from a first person point of view and are a bit rambling, almost as if they were the diaries or personal memoirs of the narrator in each story.  The narratives jump from place to place and back and forth between different periods of time.  It can be hard to keep track of where the author is trying to lead us.  The tone of these tales are also very brooding, sad and even melancholy.

In the first novella, “Afterimage,” a woman meets a famous photographer while she is at a café in Paris.  The photographer, whose name is Jansen, is an eccentric genius who eventually withdraws from the rest of the world.  The narrator has volunteered to catalog his vast array of photographs which lay in old trunks in his studio.  Jansen calls her “scribe” and she observes the odd habits of the artist until one day he completely drops out of sight, never to be heard from again.  As the woman gets older and her own life seems unfulfilled, she begins to understand Jansen’s choice of disappearing.

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Filed under Literature/Fiction, Novella