Searching the Library of Babel

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About six months ago, as I was nearing the end of Jorge Luis Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions, I came across the chapter titled “Prologues to The Library of Babel.” The chapter began with a list of authors whose works were selected to fill 33 volumes in The Library of Babel, a 1979 Spanish language anthology of fantastic literature edited by Borges, named after his earlier story by the same name. Each volume contained a number of short stories—or, in a few instances, a novella—by one author of speculative fiction (ex. Vol. 1: Jack London, Vol. 11: H.G. Wells, etc.).  Unfortunately, the editor of Selected Non-Fictions failed to list the specific stories that Borges selected for each volume; instead, he only provided a handful of the prologues Borges had written as introductions to the authors’ work.  Intrigued, I was pretty eager to find out what particular works Borges had tapped.

Esteemed as both a critic and author, Borges was as selective as he was well read.  And, given all the accounts of his nearly superhuman erudition, he was probably one of the most well read men in history.  The highly referential nature of his short stories and the disarming insight of his criticism both serve to underscore the range of his literary knowledge.  He was a voracious reader, but also a good reader—and one of particular tastes.  Bioy Cesares’ biography, Borges, reveals a man who unreservedly admired Kipling, Chesterton, Stevenson; but, on the other hand, found Flaubert “bureaucratic,” Tolstoy tedious and T.S. Eliot “beyond contempt.”[i] Given this, one could see how Borges could have liked some of the works by, say, Oscar Wilde (whom he included in the anthology), and not others.  (While I can’t be sure, I have a suspicion that Dorian Gray was promptly chucked down the coal chute after its first reading.)  In any event, knowing what works he selected from each author was important to me.  As important to me as it was to Borges when he presented the genius of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by first carefully enumerating each book found in Menard’s personally library.

Guessing was out of the question.  Many authors chosen for the anthology—like Jack London, Rudyard Kipling and Henry James—had been prolific; thematically, their works had tremendous range.  Take Kipling, for example: “With the Night Mail (A Story of 2000AD)” is an early science fiction tale set on a massive, mail-carrying dirigible; his Stalky & Co. stories follow a group of teenagers attending a British boarding school; and we all know the fable-like contents of his Jungle Books and Just So Stories.  Given this, the problem of guessing which specific handful of stories Borges chose was daunting.  And what was daunting became laughable when confronted by Volume 12: trying to guess which 16 of the 431 tales Borges chose from Pu Songling’s fantastic 17th century collection, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, was like trying to find a copy of Borges’ “The Library Babel” in his own Library of Babel.

So I began my search for the complete list.  Surprisingly (ironically), Google didn’t serve up much at first.  While there were a few republications of the list of 33 volumes that appeared in Selected Non-Fictions, none of them expounded on the stories contained within.  The next move was to dust off my rudimentary Spanish and start searching by rare phrase combinations: “La Biblioteca de Babel,” “las muertes concéntricas,” “Gustav Meyrink,” etc., in the hope that I could track down an owner of the full anthology and plead for a complete catalogue of the books’ contents.

It took some time, but this tack paid off.  I didn’t find any owners of the volume, but I did come across 14 of 33 that were on sale at Libreria de Antaño, an antiquarian bookseller in Buenos Aires.  Thankfully, the day before I’d set aside time to make the long-distance call, I came—after hours of Google searching, with luck—to La Tercera Fundación, a Spanish language directory of “Ciencia Ficción, Fantasía, Terror y Misterio.”  The site contains two pages listing all 33 volumes in The Library of Babel—including pictures of each volume cover, the translators credited (Borges, it turns out, translated a few favorites himself), and—finally, incredibly—a complete account of the stories within.  Of course, the stories are listed in Spanish, but with help from my old Spanish-English dictionary, I soon had a fairly reliable list.  It’s been attached below.

Unfortunately, a good number of the stories Borges selected—I’d guess about a quarter—either lack an English translation (Bloy, Papini, Meyrink, de Alarcón) or are out of print.  This, to me, is a great shame; I’d like to read every single one, especially those by Meyrink and Bloy.  The stories that I’ve been able to find online, however, have been hyperlinked.  (Due to the scarcity of these texts, the formatting between stories is often disparate.  I favored sites that offer the easiest reading.  If GoogleBooks gets thrown in there often, it’s only because they’re often the only/best provider.)  I’ve also hyperlinked authors to their corresponding Wikipedia entries.  Finally, I’ve tried to indicate where to find the stories if they’re in print elsewhere, but not online.

Having read nearly all of the linked stories, I can (with only a few exceptions) give them each my highest recommendation.   Not surprisingly, Borges assembled a fun, brilliant, polyglot collection.

The Library of Babel

(Note: The titles of all stories currently without a proper translation into English have been left in their original language.)

(Also note:  All stories marked with [c] are still protected by US copyright law.  Only residents of the UK and Australia can legally click on the hyperlink provided.)

1. Jack London, The Concentric Deaths

2. Jorge Luis Borges, August 26, 1983

(All but the last three articles are available in Penguin’s Borges: The Collected Fictions.)

  • “August 26, 1983″
  • “The Rose of Peracelsus”
  • “Blue Tigers”
  • “Shakespeare’s Memory”
  • An Interview with Borges, with Maria Esther Vasquez
  • A Chronology of J.L. Borges’ Life, from Siruela Magazine
  • The Ruler and Labyrinth: An Approximation of J.L Borges’ Bibliography, by Fernandez Ferrer

3.  Gustav Meyrink, Cardinal Napellus[ii]

  • “Der Kardinal Napellus”
  • “J.H. Obereits Besuch bei den Zeitegeln”
  • “Der Vier Mondbrüder”

4.  Léon Bloy, Disagreeable Tales

  • “La Taie d’Argent”
  • “Les Captifs de Longjumeau”
  • “Une Idée Médiocre”
  • “Une Martyre”
  • “La Plus Belle Trouvaille de Caïn”
  • “On n’est pas Parfait”
  • “La Religion de M. Pleur”
  • “Terrible Châtiment d’un Dentiste”
  • “La Tisane”
  • “Tout Ce Que Tu Voudras!”
  • “La Dernière Cuite”
  • “Le Vieux de la Maison”

5.  Giovanni Papini, The Mirror That Fled

  • “Il Giorno Non Restituito”
  • “Due Immagini in una Vasca”
  • “Lo Specchio che Fugge”
  • “Storia Completamente Assurda”
  • “Il Mendicante di Anime”
  • “Una Morte Mentale”
  • “Non Voglio Più Essere Ciò che Sono”
  • “Chi Sei?”
  • “Il Suicida Sostituto”
  • “L’ultima Visita del Gentiluomo Malato”

6.  Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime

7.  Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, El Convidado de las Últimas Festivas

(Used copies of the 1985 Oxford U. Press translation of Cruel Tales (the collection in which these stories are published) are available online.)

  • “L’Aventure de Tsé-i-la”
  • “Le Convive des Dernières Fêtes”
  • “A Torture By Hope” [trans. 1891]
  • “La Reine Ysabeau”
  • “Sombre Récit Conteur Plus Sombre”
  • “L’Enjeu”
  • “Véra”

8.  Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, El Amigo de la Muerte

9.  Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener

10.  William Beckford, Vathek

11.  H.G. Wells, The Door in the Wall

12.  Pu Songling, The Tiger Guest [iii]

13.  Arthur Machen, The Shining Pyramid

14.  Robert Louis Stevenson, The Isle of Voices [iv]

15.  G.K. Chesterton, The Eye of Apollo

16.  Jacques Cazotte, The Devil in Love

(A new translation is available from Dedalus Press of the UK.)

  • The Devil in Love, a novella.
  • “Jacquez Cazotte,” an essay by Gerard de Nerval

17.  Franz Kafka, The Vulture

(While I’ve provided links to online translations, they’re somewhat suspect; probably better to check the Complete Short Stories.)

18.  Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter

19.  Leopoldo Lugones, The Pillar of Salt

(A new translation of Lugones’ stories, published by The Library of Latin America, is available at Powell’s.  Hot Tip: If you live in Chicago, I saw a copy of this book at Chicago’s amazing Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park last month.)

  • “The Pillar of Salt”
  • “Grandmother Julieta”
  • “The Horses of Abdera”
  • “An Inexplicable Phenomenon”
  • “Francesca”
  • “Rain of Fire: An Account of the Immolation of Gomorra”

20.  Rudyard Kipling, The Wish House

(All the copyrighted stories are from Kipling’s Debits and Credits.  They should be available in any thorough collection of his short fiction.)

21.  The Thousand and One Nights, According to Galland

22.  The Thousand and One Nights, According to Burton

23.  Henry James, The Friends of the Friends

24.  Voltaire, Micromegas

(A contemporary translation of these stories is available at Powell’s.)

25.  Charles Hinton, Scientific Romances

26.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Great Stone Face

27.  Lord Dunsany, The Country of Yann

28.  Saki, The Reticence of Lady Anne

29.  Russian Tales

30.  Argentinean Tales

31.  J.L. Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, New Stories of H. Bustos Domecq

(Available at Amazon.com.)

32.  The Book of Dreams (A Collection of Recounted Dreams)

33.  Borges A to Z (A Compilation)

(Contents unknown.)


[i] Borges’ funniest jab is thrown at admirers of Baudelaire.  “Baudelaire,” Bioy quotes Borges as saying, “helps one gauge whether a person understands anything about poetry, whether he is an imbecile or not: anyone who admires Baudelaire is an imbecile.”

[ii] While these stories by Gustav Meyrink haven’t found translation yet, Dedalus Books of the UK offers several English translations of other works – five novels and a short story collection – by the author, including his best-known book, The Golem.

[iii] These stories, according to the prologue Borges wrote for Pu Songling’s volume, come from Herbert H. Giles English translation, titled Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, first published in 1880.  A recent translation by John Minford, published by Penguin in 2006, contains many previously untranslated stories from the full catalogue of 431 tales.

[iv] The title of this volume was incorrectly back-translated as “The Island of Voices” by the editor of Borges: The Collected Non-Fictions.

***

“El paraíso según Borges” or “Paradise According to Borges” by Gabriel Caprav


Grant Munroe contributes regularly to McSweeneys.net, co-edits fiction at Swink Magazine, and lives in Brooklyn and Essex County, Ontario. He maintains a blog at grantmunroe.wordpress.com. More from this author →