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Jorge Luis Borges writing at a desk

Borges and the art of not Writing a Novel


When referring to Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar once wrote that the lesson we can find in his writing is “the attitude of a man who, facing each phrase, has thought carefully about, not which adjective he should include, but which adjective he should remove.” The “writing by erasing” practiced by Borges, should be understood as rigor and discipline, but also a respect for words that can also take the color of love. In this sense, for Borges, not writing a word was a way of honoring them. 

Where are all the words that Borges never wrote? This is a question that can lead us to embark on all sorts of philosophical quests, which for Borges were synthetized in the terror of “deserving the questionable honor of typography”, in other words, publishing. Among the many unpublished manuscripts that are kept in Texas University, specialist Julio Ortega discovered some words that, indeed, Borges never wrote, but whose outline can still be discerned from his notes. 

This was a novel; the novel that Borges, the new Bartleby, preferred not to write. 

Ortega went through Borges’ archive a couple of years ago and the exercise proved to be fruitful: he found five pages that told the fall from grace of an Argentinian man of the military during the war of independence; but as he delved deeper into his work, Ortega realized that the text was not an unpublished story by the author (which in itself would have been a huge discovery), but a plan for a historical novel, or one that would be set in different moments  throughout Argentina’s history, and whose title hinted at the possibility of a genealogy: The Rivero Family. 

However, Borges’ aversion for the length of novels is widely known: according to Ortega, when Borges realized what he was getting into, he decided to halt the project and forget about it. “My hypothesis is that when he realized that he had to continue writing, he saw, with horror, that he was about to write a novel… And he abandoned the story, surely with a sense of relief,” he explains during an interview with Roberto Careaga, for La Tercera journal. 

In addition to the outline of the Rivero family tree, Ortega found the audio of a conference named My Friend Don Quixote, imparted by Borges in Austin University, in English in 1982. The conference is a meditation concerning James Joyce’s Dedalus or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, some of the dearest literary characters for Borges. During the lecture, Borges says that “when we find a real character in fiction, we know that the character exists beyond the world that created him,” so that the character surpasses the fictional or imaginary sphere to reconfigure the personal narrative of each of its readers. 

And just as there are characters that help us live, there are authors that continue living (and writing, apparently) even many, many years after they have passed away. 

Both unpublished works will soon be published and included in the Complete Works of Jorge Luis Borges. 

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