Deep in Don Quixote, for a while I convinced myself that Cervantes had written the footnotes too, and the Quixote commentators the editor cited were actually made up by Cervantes. He messes with you like that: he plays so many tricks that you end up thinking anything is possible.
Four months later I pick up Borges, and...here he is doing exactly that.
Writing essays about imaginary books, with footnotes pointing to other imaginary commenters on the same imaginary books. Layer on layer of fiction.
Obviously I'm not the first to point out that Borges is Cervantes' spiritual descendant. The first was, in fact, Borges. Or, more likely, some guy Borges made up.
One of his persistent themes is the relative reality of literature, something I (and lots of other, smarter people) have been thinking about for a while now. The example I like to use is Richard III. There are two of them: the monster in Shakespeare's play, and the slightly-less-monstrous asshole in real life. But Shakespeare's version is, of course, much better known. In fact, his is so dominant that most people assume it's the only one. Richard III is cited as a warning story, used as a measuring stick for other monstrous leaders. So isn't he more real than the real one? Hasn't he had more impact on history?
Borges is obsessed with this idea, as for example in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in which a secret cabal writes an encyclopedia of an imaginary world so detailed and convincing that it takes over the real world. Yeats deals with it too, and more recently, comic writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. And, of course, it's the whole point of Don Quixote.
(He also, BTW, in The Garden of Forking Paths, suggests a quantum multiverse that scientists would begin to take almost seriously fifty years later. The possibility of a particle being in two places at once suggests the possibility that, given a choice, both outcomes always happen, with reality forking infinitely off and there being as many times as points on a line. Which is, like, whoa, man, and then Borges wrote a story about it.)
I made the mistake of blazing through all of "Ficciones" on a flight; these are not stories to read in great gulps. Since then I've read them intermittently, and I'm occasionally going back to Ficciones to take those one at a time as well. They're so intense and (I might as well just use the word) labyrinthine that you need to chew on each one for a while.
"Universal History of Iniquity" is Borges' first collection, and it's unlike the others: a series of almost straight-forward stories rewritten from sources. The only hint of Borges' upcoming trickery is the fact that sometimes the story he tells is radically different from its source, or not from that source at all. (And how would I know that if I hadn't read the notes?) The final story, "Man on Pink Corner" or "Streetcorner Man," hints at the Borges to come.
With "Ficciones" he's suddenly here, apparently with no awkward middle period. This is his best stuff: staggeringly original and weird.
At its best, "The Aleph" matches Ficciones, but at its worst, it reminds one uncomfortably of M Night Shyamalan; Borges has developed an O Henry-esque obsession with twist endings, so that halfway through each story you start to guess what the twist is. Borges is still Borges, so you're often wrong...but being right even once is unworthy of him.
Many of "The Maker"'s stories are just sketches, tiny little puzzles. Whereas in Ficciones Borges wrote papers about imaginary books, now it sometimes seems like he's writing abstracts of the papers about the imaginary books. It works better than I've made it sound, and this is my second-favorite of his collections.
The remainder of the collection (In Praise of Darkness, Brodie's Report, Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory) is...spotty. At times ("Undr") it feels like Borges is just kinda flipping the switch on the crazy-idea machine. Others ("Shakespeare's Memory") stand up to his best stuff easily.
As I told Alasse below: I feel like I've been waiting for Borges all my life. He will take the rest of my life to read.