I stumbled across Borges’s Shakespeare’s Memory a few years ago, while on a quest for memory-themed readings. And I have to say, it was a rather intricate kind of “stumbling”, because I became aware of the story only to find that, for some reason, it was the one piece missing from my mother’s supposedly Complete Works of Borges in Italian translation…
What I mean is, the story was supposed to belong to Borges’s very last collection, and the collection was in the book – but with no trace of La Memoria de Shakespeare… Why, it wasn’t there at all. As far as I could see, the one missing story. Doesn’t it sound like the beginning of something of Borges’s himself?
Well, to make a long story short, in the end I found Shakespeare’s Memory – in an English translation – and loved it to bits. If it had been written to make me happy, it couldn’t be more perfect: a greyish scholar who, by a bizarre twist of fate, finds himself in possession of Shakespeare’s memory. Not the man’s memoirs, mind – but the memories, the thoughts, the ideas of Will Shakespeare from Stratford. Now show me the scholar who would pass up such a chance – and indeed Hermann Soergel rather leaps at it, ignoring the previous possessor’s cryptic warnings. He accepts Shakespeare’s memory, and waits – and this strange and ancient awareness doesn’t come to him all at once, but rather rises by slow fits and sudden starts, like an irregular tide, more and more disturbing, more and more dangerous…
And then, Borges being Borges, the plot begins to share centre-stage with a series of fascinating musings, questions about Shakespeare himself, and art, and memory, and identity – until the very open ending, so full of disquieting promise, and more questions.
And the story works perfectly well, but obviously the plot isn’t what really counts. What counts is the imagined Shakespeare, the exploration of the man hidden within the Canon, the intellectual game… Shakespeare is, in the end, a figure in the shadows, emerging by glimmers and whispers. My favourite glimmer has to be this one:
I knew that the moon, to Shakespeare, was less the moon than Diana and less Diana than that obscure word that delays itself: moon.*
Isn’t it beautiful? This is Shakespeare in 24 words. Not Shakespeare’s works – but what Shakespeare was – or might have been, based on what we know: the Grammar Schoolboy, knowing enough of the Classics to identify the moon with its mythological incarnation – but, more than that, the man with the exquisite ear, the poet who sees sounds, who uses each word as a brush stroke…
Moreover, this wonderful bit of characterization isn’t offered directly: it is one wave of that tide that gradually submerges the narrator’s own awareness and memory. One can almost see him – Hermann Soergel, vaguely gazing at a summer moon… and suddenly this strange awareness floods him, leaves him breathless: Diana first, and then the quality of the light, the half-darkness in the slow, obscure word. Moon.
I’ll say it again: isn’t it wonderful?
* The translation comes from Habla, Mnemosina – a beautiful blog on literature and translation. It seems to have been somewhat abandoned lately, but is absolutely worth a prolonged visit.