I have been hungry for the language of Chaucer. Some interior gnawing, growing every day in strength. Perhaps I always desire Chaucer at this time of year—in May, when the leaves become thick and the air is redolent with flowers, which recalls Chaucer’s dreamers peacefully drifting off in the surprising new heat of spring. I have just read—I am unsure if for the first time—Borges’s “Translators of the Arabian Nights.” In that essay he praises the Burton translation, which he notes others find so successful because “Chaucer’s English” is so close to the thirteenth century Arabic original (Borges clarifies that he also sees, in the translation, the influence of Urquhart’s Rabelais). But it is the words themselves—Chaucer’s words—which I long for, now with an additional desire: that their vocabularly might work some deep interior change in me, perhaps something like the translation from winter to spring works on trees. So that later commentators will feel obligated to note that it is Chaucer’s English that I speak. 

Reading it Again 

Preparing a conference paper I am giving on Saturday I come across a line from Borges that I realize is intimately familiar. That’s because when I first read it, I think sometime in the fall, it resonated so much that I published it somewhere on this blog (I could perhaps find it now, but I’ll leave this fact conjectural). It was something along the lines of recognizing that if he (Borges) does not live his life in such a way that he is frequently writing, or perhaps relating to the world through writing, something in his very being rebels. I’ve done a poor job of paraphrasing—but even though I’ve just put the book down again I won’t pick it up to check. He describes the chain of action that occupies him, ideally, in this process: inspiration, composition, and then finally publishing (“which is the least important”). 

I think what struck me, that first time, was that final clause. “Publishing is the least important.” Now, having published a book; now, constantly drawing up CVs and statements of purpose to justify my place in academia, seeing friends and enemies (and myself) crow on social media about accomplishments (hollowly, it feels and seems)—I realize I’ve let publishing assume a place of higher importance than it deserves. As I discovered when showing the first draft of my book to the editors of Harper Collins and Anansi, several years ago now, what is acknowledged as good is sometimes different from what is desired. Which isn’t to say that the desires of a reading public is not a thread that writers should chase. Only that taste and hunger are distinct. 

The problem is that lately I have let myself believe too much in that hunger, which is rootless and constant and impossible to satisfy. Hunger—in the author and in their audience—is something entirely outside of the process of writing, which is intuitive and irrational and inspired. To give hunger a place in your life is to worship an angry and insatiable god. 

Borges in conversation with Osvaldo Ferrari: 

“Yes, I do believe that if one is a poet, one should feel every moment as poetic. That’s to say, one should live loving life, and in loving life also its misfortunes, its failures, its lonely moments. All that is matter for a poet—without it he couldn’t write and wouldn’t feel justified. In my case, I do not like what I write but if I don’t write or don’t compose something I feel disloyal to my destiny. My destiny is to conjecture, to dream and then to write and eventually to publish, which is what’s least important. But I have to live in continuous activity or have to believe that I live in continuous imaginative activity and, if possible, rational activity as well, but especially, imaginative.”

An Alternate Ending to Cervantes’ Don Quixote


Recently I finished reading the Edith Grossman translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which is the greatest book I have ever read. That morning I dreamed an alternate ending, coming (most appropriately) on the very edge of wakefulness, or the last plains of sleep.

The book ends with the repenting of Don Quixote’s madness, his death, and many other assurances and warnings meant to ensure that Quixote’s adventures are never to be continued: an official document recording his death is composed and notarised by the priest; Cide Hamete, the Arabian narrator Cervantes claims to be translating, warns his pen (should others attempt to pick it up): “For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; […] the two of us alone are one”; Quixote’s last recorded words describe how sorry he is that his existence has prompted the creation of a false history (one published between Cervantes’ first and second parts) filled with “so many and such great absurdities”.

The record is quite clear, especially when considering the increasing frequency the aforementioned false Quixote and its pseudonymous author Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda are mentioned and derided in the chapters following Cervantes’ knowledge of the book. And of all books, Don Quixote is one that deserves the end it chooses.

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