EW: When I agreed to edit the book (called in the USA Selected Non-Fictions), I assumed that Borges’ five-volume Complete Works in Spanish contained his complete works. What I discovered was that there were thousands of pages that had never been published in book form: articles and reviews for newspapers, a column for a ‘women’s magazine’ in the 1930s, lectures, and so on. I spent a year just tracking things down, with the result that – besides all the previously untranslated pieces – about half of the book contained work that one couldn’t read in book form at the time in Spanish. (Much of it has now become available in a series of books.) I should also say that the vastness of Borges’ ‘non-fiction’ writing is such, I could easily have edited a second book of similar size (over 500 pages) that would have been of equal quality – but there was no interest in that.
AR: Has Borges had much influence on your work? In ‘Political Analysts in Medieval India’, for instance, you introduce us to an encyclopaedia from 1363, compiled by ‘a certain Shārngadhara’, which details five animals which humans can place their faith in, in particular the dog. Is this a nod to the Heavenly Emporium or just a happy accident?
EW: First of all, Borges invented his encyclopaedia and mine is real. I never make up anything, and generally dislike the practice of faux erudition in what purports to be an essay. Or, more exactly, it was fun when Borges did it, but tedious in the hands of his many imitators, and so unnecessary. There are actual Chinese books that are as startling and wacky as Borges’ fictional one. (I did an annotated bibliography of some of them, called ‘The Cloud Bookcase’, that was in the LRB.)
But, to answer your question, I wasn’t thinking of Borges at all in this instance: sometimes an encyclopaedia is just an encyclopaedia. And I came to an extensive reading of Borges too late in life for it to be influential in my own writing – compared to genuine ‘influences’ such as Lorine Niedecker or Charles Reznikoff, The Theater and its Double or Studies in Classic American Literature.
Now that I think of it, I have almost nothing in common with Borges. Our enthusiasms overlap in only a few places, such as the Icelandic sagas. I’m not an Anglophile, and my image of paradise is not a library. Reading is what I do when I can’t travel.
AR: Why do you think Borges invented the encyclopaedia? Would his readers at the time have known that it was made up?
EW: They still don’t know. As I remember, Foucault thought it was real. People will believe anything attributed to the Mysterious East.
AR: But also, what makes travel paradisiacal for you?
EW: I didn’t say it’s my paradise, just that a library is not my paradise. I’ll let you know when I get to my paradise – or more likely, I won’t.