“Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born.” So writes Jorge Luis Borges in his elegantly mysterious short story “The Library of Babel,” which imagines the entire universe as a kind of library made of interlocking cubicles that stretches off into infinity—well, perhaps not infinity, since there are some heretics, Borges writes, who quietly wonder if the library is finite, when of course, as we know and the poet of Ecclesiastes knew, of the making of books there is no end.
Jorge Luis Borges died 30 years ago, on June 14, 1986, at the ripe age of 86. He had surrounded himself with books, including the most ancient of texts, the stories of Babylon and the epics of Greece; when he turned to the Vikings of medieval Europe, it seemed as close to modernity as Borges was likely to get. Even so, it should be remembered that among his many other contributions to literature, Borges was a translator of William Faulkner, and it was from reading Faulkner that a young journalist named Gabriel García Márquez took it into his head that he would spin out the saga that became Cien años de soledad. That Faulknerian Spanish text came into English in 1970 through the labors of a professor at Queens College, Gregory Rabassa, who died 30 years after Borges almost to the day, on June 13. Together with his translation of Julio Cortázar’s wildly experimental novel Hopscotch, Rabassa’s version of One Hundred Years of Solitude became touchstones of modern literature, in turn going on to influence generations of writers in English.
Borges matters still, as the BBC kindly points out, and so does Gregory Rabassa. Long may their work endure.
The Márquezian boom was in full swing in 1976 when Richard Selzer arrived on the literary scene. He had been practicing surgery since 1957, but, unlike most doctors who wield the blade, he had an artist’s view of a supremely technical profession. When not in the operating theater, he wrote, starting off, discomfortingly, with horror stories—as he remarked, “Surgery is the one branch of medicine that is the most violent,” making it an easy transition from cutting to imagining horrible scenarios about blood. He graduated to writing pensive, lyrical essays on illness and healing that he gathered in Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, which we called “an impressive display of knowledge and art, magic and mystery.” Selzer retired to write full-time 30 years ago, adding other books to his philosophical investigations of medicine and the lives of doctors. He passed away on June 15, at the age of 87.
In 1960, the indomitable Czeslaw Milosz left Poland on the brink of being forced to do so by an unappreciative communist government. The poet and literary critic somehow made his way to Berkeley, where he became a professor of Slavic literature. My favorite sighting of him dates to the late 1960s, when, blocked from entering the lecture hall by a throng of protestors, he thundered, “Out of the way, spoiled children of the bourgeoisie!” Were he immortal—as of course he is—Milosz would be celebrating his 105th birthday next week. As it is, he left us a dozen years ago, having written poems beautiful enough to be remembered forever, as well as his extraordinary essay The Captive Mind, about intellectual life in a repressive regime. What he would make of the current bourgeois repressions on campus today we cannot say, but the always thoughtful Cynthia Haven, writing on her Stanford University blog, recalls the stringent medicine he offered to combat the “soft pollution of the mind.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.
Photo above of Richard Selzer, courtesy of Yale University.