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Postscript : Post-Mortem Fame Catches Up With Latin American Writer : A new edition of a volume of essays by Jorge Luis Borges is climbing the best-seller lists.

January 11, 1994|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — "The Size of My Hope," a small volume of essays published in 1926, soon disappeared from bookstores and seemed destined for oblivion. After a few decades, only a few specialized scholars showed any interest in the book; the author himself disowned it.

But after 67 years, a new edition of "The Size of My Hope" came out last November with a flurry of critical fanfare and soon began climbing best-seller lists.

The book's revival is one sign--among many--of renewed interest in Jorge Luis Borges, whose stature as one of Latin America's great writers has increased and solidified since he died in 1986.

He never wrote a novel, and his short stories and poetry received sparse international attention until the 1970s. Although he was a perennial candidate in his latter years for the Nobel Prize, he never won it.

But his stories, precise gems of compressed creativity, are now widely regarded as incomparable classics. Many of the best ones use fantastic vehicles--a man who remembers every moment of his life, a secret society that writes a vast encyclopedia about an imaginary planet--to explore metaphysical and philosophical themes in a limpid, authoritative style.

"To me he's right up there in the top ranks with Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera," said Kathryn Court, editor in chief of the Penguin U.S.A. book publishing company.

In a telephone interview from New York, Court said Penguin and its subsidiary Viking plan a major re-edition in English of Borges' works, starting with a complete collection of his short fiction in fall, 1995, followed by his complete poems and a selection of essays and prose.

Some of Borges' work has been published previously in the United States by Dutton, now a subsidiary of Penguin. Court said the planned books will give American readers better access than ever to a major writer who has been "under-published" in English.

Much of the work will be retranslated for the project. Bonifacio del Carril, an Argentine publisher, said previous English versions were not always faithful to the original Spanish because the author himself helped with the translation and probably tended to "give a new version."

Del Carril's Emece Editores has been Borges' main publisher in Argentina. Emece is bringing out new editions of at least 15 Borges books in colorfully illustrated paperbacks. When Borges was alive, he preferred his books unillustrated, with plain covers.

Borges' most popular books are short-story collections titled "The Aleph," with about 300,000 copies sold in Argentina through the years, and "Ficciones," with about 225,000.

"For a short-story writer to attain those figures is formidable," Del Carril said.

Del Carril characterized Borges' appeal as more intellectual than popular, which may have had something to do with his failure to win the Nobel. Or perhaps it was politics. Borges sometimes stirred up trouble with sharp-tongued statements "that went against the current," including criticism of a literary colleague or praise for a military dictatorship, Del Carril recalled.

Ironically, "The Size of My Hope" (El Tamano de Mi Esperanza) was one work that Borges apparently considered insignificant, so Emece never brought out a new edition, Del Carril said.

But Maria Kodama, Borges' widow, decided to print a new edition last year with another publishing house, the Argentine subsidiary of Spain's Seix Barral. In a foreword to the collection, Kodama tells how Borges once denied that the book existed.

Written when he was a young man, "The Size of My Hope" explores themes--such as the infinite potential of language and the inspiring vastness of the Argentine pampas--that Borges would elaborate on throughout his career. But it also included colloquial language and sentimentality. Borges, "in his pursuit of perfection, was unfair to this book of his youth," writes Kodama in the foreword.

Kodama also has signed a contract with Seix Barral and its Argentine sister publisher, Espasa Calpe, to publish a huge "critical edition" of Borges' complete works. It would include previously unpublished articles, correspondence and other writings by Borges.

Del Carril of Emece declined to discuss the project, but he hinted that his company was questioning Espasa Calpe/Seix Barral's right to works that are published by Emece. "It is a question in which there are lawyers," he said.

Guillermo Schavelzon, general director of Espasa Calpe/Seix Barral, said his company sees no complications in its right to publish the critical edition because "50% of the material is very different" from what Emece has published.

He said the publishing contract is with Kodama. Borges' longtime assistant, she married him only months before he died but later won a legal dispute with other relatives over his estate. Borges had no children.

Kordama said the critical edition will be mainly of interest to scholars. "It's another kind of work that has nothing to do with what Emece has published," she said.

All the interest in Borges keeps Kodama busy. Besides the business of publishing his works, she often is asked to meet Borges scholars and admirers, make speeches, attend ceremonies and give interviews.

One recent day, she met with local government officials to talk about plans for building and landscaping a labyrinthine park designed especially for the blind. Borges was blind in his last years, and the labyrinth was a frequent metaphor in his stories.

Kodama also spent time that day working on plans for remodeling a house as the new headquarters of the 5-year-old Jorge Borges Foundation, which she heads. It will include a memorial museum and library. "We are growing," she said.

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