I have subscribed to The Hudson Review since 1999, I think, when I stumbled upon it in the library while determinedly avoiding my dissertation. In it, I discovered Joseph Epstein and William Pritchard and a number of other critics who, for whatever reason, had decided to spend part of their time writing about literature for a non-professional audience. Depth, clarity, seriousness of purpose, lightness of touch – these are the virtues of The Hudson Review.
The magazine always includes a number of poems and a piece of fiction, but I value it most for its literary essays – surveys, histories, interpretations. I suppose this is unsurprising, given what one finds at Wuthering Expectations. The new issue, “The Spanish Issue,” has three especially good ones. I want to save Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for tomorrow and spend today with Jorge Luis Borges, with “A Course in English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires: The Seventh Class,” translated by Esther Allen.
The piece is a transcription of one of Borges’s classroom lectures, stitched together by his students, from the fall of 1966. It seems that a book is forthcoming next year, Professor Borges, that will contain twenty-five lectures, the complete course. Excuse me, I need to make a little note: Read. That. Book.
In the seventh class, Borges has reached, more or less, the Norman Conquest. The texts at issue are Old English: the Physiologus, an Anglo-Saxon bestiary (readers of The Book of Imaginary Beings will find this section most interesting); Anglo-Saxon poems; the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson; that sort of thing. A long, casually and amusingly told history of the Battle of Hastings fills a good part of the lecture. Beowulf seems to have been covered in the sixth class. Perhaps Chaucer will be found in the eighth.
In this case, the class is as much linguistic as literary. The perspective, for an English reader, is unusual and refreshing, since Borges compares Old English grammar and vocabulary not to contemporary English, but to his students’ own Spanish. Borges is discussing the fading of grammatical gender in Anglo-Saxon English:
And this must have been a very sad thing for educated Saxons. Imagine, all of you, if we were suddenly to notice people saying “el cuchara,” “lo mesa,” “lo casa,” “la tenedor,” etc. We’d think: “Caramba, the language is degenerating, we’re all going the way of cocoliche.” But the Saxons, who must have thought the same way, could not foresee that this is going to make English an easier language.
I needed the footnote informing me that cocoliche is an Italian-Spanish creole once spoken by Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires. What a jolly and enthusiastic literary history. What fun that class must have been. I don’t know how Borges graded, though – perhaps he was a tyrant.
I would love to refer interested readers to this Borges lecture or to some of my favorite essays from The Hudson Review but the magazine’s editors have decided to minimize their web presence, a decision this long-time subscriber suggests they revisit. What they have online begins here - be sure to click on the tiny "next" button. “The Spanish Issue” is not even mentioned on the website yet! The curious will have to poke around in their libraries and newsstands, assuming one or the other is unusually well stocked.