The Book of Fantasy, edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo & Adolfo Bioy Casares

Fantasy as it became widely known and commercialized during the second half of the 20th Century, on the derivative heels of Tolkien -- with its abundant swords and sorcerers, redundant quests and ubiquitous good v. evil schlock -- does not exist among the refined stories of The Book of Fantasy.
Rather, fantasies of a more ancient order in fiction, focused on the uncanny, macabre, or sometimes just plain weird, haunt the peculiar pages of this supernaturally redolent anthology.  Like "The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973," by Tor Åge Bringsværd, a bizarre tale about an ultra-obsessed man -- a veritable hoarder of facts -- who filled his home for years with stacks of news clippings to the rafters, all of them published on September 1st, 1973.  For the remainder of his life, as the man considered only that day and nothing but that day, his future and his past, beyond that day, ceased to exist.

The anthology was edited by three Argentinian luminaries, Jorge Luis Borges, and the lesser known Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Cesares (the latter's novels, The Invention of Morel and Asleep in the Sun, have been reissued by NYRB Classics).  They were three friends who'd meet and discuss literature, in particular stories that were strange, and from their conversations published their collaboration, The Book of Fantasy, in 1940 (and then revised it in 1965 and again in 1976), at which times they added more contemporary stories -- yet stories that still retained the editors' "old school" conceptions of "fantasy" or "fantastic literature" -- to their collection, and it has remained in print ever since.

Several of the stories are so short that today they could be classified as flash fiction: a couple sentences, a paragraph or two, less than a single page at most, like this gem below, "Eternal Life," by James George Frazer:

A fourth story, taken down near Oldenburg in Holstein, tells of a jolly dame that ate and drank and lived right merrily and had all that heart could desire, and she wished to live always.  For the first hundred years all went well, but after that she began to shrink and shrivel up, till at last she could neither walk nor stand nor eat nor drink.  But die she could not.  At first they fed her as if she were a little child, but when she grew smaller and smaller they put her in a glass bottle and hung her up in the church.  And there she still hangs, in the church of St Mary, at Lübeck.  She is as small as a mouse, but once a year she stirs.

My favorite story from The Book of Fantasy is "Being Dust" by Santiago Dabove, an account of an unfortunate man who maintains consciousness long after a paralyzing fall from a horse on a remote road; his mind -- and especially his perceptual acuity in creative problem solving -- remains intact:  "What a strange plant my head is ... I wanted to be a tobacco plant so that I wouldn't need to smoke!"  And even though his eye sockets are now cave-like hollows, he can still see, and he feels a "tingling sensation" inside what's left of the husk of his rotted torso, and accurately assesses that he "must have an ants'  nest somewhere near my heart," still so attuned as he is to his own flesh even as it disintegrates into molecules in the mud over many months.

In the introduction to the 1988 edition, Ursula K. Leguin rightly calls the selections made by the editors "idiosyncratic" and "eclectic".   For every Poe or Hawthorne that was included, there's a Macedonio Fernandez ("Tantalia") or Manuel Peyrou ("The Bust"); or for every Kipling or Tolstoy, an Arturo Cancela and Pilar de Lusarreta (co-authors of the outstanding "Fate is a Fool"), as well as many more lesser known writers, to satisfy even the most hardcore connoisseurs of the arcane.  It's an exceptional anthology, full of surprising discoveries, and an intriguing glimpse at the stories that, once upon a time, wowed Jorge Luis Borges and two of his good fellow author friends.


  1. Anything that wowed Borges is good enough for me. Very cool, Enrique. I love these types of stories. I might have to temporarily interrupt my book-buying hiatus and snag this one!

  2. Gracias, Bubba.

    And I'm happy to have possibly enabled you into buying more books. Cursed be thine "book-buying hiatus"!

  3. I'm tempted to suspect that Borges has read everything, including what wasn't written until after his death. He's someone I love to hear talking about books. This sounds like an interesting collection.

  4. You're probably correctumundo about Borges' reading, Christopher!


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