"Borges: A Life" by Edwin Williamson

Jorge Luis Borges went from being an unknown middle-aged librarian to one of the 20th century's most influential writers. So why do so few people read him now?

By Allen Barra
Published August 27, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

In the middle of Nicolas Roeg's messy 1970 cult classic "Performance," Mick Jagger stops the film to quote from "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Jorge Luis Borges' science fiction parody about a planet lacking in physical reality. At the end of the film, when Jagger is killed by James Fox, there is a microsecond flash of a photograph of Borges, the one used on the cover of his "Personal Anthology." Also in 1970, Bernardo Bertolucci released "The Spider's Stratagem," adapted from the Argentine writer's "Theme of the Traitor and The Hero." His reputation bolstered by movie directors and rock stars, Borges became a big name. Translations of his work, many of them bad, soon mushroomed in the English-speaking world.

Borges' recognition by readers in the United States and Britain was an incredible capper to a decade that even so imaginative a writer as he could not have conceived 10 years earlier. In May of 1961, Borges was a 62-year-old balding, frail former librarian with poor eyesight who lived with his mother, a semi-successful author who had written almost nothing of significance in nearly eight years. A decade later, he was internationally acclaimed.

One Sunday, while having lunch with his friend, the novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges received a call from a French journalist informing him that he had just won the International Publishers' Prize (he would share it with Samuel Beckett). Borges thought it was a joke -- he had never heard of the prize. As it turned out, neither had anyone else. The IPP had been established that year when six prestigious publishing houses from France, Italy, Germany, Spain, England and the U.S. (Grove Press was the American representative) banded together to honor an author "of any nationality whose existing body of work will, in the view of the jury, have a lasting influence on the development of modern literature."

For some of the voters, Borges' influence was already profound. The French had known about him for years; the greatest of post-World War II Italian writers, Italo Calvino, had already written of Borges' enormous influence in Italy "on creative writing, on literary tastes and on the idea of literature itself." But it's doubtful that anyone with the IPP knew how right they were. By the time a generation of college kids discovered him, assisted by Jagger and Bertolucci, Borges would outstrip in fame and sales all the writers who had voted for him. By the end of the '70s, it seemed like nearly every new American writer to emerge from a university workshop was using techniques referred to as "Borgesian."

It's truly astonishing to think how close Jorge Luis Borges came to dying unknown. Most of his classic works -- a couple of collections of darkly elegant poems, some provocative and idiosyncratic essays, and a few slim volumes of what he called "ficciones" that defied categorization -- were written in his first 54 years. (Has any other writer of the 20th century had more influence per printed page?) If not for his gradual emergence in the late '50s, largely thanks to a handful of influential European critics, it's doubtful that we would know his name today. The rich mine of Latin American literature might never have been discovered outside the Latin world, or at least not for a few more decades.

Interest in Borges' life and work will be piqued again by Edwin Williamson's massive and assiduously researched new biography. Thanks to Williamson's association with Maria Kodama, Borges' longtime companion -- whom he married shortly before his death and who became sole executor of his estate -- we at last have a definitive biography of Borges. Williamson's "Borges: A Life" renders James Woodall's identically titled 1996 biography obsolete.

On paper, it doesn't sound like much of a life. The sickly, bookish boy had few friends and spent so much time at home that he failed to graduate from high school. His real life would be an adventure of the mind. In his formative years he wandered in his father's voluminous library, assimilating such diverse works as Anglo-Saxon folk poetry (his mother was partly of English ancestry, a fact of which Borges was enormously proud), studies of the Talmud, Burton's "Arabian Nights," pulp detective fiction, and lurid tales of the legendary Argentine outlaw of the pampas, Martin Fierro. Georgie, as he was known to his family, frustrated and embarrassed his father with his inability to make a living; he worked for years at a humbling job at the Buenos Aires Municipal Library. His mother was even more of a drag on his life, squashing every nascent romance by insisting the woman was beneath their social class. If that wasn't enough, Borges' avant-garde and liberal notions put him on the shit list of Argentina's dictator, Juan Perón.

Williamson digs deeper than any previous Borges biographer into the social and political milieu of early 20th century bohemian Buenos Aires. You can almost hear the tango music and feel the breeze carried off the River Plata from the vast Argentinean plains. You won't ever need to read more about the internecine squabbles of Buenos Aires' intellectuals; suffice it to say that Borges' unique approach to the possibilities of literature went largely unappreciated except by a handful of ardent admirers. (A co-worker at the library stumbled on a biographical reference to a little known but critically acclaimed writer named Jorge Luis Borges -- and pointed out what he thought was the amazing coincidence of the name.)

The limitations of Williamson's workmanlike approach to biography become apparent, though, as Borges' life becomes more complex. On some points, Williamson is almost embarrassingly obtuse. For example, here he writes of his subject's taste in music: "Borges never had much of an ear: he appreciated Brahms but otherwise tended to favor blues, gospel, and a little jazz." It is Williamson who has the tin ear if he cannot discern the positive effect folk and pop culture had on Borges' oeuvre.

Williamson does succeed in attaching intriguing biographical details to nearly all of Borges' best-known stories, but the facts don't enhance our appreciation of the stories. It may well be true that, as he writes, "If there is a thread that runs through the maze of questions [about Borges' work] it is Borges' conviction that writing, ultimately, is a form of autobiography." Well, perhaps, but there must be hundreds of thousands of middle-aged men who have lived with domineering mothers without giving life to dazzling metaphysical fantasies such as "The Lottery in Babylon"; "Pierre Menard, Author of 'The Quixote'"; "The Library of Babel"; "The Dead Man"; "Borges and I" and "The Aleph" (Borges' parable about the key to understanding the universe), to name only a few of the most famous.

No uncovering of mere biographical details in these works can lead us to a revelation of their real magic, and Borges, who loathed Freudian psychology as much as Vladimir Nabokov did, would have gnashed his teeth at Williamson's persistent use of Doña Leonor Fanny Borges as the aleph of so much of her son's work. For a truer reading of how Borges melded fact and imagination, one must refer to Emir Rodríguez Monegal's 1978 "Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography," where one finds such gems as a biographical note on Pierre Menard's precursor, a minor 19th century French writer named Louis Menard known for "the rewriting of lost or nonexistent works."

What neither Williamson nor Woodall nor Rodríguez Monegal nor anyone else has entirely succeeded in doing is weaving the numerous strands of Borges' influences into a coherent critical vision. Andre Maurois started things in the right direction, I think, when he wrote, "His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges had read everything, and especially what nobody reads anymore [emphasis mine]: the Kabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound -- he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas -- but it is vast."

Maurois was mostly correct; Borges read everything, but there was a lot he didn't finish, including "The Brothers Karamazov," "Madame Bovary," Proust and Thomas Mann. A great deal of highfalutin American and European writers left little or no impression on him (the major exception being the French symbolist poets, especially Paul Valéry). The last great modernist of 20th century literature drew his primary inspiration not from other modernists but from styles and modes of literature (fables, folk tales, ancient epics) that had become proud words on dusty shelves and from writers of prose and poetry such as H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton (particularly the Father Brown mysteries), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Irish fabulist Lord Dunsany, and Argentine "gaucho" poets, writers who, for one reason or another, Western literature had relegated to the twilight realm of the praised but unread.

He preferred genre literature to the deep-dish classics. In his "Introduction to American Literature" he gave space to books and writers who most self-respecting North American critics had never heard of, let alone read -- for instance, the visionary storyteller Arthur Machen, who wrote horror stories, and the cowboy-turned-writer Will James (whom he preferred to Henry James' illustrious brother). Borges, raised in the suburbs of the world far from the Western mainstream, became a cultural Cuisinart whose work drew inspiration from high, low and folk cultures. He redefined genres and categories, practically creating the phantasmagoric detective story, the fictional essay and the neoclassic frontier tale. He recreated philosophical fiction, reversing the Anglo-European notion, as expressed from Dostoevsky to Camus, of fiction as a means of reflecting philosophical ideas, and instead probed Hume, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for fictional inspiration.

He regarded himself primarily as a poet and produced a body of verse that many Latin American critics regard as superior to Pablo Neruda's and which English-speaking readers have only recently become aware of. He wrote quirky, enigmatic film reviews gravid with mind-candy. (On "Citizen Kane": "In one of Chesterton's stories -- 'The Head of Caesar,' I think -- the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film was precisely that labyrinth.")

Why Borges' critical reputation has fluctuated in the decades since his discovery is also a subject his biographers have not truly addressed. In part, negative attitudes toward his work that took hold in the early '90s were a reaction to once fashionable French critical theories that many Americans and Brits had tired of, and Borges, the man who was thought by many to have anticipated some of those theories, went out with the bathwater. (How absurd it seems, in retrospect, that the most original and distinctive of writers should have been used to support undernourished theories about "the death of the author.")

When norteamericanos began to tire of the excesses of South American "magical realism" in the 1980s, Borges' reputation suffered, though in fact his techniques had crystallized decades before the Latin writers he was associated with and had little in common with theirs.

Then, too, there was the attitude best expressed by Nabokov in an interview for Time magazine: "At first Véra [his wife] and I were delighted at reading Borges. We felt we were on the portico of a great house. Then we learned there was no house." Stated another way, the attitude could be expressed as "Is this all there is? Where are the major works -- the novels?" Or, if Borges was so great and so original, why didn't he develop longer works?

There is no simple answer for this question, but it only assumes importance if one regards the novel, as an art form, superior to the short story. (Why not simply regard long poems to be superior to short ones? Are murals inherently greater than miniatures?)

Then, of course, there was politics. Near the end of his life, Borges became notorious for numerous cranky political statements which were aimed at puncturing smug liberal assumptions, but which were often taken by leftist critics as evidence of his reactionary nature. The irony bit deeply into Borges, who had always been more or less associated with the liberal faction in Argentina, more so than ever after his suppression at the hands of the Peronistas.

In truth, Borges' stance was largely apolitical, a fact that the new left, from which his readership had once been largely drawn in this country, came to regard with suspicion and hostility. He irritated them further by championing popular writers like Kipling and slighting writers beloved by Marxists. "Kipling's works are more complex than the ideas they are supposed to illustrate," he wrote, while the reverse is true about Marxist lit, where "the thesis is complex, because it comes out of Hegel, but the art that illustrates it is rudimentary."

Happily for the current generation, all the cultural baggage of the '60s and '70s fades into insignificance now when one simply picks up the work and reads. The petty literary quarrels and partisan politics fade away, and one is left to wander the fantastic labyrinths of Borges without distraction.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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