Borges: A Life
By Edwin Williamson
If you’re looking for something to give you a good sense of the meaning of the term “Borgesian”—as derived from the name of the Argentine literary experimenter Jorge Luis Borges—you probably don’t have to go any farther than right here in Texas.
A visiting professor position in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Texas brought Borges to Austin in late middle age. He was in residence for an entire fall semester, from September 1961 to January 1962. He taught two courses on the poetry of Argentina, giving an open lecture, too, on one of his own personal obsessions, Walt Whitman. All accounts agree that he greatly enjoyed his classes and colleagues, welcomed being immersed in what has often been described as the heady academic atmosphere of the university at that time. He also developed a true affection for Austin itself, and apparently it became nothing short of a favorite spot of his in the United States. For Borges, however, the beauty of the leafy capital city on the Colorado River was a bit different than it might be for the usual appreciative visitor, not merely a matter of local scenery; in fact, when he lived in Austin his increasingly clouding loss of sight, which had begun some years before, was already at the stage where it prevented him from fully taking in the visual (he was totally blind at death). As affable, ever-smiling Borges reportedly said later concerning why he liked Austin, why he always found it very beautiful: “I dream well there.”
It’s a concept rife with metaphysical implication, all right. In other words, it’s quite “Borgesian” and entirely in the spirit of the work of this giant of twentieth-century literature whose precisely crafted short stories—narratives that read like wonderful mind puzzles and bravely challenge common assumptions about time and space, reality and unreality, etc.—probably changed the course of serious world fiction forever.
This new, nearly 600-page biography, Borges: A Life by Edwin Williamson, weighs in at a couple of pounds and amasses most of the facts of that life. Born in 1899 in Buenos Aires and with ancestors on both sides who were Argentine military notables, Borges had an unusual childhood. It involved little formal schooling but voluminous reading on his own in his lawyer father’s extensive personal library. He grew up bilingual, thanks to the presence of his British grandmother, and he liked to tell how he first read Don Quixote as a child in English translation. The family lived in Europe during his teenage years, Borges studying at a secondary school in Switzerland with marginal academic success and then hooking up in Spain with a new poetry movement that bore the suitably avant-garde name of Ultraism. When the family returned to Buenos Aires, arguably the cultural center of Latin America back then, he led the life of a young literary iconoclast about town; with like-minded pals, he founded flimsily printed literary magazines and broke ranks with what was seen by them as the thoroughly sleepy older generation of Argentine writers. But much of his own earliest published work—in the poetry collections Fervor of Buenos Aires (1923) and Moon Across the Way (1925)—was surprisingly traditional and marked by a sweet regard for his homeland. It’s lovely verse, actually, where a scene as simple as a pink corner grocery store, let’s say, encountered at sunrise in a dusty Buenos Aires suburb after walking alone all night, can emerge as a revealing tableau, inviting quiet contemplation.
A bachelor for the better part of his life, he was prone to falling hopelessly in love with a number of Buenos Aires beauties, sometimes upper-class types. They often saw him as a good literary companion but not necessarily marriage material. He was hurrying to a date with a young woman in 1938 when he stumbled on apartment stairs, the gash in his skull becoming badly infected and resulting in blood poisoning. There was an operation followed by weeks of hospitalization; he suffered dangerous hallucinatory fevers and temporary speech failure, with the fear of mental impairment. Afterwards, to test if he still had his full faculties and almost as a cerebral exercise, he thought he would try writing not poetry but something new for him, a short story that incorporated some of the sticky conundrums of metaphysics that he had already explored in essays (his later essay “A New Refutation of Time” remains a tour-de-force attack on the possible utter deception of chronology). The result was “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” In the story, a rather dabbling contemporary writer in Nîmes, France sets out to not rewrite Cervantes’ masterpiece but to create it exactly word for word as the product of his own imagination; which he does, showing how any great book, with the powerful magic of language therein, maybe has a undeniable separate existence, independent of even the author.
Borges said the story was a breakthrough for him, and in a subsequent burst of creativity that lasted a decade or so, he turned out a couple of dozen more stories in the same vein and equally as challenging. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” deals with the history and customs of an imaginary world that is proved to be not imaginary because it is documented as real in a real encyclopedia. And “The Library of Babel” is about a limitless mythical library of many hexagonal galleries, where, among other peculiarities, one book only leads to another about that book, and that to another about it, and so on, for what some critics today see as a prophesying of the whole seemingly infinite universe of information that we currently call the Computer Age.
This was fiction that in form and content ventured beyond not only traditional realism, which suddenly looked as passé as a backfiring Model T, but also the writing of daringly innovative practitioners like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, both of whom Borges admired and translated. With Borges, creative narrative progressed in one vertiginous flying leap from the still emotional tenor of modernism to the hauntingly intellectual one of postmodernism. The earlier of these stories were gathered together in the seminal volume Fictions in 1944, with the collection The Aleph following in 1949, though the work wasn’t to be recognized much beyond the Southern Cone for a while.
During those years, Borges lived with his widowed mother in a modest Buenos Aires apartment. He supported himself as an assistant librarian at a branch library in a bleak end of the city. Often shy in public, he was nevertheless a vocal opponent of Colonel Juan Domingo Perón (Borges’ mother and adult sister themselves were once arrested for demonstrating against the thuggish dictator and his locally besainted wife, the former radio actress Evita); he resigned from the assistant librarian job when Peronist flunkies—for a cruel joke, the way Borges saw it—attempted to reassign him to another government position, as inspector of poultry and rabbits in the city’s Calle Córdoba public marketplace. However, in a fitting and dramatic reversal of fortune once Perón was at last bounced out in 1955, Borges was named director of Argentina’s National Library, the equivalent of our Library of Congress; he held the prestigious post for almost 20 years. Though his most significant writing was probably accomplished before he was 50, he kept producing stories, essays and poetry, dictating when older after he lost his sight.
Eventually, his work was translated and loudly praised abroad. The first to do so, as is often the case, were the spookily insightful French, who, it should be remembered, also rescued both Poe and Faulkner from impending oblivion. Borges was the acknowledged spiritual godfather for the whole 1960s-1970s generation of dazzling American experimenters in fiction, including John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover. In fact, he soon became sort of an icon for the new and culturally hip in general, and in the 1970 movie Performance, leading man Mick Jagger is shown reading aloud from a volume of, yes, Borges, somewhere in the midst of the film’s overall blur of group sex and psychedelics. The critical acclaim for Borges was such that the last third or so of his long life took on the character of a continuing international event celebrating the man and his achievement—Borges jetting all over the world to speak and attend symposia, the honorary degrees and orders of merit from various governments piling up.
In 1986 he died in Switzerland. He was traveling with his companion/secretary of over 15 years, María Kodama, who he married several weeks before his death. She was 39 and he going on 87. He’s buried in Geneva and not in his native country, which Kodama seems to have deemed appropriate. Apparently, Borges was convinced Argentina had been ruined under the dark rule of the vicious generals of the 1970s and 1980s, despite the fact that he himself—known for a conservative streak—did publicly support these same generals, in the name of political stability, when they first took over.
I have to say outright that as somebody who might be called an incorrigible “Borges nut” myself, I had been eagerly looking forward to this biography by Williamson ever since I first heard word it was in the works. So it isn’t entirely easy to report now that I find it disappointing. (To insert some true confession, in establishing my Borges nut condition: In my case, the obsession began in college at Harvard when I was lucky enough to be in the audience and watch Borges led onto the stage—a grinning, silver-haired blind man in a proper dark suit, uncannily Homeric—to deliver his important Charles Eliot Norton Lectures on poetic craft there in 1967. And as recently as a few years ago, I stuffed a lot of Borges texts in a suitcase and booked an American Airlines flight to travel the 5,000 long miles to Buenos Aires; I had the airy idea that possibly by rereading Borges’ very metaphysical work “on the premises,” so to speak, something very metaphysical might happen for me—and, strange but true, it definitely did, the whole adventure thoroughly Borgesian indeed, as I reported in a magazine piece.) Anyway, according to the book jacket, biographer Williamson is the “King Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Exeter College,” and he has done exhaustive, very valuable scholarly research and does cram in more facts than are found in either of the other two earlier, and shorter, standard biographies in English. But the tale is presented with such voiceless prose and a noticeable lack of any real narrative instinct (there’s never much physical description, to let you feel you’re in the many locations of well-traveled Borges’ life) that it makes for a pretty flat read, by and large.
Granted, Williamson is to be congratulated for taking some new tacks, exploring aspects of the life not given coverage so complete in those earlier biographies, Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography by Emir Rodríguez Monegal (1978) and The Man in the Mirror of the Book by James Woodall (1996). Williamson breaks fresh ground in showing just how politically involved Borges was in Argentina and how surely courageous he could be in standing up to Perón. And, having spoken a good deal with Borges’ widow María Kodama, Williamson offers a treatment of their story that is quite new. He stresses that Borges—deeply saddened for years that he had never established a lasting relationship with any female other than his mother—was extremely happy in old age with this intelligent and quiet-mannered woman almost a half century younger than him; there are intriguing hints of a sexual side to their relationship, as well, though Williamson is understandably shadowy on that matter. But even this material is somewhat troubling. Williamson announces in the book’s prefatory acknowledgments that his is by no means an authorized biography, and therefore not formally approved by Kodama, who controls the Borges estate. Yet it sure has the ring of exactly that in its painting such an upbeat, rose-petaled picture of this May to December romance, especially when the reader remembers that Borges’ situation with Kodama has been the subject of controversy elsewhere.
For me, the most annoying problem is that Williamson sometimes gives clunky psychoanalytical readings of the fictions themselves nearly as if they are autobiographically factual, or maybe transcripts from sessions on the couch. This is a little reminiscent of the trap that Richard Ellman was charged with falling into in his biography of Joyce, though here the erring seems more awkward than that. It’s almost the product of a startlingly naive misunderstanding of what exactly fiction as a genre is, even if the boundaries of the genre do at times get redefined a bit in Borges and other postmodernists. He also uses much reporting from a rather tell-all book by a woman Borges had a rocky affair with when younger, the journalist/writer Estela Canto, Williamson buying her version of their time together close to whole and with scant questioning of the validity of the source.
All of which is to say, the research and sheer amount of information here make Borges: A Life worth reading. But for a more intimate sense of the unique character of the man, delivered with narration far more engaging too, I suggest supplementing it with either of the earlier biographies in English, despite the occasional factual slips. Published prior to Borges’ death, the one by Rodríguez Monegal, a Uruguayan who knew Borges, is admittedly dated, but its critical readings of Borges’ stories are particularly insightful.
Finally, I might loop back to the topic with which I began, that of Borges and Texas. It’s all but completely overlooked by Williamson, yet does receive some attention from both Rodríguez Monegal and Woodall.
Borges’ stay in the Lone Star state in 1961-1962 was his first visit to the U.S., his elderly mother accompanying him. As said, he was quite taken by the experience. When the novelist Paul Theroux journeyed virtually entirely by rail from Boston to Argentina and interviewed Borges in Buenos Aires in 1978, as described in Theroux’s travel book The Old Patagonia Express, Borges started talking about Texas almost as soon as Theroux got through the door to his apartment. Borges asked him if he was familiar with Austin, Theroux said no, and Borges chided him for having missed it on his trip: “You should have gone to Austin.” In the hefty, posthumously published Selected Poems of Borges (1999), the editor assembled the book so that the very last poem, a place of honor, is given to “The Web,” where an aging Borges speculates on which of the several cities throughout the world that he’s known intimately (what he calls “my cities”) he might one day die in: “Austin, Texas, where my mother and I/ In the autumn of ‘61 discovered America?”; in another poem, “Elegy,” he looks back on his past and mentions having been “part of” Texas. Of course, there’s the sonnet titled “Texas” that has been beautifully translated by the former American Poet Laureate Mark Strand. The entire setting of one anecdotal short story about some compli
ated scholarly intrigue, “The Bribe,”
is the UT campus, specifically Parlin Hall, home of the English department—as a faculty member in Spanish, Borges himself taught and was officed in Batts Hall, on the South Mall. (The story has a reminiscence-triggering allusion to the wonderful old Night Hawk Restaurant once on Guadalupe Street.) While at UT, Borges granted translation rights for a miscellany of assorted poems and brief prose pieces titled Dreamtigers —originally El Hacedor in Spanish—to the university’s press, a veritable windfall. A note on its cover says that Mortimer J. Adler, the guru of the Great Books Foundation, considered it one of the major works of its time; dubbed by Borges his most “personal” writing, it’s always been a popular Borges book in the United States and has gone through 10 printings since its first issuing in 1964. Besides the residency in Austin, Borges returned for short visits to lecture in 1969, 1976, and 1982, speaking to overflowing audiences.
Serving as the introduction to Dreamtigers is a critical essay that contains significant memoir material about Borges at UT in 1961-1962, written by the late Miguel Enguidános, a professor of Spanish and a colleague of Borges in Batts Hall. Enguidános tells of the excitement afoot when Borges arrived, just about everybody in Batts metamorphosing into a, well, Borges nut: “Within a week there was talk about Borges, with Borges, because of Borges, and for Borges in every corridor of Batts Hall. Scholars felt obliged to write studies and theses on Borges’ work. Poets—wasn’t it inevitable?—fired dithyrambic salvos at him.” The essay itself is touching and elegantly written, and it’s been used as a source and quoted more than once elsewhere, including the following passage:
But how can I express the accents of his voice grave and sweet, the flight of an extraordinary intelligence and imagination, the candor of a good and innocent soul, the quiet ache of a darkness and a loneliness we sensed, the magic of the poet who makes dreams come to life? Many times I guided his uncertain steps through halls and down stairways, over the rough places of the island that is this out-of-the-way university. His poor sight allowed his friends the paradoxical task—misfortunate fortune—of guiding the best seer among modern poets in the Spanish language. To walk beside Borges, the great peripatetic conversationalist, was to enter and live in his world. The guide soon discovered, by the light that matters, that he himself was the blind one, and not the poet leaning on his arm.
That’s really nice, isn’t it? And it gets one to thinking.
Lately, you hear a lot of repetitive, boosterism-style puffery from the UT administration about the institution’s supposed “excellence” today and its being “world class.” But with Borges on campus there might have actually been a moment when the university in the city where he himself dreamed so well was genuinely of that stature—and then some.
Peter LaSalle teaches creative writing at UT-Austin. His essay on Borges’ Buenos Aires—which appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of the literary magazine Agni, from Boston University—is cited in a list of the year’s “Notable Travel Writing” in The Best American Travel Writing 2004.