Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

“The history of the the handwriting produced by a minor god in order to communicate with a Demon.”

If I ever had to choose my favourite author, it would be a difficult thing to decide between PG Wodehouse and Jorge Luis Borges. And I would defend the contention that they have much in common. Borges is one of the most Anglophile of foreign writers, with his love of Kipling and Shakespeare and Chesterton. His plots are ingenious, as are those of Wodehouse, although of course Borges is by far the more cerebral writer. Each mastered the short story – none of Borges’ works are longer than 14 pages. Borges is continually quoting from others, in a way that is almost as arch and witty as Wodehouse. Wodehouse created a series of fictional settings – the world of Blandings, the world of the Drones, the world of the Anglers’ Rest – albeit they are ultimately one continuous unreal world. Borges was forever creating different worlds, each more intriguing and mysterious than the last.

As a resident of Geneva, I take pleasure in the fact that Borges spent much of his youth in this city, and came back at the end of his life. One of my first excursions here was to his grave, in the Cimetière des Rois in Plainpalais. I had forgotten to bring flowers, but felt that some tribute was in order. So I slid my old Cambridge University Library card, which I had carried around with me for 25 years, into the earth of the grave. It’s no longer there: it was retrieved, along with the other gifts left by fans, and ended up in Buenos Aires, which is how I once happened to be profiled by an Argentinian newspaper: my suitably Borgesian anecdote, and no less true for that.

Borges was born in Buenos Aires, son of a lawyer and a woman descended from a long line of freedom fighters, both of whom spoke and read English as well as Spanish. Borges’ paternal grandmother was from Staffordshire. For all of these reasons, Borges may not have been exaggerating when he later said that as a child he had not at first realized that English and Spanish were separate languages.

With his younger sister Norah, Borges invented imaginary friends and games and adventures, roaming the library and garden of the house. He later described his father’s collecton of 1000 books as “the chief event in my life”. He was a shortsighted and bookish child, who did not attend school until he was nine. It was always thought that Jorge would become a writer, and it was at that age that his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” was published in the local paper. By twelve, he was reading Shakespeare in English.

When Borges was 15, his father was forced to retire due to his failing eyesight, and the family moved to Geneva so that he could consult an eye specialist. For four years, the children attended College Calvin. Here, Borges discovered French Symbolist literature, Schopenhauer, Walt Witman, and even made a few friends. When Borges was 20, the family returned to Buenos Aires, where he talked, read, and wrote poetry: his first collection was published a few years later. He had a brief involvement in politics, but his enthusiasm was soon eroded when his chosen hero revealed himself to be out of touch and ineffective, and was replaced by a series of repressive military juntas.

During his twenties, Borges devoted himself to writing stories and articles for magazines, strange surreal stories such as those in A Universal History of Infamy, with his trademark blend of fact and fiction. To make ends meet, he became a municipal librarian, where he led a “menial and dismal existence” with unprepossessing colleagues. He seems to have spent much of his time in the basement, reading or translating the books.

A turning point came in 1938 when first his father died, and then Borges developed septicaemia after a minor injury, which nearly killed him. After he recovered, and fearing that he could no longer write, he produced “Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote”, the first of the ingenious and highly original stories for which he is best known, always based on a fantastic intellectual conceit, in this instance borrowed from Thomas Carlyle. He has been claimed as one of the forerunners of Latin American “magic realism”, but he also influenced the fantasy and science fiction genres. In lighter vein, Borges would publish spoof stories co-written with his friend Adolfo Bioy-Casares (author of The Invention of Morel, one of the most perfect and haunting novels ever written, in my opinion), using the preposterous pseudonym H.Bustos Domecq. I was delighted to find an English edition of these stories in a Greenwich Village bookstore last year.

After Juan Peron was elected in1946, Borges was made “Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the Public Markets” – in response to the series of political articles he had been writing criticizing the rise of fascism. Borges was a liberal, anti-fascist, but equally anti communist. He was soon fired, observing: “dictatorships foment subservience, dictatorships foment cruelty; even more abominable is the fact that they foment stupidity. To fight against those sad monotonies is one of the many duties of writers.” Instead, he became a lecturer in literature, with a police informer attending every lecture. In 1955, the political situation changed again: under a more progressive government, Borges was appointed as Director of the National Library. The following year, he was made Professor of English and American literature at the University of Buenos Aires.

Long before, the blindness which had afflicted his father had turned out to be hereditary. In his 20s, Borges had the first of multiple operations for cataracts, none successful. By now he was completely blind, hence his comment: 

“I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness.”

Blindness was one of the reasons that he returned to poetry, a form which is easier to compose entirely in one’s head, and retain in the memory. In an interview he said:

“…in a certain way there is a purification in the blindness. It purifies one of visual circumstances. Circumstances are lost, and the external world, which is always trying to grab us, becomes fainter.”

Also at this time, he also developed his love of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature. For two years at Cambridge, I followed the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic tripos, and was therefore delighted to find the inscription from the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon on Borges’ grave in Geneva.

In 1961, Borges shared the International Publishers’ Prize with Samuel Beckett, and from then on became a global literary superstar, travelling to the United States and to Europe: he was translated into English particularly after 1967. His first marriage, to an old friend Elsa Astete Millan, was not successful. He then took up with one of his students, Maria Kodama. She was an Argentinian of Japanese origin, who began as his secretary and ended up as his wife.

The return of Juan Peron in 1973 meant that Argentina was again uncomfortable for Borges. He said in an interview: “Damn, the snobs are back in the saddle. If their posters and slogans again defile the city, I’ll be glad I’ve lost my sight. Well, they can’t humiliate me as they did before my books sold so well.” 
The political situation, together with the death of his mother at the age of 99, meant he again spent more time abroad. With Kodama, he compiled a travel atlas of his writing and her pictures. Finally, on June 14 1986, aged 86, Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer, back in Geneva.

Like Wodehouse, Borges is one of a kind, a writer who is widely admired, but is impossible to imitate (as I know to my cost, having tried to copy both). Both led quiet lives (although Borges’ contained rather more sex and romance). Each has suffered from being regarded as a conservative, or worse. On my desert island, I would turn to Wodehouse for relaxation, Borges for stimulation, but I would derive an equal enjoyment from each of them. As the epigraph to this entry shows, Borges, like Wodehouse, had an effortless ability to phrase a sentence – but whereas Wodehouse’s are merely sublimely amusing, those of Borges are always provocatively intelligent.


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