The eccentric Borges: Two UCL analyses
1 December 2006
He never wrote a novel and his longest story runs to only about a dozen pages, but Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is considered one of the greatest writers of the last century.
Professor Jason Wilson, a specialist in Argentine culture and society, has written a biography of Borges after teaching his work for many years and seeing him speak in Argentina on several occasions. Professor Wilson describes his book as a critical biography, although he does not believe a biography of Borges is strictly necessary: "There are already 14 biographies of Borges, but he may not need one at all - his texts stand alone, and often don't need further explanation. So I asked myself, what does a biography offer? The answer is that it helps to situate Borges as an Argentine - and to explore all that that means in terms of the country's curious historical background. In a sense I think looking at Borges's life helps to explain what it means to be Argentinean."
Born in Buenos Aires to a family with Spanish, Portuguese, English and Jewish roots, Borges was brought up to be a writer. He was bilingual in English and Spanish, and was encouraged to read extensively from his father's library from a young age. It is said that Borges was reading Shakespeare in English by the age of 12. When the death of his father brought financial problems and forced him to take a 'normal job' in his late 30s, friends found work for him at a municipal library. His colleagues there only allowed him to catalogue 40 books a day (about one hour's work) so that he could spend time in the basement reading and writing.
"It is highly unusual for someone to spend so much of their life reading," says Professor Wilson, "but, essentially, that is what he was brought up to do. One of his greatest assets was his ability to condense literature in his head. Whenever he spoke about Yeats, for example, he would just remember a single line he had written, and all his thoughts on him flowed out from that line."
Professor Wilson argues in his book that an inherited sight problem, which was to make him unable to read or write by middle age, also played a part in driving Borges to read so much. Borges never learned Braille so, recognising that he had to take advantage of his ability to read while it lasted, he was an avid reader. Borges's eyesight may also have contributed to his writing style. He never wrote lengthy pieces, preferring instead poems, articles, criticism and short stories. Later in life these shorter forms lent themselves better to editing in his head.
Reading also forms a central theme of Dr Humberto Núñez-Faraco's book, 'Borges and Dante: Echoes of a Literary Friendship'. Dr Núñez-Faraco argues that Borges's reading of the medieval figure, Dante, illustrates much about the man himself: "I was interested in how Borges read - and misread - Dante. For me, there are three crucial elements to Dante - love, poetic language and ethics - and Borges looked at all of these elements in a completely eccentric way. Unlike many scholars, he didn't believe that it was necessary to try to read Dante through the eyes of Dante's contemporaries, or to understand the theological context in which Dante was working."
Professor Wilson echoes Dr Núñez-Faraco's view of Borges as an eccentric reader: "He was completely irreverent towards the 'canonic' authors. If he didn't enjoy reading something he would simply stop reading it." This 'anti-bibliographical' stance is certainly radical when compared with the literature review process inherent in any modern doctorate, and yet Borges was recognised for his profound erudition.
Some of the principal themes in Borges are libraries, memory and mirrors - all of which correspond with his own experience of reading, memorising texts, and sight-related issues. Just as he condensed books and authors into single lines, he always worked on a miniature scale, saying what he wanted to say in short forms. In spite of this he was able to create whole worlds in his writing, often through literary tricks. In one instance, he wrote a review of a book he pretended to have written - recounting the story without going to the trouble of writing it all down.
Irreverence and eccentricity are words both Professor Wilson and Dr Núñez-Faraco use frequently when talking about Borges. Dr Núñez-Faraco believes that his writing style is one of his major legacies to literature: "He introduced a new style of writing in Spanish that was very elegant, very economical, and full of irony and humour." Professor Wilson agrees that humour was a key part of Borges's personality: "His public lectures, which he undertook much more after he lost his sight, were incredibly witty."
The political background to Borges is what makes him so significant, according to Dr Núñez-Faraco. While not a 'man of action', Borges's literary opposition to the ultra-nationalism that was popular in Argentina throughout much of the twentieth century was important. Borges was an internationalist, but this outlook was frowned upon by the Perón governments of the 1940s, 50s and 70s. Perón famously 'promoted' Borges from his position at the municipal library to chief inspector of poultry for the Buenos Aires market - an insult which led immediately to Borges's resignation. (Under more benign leadership he was appointed director of the national library.)
Borges was also responsible for a wide range of translations of English, French, Italian, German and even Old English and Norse works. His views on translation as a discipline are notable: he believed that it was legitimate to alter an original text in translation, and that it could be enhanced by so doing. He also argued that a literal translation could be unfaithful to the original work.
Nevertheless, Borges coupled his internationalism with a profound interest in Argentine culture, writing pieces on the history, traditions and ways of life of his native country. He was fascinated by the multiculturalism of Argentina, which was composed of myriad immigrant European ethnic groups, mixed with one another and with the 'criollo' descendents of the first Spanish settlers.
For Dr Núñez-Faraco, it is the fact that Borges was an Argentine who was aware of the literary currents in Europe that makes him so important. His great contribution was to introduce many South American writers to the rest of the world, and away from some of the more parochial themes that they were largely concerning themselves with in the 1920s and 30s. Subsequent writers from the region have almost invariably cited Borges as a major influence.
But for Professor Wilson, it was the distance of Borges from the European intellectual circuit (the boat to Argentina from Europe took three weeks in the 1950s) that enabled him to adopt his irreverent approach to major figures: "If he had grown up in a European context he would have been very different. As it was, he was able to develop this incredible attitude to reading in which he was able not to take anything seriously."
Borges's own literary output is varied, but much of what he has come to be remembered for was written during an intense ten-year period leading up to his blindness. Borges suffered an accident in which he was almost killed in 1938, and during his recovery he altered the way he wrote. Having started out as a poet, he turned to short stories - or 'fictions', to use the title ('Ficciones') under which they were published. This strange appellation is typical of his work, says Professor Wilson: "Borges's work is very difficult to pin down and classify. Even his short stories have been called something else."
Borges was nothing if not enigmatic. In their new books, Professor Wilson and Dr Núñez-Faraco provide different perspectives on his intriguing character. While one looks at Borges's life, the other analyses some specific elements in his work. Both contribute greatly to a portrait of a complex and highly unusual literary figure.
Image: Jorge Luis Borges