The blind writer who saw beyond genre

August 5, 2005

In 1961, Jorge Luis Borges shared the Formentor Prize in literature with Samuel Beckett. From then until his death in 1986, Borges was an international presence, possibly the best known Spanish-language writer of his time. Literary prizes and honorary degrees were showered upon him. Crowds filled university auditoriums. He approached the stage using a cane or leaning on the arm of a friend or both. Blind in one eye, he was the venerable literary guru from that strange place where the seasons were reversed and the Spanish accent had odd sounds.

He called himself a reader first, and then a poet - and read he did, widely and well, but also playfully, reviewing books that did not exist, stuffing his footnotes with incunabula. His poetry awaits appreciation. His Ficciones ( Essay Fictions ) have had a strong impact on writers from Patagonia to Canada, from Japan to California.

The two main previous English-language biographies - by Emir Rodríguez Monegal (1978) and James Woodall (1996) - have been eclipsed by Edwin Williamson's A Life . Nine years in the making, and with access to new material, it is particularly effective in detailing Borges's complicated relationship with Argentina. Williamson is not a critic who believes that the text is unrelated to the author's life. He ponders the role of Borges's parents, a timid half-blind father who bungled an effort to jump-start his son's sex life, a mother who lived to be 99, and for the first time we have the details of his appallingly unsuccessful love life. To many readers, these exercises border on the procrustean and diminish the Borges persona.

Military heroes crowd both sides of the family tree. His mother, a formidable person in her own right, was the granddaughter of Colonel Isidoro Suárez, remembered for his participation in Simón Bolívar's victory at the Battle of Junín. Georgie was named after his grandfather, Jorge Guillermo Borges, a professional soldier noted for his military valour who also attained the rank of colonel.

Colonel Borges fell in love with an Englishwoman, Frances (Franny) Haslam, married her and brought into the family an influence that was to deeply affect his grandson's life. Franny was the daughter of an English schoolmaster. After her husband died in battle, she devoted her considerable energy to reading to her grandchildren. English was spoken in the house. Thus it was that Jorge Luis Borges (born 1899) grew up with a strong sense of Englishness. Franny lived to be 83 and inculcated the sound of English in the young man's ears while teaching him to like certain books. At a time when most students were reading Ruben Dar!o, Jorge was enthralled by Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton - tastes that endured throughout the T.S. Eliot era.

Borges combined two conflicting inheritances from his parents. The swords and knives that populate his short stories, his recurring creation of a personage led by some vague urge of destiny to challenge expert knife-fighters that surely will result in his death, stems from his mother and Franny's dreams of military glory. His father's bad eyesight, inherited by his son, prevented him from taking arms but his pressure on Jorge was no less potent: fulfil the literary destiny he had been denied. In addition to his constant exposure to the sound of English, there was his father's library, the prototype, no doubt, of the ur -library in his short stories where Kipling and Schopenhauer, Stevenson and Berkeley, Chesterton and Poe sit comfortably side by side.

The reasons Borges's father gave for moving the family from Buenos Aires to Geneva in 1914 were a better education for his children, the desire to know Europe and the need to consult specialists about his worsening vision. It was not a good educational experience, however, for the children knew much English but little French. The family decided to stay in Geneva when world war broke out, and, after the conclusion of hostilities, spent five years in Spain. After his unusual exposure to English, this was the second definitive event in Borges's life, for it brought him into contact in Spain with ultraísmo , the Spanish avant-garde. He enthusiastically entered into Spanish literary life and struck up a friendship with Rafael Cansinos-Assens, a cousin of Rita Hayworth ( née Cansinos). Borges admired Cansinos's knowledge of languages and his dedication to translation.

Another important figure to Borges was Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the inventor of greguerías , haiku-like combinations of humour and metaphor.

Back in Buenos Aires, Borges contributed something for almost every issue of Ultra .

By then it was clear that Borges would rescue his father's literary talent. The road would be arduous, but in due time the son would be the most famous Argentinian writer ever known. He had needed to get through ultraísmo and bypass Latin American modernismo entirely. His Ficciones would enable him to do so. He avoided genre, invented magic realism, gave obeisance to the trappings of reality, wrote about a man who literally could forget nothing, and about a timid woman who arranged to be raped in order to avenge the death of her father. Borges's international fame rests on his Ficciones , a new genre that confused and annoyed his countrymen and met with the disapproval of Alfred A. Knopf, one of the few houses open to publishing translations of Latin American literature. "These are not short stories," one of its editors said bluntly.

The final years of fame, travel and involvement with the politics of his country (a latent sympathy towards fascism may have cost him the Nobel prize) were lightened with the advent of Mar!a Kadoma. He met this gentle, resourceful and intelligent daughter of a Japanese chemist and an Argentinian mother in his class on Anglo-Saxon literature. She was, at last, the woman he had been seeking, and Williamson paints a very sympathetic picture of her.

Howard Young is professor of Romance languages, Pomona College, California, US.

Borges: A Life

Author - Edwin Williamson
Publisher - Viking
Pages - 574
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 670 88579 7

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