In 1961 the directors of six leading Western publishing houses (Gallimard, Einaudi, Rowohlt, Seix Barral, Grove, Weidenfeld and Nicolson) met on the Mediterranean island of Formentera to establish a literary prize that was meant to single out writers who were actively transforming the world literary landscape, and to rival the Nobel Prize in prestige. The first International Publishers’ Prize (also known as the Prix Formentor) was split between Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. That same year the Nobel Prize was awarded to the Yugoslav Ivo Andriå«c, a great novelist but no innovator. (Beckett won the prize in 1969; Borges never won it—his advocates claimed that he was scuppered by his political utterances.)
The publicity surrounding the Prix Formentor catapulted Borges onto the world stage. In the United States, Grove Press brought out seventeen stories under the title Ficciones. New Directions followed with Labyrinths, twenty-three stories—some overlapping the Ficciones, but in alternative translations—as well as essays and parables. Translation into other languages proceeded apace.
Besides his native Argentina, there was one country in which the name Borges was already well known. The French critic and editor Roger Caillois had spent the years 1939-1945 in exile in Buenos Aires. After the war, Caillois promoted Borges in France, bringing out Ficciones in 1951 and Labyrinthes in 1953 (the latter substantially different from the New Directions Labyrinths—the Borges bibliography is a labyrinth of its own). In the 1950s Borges was more highly regarded, and perhaps more widely read, in France than in Argentina. In this respect his career curiously parallels that of his forerunner in speculative fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, championed by Baudelaire and enthusiastically taken up by the French public.
The Borges of 1961 was already in his sixties. The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive, and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, “baroque” pieces. Though he lived until 1986, he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.
In Argentina Borges had by 1960 been recognized, along with Ernesto Sábato and Julio Cortázar, as a leading light of his literary generation. During the first regime of Juan Perón (1946- 1955) he had been somewhat of a whipping boy of the press, denounced as extranjerizante (foreign-loving), a lackey of the landowning elite and of international capital. Soon after Perón’s inauguration he was ostentatiously dismissed from his job in the city library and “promoted” to be inspector of poultry and rabbits at the municipal market. After the fall of Perón he became fashionable again; but his support for unpopular causes (the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, for instance) made him vulnerable to denunciation from the left as well as by nationalists and populists.
His influence on Latin American letters—where writers have traditionally turned to Europe for their models—has been extensive. He more than anyone renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation …