“Romantic ego-worship and loudmouthed individualism are…wreaking havoc on the arts,” announces the twenty-three-year-old Jorge Luis Borges in the essay that opens Selected Non-Fictions, a remarkable new compendium of his writings, two thirds of which have never been published in English before. “The Nothingness of Personality,” this first piece is called. It was written in 1922. In a bold polemical spirit the young Argentinian declares: “The self does not exist.”
The “non” of “non-fiction” can be a discouraging prefix preparing us for sober instruction rather than the transport of aesthetic pleasure. Not so with Borges. Many of these pieces are as much products of the creative imagination as the better-known “fictions.” What’s more, they help us to understand the fictions better. Fifty-six years after that first essay, for example, old, adored, and blind, Borges found himself lecturing on the subject of immortality. He remarks: “I don’t want to continue being Jorges Luis Borges; I want to be someone else. I hope that my death will be total; I hope to die in body and soul.”
In the earlier statement, we notice, the self doesn’t exist; in the second it is sufficiently real to be a burden, indeed the burden. It will not be difficult, going back and forth from essays to stories, to read all of Borges’s work as driven by the tension generated between these two positions: self as the merest invention, easily dissolved and denied; self as the most disturbing imposition, frightening in its implications, appalling in its tenacity and limitations. All the same, the curious thing in the later statement is the confession “I want to be someone else.” Is that an option? It is something we shall have to come back to.
Born a shy boy in 1899 in the macho atmosphere of Buenos Aires, the young Borges must soon have had occasion to feel different from other people. His parents contrived to exacerbate his self-awareness in all kinds of ways. Half-English, his father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, had his children brought up bilingual. Here was distinction. There was an English grandmother, an English nanny, above all a well-stocked English library where Jorge Luis and his younger sister, Norah, did their first reading. Coddled at home until he was nine, Jorge Luis was then plunged, as if in some perverse behavioral experiment, into a tough local school. A bespectacled stammerer, eccentrically dressed in Eton blazer and tie, he had five years here to learn about bullying before the family was obliged to move to Switzerland to find a cure for Jorge Guillermo’s incipient blindness.
Transferred to Geneva, Borges was now the boy who didn’t know French and German. He learned them. His teens were spent reading voraciously in four languages, so that by age twenty he had already discovered most of the writers who would be important to him throughout his long career. The impressive list that all accounts of his life must necessarily repeat (for Borges always displayed his sources …