Borges has come from Spanish into English in a rather haphazard fashion. His work first appeared piecemeal in the Fifties, a poem here, a story there, until, in 1961, he shared the International Publishers Prize with Samuel Beckett, a recognition that propelled two volumes of his work into English, translated by various hands—first, Ficciones, his most important volume of stories, and then Labyrinths, a selection of poems, essays, and stories. Even so, his writings had no chronology and, as so often happens in Borges’s case, disparate critics would grab possibly a single story of his and run with it to unlikely latitudes. The recurring ironies and the tangible paradoxes in his work led him to be invoked, often along with Nabokov, in a variety of misleading ways. He became distortingly fashionable and, as in Spanish, there sprang up around him a thicket of criticism far exceeding the small compass of his own writing. His books continued to come out haphazardly in translation, and Borges himself appeared on the scene, a frail, blind, and somehow heroic figure, speaking his courteous English and lending himself to interviews on all sides with an acquiescent modesty that both charmed and teased interviewers and readers.
His English presence was so stirring that he came to be regarded almost as an English writer who, with characteristic perversity, lived in and wrote about Buenos Aires. In fact, Borges had become well known in French much earlier, in the late Forties, thanks to Roger Caillois, who, with the help of Borges’s friend, Néstor Ibarra, made the first translations of his work and gained for Borges an outre-mer reputation that thrust him into public attention in his own country, which, so uncertain of itself, has always paid slavish attention to foreign seals of approval. As to Borges himself, he traveled abroad indefatigably, his blindness by this time well advanced, to countries he could no longer see, the incarnation of his own drastic ironies.
In 1970, Borges published, in The New Yorker, in English, a long set of “Autobiographical Notes,” an often lyrical piece of remembering which went a long way toward supplying the background his readers had only been able to surmise from his stories, and revealing the sources of many preoccupations that cropped up in his writing—his soldier ancestors, for example, whom Borges has invoked in many poems, with the fascination he always shows for men of action. By this time, however, the best known of Borges’s writing was probably the short essay “Borges and I,” in which Borges writes about his other, writing self, from which he felt separate but to which he was inevitably chained. That, and Borges’s propensity not so much to write fiction as to invent fact, made the “Autobiographical Notes” very much a deliberate version of Borges, an edited past. Autobiography Borges used as something of a cover—his Golem, the Borges-who-wrote, he tended carefully as a precious separate being. As early as 1930, in his study of the populist poet Evaristo Carriego, Borges had written: “For a man to try to arouse in another man memories which belong only to a third is an obvious paradox. To achieve that paradox carelessly is the innocent decision behind any biography.” The more we know of Borges’s work, however, the less likely we are to trust his version of himself.
Emir Rodriguez Monegal’s biography makes this point by holding separate fragments from the “Autobiographical Notes” against the larger reality, and carefully noting the discrepancies. A Uruguayan, now a professor at Yale, Monegal could not be better fitted to write Borges’s biography, for he is a long-time friend of Borges, and a long-time student of his work. He properly calls his book a “literary biography,” for he makes the facts of Borges’s life subservient to Borges’s writings, as Borges himself often pretends to do. The biography made me realize, first of all, how badly we needed a perspective on Borges from outside Borges. For one thing, we have come on Borges the wrong way around, by way of his later self. Put in order, he becomes a far more interesting figure, probably the quintessential writer of his time. For another thing, Borges so metamorphosed his life into his writing that some facts, like that of his blindness, seemed like physical metaphors of his own devising.
Monegal began his long series of encounters with Borges early, living as he then did in Uruguay, just across the “torpid, muddy river.” He also read Borges as he appeared, in the many brief magazines Borges either edited or contributed to in the Twenties and Thirties. A literary biography must recognize from the start that any writer’s work places a created reality alongside the real one; and in Borges’s life, duality abounded from the beginning. The biography is the account of the thickening relationship between Borges and his literary self, the “Borges” to whom he becomes more and more an ironic servant. The aura of Borges’s work so extends over his life that many events in his development appear full of omen, while at the same time we see odd events and encounters in his life being mapped and remapped in the stories.
The first extraordinary fact about Borges is how early—at the age of six—he accepted his destiny to be a writer, a destiny that was understood by his whole family. Borges’s father was a lawyer and a former teacher of psychology in a Normal School for Modern Languages, but he had been an occasional, though unsuccessful, writer and a friend of literary men, and it was tacitly understood that Borges would fulfill his father’s literary ambitions. Unquestioningly, he set about it. It was as though the eyes of the whole family, his own included, were on the young Borges. The duality between him and his writing self set in early. His father was the first of a number of teachers at whose feet Borges sat at various times of his life—Rafael Cansinos-Assens in Madrid, Macedonio Fernandez in Buenos Aires—and Borges’s firmest first memories are of reading in his father’s library of English books, a kind of internal library that has served him even in his blindness. His father too began to lose his eyesight at an early age, a hereditary affliction that affected six generations of the family.
Where Monegal is at his most acute is in exploring something not widely known about Borges—that he was bilingual from the first, and grew up in a house where both English and Spanish were commonly spoken. His paternal grandmother, Fanny Haslam, a native of Northumberland, lived with the family, and Borges spoke to her always in English. He did not at first realize that there was any difference between English and Spanish; later, the two languages came to represent to him two entirely different mediums, each requiring a different kind of attention. English, as Monegal’s reconstruction of Borges’s childhood shows, was the culturally privileged language, embodied in the books in his father’s library, which he read before he came to read in Spanish; Spanish, on the other hand, was his mother’s household language, and the language of the streets beyond the garden, in whose shelter Borges remained until he went to school at the age of nine. His father was also bilingual.
Being bilingual can have effects of varying intensity, and indeed, some people are capable of changing languages as unaffectedly as changing clothes; but, by demonstrating that a word is only one of a number of possible symbols for a thing, it can deeply separate word and thing, and this is what Monegal suggests it did to Borges. It put him at a distance from language at an early age. He shares with Nabokov an intense consciousness of the language he is using, a consciousness that often becomes the subject matter of his fictions and poems. Borges thus had two linguistic beings from the start, an English being fed mostly by his voracious reading, and a Spanish being that was to draw on a tangible locality, the streets and encounters of Buenos Aires, and a vivid past, in the form of the soldierly ancestors who were much revered in Borges’s household. Then, when Borges was barely fifteen, the family moved to Europe where, surprised by the outbreak of World War I, they came to rest in Switzerland, and sent Borges to French and German schools. Before returning to Argentina in 1921, some seven years later, the family passed a year in Spain, where Borges published his first poems, and began to enmesh himself in the vigorous literary life he was to lead from then on. He formed friendships with other writers, and attended literary tertulias, playing a prominent part in the ultraist movement which was in vogue then in Spain. It was in Spain that he began to form his public, writing self, yet he still had to find his subject matter.
It was Borges’s return to Buenos Aires in 1921, when he was twenty-two, that really set him in motion as a writer. Buenos Aires was the city in which he had a past, and he set about rediscovering it with zeal, in print as well as in fact. He was first a poet, and he brought the gospel of ultraism from Spain, writing his own manifestoes. The essays he was also writing at that time reveal his preoccupation with the meaning of being Argentine, an examination of national archetypes that has for a long time preoccupied him. While the early poems are often passionate evocations of his native city, the essays are already skeptical, the habit of irony apparent. He is critical of the slack, selfdeluding, and show-off attitudes of the Argentines, and impatient with literary pretentiousness. He was already much more widely read than his contemporaries, but in his early work there is little trace of the storyteller to come. The writer of fantastic stories came into being only after 1938, after an accident which Monegal examines in detail, seeing it as a watershed in Borges’s writing life, which changed startlingly. A very different writer emerged, though still wearing the trappings of the earlier one.
On Christmas Eve, 1938, the year in which Borges’s father had died, Borges, on his way to bring a girl home for lunch, was hurrying up a stairway when he bumped his head against an unnoticed window. The wound became infected, and for a month his life was in danger from septicemia. At one point he lost the power of speech. In the “Autobiographical Notes” he describes his fears at having lost his understanding, and his relief at his comprehension when his mother read to him. It was in the wake of that accident that Borges wrote his two crucial stories, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Until then, he had not appeared to be a markedly unconventional writer. Now, at a stroke, he seemed to brush aside literary convention, and began to delineate his own written territory. It is to the writing from 1938 on that Borges unquestionably owes his fame, although by now the Borgologos are busy burrowing in the earlier work and, of course, coming up with pervasive traces of the uncanny Borges to come. (The word “uncanny,” Borges likes to point out, cannot properly be rendered in Spanish.)
It is in these stories, and the ones that immediately followed them, that Borges’s distance from language begins to be apparent. Language is to him variously a trick, a deception, a vain attempt to impose order which mocks its maker, a way of traveling across time; and Borges the writer is now its ironic master, the maker of “fictions” which undermine our confidence in reality. Language disquiets but cannot solve. Borges’s writing at its best can create in us a kind of vertigo, what he calls sagrado horror, Coleridge’s “holy dread,” an effect which is almost beyond language. His later work has an atmosphere that makes quite ordinary events, like losing a key or missing a bus, seem loomingly ominous. As Monegal correctly points out, the sudden shift in Borges’s work has a great deal to do with his being free of the shadow of his father’s expectations. He made the deliberate decision to try something he had never done before, and, with the fantastic stories, he seemed at once to move to a different dimension, for which his own reading past seems now only a preparation.
The accident is the central happening in Borges’s favorite story, “El Sur,” when the protagonist, convalescing after a similar accident, or perhaps unwittingly dead, is provoked into a duel he must lose, a kind of visionary destiny which suggests that Borges himself experienced a symbolic death. There are points at which Borges’s written and lived existences come so close together as to leave no dividing line.
It has been quite common in recent years for Latin American writers of the left to decry Borges’s political conservatism, however much they owe to his influence; and indeed, Borges has made some preposterous remarks and gestures, in view of the present political climate of Latin America. (Neruda, who always spoke respectfully of Borges as a writer, once remarked in an interview: “What do you expect? Politically, Borges is a dinosaur.”) Privately, Borges has always maintained the conservatism of his mother, his main literary companion from 1938 until her death in 1975, at the age of ninety-nine, a companionship made more strenuous by Borges’s advancing blindness. Even so, as Monegal reminds us, Borges has to be seen in the political setting of Argentina, one that often seems inexplicable to outside eyes. When Perón first came to power in 1944, Borges spoke out strongly against his demagoguery, and continued to do so, to a point where Perón took the trouble to humiliate him publicly, dismissing him from his post in a provincial library and appointing him a poultry inspector.
Borges bore those painful years with great dignity, and became a well-known figure of resistance. He had to turn to lecturing for a living, and his unrepentant opposition to Perón had many reverberations in the writing he was doing at that time. In his story “Death and the Compass,” Buenos Aires has become a mightmare city, a battleground of moral forces; in “The Babylonian Lottery,” the city (again disguised, though for Borges, all cities are Buenos Aires) has surrendered up the rule of reason to an infatuation with chance. It was impossible for Borges to see any virtue at all in Perón’s brand of populism; he was emphatically a member of the class that Perón had chosen to bring to its knees. He spoke out for uncommitted literature at a time when uncommitment was considered unforgivable; and yet, in his fantastic stories, like “Tlön,” his skepticism is directed at any human system of order imposed from the outside, be it in the form of a library or a political ideology. Last year, when Borges went to lunch with General Videla, the president of the junta, one critic remarked that Borges was much more likely to disquiet Videla than Videla Borges.
In view of how firmly he is rooted in Buenos Aires and Argentina, the universal attention that Borges has received with his work from Ficciones on becomes all the more astounding. Again, it was literature that had freed him from time and place. Just as, in his reading, he had assimilated so many different worlds from language, so it was almost inevitable that in his own language he should give us other possible worlds, barely feasible extensions of our own. He, the polymath, was at home anywhere where language had gone before him. If he could not belong to Buenos Aires, he made Buenos Aires belong to him, as an inexhaustible metaphor, an aleph in which he sees, mirrored, all human time. He finds the same human events and confrontations taking place in literature of other languages and periods: Brutus is an Argentine compadrito who turns on his leader. Through literature, Borges is, as he often says, one man and many men. It is as if, from the vantage point of his father’s library, he saw the world early as a vast alphabet, a web of interconnections. The library is one of his essential metaphors; and there was an almost unbearable irony in Borges’s appointment in 1955 as Director of the National Library, as a tacit acknowledgment of his resistance to Perón—an irony which is the subject matter of his magnificent “Poem of the Gifts.”
There is in Borges’s work a whole vocabulary of recurring symbols—mirrors, labyrinths, tigers, knives, chess, coins—which obviously carry a strong private significance for him. It is here that Monegal’s biography is indispensable, for he shows us precisely how that vocabulary was formed from certain imprinted experiences—for example, Borges constantly refers to a memory of his father illustrating for him Zeno’s paradoxes on a chessboard in the library at home. The great virtue of Monegal’s book lies in its careful attention to such particulars, the aspects of Borges we have only glimpsed before in their transposed form in his writing. Monegal’s success can be judged by how much more absorbing he makes Borges’s writing, as an act of transformation, from Borges to “Borges.” Borges’s stories quite often allude to specific places in Buenos Aires, or to conversations with particular friends. Monegal’s biography provides us with a key to these references, a key which casts further light on the stories themselves.
Borges’s ultimate importance as a writer will depend largely, I think, on the extraordinary effect he has had on the Spanish language, an effect which cannot pass into English, however faithful the translation. Most of the Latin American writers who come after him confess, however grudgingly, to their debt to him; all unquestionably have read him, and have taken from him at least the freedom to make their own languages. His Spanish, with its strange verbs, its historic present, and its bare concision, is truly startling in a way impossible to reproduce in English. Borges’s Spanish also owes some of its characteristics to English—certain syntactical constructions, understatement, a storyteller’s economy—a direct result, I am sure, of Borges’s bilingual state. The stories show this best. It is as if his twin qualities of modesty and reticence, uncharacteristic in an Argentine, had found their precise, and just as uncharacteristic, stylistic equivalence. In English, where he is published in so many different and incomplete volumes, it is impossible for us to read him as we can in the one-volume edition of his Obras Completas, published by Emecé in 1974, where it is possible to trace the different manifestations of a single theme in both prose and poetry, even in story and essay, reiterations which Monegal’s book makes abundantly plain.
In his last chapter, Monegal leaves us with an eerie picture of Borges now, alone, blind, living almost outside time, in a magic space of his own contriving, his transformation into “Borges” all but complete, but still full of stories and poems, which he dictates to willing friends. His later work has been no less adventurous than his earlier. Doctor Brodie’s Report, published in 1971, is a collection of stories in a plain, bare narrative manner much like a Spanish transformation of Kipling and Stevenson. The Book of Sand, in 1977, returned to the fantastic mode; and if it seemed at times that Borges was a little wearily imitating an earlier self, the imitation was at least immaculate. In Buenos Aires this last summer, he gave me a copy of his newest book of poems, Historia de la Noche, with the news that another was on the way. Two new stories have recently appeared in Spanish periodicals. More books are in mind. On the streets of Buenos Aires, Borges is deferred to, saluted, touched in homage. He is something of a national talisman, much more durable than governments in that racked country. One day, a professor saw Borges on the street and, not knowing him, he crossed and addressed him: “You are Borges, no?” “A veces,” Borges replied. “At times.”
January 25, 1979