James Woodall’s biography of Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer who has been widely acclaimed as one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most influential authors, was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in England as The Man in the Mirror of the Book (1996), a title that reflects the book’s unresolved dilemma of how to write the life story of a man whose writing is far more fascinating than the mundane details of his relatively uneventful personal history. Many of the more interesting aspects of Woodall’s Borges: A Life relate to the journalist-biographer’s struggle (often unsuccessful) to bypass his subject’s poems, essays, and stories in order to construct a separate and frequently hollow narrative of a timid blind man’s bumbling encounters with the vicissitudes of the twentieth century. Woodall’s extensive chronological account provides a considerable amount of factual information, and he has interviewed a number of Borges’s friends and colleagues, although he frequently complains about the difficulty of gathering accurate information in a short period of research time. Woodall brags that his book is the first full-length biography of Borges in English since the poet’s death in 1986, but he does not fully acknowledge the existence and quality of the hundreds of Spanish-language biographies and interviews or the hundreds of English-language articles and critical books that contain substantial amounts of biographical information—information that could have helped Woodall fill in the many gaps in his story.
Borges begins with a summary account of Borges’s grandparents and great grandparents, who would later figure in poems, stories, and memoirs. Borges himself was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1899, the son of a literature-loving lawyer father and a mother of extraordinary vitality who lived to be ninety-nine. Except for a few years in the 1960’s during Borges’s brief first marriage, the poet lived with his mother until she died when he was seventy-six.
During his early childhood, Borges and his sister Norah, who was born in 1901, were first read to in English by their English grandmother and by a memorable governess, Miss Tink, and then explored their father’s extensive library on their own. Borges was particularly entranced by Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), H. G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Richard Burton’s translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night. Borges began to write stories himself and in 1909 published a translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (1888) in a Buenos Aires newspaper.
Just before World War I began, the Borges family moved to Europe, where the father hoped to find effective medical treatment for a congenital eye problem that led to early blindness and that his son had inherited. The family remained in Europe from 1914 to 1921, living first in Switzerland and later in Spain. Borges read extensively in French and German, as well as in English and Spanish. He discovered Walt Whitman, Arthur Schopenhauer, and expressionism. In the company of other writers interested in experimental poetry, Borges began to write essays and poems, some of which appeared in Spanish literary journals.
Back in Buenos Aires in 1921, Borges and his friends launched avant-garde literary magazines such as Prisma and Proa, and in 1923 he published his first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (fervor of Buenos Aires), which, as Woodall points out, “has remained one of Borges’s most famous books.” From then on, Borges continued to be an active participant in literary life, editing magazines and writing many essays, reviews, and poems. Between 1925 and 1928, he published four books of poetry and essays, many of which express and explore Argentine traditions and use of language. Woodall suggests that it “appears remarkable that the Borges the world knows—the master storyteller, the metaphysician, the literary-critical hoaxer—did so thoroughly embroil himself in issues of detailed and local, and sometimes merely fashionable, concern for so long.”
Woodall could have examined more of the continuities in Borges’s work and in that of his close friends. He does chronicle many of Borges’s close friendships: with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Alfonso Reyes, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, Xul Solar, and Victoria Ocampo and the Sur group. Borges and his friends continued to collaborate...