Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111201632-Borges.jpg(©Washington Post; reprinted by permission of the D.C. Public Library) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Author of an important body of stories, poems, and essays, Borges has influenced modern fiction and criticism in both South and North America.

Early Life

The son of Jorge Guillermo and Leonor Alcevedo de Borges, Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires on August 24, 1899. His ancestors had been involved in Argentina’s history, having fought for the country’s independence and later against various dictators; these ancestors would serve as subjects for some of Borges’ poems. So, too, would his childhood home in Palermo (a working-class neighborhood on the north side of Buenos Aires), with its windmill to draw water, its garden, and its trees and birds. A frail child who did not enter school until he was nine, Borges spent much time in his father’s extensive library, an activity that he later called “the chief event of my life.” There he read many of the works that would inform his writing, by authors such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Miguel de Cervantes, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. He read their works in English because his paternal grandmother, Frances Haslam, had come from Great Britain and “Georgie,” as he was called at home, learned her language before he knew Spanish. Even Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605) he first encountered in English. When he later read the original, he felt that he was reading a translation. From Haslam, he also heard stories about the Argentine frontier of the 1870’s; one of these stories, about an Englishwoman abducted by Indians, provided the basis of “Historia del guerrero y la cautiva” (1949; “Story of the Warrior and the Captive,” 1962).

His literary vocation, along with his weak eyes, he inherited from his father, a lawyer and man of letters who had published some poetry and a novel. Borges claimed that his father taught him that language could be magical and musical, and from his youth Borges was destined to fulfill the literary dream that failing sight denied his father. Certainly he came to writing early: At six, he produced a short summary of various Greek myths, anticipating his lifelong interest in minotaurs, labyrinths, and the fantastic. About three years later, El Paîs, a Buenos Aires daily, published his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”; the translation was so mature in style that the work was attributed to Borges’ father.

In 1914, the family went to Europe so that the elder Borges could be treated for increasing blindness. Borges enrolled at the College of Geneva, and, unable to return to Argentina because of World War I, he spent the next several years in this Swiss city. There he learned French, Latin, and German, and he read voraciously. When travel was again possible, the Borgeses moved to Lugano and Majorca before settling temporarily in Spain. In Seville, Borges published his first poem (in Grecia, December 31, 1919), a Whitmanesque hymn to the sea, and joined a group of avant-garde writers who called themselves ultraístas. Their emphasis on metaphor and rejection of the psychological, realistic novel would influence Borges’ views of literary composition.

Life’s Work

Upon returning to Argentina, Borges organized a number of young poets under the banner of ultraísmo and published the short-lived Prisma (December, 1921, and May, 1922), dedicated to their vision of literature. He would edit two other magazines, both called Proa, in the 1920’s, and he contributed to almost a dozen others. In addition, he published seven books during this decade, four volumes of poetry and three of essays. In many ways, these are apprentice pieces—Borges said that later he sought out copies and burned them—but they reveal a number of interests that underlie his mature work. Commenting on his first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923; translated in Selected Poems, 1923-1967, 1973), he stated, “I think I have never strayed beyond that book. I feel that all my subsequent writing has only developed themes taken up there. I feel that all during my lifetime I have been rewriting that one book.” Much of the volume, like his others of this period, is devoted to local color, for Borges was discovering his native city and country for the first time. While much of his later work is less regional in flavor, Borges remained a literary nationalist. In 1950, he published an essay on the literature of the Argentine frontier (Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca) and ten years later another on gaucho poetry, having co-edited an anthology of such works in 1955 (Poesía gauchesca).

More characteristic of Borges’ best-known writing are the discussions of time and space. In “El Truco,” which describes a Latin American card game, Borges notes that, because the number of possible combinations of cards is finite, players must repeat hands that others held in the past. Not only are the hands the same, though; the players, too, according to Borges, become their predecessors. “Caminata” (stroll) claims that, if the viewer stops looking at the street, the scene vanishes. Borges is herein playing with George Berkeley’s idealism and challenging the conventional notion of reality. If what seems real may be obliterated with a blink, that which is “False and dense/ like a garden traced on a mirror” can become real (“Benarés”). Already, too, one finds the learned allusions, the depth of reading so typical of Borges.

Although Borges is best known as a writer of short stories, he came to this genre slowly, hesitantly. According to Borges, he began writing short stories after an accident in 1938 left him uncertain of his mental abilities. Fearing that failure with a poem or essay would be too devastating, he turned instead to a new form and produced “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” (1942; “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” 1962). Actually, he had been thinking about, even writing, prose fiction well before this. In Discusión (1932), he had included an essay that anticipated his practice, commenting in “El arte narrativo y la magia” (narrative art and magic) that the novel should resemble “a precise game of staying on the alert, of echoes, and of affinities.” Rejecting supposedly realistic, psychological narratives, he praises the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and William Morris, for whom plot rather than character is primary. In addition to theorizing, he began publishing a number of short stories, thinly disguised as essays; many of his...

(The entire section is 2726 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Pierre Menard, Author of the (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Story

The title of this story indicates that Jorge Luis Borges is engaging in his customary mischief of rearranging the universe, for almost any reader of the fiction of this master storyteller would know that the author of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha) is not Pierre Menard but Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). The narrator begins by relating the details of his encounter with Menard through a series of mutual friends, in particular the baroness de Bacourt and the countess de Bagnoregio, formerly of Monaco but now married to an international philanthropist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The narrator lists what he calls the “visible” work of Menard, comparing his enumeration of works to the catalog prepared by Madame Henri Bachelier and published by a newspaper suspect for its Protestant tendencies. The list includes translations of classical authors, treatises on philosophical and metaphysical problems, monographs on poetic language, and various works of poetry. The narrator then turns to the other, more important work—the subterranean, heroic, peerless, and unfinished. This extraordinary composition consists of two chapters and a fragment of a third chapter of Don Quixote de la Mancha. Menard’s work is not another Quixote; rather, it is the Quixote itself.

Menard’s inspiration came from two sources: a fragment by Novalis (1772-1801), which deals with the theme of a total identification with a given author, and an unnamed parasitic book that places a classic fictional character in a modern setting. Menard attempted to create a few fragments that would coincide word for word with the Quixote, not by copying the text but by assimilating it completely and then inventing it anew.

Menard first tried to accomplish his task in 1918 by becoming Cervantes—knowing Spanish well, fighting the Turks and the Moors, and forgetting the history of the world from 1602 to 1918. He then discarded that plan and adopted another, which led to the final invention analyzed by the narrator. He wrote the Quixote from the experience and perspective of the twentieth century author Pierre Menard.

The result of Menard’s endeavor is three passages that coincide in every textual detail with the corresponding chapters of Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha. As the narrator observes, however, there is a vivid contrast in style. Cervantes’s style is contemporary and natural; Menard’s is archaic and affected. Cervantes’s view of history as “the mother of truth” is merely rhetorical; Menard’s history as engenderer of truth is an astounding and original concept.

The narrator reasons that Menard’s greatest contribution is his enrichment of the art of reading through the techniques of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attribution. Menard’s illuminating labor has made possible the reading of great classics as contemporary works. To read the original text of the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.;...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Pierre Menard, Author of the (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Work

In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges combines a sophisticated sense of humor, directed toward the scholasticism of the academic, with one of his favorite images—that of the simulacrum. The story begins as a eulogy written in the first person and dedicated to the memory of an admirable French author, Pierre Menard. The narrator first provides a list of the author’s visible works in a rather pompous, academic style; the narrator often invokes his literary authority by dropping names of famous writers or providing documentary proof through the citation of very real authors or journals in his footnotes. The insertion of footnotes for the purpose of creating an impression of...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the son of Jorge Guillermo Borges, a lawyer and psychology teacher, and Leonor Acevedo de Borges, a descendant of old Argentine and Uruguayan stock. A precocious child who spent much of his childhood indoors, Borges later said that his discovery of his father’s library was the chief event in his life; he began writing at the age of six, imitating classical Spanish authors such as Miguel de Cervantes.

Attending school in Switzerland during World War I, Borges read, and was strongly influenced by, the French Symbolist poets and such English prose writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, G. K. Chesterton, and Thomas Carlyle. After the war, Borges spent...

(The entire section is 375 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the first of two children born to Jorge Guillermo Borges and Leonor Acevedo de Borges. (His sister, Norah, was born in 1901.) Borges’s ancestors included prominent Argentine military and historical figures on both sides of his family and an English grandmother on his father’s.

“Georgie,” as Borges’s family called him, began reading very early, first in English, then in Spanish. Tutored first by his English grandmother and later by a private governess, and with access to his father’s library (which contained numerous volumes in English), young Borges devoured a wide range of writings, among them those of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard...

(The entire section is 1507 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (World Poets and Poetry)

ph_0111201632-Borges.jpgJorge Luis Borges. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1899. Borges grew up bilingual in Spanish and English, largely because he had a British grandmother, and later learned some French, German, and Latin during the family’s four years in Switzerland (1914-1919). The major conflict during his early years was between forcefulness and literary refinement. Before leaving for Switzerland (to seek treatment for his father’s growing blindness), his family lived in a suburb plagued with knife-fighting gauchos and other criminals, a fascination with which often surfaced in Borges’s writings. In partial contrast, his father was a lawyer, psychology teacher, and amateur novelist. Once, however, when Borges was being bullied by...

(The entire section is 558 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201632-Borges.jpgJorge Luis Borges. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on August 24, 1899, to Jorge Guillermo Borges and Leonor Acevedo de Borges, Jorge Luis Borges (BAWR-hays) belonged to a well-off family. His father was of English descent. The young Borges appears to have enjoyed a relatively happy childhood and the security of a close-knit Latin American family. Under the nurturing influence of his family, Borges began to write at a very early age. He read voraciously from his father’s personal library, which was rich in adventure tales by English authors such as Rudyard Kipling. Stories about distant lands and wild animals of the East shaped Borges’s childhood imagination. This curiosity was later to develop into more serious pursuits of study in the areas of...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Combining some unusual literary techniques with a refined wit, Jorge Luis Borges insisted on the fictionality of fiction—something fabricated and artificial. Many of Borges’s stories are true “artifices,” carefully wrought intellectual exercises that involve clever conceits. Borges is thus a truly postmodern writer, as interested in the process of construction as in the final product itself. Through the use of metaphors such as the labyrinth and the mirror and a highly cerebral style, Borges offers the reader a unique philosophy that denies the division between the real and the unreal worlds.

(The entire section is 93 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201632-Borges.jpgJorge Luis Borges. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Jorge Luis Borges (BAWR-hays), South America’s most famous writer of short fiction, was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the son of Jorge Guillermo Borges, a lawyer and psychology teacher, and Leonor Acevedo de Borges, a descendant of old Argentine and Uruguayan families. An extremely intelligent child who spent much of his childhood indoors, Borges named his father’s library as the most important influence on his career. Based on his reading in that library, he began writing at the early age of six, imitating classical Spanish authors such as Miguel de Cervantes and others.{$S[A]Domecq, H. Bustos (joint);Borges, Jorge Luis}{$S[A]Lynch, B. Suárez (joint);Borges, Jorge Luis}

Borges attended school in...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, one of Argentina’s most famous cities. His father, Jorge Guillermo Borges,...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography

139_1190307412.jpg
Jorge Luis Borges
139_1190312676.jpg

Introduction

Jorge Luis Borges, a master of English and Spanish prose, grew up in a neighborhood of gangsters. For many years, he imagined himself a companion to those outlaws, until he grew up and faced the truth, which was that he spent most of his youth locked away in the safety of his family’s library with a seemingly endless supply of books that fed his imagination. His family members were also somewhat notorious themselves. His mother was descended from a long line of freedom fighters and soldiers and kept the Borges’ house decorated with swords and other memorabilia of wars. His grandfather was shot to death during Argentina’s frontier days, and Borges’ father, a lawyer and professor of psychology, was a professed anarchist. It seems, then, that Borges never had a choice: he was destined to revolutionize Latin American literature with his elegantly crafted short stories.

Essential Facts

  1. Borges was raised in a bilingual family in Buenos Aires. He was well out of childhood before he realized that English and Spanish were two separate languages.
  2. Borges’ younger sister, Norah, was the only friend he had as a child. The two of them spent a lot of their day acting out stories they had read.
  3. When Borges was 29, he met Elsa Astete. She was 20. Borges fell in love and thought Elsa had too. But she suddenly left him and married another man. When Borges was in his sixties, he reunited with Elsa, who became Borges’ first wife.
  4. In 1938, Borges was hit on the head. While recovering, he almost died from blood poisoning. That near-death experience changed his thinking, and he started writing in a new style, one that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
  5. Borges died on June 14, 1986. During the last thirty years of his life, he was completely blind, but that didn’t stop him from publishing. His mother helped by reading to him and taking dictation.

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Jorge Luis Borges was one of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century. Born on August 24,1899, in Buenos Aires,...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Jorge Luis Borges Biography (Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Jorge Luis Borges unintentionally helped to found Postmodernism through his blurring of the lines of genre and the borders between fiction...

(The entire section is 546 words.)