Jorge Luis Borges

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Ever since the beginning of systematic literary criticism, authors have played a rather ambivalent role. In the search for knowledge and understanding, there are, on the one hand, those who would like to dismiss altogether everything except the work itself, and, on the other, those who strain to establish personal connections between the author and the origins of his work. Granted that the relationship between a writer and his or her literary creation is important, serious methodological problems can nevertheless arise: exactly which connections should be considered; and what criteria should be used to evaluate them, to organize them into a coherent structure, and to connect them to the written work? If the author in question is still alive, as is Borges, we lack historical perspective, although we enjoy the chance for personal contact and observation.

The problem in dealing with a Borges biography is particularly acute. Borges is now an internationally famous writer, and, as Monegal informs us, he has achieved in Buenos Aires the status of a folk hero. The type of explanation which Giovanni Papini once offered for Immanuel Kant’s fame, as being based on a combination of Germanic pride and Latin ignorance, certainly does not apply to Borges. He has received several literary prizes, both national and international, and last year, the Premio Miguel de Cervantes—the most prestigious award in Spanish letters. However, Borges has yet to receive the Nobel Prize; “I’ll never get it,” he said recently, “because I think someone there has read my books, and that’s very dangerous.”

Borges’ life, however, has been, and to a point still is, shrouded in mystery. He has been less than explicit in talking about himself, frequently elusive, and very often contradictory. Some people interpret this attitude to be a kind of device geared not so much to protect a coveted privacy as to manipulate literary name and fame. Borges has given a number of interviews and held “conversations” which later were published in French, English, and Spanish books and magazines. He appeared with William Buckley, Jr., in the PBS Television program “Firing Line” on February 18, 1977, under the title, “Borges: South America’s Titan.” Somewhat surprisingly, Buckley could not do very much with Borges, who was easily able to slip through Buckley’s fingers again and again. For the ones interested in his personal history, Borges wrote “An Autobiographical Essay” and a long set of “Autobiographical Notes,” published in 1970 in the New Yorker. How much knowledge this autobiographical information can provide about Borges or about his writings is an open-ended question. Borges himself has tried to cast a dubious light on the art of biography writing, although he has composed many biographical articles and notes and praised autobiographies. In a study of the poet Evaristo Carriego, published in 1930, he wrote: “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.”

Perhaps Borges considers the reconstruction of a man’s life by another or even by himself an impossible task, and he certainly thinks that many biographical facts, through their frivolity and irrelevance, will merely arouse the reader’s idle curiosity. While he approves of Gibbon’s and Kipling’s autobiographies, he is critical of Rousseau’s Confessions and Amiel’s Intimate Journal. In 1943, writing about Beckford’s Vathek, he observed that “one biography of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages. The biographer, fascinated by Poe’s changes of residence, barely managed to salvage one parenthesis for the ’Maelstrom’ and the cosmogony of ’Eureka.’” Faithful to this principle, Borges made the present biographer promise not to concentrate on his changes of residence and thus forget about his books.

Borges’ autobiographical writings neither feed the reader’s curiosity nor dwell on personal data which could be considered irrelevant; thus it is better to avoid the label “autobiographical” in order to avoid its misleading connotations. The distinction between fact and fiction does not apply easily to Borges’ writings; Borges’ personal identification with his work has been deliberate and artistically successful. In the poem “My books,” he wrote: “My books—which don’t know that I exist—are as much a part of myself as this face . . . I believe that the essential words which express me are in these pages which don’t know who I am. . . .” Borges’ personality actually has many facets, so that it is useless to ask which is the more real or more...

(The entire section is 1951 words.)