Jorge Luis Borges Essay - Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 32)

Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 32)

Introduction

Jorge Luis Borges 1899-1986

(Also wrote under the pseudonym F. Bustos, and, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under the joint pseudonyms H[onorio]. Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch.) Argentine poet, short-story writer, essayist, critic, translator, biographer, and screenwriter.

For more information on the work of Borges, see PC, Vol. 22.

During his lifetime, Borges was highly regarded as a writer of baroque and labyrinthine short fictions often written in the form of metaphysical detective stories. Characteristically, they blur the distinction between reality and the perception of reality, between the possible and the fantastic, between matter and spirit, between past, present, and future, and between the self and the other. They are usually situated in the nebulous confines of allegorical locations, whether identified as bizarre dimensions of the universe, Arabian cities, English gardens, the Argentine pampa, amazing libraries, or the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Since his death, Borges has attained the status of one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, a master poet and essayist, as well as an architect of the short story. His work has influenced not only how Latin American and non-Latin American writers write, but also the way readers read. Associated with the avant-garde Spanish Ultraístas in the 1920s, Borges rejected the Spanish poetry of the nineteenth century, and wrote a baroque verse free of rhyme, surrealistic, even brutal, in imagery and metaphor, dedicated to the incorporation of Argentinean locations, locutions and themes, and establishing the poet as the soul of his subject. By the end of the thirties, however, Borges repudiated his early verse, abandoning local color, nationalism, and the desire to shock. Thereafter, until his death, he worked with traditional devices: rhyme, meter, elucidation, and time-honored metaphors in traditional forms such as the sonnet and haiku. He strove for simplicity of expression through the use of common language and colloquial word order, and projected a tone of tranquil irony, and a wisdom concerned with, but tempered by, an indifference to, time, desire, and mortality.

Biographical Information

Borges was born August 24, 1899, into an old, Argentinean family of soldiers, patriots, and scholars, in Buenos Aires, where he spent most of his childhood. His father was an intellectual, a university professor of psychology and modern languages, a lawyer, and a writer. He possessed an extensive library, which was the boy's delight. Borges, whose paternal grandmother was English, was raised bilingual and read English before Spanish. His first encounter with Cervantes, for example, was in English, and when he was seven, his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde's “The Happy Prince” appeared in a Uruguayan newspaper. A visit to Switzerland in 1914 became an extended stay when the outbreak of the first World War made it impossible for the family to return to Argentina. Borges enrolled in the College de Geneve, where he studied Latin, French and German, as well as the European philosophers. he was especially taken with Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley, whose dark pessimist and anti-materialist world view was reflected in Borges's literary work. After receiving his degree in 1918, Borges traveled to Spain where he joined with the avant-garde Ultraístas, who combined elements of Dadaism, Imagism, and German Expressionism in their reviews, essays, and highly metaphorical poetry. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, and, with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de Enfrente (1925), and Cuaderno San Martín (1929), was recognized as a leading literary figure in Argentina. During these years, too, Borges helped establish several literary journals, and published essays on metaphysics and language. In 1938, the same year his father died, Borges himself nearly died from blood poisoning, after the wound he received from knocking his head against the casement of an open window while running up a flight of steps was poorly treated. Fearful that his ability to write might have been impaired by his illness, Borges took up short fiction rather than poetry, intending to attribute possible failure to inexperience in the genre rather than diminished literary skill. The result was “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” a story highly acclaimed both as a fiction and as a precursor to deconstructionist textual analysis. In the period following this publication, Borges wrote many of the works now considered to be among his masterpieces. Though he spoke of his disdain for politics, Borges was always politically outspoken. He opposed European fascism and anti-Semitism, and the dictatorship of Juan Perón in Argentina. In 1946, Perón removed Borges from his post as an assistant at the National Library of Argentina, due to his opposition to the regime; in 1955, however, following the overthrow of Perón, Borges, now almost totally blind from a condition he inherited from his father, was made director of the National Library. In 1957, he was appointed professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961, he was a co-recipient, with Samuel Beckett, of the Prix Formentor, the prestigious International Publishers Prize. Borges did not oppose the Argentinean military coup or the terrorism of the Videla junta in the seventies until 1980, when, apologetically, he signed a plea for those whom the regime had caused to “disappear.” Similarly, he supported the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, calling the general a “gentleman,” and commending his imposition of “order” in the face of communism. It was for these failings, rather than for any failure as an artist, many believe, that Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize. The catalog of his awards and honors, nevertheless, is long and distinguished. He spent his last years as a literary celebrity, traveling and lecturing. Totally blind, he continued to write by dictation: to his mother, who died, in 1975, at the age of ninety-nine, and to his student and companion, María Kodama, whom he married shortly before his death. His enduring love of languages was marked by his late study of Icelandic. Borges died of cancer of the liver in 1986, and was buried in Geneva.

Major Works

Borges's literary output spanned seven decades, from the 1920s–1980s, during which he published more than fifty volumes of short stories, poetry, and essays. In his first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), published in 1923, Borges, an early adherent to the Ultraísta literary movement, took his native city as his subject matter. Subsequent collections of poetry published in the 1920s include Luna de enfrente (1925; Moon Across the Way), and Cuaderno San Martín (1929; San Martín Copybook). Turning to the works of short fiction that eventually won him international praise, Borges virtually ceased to publish poetry throughout most of the 1930s and 40s. His best-known short-story collections include El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (1941; The Garden of Forking Paths), Ficciones (1944), and El Aleph (1949), although the first English language translations of his work did not appear until 1962, with two collections, titled Labyrinths and Ficciones. Borges began publishing poetry again in the 1950s, when, as Edward Hirsch describes it: “The fabulist returned to poetry … with a more direct and straightforward style, a beguiling and deceptive simplicity.” Jay Parini asserts that, “his finest poems appeared between 1955 and 1965,” while Martin S. Stabbs observes, “By the mid-1960s Borges seems to have regained considerable momentum as a poet. Both thematically and technically his work displays a richness not seen since the 1920s.” In these later poems, “a notion that recurs almost obsessively in his poetry as well as in his prose” is “the idea of the world as a complex enigma, expressed at times in the form of a labyrinth, or as the dream-made-real of a capricious creator.” Borges's poetry volumes of the 1960s include El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers), Obra poética (1964), and El otro, el mismo (1969; The Other, the Same), among others. This period of prolific poetic output continued into the 1970s, with the collections, The Gold of Tigers (1972), In Praise of Darkness (1974), and Historia de la noche (1977), among others. Borges's second-to-last volume of poetry, La cifra, was published in 1981. His last collection, Los conjurados (1985; The Conspirators), includes a combination of short prose pieces and poetry, often blurring the distinction between the two. Of this volume Stabbs states, “The very fact that Borges, then eighty-five, was still exploring that fascinating no-man's-land between prose and poetry, was still writing fine sonnets, and was continuing to rework the rich metal of earlier texts suggests that even though death was close, he remained a poet of substantial talent and considerable vigor.” A volume of new translations, Selected Poems: Jorge Luis Borges, was released in 1999.

Critical Reception

Borges was not well known outside of literary circles in Buenos Aires until 1961, when he was awarded the prestigious Formentor Prize, earning him international recognition and leading to his current status as one of the foremost short fiction writers of the twentieth century. Borges met members of the Ultraísta literary movement while in Spain in 1919, and, as a young writer in the 1920s, is sometimes credited with having introduced ulráism to Argentina. Jay Parini, writing in 1999, notes that, “With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time,” adding, “Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization.” Marcelo Abadi refers to Borges as, “one of the most prominent writers in any tongue,” observing, “in his poems, stories and essays our century can detect a voice that stirs the dormant wonder which, according to the Greeks, lies at the source of the love of knowledge and wisdom.” Edward Hirsch opines that Borges, “was a rapturous writer, a literary alchemist who emerged as an explorer of labyrinths, an adventurer in the fantastic, a poet of mysterious intimacies who probed the infinite postponements and cycles of time, the shimmering mirrors of fiction and reality, the symbols of unreality, the illusions of identity, the disintegration of the self into the universe, into the realm of the Archetypes and the Splendors.” However, critics frequently note that, to this day, Borges's accomplishments as a poet are largely overshadowed by his reputation as a master of short fiction. Beret E. Strong describes “the international literary community's portrait of ‘Borges’” as “that of a great short story writer and mediocre poet of conservative political and traditional literary values,” adding that critics have agreed with Borges's own assessment of his early poetry and essays “as less valuable than the later fiction,” and have, therefore, opted “not to write about them much.” Mark Couture, writing in 1999, states the case more strongly: “Borges, like Cervantes, has the reputation in some circles of being a ‘bad’ poet,” but adds, “I don't think this label is quite fair.” Couture points out that Borges's poems “have a quiet, metaphysical intensity and a thematic complexity that can be overlooked in superficial readings.” Parini, observing that, while “One tends to think of Borges as the writer of a dozen or so classic stories … Yet Borges was a well-known poet long before he tried his hand at fiction.” Stabbs, acknowledging that, “Today he is usually thought of first as the creator of fictional labyrinths, then as the writer of erudite essays … and only last as a poet,” defends Borges's poetry in adding: “… he began as a poet and has worked more or less continuously in this genre. Most important, he reveals more of himself in his verse than in any other kind of writing.”

Principal Works

Fervor de Buenos Aires [Passion for Buenos Aires] 1923

Luna de enfrente [Moon across the Way] 1925

Cuaderno San Martín [San Martín Copybook] 1929

Poemas, 1923–1943 1943

Poemas, 1923–1953 1954

El Hacedor [Dreamtigers] (poetry and prose) 1960

Obra poetica, 1923–1964 1964

Para las seis cuerdas [For the Six Strings (verses for Milangas)] 1965

Seis poemas escandinavos [Six Scandinavian Poems] 1966

Siete poemas [Seven Poems] 1967

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Criticism

María Luisa Bastos (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Whitman as Inscribed in Borges,” translated with Daniel Balderston, in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 219–30.

[In the following excerpt, Bastos argues that Walt Whitman is a major influence on Borges's poetry.]

1. THE WISH TO EXPRESS THE TOTALITY OF LIFE

In 1925, referring to the extreme subjectivity typical of nineteenth century esthetics, Borges pointed out: “… any frame of mind, however extraneous, can become the focus of our attention; in its brief totality, it may be our essence. If translated into the language of literature, this means that trying to express...

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Dionisio Cañas (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Eye of the Mind: Borges and Wallace Stevens,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 254–59.

[In the following essay, Cañas explores affinities between Borges and the poet Wallace Stevens.]

I don’t know what mysterious reason Borges had in his 1967 Introduction to American Literature by not mentioning the name of Wallace Stevens; to solve the enigma is irrelevant. Nevertheless, it is this omission that impelled me to do a simultaneous reading of the two poets.

In 1944, the literary magazine Sur published a translation of the famous Stevens poem “Sunday...

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Kenneth Holditch (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Borges and Emerson: The Poet as Intellectual,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 197–206.

[In the following essay, Holditch examines Borges's appreciation of and affinity with Ralph Waldo Emerson as a poet.]

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Borges' deep love for the literature of the United States is the high position in which he has repeatedly, in writing and in interviews, placed Ralph Waldo Emerson as poet. One is certainly not surprised at his appraisal of Walt Whitman as an epic poet, or Emily Dickinson as “perhaps the greatest poet that America … has as yet produced,” or when he...

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Julie Jones (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Borges and Browning: A Dramatic Dialogue,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 207–17.

[In the following essay, Jones explores Borges's debt to Robert Browning,, especially, in his adaptation of the dramatic monologue.]

In a rather backhanded tribute to Robert Browning, Jorge Luis Borges comments that “si hubiera sido un buen escritor de prosa, creo que no dudaríamos que Browning sería el precursor de la que llamamos literatura moderna.”1 In a writer who has repeatedly emphasized his preference for plot over character and his suspicions about the nonexistence of personality, this...

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María Kodama (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Oriental Influences in Borges' Poetry: The Nature of the Haiku and Western Literature,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 170–81.

[In the following essay, Kodama discusses Borges's use of the traditional Japanese poetic forms of tankaand haiku.]

In the foreword to his Collected Writings (1969), and in other works, Borges has expressed many judgments on poetry and style which indicate the way he gradually assumed the essential poetic forms of the Japanese tanka and haiku. He attempted those two forms for the first time in El Oro de los Tigres (1972) and in...

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Jaime Alazraki (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Enumerations as Evocations: On the Use of a Device in Borges' Late Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 116–23.

[In the following essay, Alazraki discusses Borges' use of the device of enumeration in his poetry.]

Enumerations in literature are as old as the Old Testament, but in modern times they have achieved the status of an established rhetorical device only since the writings of Walt Whitman. Such are the conclusions of Detlev W. Schumann and Leo Spitzer, two critics who have studied enumerations in contemporary poetry. Spitzer summarized his findings in a well known...

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Jaime Alazraki (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Outside and Inside the Mirror in Borges' Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 107–15.

[In the following essay, Alazraki discusses the significance of mirrors in Borges's poetry.]

In the Preface to his fifth book of poetry—In Praise of Darkness—Borges writes: “To the mirrors, mazes, and swords which my resigned reader already foresees, two new themes have been added: old age and ethics.”1 Mirrors are a constant in Borges' poetry, but long before becoming a major theme or motif in his works, mirrors had been for Borges an obsession that goes back to...

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Jaime Alazraki (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Language as a Musical Organism: Borges' Later Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 124–36.

[In the following essay, Alazraki examines Borges's later poetry, and praises its ability to convey “verbal music.”]

From his early poems of the twenties to his later collection Historia de la noche (A History of the Night, 1977), Borges' poetry has traveled a long way. It first moved from a nostalgic rediscovery of his birthplace, Buenos Aires, to a cult of his ancestors and an intimate history of his country: heroes, anti-heroes, counter-heroes. He then found that...

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Howard Giskin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Mystical Experience in Borges: A Problem of Perception,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 98, No. 2, January, 1990, pp. 71–85.

[In the following essay, Giskin explores the role and significance of mythical experience in Borges's work.]

A reader of Borges is likely to notice that his work, especially his short stories, is not always easily accessible. This is due not to any deliberate desire for obscurity, but rather his persistent allusion to mythical themes such as the search for self and ultimate knowledge. A journey, metaphorical or actual, frequently ends in epiphany in which a character discovers his true place in the universe.1 The mystical...

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Martin S. Stabb (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “The Making of a Writer,” in Borges Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 1–36.

[In the following excerpt, Stabbs examines Borges's early poetry.]

Borges became famous as a writer through his prose rather than through his poetry. Today he is usually thought of first as the creator of fictional labyrinths, then as the writer of erudite short essays, often on arcane subjects, and only last as a poet. Yet he began as a poet and has worked more or less continuously in this genre. Most important, he reveals more of himself in his verse than in any other kind of writing. The capriciousness and learned frivolity of much of his prose are rarely found in his...

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Martin S. Stabb (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “A Late Harvest,” in Borges Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 69–100.

[In the following excerpt, Stabb offers a brief survey of Borges's later poetry.]

LATER POETRY

In 1964, Borges's publishers, the Buenos Aires firm of Emecé Editores, brought out a single volume Obra poética (Poetic works) that included, with some modifications, his three early collections and a group of mostly newer compositions under the subheading “El otro, el mismo” (“The other, himself”).1 This section of the volume also includes the poems of Dreamtigers, though they are not identified as such. In addition, the...

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Keith Polette (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: A review of The Preface and John 1:14, in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 151–53.

[In the following essay, Polette finds similarities in the conception of God held by Borges and that of seventeenth-century Puritan minister, Edward Taylor.]

The power of the imagination to unify opposites and thus reveal the interplay between the eternal and the temporal, or the Divine and the human, links Edward Taylor, a seventeenth-century Puritan colonial minister, to Jorge Luis Borges, a twentieth-century secular Argentine writer. Separated by time and language, Taylor and Borges become, in a sense, two human eyes in the face of God. The two...

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Joseph Tyler (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Medieval Germanic Elements in the Poetry of Jorge Luis Borges,” in Readerly/Writerly Texts, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1993, pp. 97–105.

[In the following essay, Tyler demonstrates Borges's interest in medieval Germanic literature, and points to elements of it in his poetry.]

Libros como el de Job, LA DIVINA COMEDIA, Macbeth (y, para mí, algunas de las sagas del Norte) prometen una larga inmortalidad …

Borges, “Sobre los clásicos.”1

… In the preface to Literaturas germánicas medievales (1978), Borges states that the aim of his book is “to...

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Alexander Coleman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Ghost of Whitman in Neruda and Borges,” in Walt Whitman of Mickle Street: A Centennial Collection, edited by Geoffrey M. Sill, The University of Tennessee Press, 1994, pp. 257–69.

[In the following essay, Coleman demonstrates the strong influence of Walt Whitman on the poetry of both Borges and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Coleman focuses on the contrasting effects of this influence on the two poets.]

In writing his lucid overview of the history of Walt Whitman's presence in Spanish America, Professor Fernando Alegría of Stanford University had to come to grips with a question that inevitably haunts Hispanists as they try convincingly to identify...

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Donald L. Shaw (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Manometre (1922–28) and Borge's First Publications in France,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 27–34.

[In the following essay, Shaw introduces two of Borges's earliest poems, including variants and a French translation of one, which were discovered in a little-known magazine published in Paris in the 1920s.]

In his essay “Pour la préhistoire ultraïste de Borges” (Cahiers L’Herne 161) Guillermo de Torre writes: “Dans ses premières lignes autobiographiques—celles qu’il rédigea pour une Exposición de la actual poesía argentina (1927)—Borges écrit: ‘Je suis porteño … Je suis né en 1900 … En 18...

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Johnny Wink (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “What to Make of an Even More Diminished Thing: A Borgesian Sonnet Considered in a Frosty Light,”in Publication of the Arkansas Philological Association,Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 77–85.

[In the following essay, Wink praises Borges as a writer of sonnets.]

Some years ago I heard an otherwise bright young man announce in the student union at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville a literary critical approach which promised to save time and which I have since come to think of as the arm's length theory of evaluative reading. He contended that he could hold a text before his eyes at arm's length and deem it worthy of reading or not based solely upon...

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Richard Sanger (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘Todos queriamos ser heroes de anecdotas triviales’: Words, Action and Anecdote in Borges' Poetry,” in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies,Vol. LXXIV, No. 1, January, 1997, pp. 73–93.

[In the following essay, Sanger considers the function of “self-enacting discourse” in Borges's poetry.]

In his speech on the topic of arms and letters in Chapters 37 and 38 of the first part of Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote, as a knight errant, naturally upholds the superiority of arms over letters, arguing that the soldier's goal of peace is nobler, and that his life entails greater sacrifices and requires physical, as well as mental, strength. However, when he ends his...

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Beret E. Strong (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Borges and Girondo: Who Led the Vanguardia?” in The Poetic Avant-Garde: The Groups of Borges, Auden, and Breton, Northwestern University Press, 1997, pp. 71–97.

[In the following excerpt, Strong contrasts the relationship of Borges and his fellow Argentine writer Oliviero Girondo to the Spanish modernist movement known as Ultraísmo.]

BORGES AND GIRONDO: WHO LED THE VANGUARDIA?

In the 1920s, the Argentine vanguardia valued Borges's lyric poems more highly than Girondo's prose poems. Aside from their mutual commitment to the use of metaphor and to a couple of new literary journals, the two poets had little in common. In important...

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Edward Hirsch (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Jorge Luis Borges,” in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 109–14.

[In the following excerpt, Hirsch discusses Borge’s love of reading and of languages, focusing on his conception of poetry as “a collaborative act between writer and the reader.”]

We tend to think of Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) exclusively in terms of fiction, as the author of luminous and mind-bending metaphysical parables that cross the boundaries between the short story and the essay. But Borges always identified himself first as a reader, then as a poet, finally as a prose writer. He found the borders between genres permeable and lived in the magic...

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Mark Couture (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Empty Words: Vanity in the Writings of Jorge Luis Borges,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1999, pp. 265–71.

[In the following essay, Couture discusses the centrality of “vanity” as a word and as a concept in Borges's writing.]

Twisting an old Spanish saying, Bryce Echenique wrote that Borges “más sabía por viejo y sabía más todavía por diablo” (7). Alastair Reid, speaking of conversations with Borges about translation, said that Borges's modesty could be deadly. These remarks allude to one of Borges's greatest charms, something that attracts us more than his audacious, sophisticated metaphysical speculations: his coy sense of...

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Norman Thomas diGiovani (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “One Mind at Work,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 5019, June 11, 1999, p. 14ff.

[In the following essay, diGiovani discusses the process of collaborating with Borges in the translation of his poetry.]

In November 1967, in Harvard Square, I walked into Schoenhof's Foreign Bookshop and asked for a copy of Jorge Luis Borges's collected poems. When the clerk brought me the book, he said, “You know Borges is speaking here next week.” That was the first link in an invisible chain of cause and effect that brought me together with Borges in a working association that lasted for nearly five years. It was also the first link in a network that was soon to...

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Jay Parini (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 268, No. 30, May 31, 1999, pp. 25–8.

[In the following review, Parini discusses the volume Selected Poems of Borges (1999), edited by Alexander Coleman.]

With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time. Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization. Although literary fashions come and go, he is always there, endlessly rereadable by those who admire him, awaiting rediscovery by new generations of readers.

One tends to think...

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