(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although at first glance, Edwin Williamson's Borges: A Life seems an exhaustively comprehensive biography of Argentina's most famous writer, the reader will find that in the end, the subject remains enigmatic. This is true despite the fact that, as Williamson attempts to show and Jorge Luis Borges himself insisted, much of Borges's writing is autobiographical. Williamson, a professor of Spanish literature at Oxford University, takes great pains to psychoanalyze Borges, particularly through his writing, and succeeds in part because Borges's writing was actually more exciting than his life. Williamson read almost everything that Borges wrote and interviewed those who knew him well, such as fellow writers Adolfo Bioy Casares and Estela Canto, Borges's sister Norah, and most notably, Borges's widow and literary executor, María Kodama. The result is a massive and dense work that is not for the faint of heart.

Williamson makes the case that Borges was influenced greatly, even oppressed, by his parents—Jorge Guillermo Borges and Leonor Acevedo—to the point of psychologically damaging him. His father once tried to get his timid, bookish son to stand up to bullies by handing him a dagger. Later he took him to his first brothel, an apparently traumatic experience that would haunt Borges the rest of his life. Borges felt his father's disappointment in him keenly: He never managed to graduate from high school; he did not get his first job until age thirty-eight; and his father died before Borges would achieve any significant literary recognition. Borges would also go blind by late middle age, just as his father had.

Borges lived with his mother most of his life—until her death at age ninety-nine, when he was seventy-five—and she discouraged him from marrying any of the several women he loved. Leonor worshiped the family's illustrious Argentine ancestors, many of whom had served in the military and to whom Williamson devotes the first chapter of this biography. Williamson maintains that Borges would always suffer an inner conflict centered on his parents, symbolized by the sword and the dagger—the sword represented the high-born Spanish criollo history of his mother, and the dagger represented his father and the romantic street fighting of the gaucho. Unfortunately, Williamson reiterates this theme so many times that it becomes a bit tedious. Curiously, Borges's relationship with his only sister, Norah, from whom he was later estranged, is never explored, although Williamson apparently interviewed her.

Borges was born August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires and spent his adolescence in Geneva and Spain with his family. He would return to Buenos Aires in 1924, however, and not venture abroad again until 1961. Williamson painstakingly and methodically maps out Borges's life almost year by year. Borges became heavily involved in the Argentine literary avant-garde and concomitantly became involved in Argentine politics, a subject in which Williamson particularly shines. Williamson notes that when Borges was born Argentina was one of the most prosperous countries in the world, but it plunged to Third World status during Borges's lifetime because of a series of tumultuous military dictatorships.

Borges was vehemently opposed to Juan Perón's totalitarian regime (1946-1955). As he grew older, he became more disillusioned with the course Argentina was taking and got himself in trouble when he supported the military juntas in the 1970's. Williamson makes the case that Borges was never awarded a Nobel Prize because of his reactionary political views, although he never incorporated those views into his writing. In the end, Borges appeared to snub his homeland when he chose to return to Geneva to live out his last days.

Williamson also delves deeply into Borges's ill-fated romantic life. The great love of his life, Norah Lange, his cousin and a fellow writer, became involved with Borges's literary rival Oliverio Girondo when Borges was in his twenties. Her stormy on-again-off-again relationship with Girondo would last until 1943, when the two finally married and effectively cut off all hope that Borges had of eventually winning her. According to Williamson, this failed love affair would influence much of Borges's work. It was midway through this relationship that he switched from writing poetry to short stories, around 1930. Although he had a number of other serious love affairs, most notably with yet another writer, Estela Canto, all were strongly discouraged by his mother, who felt the women were all beneath their family's social class. It is via Borges's...

(The entire section is 1871 words.)