Jorge Luis Borges Biography

Jorge Luis Borges, the essayist, short story writer, poet, lecturer, librarian, professor and translator, was born in a suburb of Buenos Aires to an educated, middle-class family. Angel Flores, the first critic to use the term "magical realism" credits Borges as the beginning of the genre, with his Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy). 

Like his father, Borges' eyesight declined throughout his life, leaving him completely blind at the age of 55.

Facts and Trivia

  • 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. He also studied French and German.
  • 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.
  • When Borges was twenty-nine, he met Elsa Astete. She was twenty. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2726

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.

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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 later pieces, including “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” wear a similar mask.

In August, 1933, he accepted the editorship of Revista Multicolor de los Sábados, a Saturday supplement published by Critica, Argentina’s most popular newspaper. Borges contributed about thirty original pieces and a number of translations. Among the former was “Hombre de las orillas” (September 16, 1933; “Streetcorner Man,” 1970), a short story camouflaged as reporting and published under the pseudonym Francisco Bustos, indicating Borges’ reluctance to be associated with the work. Here, too, he presented a series of six fictionalized biographies of malefactors; these were later collected as Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy, 1972). In 1936, “El acercamiento a Almontásism” (“The Approach to al Mu’tasism,” 1970) appeared in a collection of essays, Historia de la eternidad; this short story was disguised as a book review. Frequently Borges subsequently assumed the role of a reader of extant works rather than the creator of new ones. While “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” was thus not Borges’ first short story, it did signal a willingness to admit to himself and others that he was turning his attention to another genre. His production of poems was already diminishing: Between 1929 and 1943 he published only six.

His life was changing in another way also. Until 1937, he had refused regular employment, living off the irregular income he earned by writing and allowances from his father. In that year, he took the post of first assistant at the Miguel Cané Library. Seemingly, such a job would have been ideal for the bookish Borges, but he despised his nonliterary colleagues (whose only interests were gambling and women), the pay was poor, and fifty people had been hired to do the work of fifteen. “La biblioteca de Babel” (1942; “The Library of Babel,” 1962) reflects the boredom, even horror, that Borges felt. Because there was little to do and he could not converse with his coworkers, he spent five or six hours daily reading and writing, producing a stream of translations and stories, among them the first Spanish version of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936) in 1938, an anthology of fantasic literature (edited with his close friend Adolfo Bioy Casares), and two volumes of fiction that shun the realism prevalent in Latin American literature of the period. Young authors such as Octavio Paz and Julio Cortázar were deeply influenced by this new approach that Borges was advocating in his essays and demonstrating in his books.

Borges’ politics were as atypical as his writing style in the 1940’s, for he supported democracy and the Allies when Argentina was ruled by a military regime friendly to the Nazis and Fascists. When Juan Domingo Perón came to power in 1946, Borges was “promoted” from librarian to inspector of chickens and rabbits. In choosing this post for Borges, the dictator was demonstrating his dim view of intellectuals. Borges resigned immediately, but he needed to replace the salary on which, limited as it was, he had come to depend. Despite an almost pathological fear of speaking in public, he began lecturing on British and American literature at various private schools in Argentina and Uruguay. At first he wrote out what he wanted to say, then sat silently while another read the lecture; but soon he overcame his phobia and delivered his learned talks himself. He also continued to write, publishing one of his best collections of short stories, El Aleph (1949, 1952; translated in The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-1969, 1970). If Perón had meant by his appointment that Borges was as timid as a chicken or a rabbit, he mistook his man, for, as president of the Argentine Society of Writers, he repeatedly spoke out against the regime.

With the fall of Perón, Borges’ fortunes improved. In 1955, he was named director of the Argentine National Library, where he initiated a series of lectures and revived its defunct journal, La Biblioteca. The following year, he received the first of what would prove to be a number of honorary doctorates when the University of Cuyo (Argentina) presented him with the degree on April 29, 1956. In 1956, he also received the National Prize for Literature and was appointed professor of English and American literature at the University of Buenos Aires.

Borges’ sight had been failing for a long time: He had had the first of eight eye operations in 1927. Immediately after he became head of the Argentine National Library, he lost his vision. In “Poema de los dones” (1960; “Poem About Gifts,” 1964), he comments on the irony of gaining so many books just when he could no longer read them. While his blindness did not prevent him from writing, it did return him to poetry, and, because he found formal verse to be easier to compose mentally than free verse, he became especially fond of the sonnet. He also abandoned fiction for a time, writing no short stories between 1953 and 1970.

As early as 1928, Borges had won a literary award for El idioma de los argentinos (1928; the language of the Argentines), and by the 1940’s many of his countrymen recognized him as Argentina’s leading writer. International appreciation came slowly, though. Not until 1961, when he shared the first Fomentor Prize with Samuel Beckett, did he become known widely in Europe and North America. Ficciones, 1935-1944 (1944; English translation, 1962) appeared simultaneously in six languages, and he made the first of several visits to the United States as a visiting professor and guest lecturer. Further honors came to him, among them the Jerusalem Prize (1971), the Gold Medal from the Académie Française (1979), the Miguel de Cervantes Award (Spain, 1980), and the Balzan Prize (Italy, 1980).

Borges, who had opposed military dictatorships throughout his life, in his last years came to support the junta ruling Argentina. When it collapsed after the Falklands war with Great Britain, Borges left his native land for Geneva, where he died of cancer on June 14, 1986. He was buried at Plainpalais, Switzerland, close to John Calvin.

Summary

Jorge Luis Borges’ labyrinthine body of work traces the image of his mind—learned, profound, philosophical, questioning, and often laughing. As recondite as he could be, he nevertheless did much to shape contemporary literature. Indeed, Carlos Fuentes has said that without Borges modern Latin American literature could not exist, for he made possible its flight from nineteenth century realism. In the United States, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, John Gardner, and John Barth are among his disciples, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) reveals a Borgesian influence. Borges’ view that each author alters the reading not only of works that come after him but also of his predecessors’ writings has affected Harold Bloom’s literary criticism.

Borges was especially fond of the detective story and wrote a number of orthodox works in this genre. In a larger sense, everything he wrote seeks to resolve a mystery, the mystery of existence. Language and things are metaphors, vehicles for that unknown tenor, reality, that Borges continually sought. In his quest, he commented upon the library of Babel that is the world, at the same time that he was creating an ordered, alternate universe of literature more enduring than its vexed double.

Bibliography

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Autobiographical Essay.” In The Aleph and Other Stories. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970. A modest but essentially accurate chronological account, particularly useful for understanding the early influences on the writer and for his assessment of his various works.

Cheselka, Paul. The Poetry and Poetics of Jorge Luis Borges. New York: P. Lang, 1987. Concentrating on the poetry that Borges wrote before 1964, Cheselka undertakes a chronological survey of the verse, examining its themes and the way that Borges presents them.

Christ, Ronald J. The Narrow Act: Borges’ Art of Illusion. New York: New York University Press, 1969. Among the first book-length studies of Borges in English and one of the best. Looks at Borges’ use of British and American authors to understand how and why he chooses these sources.

Cortinez, Carlos, ed. Borges, the Poet. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986. Based on a symposium at Dickinson College in April, 1983. Begins with three conversations with Borges—on Emily Dickinson, Hispanic literature, and North American writing—followed by twenty-four essays that explore such matters as oriental influences on Borges’ poetry, Borges’ use of imagery, and the relationship between the poetry and various nineteenth and twentieth century works.

Rodríguez Monegal, Emir. Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978. A detailed account of the life and works by a close friend and admirer. Despite the wealth of detail, the book reads well and is indispensable for an understanding of the writer.

Stabb, Martin S. Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Twayne, 1970. A good general introduction to the works, with limited attention to the life. Devotes a chapter each to the poetry, essays, and short stories, and another to Borges’ critical reception. The annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources, though dated, is useful.

Sturrock, John. Paper Tigers: The Ideal Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977. Concentrates on the stories in Ficciones, 1935-1944 and El Aleph because they are the most enigmatic and hence most fascinating of Borges’ prose fiction. Sturrock maintains that these works are reflexive critiques of how stories should be told, and he sets the fiction in its cultural and philosophical context and offers close readings of themes, images, and techniques.

Updike, John. “Books: The Author as Librarian.” New Yorker 41 (October 30, 1965): 223-246. A key article in the development of Borges’ reputation in the United States and an incisive analysis of his work. Discusses Borges’ economy of language, imagery, and use of the imagination. Updike suggests that Borges’ approach to literature may provide an escape from the dead end that the novel seemed to have reached. The essay includes a careful analysis of “The Waiting” and “The Library of Babel.” Available in book form in Updike’s collection Picked-Up Pieces (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976).

Williamson, Edwin. Borges: A Life. New York: Viking, 2004. Drawing on interviews and extensive research, the most comprehensive and well-reviewed Borges biography.

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Critical Essays