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.
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.
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...
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