Jorge Luis Borges 1899–-1986
(Also wrote under the pseudonym F. Bustos, and with Adolfo Bioy Casares under the joint pseudonyms Honorio Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch) Argentinian short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, translator, biographer, and screenwriter. For additional criticism on Borges's short fiction, see SSC, Volume 4.
During his lifetime, Borges was highly regarded as a writer of 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 not only influenced the way writers write but also the way readers read. Using science fiction and fantasy literature, western adventures, detective stories, self-reflective raconteurs as narrators, philosophical perplexities, and phenomenological uncertainty, Borges created a body of fiction concerned with ideas, archetypes, environments, and paradoxes rather than with character, psychology, or interpersonal and social interactions.
Borges was born into an old, Argentinian 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. Borges, whose paternal grandmother was English, was raised to be bilingual and learned to read English before Spanish. When Borges was seven, his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince appeared in an Uruguayan newspaper. A visit to Switzerland in 1914 became an extended stay when the outbreak of the World War I made it impossible for the family to return to Argentina. Borges enrolled in the College de Geneve, and studied Latin, French, and German. He also studied European philosophers, particularly Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley, whose dark pessimist and anti-materialist influences can be perceived in the worldview of his literary work. After earning his degree in 1918, Borges traveled to Spain. There he joined with the avant-garde Ultraistas, who combined elements of Dadaism, Imagism, and German Expressionism, and published reviews, essays, and poetry. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921 and was recognized as a leading literary figure in Argentina with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de enfrente (1925), and Cuaderno San Martin (1929) During these years, Borges also helped establish several literary journals, and published essays on metaphysics and language, which were collected in Inquisiciones (1925) and El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926). In 1938, the same year his father died, Borges developed a form of blood poisoning called septicemia. Fearful that his ability to write might have been impaired by his illness, Borges began writing 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.
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 Peron in Argentina. After Peron's overthrow in 1955, Borges was named as director of the National Library of Argentina, where he worked as an assistant before Peron removed him in 1946 for opposing his regime. In 1957 he was appointed professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961, he was a corecipient—along with Samuel Beckett—of the Prix Formentor, the prestigious International Publishers Prize, which gave him international fame. Borges did not oppose the Argentinian military coup or the terrorism of the Videla junta in the seventies until 1980, when, apologizing, 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. Many believe that these incidents prevented Borges from winning the Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, the list of his awards and honors is long and distinguished. Borges spent his last years a literary celebrity, traveling and lecturing. Even though he was blind in his later years, Borges continued to write by dictation to his mother and to his student and companion, Maria Kodama, whom he married shortly before his death.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Borges's Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy) features stories that capture local color and the lowdown argot of gangsters. Written with the erudition of an intellectual posing as a roughneck, they show posturing toughs engaged in macho assertion through gratuitous and egotistical violence. In his second collection, Ficciones (1944; Fictions), Borges invented a form for the short story that combines elements of detective fiction, metaphysical fantasy, philosophical discourse, and scholarly monographs complete with footnotes, references, and commentary. Thematically the stories are about the conflict between the integrity of the “I” and the overwhelming power of the other—whether the other is a person, a force, a book, a dream, a dagger, or a labyrinth. In the late 1950s, Borges began to write simplified short stories, parables, and fables of a less baroque structure and diction than the masterpieces of his middle period. The stories, however, are paradoxical and philosophically complex mythic narratives. In the afterward to his collection El libro de arena (1975;The Book of Sand,), Borges called these stories “dreams,” which he hoped would “continue to ramify within the hospitable imaginations” of his readers.
A highly literate and intellectual author, Borges's works are enjoyed both by general readers and intellectuals. Although a celebrated author in Argentina and Latin America since the 1920s, Borges's first story in English appeared in 1948 in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It was not until 1962, after he had already produced a significant body of literature that Borges became known to the English-speaking reader when two English translations of his short stories were published. Other stories, such as “The Circular Ruins,” “The Babylonian Lottery,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Aleph” were printed in Encounter. Borges was immediately acclaimed by other writers and by readers as a master, and his influence on other writers has been profound. During the last years of his life, Borges was showered with honors, awards, and lectureships. Critical commentary on Borges's work has been as various and as copious as the work itself. It extends from popular reportage on his lifestyle and work habits to literary, philosophical, and psychological investigations of his works.