Jorge Luis Borges 1899–-1986
(Also wrote under the pseudonym F. Bustos; with Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote under the joint pseudonyms. Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch) Argentinian short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, translator, biographer, and screenwriter. See also Jorge Luis Borges Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 13, 32, 83.
During his lifetime, Borges was highly regarded as the author 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 usually are situated in the nebulous confines of allegorical locations, whether identified as bizarre dimensions of the universe, Arabian cities, English gardens, the Argentine pampas, 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 not only has influenced the way Latin American and non-Latin American writers write, but also the way readers read.
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, who possessed an extensive library, which was the boy's delight. Borges, whose paternal grandmother was English, was raised bilingual and read English before Spanish. For example, his first encounter with Cervantes 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, German, and the European philosophers, especially Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley, whose dark pessimistic and antimaterialist influences can be perceived in the worldview of his literary work. After receiving his degree in 1918, and with the termination of the war, 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, with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de enfrente (1925), and Cuaderno San Martin (1929) was recognized as a leading literary figure in Argentina. During these years, Borges helped establish several literary journals, and published essays on metaphysics and language, which were collected in Inquisiciones (1925) and El tamano de mi esperanza (1927). In 1938, the same year his father died, Borges developed a form of blood poisoning after a wound he received was poorly tended. 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. There followed a period of composition in which the stories regarded as masterpieces were written. 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 an inherited condition, 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, 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 Ugarle Pinochet coup and 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 never was awarded the Nobel Prize. The catalog of his awards and honors, nevertheless, is long and distinguished. He spent his last years 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.
Borges produced major works in three genres—poetry, essays, and short fiction. He also translated works by (among others) Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Carlyle. His first major books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires and Luna de enfrente, are avant-garde collections influenced by the Ultraist movement. The young Borges wrote a baroque verse free of rhyme, surrealistic, even brutal, in imagery and metaphor, dedicated to the incorporation of Argentinian 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, revised it and worked, until his death, with traditional devices: rhyme, meter, elucidation, and time-honored metaphors. He utilized traditional forms such as the sonnet and haiku, aiming at simplicity of expression through the use of common language and colloquial word order. His work projects a tone of tranquil irony, and a wisdom concerned with, but tempered by an indifference to, time, desire, and mortality. Borges's works of fiction and nonfiction, critics have noted, are often difficult to distinguish from one another. Many of the short stories are written in essay form; the essays often treat subject matter that might be dealt with in fiction. The very short pieces, the “parables,” share the qualities of poetry, essay, and short story. Borges's essay collections—including Inquisiciones, Discusión (1932), andOtras Inquisiciones, 1937-1952 [1952; Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952] address a wide variety of issues, and represent a diversity of styles. Discusión, for example, contains film reviews, essays on metaphysical and aesthetic topics, and includes “Narrative Art and Magic,” in which Borges asserts the capacity of fantasy literature to address realistic concerns. As well as his philosophical suppleness, his essays also reveal the depth of his scholarship, as in a monograph on ancient Germanic and Anglo-Saxon literatures he wrote in 1951 in collaboration with Delia Ingenieros. His first collection of short stories, Historia Universal de la infamia, [1935; A Universal History of Infamy] purports to be an encyclopedia of world criminals, containing brief, seemingly factual accounts of real and mythical figures. The stories themselves are exercises in 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 collection, Ficciones, 1935–1944, published in 1944, Borges invented a form for the short story which combines elements of detective fiction, metaphysical fantasy, philosophical discourse, and the scholarly monograph 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, or a labyrinth. In the late 1950s, partially because he felt he had exhausted the genre and partially because his failing eyesight made written composition difficult and dictation necessary, Borges began to write simplified short stories, parables, and fables less baroque in structure and diction than the masterpieces of his middle period. They are, nonetheless, paradoxical, philosophically complex, mythic narratives. New translations of Borges’s works — Selected Non-Fiction, Selected Poems, and Collected Fictions — were published in 1999 on the occasion of the centenary of his birth.
Borges stands as one of the major writers of the twentieth century, acclaimed for his fiction, his poetry, and his essays. His works have been translated into numerous languages. Among the first contemporary LatinAmerican authors to achieve international recognition, Borges is landeel for his stylistic and philosophical innovations, which have redefined the boundaries of fiction and of the essay. Citing his imaginative infusion of fantasy into South America's essentially realistic literary tradition, critics see Borges's influence in the work of Julio Cortázar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Mempo Giardinelli, among others, but his influence extends beyond Latin America, from Donald Barthelme to Umberto Eco to the Morrocan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun. He has contributed not only to the way literature is written, but also to the way it is read, especially because of his story “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” which introduces the idea that the mind-set of the reader the significance of the text. Even the sternest critics who reproach his works for being intellectual games do not quibble at their quality, and most critics see Borges's works as employing aesthetic and intellectual devices to create authentic illuminations of a dark and dubious reality as it is discerned by a befuddled humanity.