Jorge Luis Borges 1899–1986
(Also wrote with Adolfo Bioy Casares under joint pseudonyms of B. Lynch Davis, H[onorio] Bustos Domecq, and B. Suarez Lynch) Argentine short story writer, essayist, poet, translator, critic, biographer, travel writer, novelist, and scriptwriter.
Borges is best known for his erudite short stories, which blend fantasy and realism to address complex philosophical problems. Involving such thematic motifs as time, infinity, identity, and memory, Borges's stories combine elements of fiction and personal essay in hybrid forms that resist classification. Earlier in his career Borges wrote poetry and criticism almost exclusively. At this time he associated with the Ultraístas, an avant-garde literary group whose works fuse elements of Dadaism, Imagism, and German Expressionism. However, he later broke with the Ultraístas in favor of a more traditional mode of versification. Summarizing contemporary critical thought concerning Borges's poetry, Keith Botsford deemed the Argentine's later poems "among the most skillful and immaculate in Spanish. Strict in their rules and sober in their imagery, gentle in tone, recollected in tranquillity, they are elegiac, formal, symmetrical."
Borges was born in Buenos Aires, where he lived for most of his childhood. His father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was a respected lawyer, author, and educator. From an early age, Borges absorbed a wide range of world literature and learned to read English before Spanish due to the influence of his English grandmother. When the Borges family became stranded in Switzerland in 1914 by the advent of World War I, Borges enrolled at the Collège de Genève and received his degree in 1918. In the following year, he traveled to Spain, where he published critical reviews, essays, and poetry, and associated with the avant-garde Ultraístas, whose literary works appeared in the journal Ultra. Rejecting the traditional rhymed verse and baroque ornamentalism common to nineteenth-century Spanish poetry, the Ultraístas championed metaphor as a predominant mode of expression and strove in their poetry to transcend boundaries of time and space. Their influence permeates much of Borges's early work, particularly Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), his first poetry collection. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, and helped launch several noted Argentine publications, including the literary magazine Prisma and the journal Proa. In the 1920s
Borges continued to focus his attention on poetry, publishing two more volumes of verse, Luna de enfrente (1925) and Cuaderno San Martín (1929). During this time, Borges, an acclaimed editor and essayist, produced his highly-regarded volumes of early essays, lnquisiciones (1925) and El idioma de los argentines (1928).
The following decades witnessed Borges's increasing interest in prose fiction, though he continued to write poetry throughout his life. An itinerant lecturer and teacher in the 1940s, Borges published his short story collection Ficciones in 1944; it is generally regarded as his most significant work. In 1955, he was named director of the prestigious National Library of Argentina and later awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura, the country's highest literary honor. Yet Borges remained largely unknown outside Latin America. In 1961, he and Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett shared the Prix Formentor, an international prize recognizing authors whose work will "have a lasting influence on the development of modern literature"; this achievement helped establish his reputation throughout the world. Beginning in the late 1950s, Borges's eyesight had started to fail. Although his increasing blindness slowed his literary output, he continued to publish volumes of stories, poetry, and essays. In 1985, Borges was diagnosed with liver cancer. He left Buenos Aires for Geneva, Switzerland, where he married his companion and former student, Maria Kodama. Three weeks later, at age eighty-seven, he died.
Although Borges is best known for his short stories, he wrote a significant amount of poetry, which has gained increasing critical attention. In his first collection, Fervor de Buenos Aires, he utilized Ultraíst concepts to portray colorful individuals and events in Buenos Aires. His next volume of poetry, Luna de enfrente, contains confessional and love poetry. Both collections are thought to anticipate Borges's later concerns with such topics as time, memory, and the architectural features of Buenos Aires. Cuaderno San Martin consists chiefly of tributes to deceased poets, among them Francisco López Merino, Borges's friend and associate, who committed suicide.
In his later poetry, Borges adopted a neoclassic approach, availing himself of the poetic elements of rhyme and meter discarded by the avant-garde poets. Moreover, he applied some of the principles used in his prose, such as intertexual reference and the articulation of the whole. El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers), a collection of brief poems, quotations, and parables, uses the tiger as an ambivalent symbol of unnatural evil and natural change. In the title poem of Elogio de la sombra (1969; In Praise of Darkness) Borges proposed the paradoxical notion that old age and blindness may signify deep happiness because of the imminence of death. Dualities involving physical blindness and spiritual sight also pervade El oro de los tigres (1972; The Gold of Tigers.)
A prolific writer in many and mixed genres, Borges is recognized as one of the most influential and innovative Latin American authors of the twentieth century. His experiments with the intermingling of fantasy and realistic detail presaged the realist style of writing practiced by such major Latin American authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortázar; the latter writer referred to Borges as "the leading figure of our fantastic literature." His insights into the nature of learning, literature, and the fictive process have established him as one of modern literature's most philosophically accomplished authors. Although Borges has largely been recognized for the stylistic originality of his essays and the metaphysical experimentation of his short fiction, critics have also frequently praised his poetic works for their formal precision and mellifluous tone.