Jorge Luis Borges 1899-1986
(Also wrote under the pseudonym F. Bustos, and, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under the joint pseudonyms H[onorio]. Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch.) Argentine poet, short-story writer, essayist, critic, translator, biographer, and screenwriter.
For more information on the work of Borges, see PC, Vol. 22.
During his lifetime, Borges was highly regarded as a writer 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 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 influenced not only how Latin American and non-Latin American writers write, but also the way readers read. Associated with the avant-garde Spanish Ultraístas in the 1920s, Borges rejected the Spanish poetry of the nineteenth century, and wrote a baroque verse free of rhyme, surrealistic, even brutal, in imagery and metaphor, dedicated to the incorporation of Argentinean 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, abandoning local color, nationalism, and the desire to shock. Thereafter, until his death, he worked with traditional devices: rhyme, meter, elucidation, and time-honored metaphors in traditional forms such as the sonnet and haiku. He strove for simplicity of expression through the use of common language and colloquial word order, and projected a tone of tranquil irony, and a wisdom concerned with, but tempered by, an indifference to, time, desire, and mortality.
Borges was born August 24, 1899, into an old, Argentinean 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. He possessed an extensive library, which was the boy's delight. Borges, whose paternal grandmother was English, was raised bilingual and read English before Spanish. His first encounter with Cervantes, for example, 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 and German, as well as the European philosophers. he was especially taken with Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley, whose dark pessimist and anti-materialist world view was reflected in Borges's literary work. After receiving his degree in 1918, Borges traveled to Spain where he joined with the avant-garde Ultraístas, who combined elements of Dadaism, Imagism, and German Expressionism in their reviews, essays, and highly metaphorical 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 Martín (1929), was recognized as a leading literary figure in Argentina. During these years, too, Borges helped establish several literary journals, and published essays on metaphysics and language. In 1938, the same year his father died, Borges himself nearly died from blood poisoning, after the wound he received from knocking his head against the casement of an open window while running up a flight of steps was poorly treated. 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. In the period following this publication, Borges wrote many of the works now considered to be among his masterpieces. 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 a condition he inherited from his father, 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, with Samuel Beckett, of the Prix Formentor, the prestigious International Publishers Prize. Borges did not oppose the Argentinean military coup or the terrorism of the Videla junta in the seventies until 1980, when, apologetically, 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. It was for these failings, rather than for any failure as an artist, many believe, that Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize. The catalog of his awards and honors, nevertheless, is long and distinguished. He spent his last years as 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's literary output spanned seven decades, from the 1920s–1980s, during which he published more than fifty volumes of short stories, poetry, and essays. In his first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), published in 1923, Borges, an early adherent to the Ultraísta literary movement, took his native city as his subject matter. Subsequent collections of poetry published in the 1920s include Luna de enfrente (1925; Moon Across the Way), and Cuaderno San Martín (1929; San Martín Copybook). Turning to the works of short fiction that eventually won him international praise, Borges virtually ceased to publish poetry throughout most of the 1930s and 40s. His best-known short-story collections include El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (1941; The Garden of Forking Paths), Ficciones (1944), and El Aleph (1949), although the first English language translations of his work did not appear until 1962, with two collections, titled Labyrinths and Ficciones. Borges began publishing poetry again in the 1950s, when, as Edward Hirsch describes it: “The fabulist returned to poetry … with a more direct and straightforward style, a beguiling and deceptive simplicity.” Jay Parini asserts that, “his finest poems appeared between 1955 and 1965,” while Martin S. Stabbs observes, “By the mid-1960s Borges seems to have regained considerable momentum as a poet. Both thematically and technically his work displays a richness not seen since the 1920s.” In these later poems, “a notion that recurs almost obsessively in his poetry as well as in his prose” is “the idea of the world as a complex enigma, expressed at times in the form of a labyrinth, or as the dream-made-real of a capricious creator.” Borges's poetry volumes of the 1960s include El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers), Obra poética (1964), and El otro, el mismo (1969; The Other, the Same), among others. This period of prolific poetic output continued into the 1970s, with the collections, The Gold of Tigers (1972), In Praise of Darkness (1974), and Historia de la noche (1977), among others. Borges's second-to-last volume of poetry, La cifra, was published in 1981. His last collection, Los conjurados (1985; The Conspirators), includes a combination of short prose pieces and poetry, often blurring the distinction between the two. Of this volume Stabbs states, “The very fact that Borges, then eighty-five, was still exploring that fascinating no-man's-land between prose and poetry, was still writing fine sonnets, and was continuing to rework the rich metal of earlier texts suggests that even though death was close, he remained a poet of substantial talent and considerable vigor.” A volume of new translations, Selected Poems: Jorge Luis Borges, was released in 1999.
Borges was not well known outside of literary circles in Buenos Aires until 1961, when he was awarded the prestigious Formentor Prize, earning him international recognition and leading to his current status as one of the foremost short fiction writers of the twentieth century. Borges met members of the Ultraísta literary movement while in Spain in 1919, and, as a young writer in the 1920s, is sometimes credited with having introduced ulráism to Argentina. Jay Parini, writing in 1999, notes that, “With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time,” adding, “Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization.” Marcelo Abadi refers to Borges as, “one of the most prominent writers in any tongue,” observing, “in his poems, stories and essays our century can detect a voice that stirs the dormant wonder which, according to the Greeks, lies at the source of the love of knowledge and wisdom.” Edward Hirsch opines that Borges, “was a rapturous writer, a literary alchemist who emerged as an explorer of labyrinths, an adventurer in the fantastic, a poet of mysterious intimacies who probed the infinite postponements and cycles of time, the shimmering mirrors of fiction and reality, the symbols of unreality, the illusions of identity, the disintegration of the self into the universe, into the realm of the Archetypes and the Splendors.” However, critics frequently note that, to this day, Borges's accomplishments as a poet are largely overshadowed by his reputation as a master of short fiction. Beret E. Strong describes “the international literary community's portrait of ‘Borges’” as “that of a great short story writer and mediocre poet of conservative political and traditional literary values,” adding that critics have agreed with Borges's own assessment of his early poetry and essays “as less valuable than the later fiction,” and have, therefore, opted “not to write about them much.” Mark Couture, writing in 1999, states the case more strongly: “Borges, like Cervantes, has the reputation in some circles of being a ‘bad’ poet,” but adds, “I don't think this label is quite fair.” Couture points out that Borges's poems “have a quiet, metaphysical intensity and a thematic complexity that can be overlooked in superficial readings.” Parini, observing that, while “One tends to think of Borges as the writer of a dozen or so classic stories … Yet Borges was a well-known poet long before he tried his hand at fiction.” Stabbs, acknowledging that, “Today he is usually thought of first as the creator of fictional labyrinths, then as the writer of erudite essays … and only last as a poet,” defends Borges's poetry in adding: “… he began as a poet and has worked more or less continuously in this genre. Most important, he reveals more of himself in his verse than in any other kind of writing.”