Jorge Luis Borges 1899–1986
(Also wrote under pseudonym F. Bustos, and, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under the joint pseudonyms H. Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch) Argentinean short story writer, poet, essayist, translator, critic, biographer, and screenwriter.
The following entry provides an overview of Borges's career. For further information on his life and work, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 19, 44, and 48.
Considered among the foremost literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges is best known for his short stories which blend fantasy, realism, and his extensive knowledge of world literature, metaphysics, and mysticism. Dealing with such themes as time, memory, and the malleability of both reality and literary form, Borges combined various styles of fiction and nonfiction to create a hybrid genre that defies easy classification. Although some critics have faulted his refusal to address social and political issues in his work, Borges maintained that he was "neither a thinker nor a moralist, but simply a man of letters who turns his own perplexities and that respected system of perplexities we call philosophy into the forms of literature."
Borges was born in Buenos Aires to parents of old, illustrious Argentinean families. His father, a lawyer, educator, translator, and writer, encouraged his children in their intellectual pursuits with his extensive library and broad range of interests. As a child, Borges learned Spanish and English simultaneously, and mastered French, Latin, and German during college. A family tour of Europe in 1914 was interrupted by travel restrictions necessitated by World War I, thus affording Borges time to attend the Collège Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, from which he earned his degree in 1918. The following year he traveled in Spain where he associated with members of the literary avant-garde, particularly the Ultraists, and published his first poems, essays, and reviews. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921 and, with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) and Luna de enfrente (1925), was recognized as one of Argentina's leading literary figures. Although primarily a poet and essayist at first, Borges began writing short stories in the 1930s, and his first collections—Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy) and most importantly Ficciones, 1935–1944 (1944; Ficciones)—confirmed him as the foremost writer in Argentina. Despite a general dislike of politics and social commentary, Borges became an outspoken critic of Juan Perón during the Argentinean dictator's reign from 1946 to 1955; in a move to humiliate the noted writer, Perón appointed him national poultry inspector. After the return of civilian rule, however, Borges was made director of the National Library of Argentina and became a professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In the early 1960s the English translation of Ficciones, 1935–1944 brought him international recognition and, along with many offers to teach and lecture around the world, the 1961 Prix Formentor, the International Publishers Prize, which he shared with Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett. The majority of his time from this point on was spent traveling, lecturing, and dictating new works: he had grown almost completely blind and had to rely on a secretary to read and write for him. By his own account, Borges's life was devoted almost solely to literature. As he once explained: "Few things have happened to me, and I have read a great many. Or rather, few things have happened to me more worth remembering than Schopenhauer's thought or the music of England's words."
Borges produced major works in three genres—poetry, essays, and short fiction. His first major books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires and Luna de enfrente, are avant-garde collections influenced by the Ultraist movement; the poems combine urban settings and themes, metaphysical speculations, and a pronounced, often surreal, use of symbolism. His later poetry tends to be more conservative in style. The poems collected in El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers) and Antologia personal (1961; A Personal Anthology), for example, employ rhyme and meter, ruminate on personal themes, and make reference to his own as well as other works of literature. Borges's works of fiction and nonfiction, as critics note, are often difficult to distinguish from one another. It is frequently observed that many of Borges's short stories are written in essay form; his essays often treat subject matter other authors deal with in fiction; and the very short works he called "parables" seem to defy classification, sharing the qualities of poetry, essays, and short stories. Borges's essay collections—including Inquisiciones (1925), Discusión (1932), and Otras inquisiciones, 1937–1952 (1952; Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952)—address a wide variety of issues and represent many diverse styles. For example, Discusión collects film reviews, articles on metaphysical and aesthetic topics, and includes the essay "Narrative Art and Magic," in which Borges asserts the capacity of fantasy literature to address realistic concerns. Borges's first collection of short stories, A Universal History of Infamy, purports to be an encyclopedia of world criminals, containing brief, seemingly factual accounts of such real and mythical characters as "The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morell," "The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan" (Billy the Kid), and "The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv." Ficciones contains many of Borges's most famous works of fiction. In "The Garden of Forking Paths" Borges combines elements of nonfiction writing—for example footnotes, references to scholarly works, and a detached, objective tone of voice—with metaphysical concepts and the structure of a detective story to show how two seemingly unrelated events—crimes committed at different points in history—intersect and resolve each other in a single moment. The enlarged English edition of El Aleph (1949), entitled The Aleph, and Other Stories, 1933–1969 (1970), consists of stories and essays from various periods in Borges's career. In addition to realistic as well as metaphysical stories, the book also includes his informative "Autobiographical Essay."
Although critics have praised the formal precision and contemplative tone of Borges's best poetry, and have noted the stylistic as well as thematic originality of his essays, it is for his short fiction that Borges is recognized as one of the most influential and innovative authors of the twentieth century. His experiments with the intermingling of fantasy and realistic detail presaged the "magical realist" style of fiction practiced by such major Latin American authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar; the latter referred to Borges as "the leading figure of our fantastic literature." His insights into the nature of literature, the creative process, and the imagination, exemplified by such works as the frequently anthologized "The Circular Ruins," have established him as one of modern literature's most philosophically accomplished authors. Some critics have faulted Borges's writings for being esoteric, calling them little more than intellectually precious games. By exploring intellectual and philological issues, however, most commentators believe that Borges also addressed humankind's deepest concerns about the nature of existence. As critic Carter Wheelock commented: Borges "plays only one instrument—the intellectual, the epistemological—but the strumming of his cerebral guitar sets into vibration all the strings of emotion, intuition, and esthetic longing that are common to sentient humanity."