For someone who led such an uneventful life, Jorge Luis Borges seems to have attracted an awful lot of biographers. On our shelves at home we already have Monegal’s Literary Biography and Woodall’s The Man in the Mirror of the Book, now we add Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life (Viking 2004).
The facts of Borges’s life can be told fairly quickly. He was born in 1899 of Spanish and English descent in a family that had been intimately connected with Argentina’s struggles for freedom. In 1914 the family moved to Geneva so that Borges’s father could have treatment for the same sort of eye disease that would later blind Borges. They were trapped in Switzerland for the duration of the First World War. After the war they moved to Spain where Borges got involved with ultraismo, the Spanish version of the avant garde movement in poetry then sweeping across Europe. In the mid-20s the family returned to Buenos Aires, and Borges imported ultraismo to Argentina, making himself in the process one of the leading figures in the Argentina literary world. He worked mostly with and for a series of small magazines, such as Proa and Sur and eventually started to produce the occasional book of poetry. At some point during the late-1930s he started to write the short stories for which he is mostly famous. Practically all his best-known stories were written during a period of little more than 10 years. After the Second World War he became so passionately opposed to Peronism that he found himself for a while supporting the military dictatorships that ruled Argentina for much of this period. In the 1950s his work started to be published abroad, the first notable English translations coming in the early 1960s. This gave him an international reputation and he spent much of the remainder of his life travelling the world delivering lectures and receiving academic honours. He is rumoured to have been denied the Nobel prize because of his support for the military junta in Argentina and the Pinochet regime in Chile. By this time, of course, he was completely blind. He lived with his mother until her death in the 1970s. In his own 70s he had a brief and apparently unhappy marriage to an old friend, then took up with a woman of Spanish and Japanese extraction called Maria Kodama who was several decades his junior, and they married just months before his death in Geneva in 1986.
It is hardly the most crowded life in literary history: a blind man frequently out of step with the world around him who wrote erudite little stories. But along comes Williamson to join the ever growing crowd who have turned that unpromising material into a nice fat book.
In many ways, Williamson’s is the best of the ones I’ve seen, there is much more detail here than I have found in other biographies, and Williamson is very careful to place Borges clearly in the context of Argentina’s history and politics. Certainly if I am ever going to be checking out details of Borges’s life again in future this is the book I will turn to first.
But at the same time it is an intensely frustrating and annoying book. There are three reasons for this which, in ascending order of importance are: 1) he takes Maria Kodama at face value. Whenever she appears in the book she is an angel of purity and innocence, though there is good reason to believe that is far from the case. 2) He is in love with Borges, and therefore cannot give his faults straight without trying to qualify or explain them. Reading between the lines of this book Borges was not really a very nice person, he seems to have behaved abominably with a lot of people who had reason to expect better of him (his treatment of his long-time housekeeper at the end of his life is frankly inexcusable: he left on a trip to Europe without telling her he was not planning to return, then instructed his lawyers to evict her from the house and sell it without notice or explanation). And his politics were often shameful. It may be true, for instance, that the tendency of Argentines to re-elect Peron whenever they had the chance may have made him think the country was not ready for democracy, but that is no excuse for supporting repressive dictatorships, both in Argentina and in Chile. But for Williamson he was always naive when he needs to provide an excuse for his actions (he was blind, you know…). 3) But the worst fault of all is his tendency to see Borges’s stories, poems and essays exclusively as elements in his autobiography. True, Borges himself proposed just such an approach in one of his very early essays, but Borges often contradicted himself in his non-fiction and there is no reason to run with this idea so rigorously and unquestioningly.
Not only that, but the writings are exclusively related to Borges’s rather tangled love life. He seems to have been constantly searching for his own Beatrice (I’m willing to go along with Williamson on this), and there are certainly autobiographical echoes in much of what he wrote. But although I’m happy to consider the way events in his life fed into his writings, I am far less happy to then turn the process around and use events in the writings as evidence for things happening in his life. Whether he was in or out of love with Norah Lange, with Haydee Lange, or with a dozen other muses he seems to tied himself to in his middle years will, I am sure, have informed what he wrote, but so will other things. In fact what is most irritating about this book is that the poems and especially the stories are mentioned only in the context of what can be extracted from them about his life. This means, for one thing, that when he becomes an international celebrity we have been told nothing about the quality of the stories that might explain that renown. It also means that relatively obscure stories, and early stories that do not display the height of his powers, are often privileged over much more significant works. ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ rates only a passing mention, ‘Funes the Memorious’ is not mentioned at all, yet these along with a handful of other stories that get relatively short shrift here such as ‘The Circular Ruins’, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘Death and the Compass’, are actually key to any literary understanding of his work, and without that there is no real understanding of why Borges was ever mentioned in terms of the Nobel Prize.
So, as an account of the everyday life of Borges, an account of his love life (or lack of it) and of his political context, this book is invaluable. But as an account of Borges the writer, which seems to me inseparable from Borges the man, I find this book lamentable.
First published at Livejournal, 18 February 2005.