A review of Borges: A Life, by Edwin Williamson
It is an irony worth recalling that around the time he was achieving cult status among the hippies of 1960s "swinging" London, Jorge Luis Borges, Latin America's greatest storyteller, was denied the Nobel Prize for Literature for being too conservative. In his own youth, Borges had flirted with socialism and extolled the Russian revolution, but he later repudiated this political past in the face of Juan Domingo Perón's merciless dictatorship. In 1946, when he was working as a lowly assistant in a library on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Perón's regime "promoted" Borges to inspector of poultry in the public market. When Borges resigned and started giving lectures, Perón put a detective on his tail. (In his characteristic gentlemanly fashion, Borges eventually befriended this informant and learned that he too hated Perón.) No wonder then that Borges once described the politics of his native Argentina as a great toothache that was impossible to ignore.
Borges's political genealogy is as labyrinthine as any of his notoriously difficult stories. In this richly researched biography, Oxford historian Edwin Williamson rightly lays stress on the influence of Borges's parents, not least because he lived with his mother for most of his life, but also because many of his favorite themes derive from them. On his mother's side, Borges was a criollo, an Argentine of Spanish descent who could trace his family back for generations. Traditionally, the criollos were land-owning families who lived in the Argentine pampas, but Borges's mother's family were also unitarios, in favor of a centralized government, and opposed to the federales, who sought to keep power away from the urbanized immigrants of Buenos Aires. Borges's early political utterances argue for a radical break with the federale status quo:
In this house which is America, my friends, men from various nations of the world have conspired together in order to disappear in a new man, who is not yet embodied in any one of us and whom we shall already call an "Argentine" so as to begin to raise our hopes. This is a confederacy without precedent: a generous adventure by men of different bloodlines whose aim is not to persevere in their lineages but to forget those lineages in the end; these are bloodlines that seek the night.
Borges needed a politically unified Argentina in part because he dreamed of being its memorializing poet. He wanted to celebrate Buenos Aires in the same way James Joyce had celebrated Dublin. But whereas faithful Joyceans can still retrace the steps of Stephen Daedalus in today's Dublin, Borges's Buenos Aires is largely a romance of the imagination. Late in life, Borges remembered walking in the city as a child and being told by his father to "take a good look at soldiers, uniforms, barracks, flags, churches, priests, and butcher shops, since all these things were about to disappear."
Borges owed much of his imaginative influence to his father. "If I were asked to name the chief event in my life," he wrote in a 1970 autobiographical essay, "I should say my father's library." It was there that Borges first stumbled upon his life-long loves: the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Richard Burton's Tales from a Thousand and One Nights. More than any other library (and Borges never strayed far from them in his life), this seems to have been the one that inspired Borges's famous story "The Library of Babel," in which a bookish narrator charts an infinitely vast library that functions as an extension of his own mind.
A professor and a failed writer, Borges's father was half-English, and he steeped his son in English poetry and Berkeleyan metaphysics at a young age. He was also the source of Borges's worldliness, moving the family to Geneva when Borges was 14 and to Spain when he was 20. In Madrid, the introverted Borges joined an intellectual café-prowling cadre known as the Ultraísts, who espoused the dashing, if somewhat pretentious, aesthetic credo of Ultraísmo. The tenets of Ultraísmo—in poetry at least—favored bold, isolated images, linked together by steams of consciousness as opposed to the strict French symbolism of the previous generation. In the place of conventional swans, lilies, and peacocks, the Ultraísts substituted motorcars, jazz, and sultry women. Borges gently ridiculed the Ultraísts—he even detected a hint of fascism in their program—but his early poems and essays bear some of their influence. To take one example from Fervor of Buenos Aires:
If things are void of substance
and if this teeming Buenos Aires
is no more than a dream
made up by souls in a common act of magic
there is an instant
when its existence is gravely endangered
and that is the shuddering instant of daybreak,
when those who are dreaming the world are few
and only the ones who have been up all night retain,
ashen and barely outlined,
the image of the streets
that others will define.
These are the lines of a populist poet in the making. The "teeming streets" and the "common act" are central to Borges's utopian vision of the people erecting a new reality for themselves. But these Whitmanesque excesses are crucially qualified by Borges's conditional "ifs," as if to suggest that existence itself hinges on a dream. Borges's poetry is always intellectual and never quite at home with reality, but unlike much intellectual poetry (Emerson for instance), it treads lightly on the mind. As he developed as a poet, Borges kept his keen sense of images, all the while grounding them in an increasingly wide range of historical contexts. He was as comfortable writing about the ancient Saxons as he was about Austin, Texas.
Borges and his family moved back to Buenos Aires in 1921. The political climate of Argentina in the '20s was inhospitable to a liberal criollo like Borges. The reformist President Hipólito Yrigoyen's attempts to redistribute power among the urban classes were continually frustrated, and the estancerios, the wealthy landowners intent on keeping the obsolete agricultural economy in place, were for the time succeeding. It was not a particularly hospitable decade for Argentine art either, but Borges ingeniously managed to disseminate a small printing of his poetry by slipping copies of Fervor of Buenos Aires into the pockets of the editors of the city's most renowned literary magazine. In time, Borges and his friends founded their own small, but hugely influential reviews, which single-handedly ushered modernism into Latin America. James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf all found their way to the continent by way of Borges, who figured as Latin America's Ezra Pound, translating major works, hailing new discoveries, and taking in protégés like Adolfo Bioy Casares, whom he always treated as equals.
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Edwin Williamson is unfortunately an underwhelming reader of Borges's fiction. He seems to have taken at face value Borges's dictum that "all literature, in the end, is autobiographical." Williamson searches for clues to the stories' mysteries in Borges's romantic and family life, which is the wrong place to look. Borges's fiction is, if anything, the product of another, more elusive self. As Borges himself suggests in his wonderfully enigmatic essay, "Borges and I," "I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others', or in the tedious strumming of a guitar." It is indeed tedious to watch Williamson trace the twists in the stories to Borges's problems with his overbearing mother or to his failure to win the love of a girl (never mind that Borges himself was somewhat suspicious of Freudian theory on aesthetic grounds).
When it comes to Borges's political evolution, however, Williamson has written the definitive biography. This evolution took a critical turn in 1943 when Juan Perón, with no small help from his incorrigible wife Eva Duarte, rallied the support of the working classes against the landowners. Perón, the minister of labor and welfare, organized the workers into fiercely loyal unions, and fashioned an impregnable cult of personality around himself. For Borges, this was the "coming of the barbarians"—he saw Perón on the same level as Mussolini or Hitler. When the people actually elected Perón in 1946, Borges was completely disillusioned. "Dictatorships breed oppression," he remarked in a speech shortly after resigning from his humble library post, "dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy." In 1948, when Perón began to manipulate the 1853 Constitution, Borges's mother and sister were imprisoned for protesting, driving Borges further into despair.
Borges was so disgusted with Perón that, for a time, he effectively gave up on the Argentine people. Even when Perón was finally ousted by a military coup in 1955, there was no obvious path for Argentine democracy. Williamson helps us understand the paradox Borges faced:
Borges was becoming conscious of the predicament that would plague him— and indeed it would Argentine politics— for the rest of his life. For how do you create a democracy when the largest sector of the electorate will elect a totalitarian leader who is ideologically hostile to liberal democracy? Must one accept the "will of the people" regardless of principles and values? Borges was being driven to a position whereby he wished to restore democracy but could only trust an unrepresentative elite to bring it about.
The push for an unrepresentative elite to bring reform is a long way from the young Borges who once called for "a generous adventure by men of different bloodlines." Borges's skepticism about Argentina's democratic prospects was further compounded during his first visit to America in 1961. "We South Americans tend to think in terms of convenience," he wrote, "whereas people in the United States approach things ethically. This—amateur Protestant that I am—I admire above all." The Catholic Church in Argentina had backed the military against Perón, but Borges was drawing attention to the fact that democracy in America had been incubated in Protestantism, which instilled an ethical individualism in its citizenry, but which could not easily be replicated in Argentina.
Borges embraced the anti-Peronist regime of General Aramburu more than he should have—it too was responsible for its share of atrocities. But it is important to remember that during this period Peronism was still alive and well. Perón was always on the verge of returning from exile, and he effectively ruled the country by proxy in the early 1970s. By siding with Aramburu, Borges chose the lesser of two evils. Perón's henchmen, the Peronistas, continued to hound him late in life. Luckily for Borges, his mother was endowed with enough patrician chutzpah for both of them:
I get any number of personal threats. Even my mother. They rang her up in the small hours—two or three in the morning—and somebody said to her in a very gruff kind of voice, the voice you associate with a Peronista, "I've got to kill you and your son." My mother said, "why?" "Because I am a Peronista." My mother said, "As far as my son is concerned, he is over seventy and practically blind. But in my case I should advise you to waste no time because I am ninety-five and may die on your hands before you can kill me.
Borges gained the world's attention when he was awarded the Prix Formentor with Samuel Beckett in 1961. That prize, along with the shrewd stewardship of Roger Callois and Norman Thomas di Giovanni, his French editor and first English translator, put him into paperback, and into the hands of literary students around the globe. The Borges the world got to know was by then an unrepentant conservative, but it did not keep him from being one of the last truly universal writers that everyone agreed on—everyone except the Nobel Prize committee. The sages of Stockholm condemned Borges for, among other things, a trip he made to Chile to collect a prize from General August Pinochet, a dictator Borges mistook for a gentleman. Nobel laureates have been guilty of far graver sins (Pablo Neruda, it must be remembered, was an outspoken champion of international Communism), but the political climate of the '60s was such that it did not seem to matter that Borges had been on the right side of the major struggles of the 20th century. Stockholm stopped dangling its carrot, but by then Borges was content to go without it. The late Czeslaw Milosz could have been thinking of him when he wrote that
The Nobel Prize is enough for the smaller ones.
It would not commend itself to someone who gave
an incomprehensible gift….
Such an incomprehensible gift was Borges.