Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges (24 August 1899 – 14 June 1986) was an Argentine writer whose work included short stories, essays, poetry, literary criticism, and translations.
Borges' father, Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam, was a lawyer and psychology teacher with literary aspirations. ("...he tried to become a writer and failed in the attempt," Borges once said, "...[but] composed some very good sonnets"). His father was part Spanish, part Portuguese, and half British; his father's mother was British and maintained a strong spirit of English culture in Borges's home. In this home, both Spanish and English were spoken and from earliest childhood Borges was bilingual, reading Shakespeare, in English, at the age of 12. His family was comfortably wealthy, but not quite wealthy enough to live in downtown Buenos Aires. Instead, they lived in the then suburb of Palermo, which was a somewhat poor neighborhood, famous for its knife-fights, where urban space gave way to the countryside, but in a large house equipped with an extensive English library.
Jorge Guillermo Borges was forced into early retirement from the legal profession owing to the same failing eyesight that would eventually afflict his son, and in 1914, the family moved to Geneva, Switzerland. Borges senior was treated by a Geneva eye specialist, while his son and daughter Norah attended school. There Borges junior learned French, initially with some difficulties, and taught himself German. He received his baccalauréat from the Collège de Genève in 1918. The Borges family stayed until 1921 because of domestic unrest in neutral Argentina. After World War I ended, the Borges family spent three years living in various cities: Lugano (Switzerland), Barcelona, Majorca, Seville, and Madrid. Borges came into contact with several authors who would impact his writing, the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and Gustav Meyrink's The Golem (1915) being key examples. In Spain, Borges became a member of the avant-garde Ultraist literary movement (anti-Modernism, which ended in 1922 with the cessation of the journal Ultra). His first poem, "Hymn to the Sea," written in the style of Walt Whitman, was published in the magazine Greece ("Grecia", in Spanish). There he frequented such notable Spanish writers as Rafael Cansinos Assens and Ramón Gómez de la Serna.
By the mid-1930s, his writings began to deal with existential questions, and with what Ana María Barrenechea has called "irreality." Borges was not alone in this task. Many other Latin American writers such as Juan Rulfo, Juan José Arreola, and Alejo Carpentier investigated these themes in their writings, influenced by the Phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger or the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Even though existentialism saw its apogee during the years of Borges's greatest artistic production, it can be argued that his choice of topics largely ignored existentialism's central tenets. To that point, Paul de Man has written:
He was, from the first issue, a regular contributor to Sur, founded in 1931 by Victoria Ocampo, then Argentina's most important literary journal. Ocampo herself introduced Borges to Adolfo Bioy Casares, another well-known figure of Argentine literature, who was to become a frequent collaborator and dear friend. Together they wrote a number of works, some using pseudonyms (H. Bustos Domecq), including a parody detective series and fantasy stories.
Also during these years Macedonio Fernández became a major influence on Borges, who inherited the friendship from his father. The two would hold court in cafés, country retreats, or Macedonio's tiny apartment in the Balvanera district.
In 1933 Borges gained an editorial appointment at the literary supplement of the newspaper Crítica, where he first published the pieces later collected as the Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy). This involved two types of pieces. The first lay somewhere between non-fictional essays and short stories, using fictional techniques to tell essentially true stories. The second consisted of literary forgeries, which Borges initially passed off as translations of passages from famous but seldom-read works. In the following years, he served as a literary adviser for the publishing house Emecé Editores and wrote weekly columns for El Hogar, which appeared from 1936 to 1939.
In 1937, friends of Borges found him working at the Miguel Cané branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library as a first assistant. His fellow employees forbade Borges from cataloguing more than 100 books per day, a task which would take him about one hour. The rest of his time he spent in the basement of the library, writing articles and short stories.
Borges's Cosmopolitanism allowed him to free himself from the trap of local color. The varying genealogies of characters, settings, and themes in his stories such as "La muerte y la brújula" were Argentine without forcing them to be Argentine by pandering to his readers. In his essay "El escritor argentino y la tradición" Borges notes that the very absence of camels in the Koran was proof enough that it was an Arabian work, inferring that only someone trying to write an "Arab" work would purposefully include a camel. He uses this example to illustrate how his dialoguing with universal existential concerns was just as Argentine as writing about gauchos and tangos (both of which he also did).
His first collection of short stories, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths) appeared in 1941, composed mostly of works previously published in Sur. Though generally well received, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan failed to garner for him the literary prizes many in his circle expected. Ocampo dedicated a large portion of the July 1941 issue of Sur to a "Reparation for Borges"; numerous leading writers and critics from Argentina and throughout the Spanish-speaking world contributed writings to the "reparation" project.
When Juan Perón became President in 1946, Borges was dismissed, and "promoted" to the position of poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal market (he immediately resigned; he always referred to the title of the post he never filled as "Poultry and Rabbit Inspector"). His offenses against the Peronistas up to that time had apparently consisted of little more than adding his signature to pro-democratic petitions, but shortly after his resignation he addressed the Argentine Society of Letters saying, in his characteristic style, "Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy."
Without a job, his vision beginning to fade due to hereditary retinal detachment, and unable to fully support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer. Despite a certain degree of political persecution, he was reasonably successful, and became an increasingly public figure, obtaining appointments as President of the Argentine Society of Writers, and as Professor of English and American Literature at the Argentine Association of English Culture. His short story "Emma Zunz" was turned into a film (under the name of Días de odio (English title: Days of Wrath), directed in 1954, by the Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson). Around this time, Borges also began writing screenplays.
In 1955, and after the initiative of Ocampo, the new anti-Peronist military government appointed him head of the National Library. By that time, he had become completely blind, like one of his best known predecessors, Paul Groussac (for whom Borges wrote an obituary). Neither coincidence nor the irony escaped Borges and he commented on them in his work:
The following year he received the National Prize for Literature from the University of Cuyo, the first of many honorary doctorates. From 1956 to 1970, Borges also held a position as a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, while frequently holding temporary appointments at other universities.
As his eyesight deteriorated, he relied increasingly on his mother's help. When he was not able to read and write anymore (he never learned the Braille system), his mother, to whom he had always been devoted, became his personal secretary.
In 1967, Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, thanks to whom he became better known in the English-speaking world. He also continued to publish books, among them El libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings, (1967, co-written with Margarita Guerrero), El informe de Brodie (Dr. Brodie's Report, 1970), and El libro de arena (The Book of Sand, 1975). He also lectured prolifically. Many of these lectures were anthologized in volumes such as Siete noches (Seven Nights) and Nueve ensayos dantescos (Nine Dantesque Essays).
Borges and Eduardo Mallea were criticized for being "doctors of technique"; their writing presumably "lacked substance due to their lack of interaction with the reality [...] that they inhabited", an existential critique of their refusal to embrace existence and reality in their artwork.
After 1975, the year his mother died, Borges began to travel all over the world, up to the time of his death. He was often accompanied in these travels by his personal assistant María Kodama, an Argentine woman of Japanese and German ancestry.
Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer in 1986 in Geneva and is buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Plainpalais). A few months before his death, via an attorney in Paraguay, he married Kodama. After years of legal wrangling about the legality of the marriage, Kodama, as sole inheritor of a significant annual income, has control over his works. Her administration of his estate has bothered some scholars; she has been denounced by the French publisher Gallimard, by Le Nouvel Observateur, and by intellectuals such as Beatriz Sarlo, as an obstacle to the serious reading of Borges' works.
J. M. Coetzee said of Borges: "He more than anyone renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists."
Since Borges lived through most of the 20th century, he was rooted in the Modernist period of culture and literature, especially Symbolism. His fiction is profoundly learnéd, and always concise. Like his contemporary Vladimir Nabokov and the older James Joyce, he combined an interest in his native land with far broader perspectives. He also shared their multilingualism and their playfulness with language, but while Nabokov and Joyce tended--as their lives went on--toward progressively larger works, Borges remained a miniaturist. Also in contrast to Joyce and Nabokov, Borges' work progressed away from what he referred to as "the baroque," while theirs moved towards it: Borges' later writing style is far more transparent and naturalistic than his earlier works.
Many of his most popular stories concern the nature of time, infinity, mirrors, labyrinths, reality, philosophy, and identity. A number of stories focus on fantastic themes, such as a library containing every possible 410-page text ("The Library of Babel"), a man who forgets nothing he experiences ("Funes, the Memorious"), an artifact through which the user can see everything in the universe ("The Aleph"), and a year of time standing still, given to a man standing before a firing squad ("The Secret Miracle"). The same Borges told more and less realistic stories of South American life, stories of folk heroes, streetfighters, soldiers, gauchos, detectives, historical figures. He mixed the real and the fantastic: fact with fiction. On several occasions, especially early in his career, these mixtures sometimes crossed the line into the realm of hoax or literary forgery.
Borges' abundant nonfiction includes astute film and book reviews, short biographies, and longer philosophical musings on topics such as the nature of dialogue, language, and thought, and the relationships between them. In this respect, and regarding Borges' personal pantheon, he considered the Mexican essayist of similar topics Alfonso Reyes "the best prose-writer in the Spanish language of any time." (In: Siete Noches, p. 156). His non-fiction also explores many of the themes found in his fiction. Essays such as "The History of the Tango" or his writings on the epic poem Martín Fierro explore specifically Argentine themes, such as the identity of the Argentine people and of various Argentine subcultures. His interest in fantasy, philosophy, and the art of translation are evident in articles such as "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights", while The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thoroughly (and obscurely) researched bestiary of mythical creatures, in the preface of which Borges wrote, "There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition." Borges' interest in fantasy was shared by Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967, sometimes under different pseudonyms including H. Bustos Domecq.
Borges composed poetry throughout his life. As his eyesight waned (it came and went, with a struggle between advancing age and advances in eye surgery), he increasingly focused on writing poetry, since he could memorize an entire work in progress. His poems embrace the same wide range of interests as his fiction, along with issues that emerge in his critical works and translations, and from more personal musings. This breadth of interest can be found in his fiction, nonfiction, and poems. For example, his interest in philosophical idealism is reflected in the fictional world of Tlön in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", in his essay "A New Refutation of Time", and in his poem "Things." Similarly, a common thread runs through his story "The Circular Ruins" and his poem "El Golem" ("The Golem").
As already mentioned, Borges was notable as a translator. He translated Oscar Wilde's story The Happy Prince into Spanish when he was nine, perhaps an early indication of his literary talent. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of the Prose Edda. He also translated (while simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, André Gide, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, and G. K. Chesterton. In a number of essays and lectures, Borges assessed the art of translation, and articulated his own view at the same time. He held the view that a translation may improve upon the original, may even be unfaithful to it, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally valid.
Borges also employed two very unusual literary forms: the literary forgery and the review of an imaginary work. Both constitute a form of modern pseudo-epigrapha.
Borges' best-known set of literary forgeries date from his early work as a translator and literary critic with a regular column in the Argentine magazine El Hogar. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works after the style of the likes of Emanuel Swedenborg or The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, originally passing them off as translations of things he had come upon in his reading. Several of these are gathered in the Universal History of Infamy. He continued this pattern of literary forgery at several points in his career, for example sneaking three short, falsely attributed pieces into his otherwise legitimate and carefully researched anthology El matrero.
At times, confronted with an idea for a work that bordered on the conceptual, rather than write a piece that fulfilled the concept, he wrote a review of a nonexistent work, as if it had already been created by some other person. The most famous example of this is "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote", which imagines a twentieth-century Frenchman who tries to write Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote verbatim---not by having memorized Cervantes' work, but as an "original" narrative of his own invention. Initially he tries to immerse himself in sixteenth-century Spain, but dismisses the method as too easy, instead trying to reach Don Quixote through his own experiences. He finally manages to (re)create "the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two." Borges' "review" of the work of the fictional Menard uses tongue-in-cheek comparisons to discuss the resonances that Don Quixote has picked up over the centuries since it was written, by way of overtly discussing how much "richer" Menard's work is than that of Cervantes, even though the actual words are exactly the same.
While Borges was certainly the great popularizer of the review of an imaginary work, it was not his own invention. Borges was already familiar with the idea from Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, a book-length review of a non-existent German transcendentalist philosophical work, and the biography of its equally non-existent author. This Craft of Verse (p. 104) records Borges as saying that in 1916 in Geneva he "discovered -- and was overwhelmed by -- Thomas Carlyle. I read Sartor Resartus, and I can recall many of its pages; I know them by heart." In the introduction to his first published volume of fiction, The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges remarks, "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books -- setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them." He then cites both Sartor Resartus and Samuel Butler's The Fair Haven, remarking, however, that "those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books." [Collected Fictions, p.67]
Borges' work maintained a universal perspective that reflected a multi-ethnic Argentina, exposure from an early age to his father's substantial collection of world literature, and lifelong travel experience. As a young man, he visited the frontier pampas where the boundaries of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil blurred, and lived and studied in Switzerland and Spain; in middle age he traveled through Argentina as a lecturer and, internationally, as a visiting professor; he continued to tour the world as he grew older, ending his life in Geneva where he had attended high school (he never went to university). Drawing on influences of many times and places, Borges' work belittled nationalism and racism. An Argentinian, Borges set some of his historical fiction in Uruguay. He grew acquainted with the literature from Argentine, Spanish, North American, English, French, German, Italian, and Northern European/Icelandic sources, including those of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. He also read many translations of Near Eastern and Far Eastern works. The universalism that made him interested in world literature reflected an attitude that was not congruent with the Perón government's extreme nationalism. That government's meddling with Borges' job fueled his skepticism of government (he labeled himself a Spencerian anarchist in the blurb of Atlas). When extreme Argentine nationalists sympathetic to the Nazis asserted Borges was Jewish (the implication being that his Argentine identity was inadequate), Borges responded in "Yo Judío" ("I, a Jew"), where he said, while he would be proud to be a Jew, he presented his actual Christian genealogy, along with a backhanded reminder that any "pure" Castilian just might likely have a Jew in their ancestry, stemming from a millennium back.
The diversity of coexisting cultures characteristic of the Argentine lifestyles is especially pronounced in Six Problems for Don Isidoro Parodi, co-authored with Adolfo Bioy Casares, and in the unnamed multi-ethnic city that's the setting for "Death and the Compass", which may or may not be Buenos Aires.
Borges' interest in Argentine themes reflects in part the inspiration of his family tree. Borges had an English paternal grandmother who, around 1870, married the criollo Francisco Borges, a man with a military command and a historic role in the civil wars in what is now Argentina and Uruguay. Spurred by pride in his family's heritage, Borges often used those civil wars as settings in fiction and quasi-fiction (for example, "The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz," "The Dead Man," "Avelino Arredondo") as well as poetry ("General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage"). Borges' maternal great-grandfather, Manuel Isidoro Suárez , was another military hero, whom Borges immortalized in the poem "A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suárez, Victor at Junín." The city of Coronel Suárez in the south of Buenos Aires Province is named after him.
Uruguayan Colorado Presidential front-runner Pedro Bordaberry has published literary criticism of Borges, testifying to the live nature and wide readership of his writings in Uruguay . Bordaberry has notably discussed Borges's theme of the complexity of memory.
In "The Argentine Writer and Tradition", Borges celebrates how Hernández expresses that character in the crucial scene in which Martín Fierro and El Moreno compete by improvising songs about universal themes such as time, night, and the sea. The scene clearly reflects the real-world gaucho tradition of payadas, improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes — as distinct from the type of slang that Hernández uses in the main body of Martín Fierro. Borges points out that therefore, Hernández evidently knew the difference between actual gaucho tradition of composing poetry on universal themes, versus the "gauchesque" fashion among Buenos Aires literati. Borges goes on to deny the possibility that Argentine literature could distinguish itself by making reference to "local color", nor does it need to remain true to the heritage of the literature of Spain, nor to define itself as a rejection of the literature of its colonial founders, nor follow in the footsteps of European literature. He asserts that Argentine writers need to be free to define Argentine literature anew, writing about Argentina and the world from the point of view of someone who has inherited the whole of world literature.
Borges uses Martín Fierro and El Moreno's competition as a theme once again in "El Fin" ("The End"), a story that first appeared in his short story collection Artificios (1944). "El Fin" is a sort of mini-sequel or conclusion to Martín Fierro. In his prologue to Artificios, Borges says of "El Fin," "Everything in the story is implicit in a famous book [Martín Fierro] and I have been the first to decipher it, or at least, to declare it."
There are, however, instances in Borges writings of heterosexual love and attraction. The story "Ulrikke" from The Book of Sand tells a romantic tale of heterosexual desire, love, trust and sex. The protagonist of "El muerto" clearly relishes and lusts after the "splendid, contemptuous, red-haired woman" of Azevedo Bandeira. Later he "sleeps with the woman with shining hair". "El muerto" ("The Dead Man") contains two separate examples of definitive gaucho heterosexual lust.