Jorge luis borges a biographical essay by Richard Cusick Oct 1, 2002

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A biographical essay by

Richard Cusick


Oct 1, 2002

First let me start with some vital statistics. Jorge Luis Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires and died of liver cancer in Geneva, Switzerland in 1986. He was married twice, divorced once but had no children. His father was a lawyer and his mother a translator.

The familiarity with world literature evident in Borges’ work began at an early age, nurtured by a love of reading. His paternal grandmother was English and, since she lived with the Borgeses, English and Spanish were both spoken in the family home. Borges’ father had a large library of English and Spanish books, and his son, whose frail constitution made it impossible to participate in more strenuous activities, spent many hours reading. Borges later claimed in his autobiography that his father’s library was the chief event in his life.

Under his grandmother’s tutelage, Borges learned to read English before he could read Spanish. Among the first English-language books he read were works by Twain, Poe, Longfellow, Stevenson, and Wells. Borges recalled reading even the great Spanish masterpiece, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, in English before reading it in Spanish. His father encouraged writing as well as reading: Borges wrote his first story at age seven and, at nine, saw his own Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince published in a Buenos Aires newspaper. “From the time I was a boy,” Borges noted, “it was tacitly understood that I had to fulfill the literary destiny that circumstances had denied my father. This was something that was taken for granted . . . . I was expected to be a writer.”

A family tour of Europe in 1914 was interrupted by World War I, thus affording Borges time to attend the College Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, from which he earned his degree in 1918.

After the war the Borgeses settled in Spain for a few years. During this period Borges published reviews, articles, and poetry and became associated with a group of avant-garde poets called the Ultraists (named after the magazine, Ultra, to which they contributed). Upon Borges’ return to Argentina in 1921, he introduced the tenets of the movement – a belief, for example, in the supremacy of the metaphor – to the Argentine literary scene. His first collection of poems, Fervor de Buenos Aires, was written under the spell of this new poetic movement. Although he later expressed regret for his “early Ultraist excesses,” and in later editions of Fervor de Buenos Aires eliminated more than a dozen poems from the text and considerably altered many others, Borges still saw some value in the work. In his autobiography he noted, “I think I have never strayed beyond that book. I feel that all my subsequent writing has only developed themes first taken up there; I feel that all during my lifetime I have been rewriting that one book.”

In Buenos Aires, Borges served as municipal librarian until 1946 and for the next ten years taught English literature at private institutions in Argentina and Uruguay.

Borges was nearly unknown in most of the world until 1961 when, in his early sixties, he was awarded the Prix Formentor, the International Publishers Prize, an honor he shared with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Prior to winning the award, Borges had been writing in relative obscurity in Buenos Aires, his fiction and poetry read mainly by his compatriots, who were slow in perceiving his worth or even knowing him. The award made Borges internationally famous: a collection of his short stories, Ficciones, was simultaneously published in six different countries, and he was invited by the University of Texas to come to the United States to lecture, the first of many international lecture tours. He continued his writing and became a visiting professor or guest lecturer at universities throughout the world. In 1967-68 he was Charles Norten Eliot Professor of Poetry at Harvard.

His literary output was prodigious. He authored some 15 books of poetry, 18 of essays, 15 of short stories and was translator of many others. Borges was founding editor of several literary periodicals and a contributor to many more. During his lifetime he was awarded almost every literary prize you can think of as well as many you probably could not have thought of. But he never received the Nobel Prize. Universities around the world awarded him honorary degrees.

Borges’ innovative and challenging writing style has spawned a whole new field of literary criticism and the shelves of university libraries sag under the weight of the accumulated scholarship analyzing his work.

Borges’ international appeal was partly a result of his enormous erudition, which becomes immediately apparent to the reader in the multitude of literary allusions from cultures around the globe that are contained in his writing. “The work of Jorge Luis Borges,” Anthony Kerrigan wrote in his introduction to the English translation of Ficciones, “is a species of international literary metaphor. He knowledgeably makes a transfer of inherited meanings from Spanish and English, French and German, and sums up a series of analogies, of confrontations, of appositions in other nations’ literatures. His Argentineans act out Parisian dramas, his Central European Jews are wise in the way of the Amazon, his Babylonians are fluent in the paradigms of Babel.”

Borges became a writer whose works were compared to those of many others, Franz Kafka and James Joyce in particular, although his style remained unique. Critics were forced to coin a new word – Borgesian – to capture the magical world invented by the Argentine master. One critic, Jaime Alazraki, stated, “As with Joyce, Kafka, or Faulkner, the name of Borges has become an accepted concept; his creations have generated a dimension that we designate ‘Borgesian.’” Another declared: “Borges is . . . an international phenomenon . . . a man of letters whose mode of writing and turn of mind are so distinctively his, yet so much a revealed part of our world, that ‘Borgesian’ has become as commonplace a neologism as the adjectives ‘Sartrean’ or ‘Kafkaesque.’”

U.S. writers did not escape Borges’ influence. “The impact of Borges on the United States writing scene may be almost as great as was his earlier influence on Latin America,” one commentator noted. “The Argentine reawakened for us the possibilities of farfetched fancy, of formal exploration, of parody, intellectuality, and wit.” He saw Borges’ presence in works by Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and John Gardner. Another important novelist, John Barth, confessed Borges’ influence in his own novels. He concluded that Borges’ work paved “the way for numerous literary trends on both American continents, determining the share of much fiction to come. By rejecting realism and naturalism, he . . . opened up to our Northern writers a virgin field, led them to a wealth of new subjects and procedures.”

As mentioned before, 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) and Antologia Personal (1961), for example, employ rhyme and meter, ruminate on personal themes, and make reference to his own as well as other works of literature. Borges’ works of fiction and nonfiction, as critics note, are often difficult to distinguish from one another. It is frequently observed that many of Borges’ 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’ essay collections--including Inquisiciones (1925), Discusion (1932), and Otras Inquisiciones (1952) – address a wide variety of issues and represent many diverse styles. Discusion 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’ 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”, and “The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv.” Ficciones contains many of Borges’ 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) consists of stories and essays from various periods in Borges’ career.

Although critics have praised the formal precision and contemplative tone of Borges’ 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’ 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 Professor 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.”

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