James O. Pellicer
The boy who was to become the greatest Spanish-American writer of the twentieth century was born in the city of Buenos Aires. Jorge Luis Borges would boost Hispanic letters to their heights by means of a partly inherited and partly acquired multicultural wealth. English probably was his first language, since his father and his paternal grandmother used that language at home, and the latter was determined to have the child read English even before he knew the Spanish alphabet. His father taught psychology in English in Buenos Aires; his favorite authors were Swinburne, Keats, and Shelley, whose poetry became the preferred theme of family conversations. Later Borges recognized that “it was he [his father] who revealed the power of poetry to me—the fact that words are not only a means of communication but also magic symbols and music” (Borges A/Z: La Biblioteca de Babel, 214, my translation). His mother was also a literarily oriented woman, and the daily family conversations revolved around themes of art and poetry. Borges's only sister became a painter and married a Spanish critic of art and literature.
Borges finished elementary school in Argentina, but due to the outbreak of World War I, which caught his family in Geneva during a vacation trip, his father preferred to establish residence there. Young Borges excelled in French and German at Calvin College in Switzerland, where he completed his secondary education. With four languages perfectly mastered, a total dedication to art, and no financial need, he used his abundant time to read innumerable works written in all those languages and to begin writing himself in Spanish, English, and French. He accompanied his readings with an intense search for the cultural components of each theme, using the great German, English, and French encyclopedias. In his prologue, originally written in French, to the 1979 edition of the Encyclopédic de Diderot et d'Alembert in eighteen volumes, he wrote: