Labyrinths of Identity: Does It Change Borges' Fiction to Know about Borges' Life?

By Freund, Charles Paul | Reason, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Labyrinths of Identity: Does It Change Borges' Fiction to Know about Borges' Life?


Freund, Charles Paul, Reason


JORGE LUIS BORGES, the great Argentine writer, first encountered Cervantes' Don Quixote in his father's library, in an English-language translation. Borges was just a boy at the time, and he was soon enraptured by both the work and the edition. The book on his father's shelves was, if I remember correctly, the old Grolier edition with its impressive steel engravings, and it imprinted itself on the imaginative boy's mind.

For the rest of his life, this English version with its evocative visualizations was to remain for Borges the only "real" Don Quixote. Of course, he was eventually to read the novel in its original Spanish, but as he was to describe it, the experience was a disappointing anticlimax. Indeed, Cervantes' Spanish prose actually struck him as if it were a clumsy translation from what had become, in his mind, the authentic English version. At least, that's how the imaginative old man told that tale.

I feel the same way about the real Borges that Borges felt about the original Quixote: As far as I'm concerned, the real one is a shadow of the literary double that emerged from it. Borges used himself (or some version of himself) by name in a number of his now-famous stories and sketches, and wrote in an unidentified but consistent first-person narrator's voice in many others. These stories, with their contemplations of time and imagination, of dreams and doubles, of labyrinths and mirrors, are among the most admired short works of the last century and may rightly be said to have transformed literary fiction.

The author of these tales is very much at their center: a carefully crafted and essentially imaginary character ("presence" might be a better term) who is sometimes called "Borges." But the real Borges is lately threatening to get in the way of Borges' fictionalized version of himself. If that happens, it may well be a triumph of biographical scholarship, but it's apt to have literary consequences too.

There's a fat new biography of Borges by Edwin Williamson, a professor of Spanish at Oxford. Very thorough stuff. Runs 574 pages, including index, plus xviii pages of prefatory material. As far as I know, Williamson's Borges: A Life is the first major inquiry into Borges (at least in English) since his death in 1986. Borges, by the way, strongly believed that a life of reading was not an alternative to a life of action but that it too was legitimately a life of action--only action of a different kind. Much of his literature has to do with reading and is thus about literature. He would appear to be a biographer's challenge, unless that biographer decided that if a life could be about literature, then its biography should be about literature too. Emir Rodriguez Monegal's 1978 "literary biography" of Borges, the first full-length biographical attempt, made just that choice.

Williamson's work reverses this premise. Borges' life was not about literature, he suggests; his literature was--primarily--about his inner life. Since that inner life was filled with unattractive aspects, the literature itself is at issue. Specifically, the "Borges" of the stories ceases to be an appealing narrative presence and threatens to be revealed as a disguise. If one reads the stories through this prism, their subject may well change.

The new biography promises rather a lot. Not only will the biographer chart the evolution of Borges' ideas (great!), it will give you the full man: Borges "in love and in despair" (uh-oh). But that's just the start. Edwin Williamson, promises the publisher, "reconstructs the dynamics of [Borges'] inner world--the conflicts, desires, and obsessions that drove the man and shaped his world. …

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