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Borges and His Fiction

[ Essays ]

Borges and His Fiction

A Guide to His Mind and Art, A Revised Edition

By Gene H. Bell-Villada

An introduction to the life and works of this Argentinian master-writer.

2000

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 351 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70878-5

From reviews of the first edition:

"A compulsively readable account of the life and works of our greatest...writer of fantasy. With a keen appreciation of Borges himself and a pleasant disregard for the critical clichés, Bell-Villada tells us all we really want to know about the modern master-from pronouncing his name to understanding the stories."

New York Daily News

"Of the scores of Borges studies by now published in English, Bell-Villada's excellent book stands out as one of the freshest and most generally helpful.... Lay readers and specialists alike will find his book a valuable and highly readable companion to Ficciones and El Aleph."

Choice

Since its first publication in 1981, Borges and His Fiction has introduced the life and works of this Argentinian master-writer to an entire generation of students, high school and college teachers, and general readers. Responding to a steady demand for an updated edition, Gene H. Bell-Villada has significantly revised and expanded the book to incorporate new information that has become available since Borges' death in 1986. In particular, he offers a more complete look at Borges and Peronism and Borges' personal experiences of love and mysticism, as well as revised interpretations of some of Borges' stories. As before, the book is divided into three sections that examine Borges' life, his stories in Ficciones and El Aleph, and his place in world literature.

  • Preface to the Revised Edition
  • Preface to the 1981 Edition
  • Acknowledgments
  • Note on Page References
  • Chronology
  • Part 1. Borges's Worlds
    • 1. Buenos Aires and Beyond
    • 2. A Sort of Life, a Special Mind
    • 3. What Borges Did for Prose Fiction
  • Part II. Borges's Fictions
    • 4. The Apprentice Fiction Maker
    • 5. Ficciones I: Doubles, Dreamers, and Detectives
    • 6. Ficciones II: The World within a Book
    • 7. El Aleph I: Doubles and Puzzles
    • 8. El Aleph II: Tales of Action and Violence
    • 9. El Aleph III: The Visionary Experience
  • Part III. Borges's Place in Literature
    • 10. Dreamtigers and Later Works: A Tentative Summation
    • 11. Literature and Politics North and South
    • 12. Borges as Argentine Author: And Other Self-Evident (If Often Ignored) Truths Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Shortly after the first edition of this book came out in 1981 I experienced the enormous pleasure of receiving mail from complete strangers, broadly cultured nonspecialists who simply wanted to convey to me their appreciation as readers. A lawyer in Albuquerque, a painter in Chicago, a freelance writer in Connecticut, a schoolteacher in North Carolina—they and a number of others were to let me know, sometimes eloquently and at great lengths, just how much they liked and enjoyed the way that I had helped them understand Borges.

In the intervening years I also received letters and telephone calls from bright high-school students requesting further guidance and advice on the Argentine author. More recently, while the original edition was out of print, I heard from a good many individuals who, finding themselves overly dependent on borrowed copies, wrote or approached me to ask how they could secure a copy of their own.

Such moments meant a lot to me because, from the very start, I had conceived Borges and His Fiction as an object that could be picked up and consulted by anyone who wished to inform themselves and learn some useful things about my stated subject matter.

Eventually, I began hearing from college and secondary-school instructors who warmly and freely expressed to me their gratitude for having provided them a handy pedagogical tool. Every so often, someone at a conference or a social gathering would casually tell me that, the night before teaching a Borges text, they would reread my own analyses and reflections on the story and then make use of them in the classroom.

What has been particularly moving to me is the large number of schoolteachers, participants in the College Board's Advanced Placement program, who, time and again, with overwhelming enthusiasm and spontaneity, have indicated to me the crucial role my book has played in leading them and their students through the labyrinthine intricacies of Borges's mind and art. It is to those teachers, in great degree, that I owe this second edition; I've often thought of them, with a great deal of affection, in the process of correcting, updating, expanding, and revising my original text.

Borges and His Fiction, written in the 1970s, was first published in 1981. The original printing sold out in 1992. In the interim, in 1986, Borges died. A great deal of new material on the author, particularly new material regarding his life, has since come out. I have made every effort to bring in and integrate the essential aspects of that information within these pages, notably in chapter 2 (which focuses on Borges the man). In addition, I have tried to furnish a more complete look at Peronism and to sum up the peculiarities of that movement, both in chapter 11 and in my additional, new chapter 12.

When composing the text back in the 1970s, before Borges's death, I naturally described him in the present tense. Reflecting Borges's passing away, I have now changed many of the verbs to past tense. Moreover, the original—being my first published book—contained certain crudities of expression that, to the best of my ability, I have tried to polish and refine. Portions of the initial version also suffered from the stylistic tic of "reviewese"—understandably, inasmuch as most of my critical writing until then had appeared in general-interest magazines such as Commonweal, New Republic, Boston Review, and The Nation. Some of the less felicitous of these passages also have been recrafted.

I have also come around in my opinion of Borges's story "The South." In one of those little mysteries of the human heart, that evocative work did nothing for me two decades ago. Rereading it in the 1980s, I was struck by its spare and dreamlike beauty, and suddenly felt quite embarrassed at my earlier insensitivity to its incantatory prose and hypnotic power.

Finally, having since learned something about Borges's personal experience of mysticism, I have excised the erroneous and harsh judgments with which I had opened my chapter 9 and substituted for them passages that reflect the knowledge I have since gleaned of his early mystical encounters.

I can only hope that the final result delivered herein is a better, more palatable, and more mature work of letters.

Above all a superb author of fiction, but also a fine poet and a hauntingly original essayist, the elder Borges loomed infinitely larger as public figure than as flesh-and-blood individual—the personally shy, multilingually bookish, all but blind octogenarian who spent his final two decades living more or less alone in his native Buenos Aires. For, beginning in the 1960s, Jorge Luis Borges evolved as an international phenomenon, a name commonly invoked by literati from Stockholm to San Francisco, from Poland to Peru, a sculptor of words whose three- or four-dozen short stories and as many brief essays came to be mentioned in the same breath with the big tomes of Joyce or Proust or Faulkner, a man of letters whose mode of writing and turn of mind were so distinctively his, yet so much a revealed part of our world, that "Borgesian" eventually became as common a neologism as the adjectives "Orwellian" or "Kafkaesque."

Knowledge of Borges's work is now simply taken for granted by the myriad artists, scholars, and critics who choose to make casual mention of him. Alain Robbe-Grillet alludes to a well-known Borges conceit in his fiction manifesto, For a New Novel; high theorist Michel Foucault takes a bit of Borges whimsy (from the essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" in Other Inquisitions) as a starting point on page 1 of The Order of Things; the exquisitely irreverent Jean-Luc Godard cites Borges in at least two of his movies, at the beginning of Les Carabiniers and toward the end of Alphaville; Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci makes the plot of Borges's story "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero" the basis for his drama of fascism, The Spider's Stratagem; American metanovelist John Barth hails Borges as the literary model for our time; and sociologist Daniel Bell quotes six full paragraphs from "The Library at Babel" to illustrate the modern epistemological dilemma in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. Perhaps the greatest artistic homage to the Argentine author is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, a dazzlingly erudite detective novel set in a medieval monastery with an enormous manuscripts collection ("Borgesian" traits, all) presided over by a blind librarian named Jorge de Burgos (an obvious play on Borges himself).

On another level of discourse, Time magazine once likened the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C., to Borges's infinite Babel of books, and film critics routinely spice up their reviews with passing comparisons to Borges fantasies. The author's slim volumes have been displayed on American drugstore racks, are read by French students in the trains of the Paris Métro were being studied by a hotelkeeper I once met in Warsaw, and are still varyingly imitated by a number of contemporary novelists in the United States. This is a renown truly remarkable for an author so learned, so difficult, and at times so precious as is Borges (approximate English pronunciation: BOR-hess).

His achievements as an artist aside, this global fame owes something to the fact that Borges's prose fiction translates and travels abroad quite gracefully, whereas the works of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the Only Hispanic-American author to have gained a world following prior to Borges, appear almost exclusively in a medium not known for moving with ease across frontiers and oceans. On the other hand, Neruda justly received the Nobel Prize in 1971 an award that never was to be Borges's lot, presumably because of the Swedish Academy's original mandate to honor only those authors positively marked by moral idealism. (The idea that Borges's latter-day conservatism cost him the Nobel is not necessarily the case; after all, Octavio Paz was so honored in 1991 by which time he had become a figure of orthodoxy and a defender of the brutal contra wars in Nicaragua.)

Still, virtually every other international accolade managed to come Borges's way. His first leap into the world arena occurred in 1961 when he shared a major European publishers' award (the Prix Formentor) with another multilingual writer, the Franco-Irishman Samuel Beckett, after which the plaudits and publicity accumulated at a dizzying rate. Starting in the decade of the 1960s through the year of his death in 1986, Borges embarked on countless lecture tours across the Americas, Western Europe, and Asia, delivering hundreds of talks in four languages. In 1967-1968, for instance, he held the Charles Eliot Norton chair of poetry at Harvard University, a post previously held by, among others, T. S. Eliot, e. e. Cummings, Ben Shahn, Aaron Copland, and Igor Stravinsky. In 1971 Borges received from the hand of Mayor Teddy Kollek the biennial Jerusalem Prize, whose recipients have included Bertrand Russell, Ignazio Silone, Eugène Ionesco, and Simone de Beauvoir. On different occasions, oxford, Columbia, and Harvard Universities have granted honorary doctorates to Borges. One year General de Gaulle bestowed on the Argentine author, at André Malraux's request, the title Commander of the Order of Letters and Arts; another year he received the Order of Merit of Italy; yet another time he was appointed Knight of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth; and in 1976 he addressed the United States Congress on the subject of Shakespeare. Whatever the ultimate worth of all this public adulation, these official honors reflected the degree to which Borges's writing had entered the mainstream of world literary culture.

It had not always been this way, and least of all in Borges's native Argentina. What was astonishing about this flood of recognition is that it came all at once, and late, when the author was well into his sixties. Before 1961 Borges had been writing in relative obscurity in Buenos Aires, his fiction and poetry read by a few hundred readers at most, praised by a handful of individuals (many of them personal friends and acquaintances), and ignored by his compatriots, who were slow in perceiving his worth or even knowing about him. The Argentine middle-class reading public, notorious for preferring translations from the French, gave Borges's own major works scant notice. On the other hand, during the nationalist 1940s and 1950s, when liberal, Europeanizing culture came under Peronist siege, Borges was more or less blacklisted by the official press, his name appearing only in Sur magazine and in the book supplement of La Nación; meanwhile, the local literary prizes regularly went to lesser talents who enjoyed political favor with the juries.

It was the French, in fact, who first gave Borges serious attention, boosting his reputation abroad and even at home. In 1925, Valéry Larbaud in La Revue Européenne praised Borges's youthful volume Inquisitions, singling out its great erudition and broad sense of culture. In 1933, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle traveled in Argentina and, upon returning to Paris, remarked, "Borges vaut le voyage" (Borges is worth the trip). Later, during the Nazi occupation, a number of French intellectuals—men of letters Roger Caillois and Paul Bénichou, photographer Giséle Freund—were exiled in Argentina, where they met and read Borges. Back in liberated France they brought word of his tales and began placing them in magazines such as Sartre's Les temps modernes. The first foreign edition of Borges's stories, a volume entitled Fictions, appeared in France in 1951. The 1961 Prix Formentor (whose jury included the prestigious Gallimard publishing house) was the take-off point in Borges's recognition in Europe. Since then, structuralist theorists and critics such as Gérard Génette have found in Borges not just another exotic genius on whom to lavish high Gallic praise, but a wise master from whose doctrine of literary space they can learn a great deal and whose general theory of writing and reading brings forth major questions for study. In a very real sense, it was the French who, as Borges himself once put it in an interview, made him visible.

The Prix Formentor first caused Borges's name and face to be printed and publicized throughout his homeland. Fifteen years afterward, Borges remembered how, shortly after news of the award had appeared with his picture in the Argentine press, he was riding in a taxi, and at the end of the trip, the awed cabbie declined payment and asked to shake the author's hand—an episode suggestive of that impending avalanche of national acclaim. As is often remarked, too many Argentines will accept a homegrown cultural product only if it has been applauded overseas. A standard instance in this regard is the tango, a musical form that, owing to its humble origins, was deemed beneath contempt by educated Argentines at the turn of the century. Suddenly, in the 1910s, the tango became a European rage: it was sung at the Moulin Rouge, praised occasionally by French intellectuals, and danced by fashionably dressed demoiselles at "tea-and-tango parties"—at which point Argentine tastemakers put aside class prejudice and claimed this music as their own. In much the same way, the larger Argentine readership began seriously to recognize Borges only when his books came back with the official seal of French fame.

Borges's onetime neglect at home now seems strangely remote, almost idyllic. If anything, the Borges of the 1970s and 198os appeared in the Argentine mass media with dizzying frequency. His public lectures were attended by people of all educational levels, class backgrounds, and ages—needy students as well as ladies in furs—who often contended for standing-room space in crowded auditoriums, in what seemed less a cultural event than a religious service. The literati, even those who deplored and despised the conservatism of the elder Borges, admiringly quoted his lyrics in private gatherings and cafes, while pop-music composers set tango tunes to lines by Borges. When the author would go for his afternoon stroll in downtown Buenos Aires, casual strangers used to walk up and chat with him, requesting his autograph, while young girls would ask if they could kiss him. As a culminating irony, his one-thousand-page, single-volume Obras completas (Complete Works, 1974), bound in green leatherette, was on display for sale in newsstands throughout the capital city. The book was reportedly a big seller during holidays.

Outside Argentina, across the southern continent, Borges's literary contribution stands as accepted fact. Throughout the Spanish-speaking world, even leftist intellectuals (Cuban ones included) cite him, if at times grudgingly. The only sectors staunchly resisting Borges's art, both in Argentina and elsewhere, have been the more hard-line nationalist elements. Whether it was the right-wing Hispanophiles of the 1930s and 1940s (who would have their art steeped in old Iberian ways) or the left-leaning regionalists of earlier and later date (who, by contrast, agitate for native Argentine lore), readers and critics from all nationalist factions have tended to dismiss Borges's writings as too European, too British, too remote from Spanish American concerns.

It was these spiritual adversaries whom Borges had in mind when preparing his well-known talk "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" (1951), a key document in Borges's aesthetic, a defense of literary cosmopolitanism in reply to Iberophiles and nativists both. On his left, to the local-color advocates, Borges aims the argument that a literature confined to immediate national subjects needlessly narrows its material range, and that (in a striking observation) Racine is no less French a poet and playwright for having concentrated on ancient Greek myths and characters. On his right, to those who would stand strictly on their Iberian cultural roots, Borges responds with a radical premise, namely that "Argentine history can unmistakably be defined as a desire to become separated from Spain" (L, 182; D, 158); here Borges goes so far as to pronounce that the appreciation of Spain's authors is a taste that is learned and acquired, whereas French or English books come naturally to Argentine readers.

Borges's premise about cultural roots grows out of and reflects certain peculiarities of the history, society, and culture of the Republic of Argentina, especially Buenos Aires. In the nineteenth century, of course, many South American countries, following political independence from Spain, also repudiated in varying extents their Hispanic heritages, looking to England and France for their models. In Argentina, though, this dynamic was taken considerably further—some Argentine leaders even toyed idly with the idea of adopting French as the national language, for instance. Obviously an unrealistic proposition, though they did manage to ban bullfighting in Argentina—and not out of pro-taurine sympathies, either. Even the original colony had been exploited less for precious metals than for agriculture and livestock, historical circumstances that were to generate a national style very much its own. Whereas in other parts of the empire, both under Spain and after independence, the indigenous peoples were absorbed as slave labor for the mines and haciendas (as often as not remaining culturally unassimilated), in Argentina the Indians were swept off the land and mostly liquidated, in conscious imitation of the U.S. model.

Argentina, moreover, is the only Latin country into which Britain's Empire, under the encouragement of liberal, Anglophile politicians like Sarmiento, managed to penetrate politically and culturally (unlike, say, Cuba and Mexico, countries that have waged successful battles against foreign invaders, a fact that inevitably reinforces antiforeign modes of feeling). Finally, massive immigrations from Italy, Eastern Europe, and (to a lesser degree) the British Isles would inevitably transform the Argentine demography, particularly that of the capital, which became, like New York, a cosmopolitan city, differing markedly from the Argentine provinces, which have far more in common, socially and culturally, with the rest of Hispanic America. A full 40 percent of the Buenos Aires population, for instance, is of Italian origin; another half a million (most of them now assimilated) are of Jewish descent. Spoken Spanish in Buenos Aires has an unmistakable Italian lilt, and styles of dress are strongly European and British. (There is even a large Harrod's in the middle of the city.) One revealing symptom of the non-Hispanic character of Argentina is a relatively low incidence of that distinctive Spanish trait: double family names.

In the visual realm, much of Buenos Aires's architecture, storefronts and street signs, and even its arboreal arrangements are virtual facsimiles of those of France. This "look" is the result of a conscious political decision made in the early twentieth century, when Argentina's elites set out to make their city into the Paris of Latin America. The great mansions of the high oligarchs were modeled after French villas and cháteaux. When master architects were not brought in directly from France and Germany to do the job, they were simply commissioned to draft their designs in the comfort of their European offices. Meanwhile, Argentine architects either trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris or followed the lead of the French school's hegemonic ideas. And then there are the famous boulevards of Buenos Aires, which were laid out in unabashed imitation of the renowned urban-renewal programs carried out in Paris by Baron Haussmann under Napoleon III. In sum, though Argentina may belong, politically and economically, to the Third World, the cultural resources, appearances, and flavor of its capital city are strongly—some would say deceptively—European.

Borges's life is closely linked with Buenos Aires and all that it represents. Born in what is known as the microcentro, he was to spend most of his existence in various parts of the city, frequently alluding in his work to its buildings and streets, and in old age residing in an apartment just five minutes' walk from the street where he was born. A dyed-in-the-wool porteño, he always professed the cosmopolis dweller's snobbish indifference to much of the rest of Argentina—the Andean cordillera, or the far south for instance. Even the famed Iguazú falls, which he never visited, aroused no interest in him. It is the non-Hispanic, cosmopolitan, European drift in Argentina's national history, then, with its vivid incarnation in the urban metropolis, that underlies and sustains Borges's bold proposal that the Argentine writer make use of "all of Western culture" (L, 184; D, 160)—which is to say, the entirety of European and local phenomena. To Borges it is not a matter so stark as choosing between rural gaucho legends and German philosophy but of reaping the riches to be found in both. To illustrate his point, Borges takes from American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen a well-known analogy: the Jews in Europe who, long associated with Western culture without being part of it, have felt less tied to its past, less bound to its traditions, and thus have tended to be discoverers of new forms, originators of new ideas rather than curators of the old. Another analogy favored by Borges is Ireland, an area on Britain's periphery that has given the world more than its share of English-language authors. In the twentieth century, as is well known, the chief "British" poet, novelist, and dramatist—Yeats, Joyce, and Shaw, respectively—were Irish.

Of course, as is the case with all such programmatic statements, Borges's general theory grows out of his concrete practice as an Argentine writer of the cosmopolitan type. Poised on the periphery in a remote Western outpost, Borges takes on whole chunks of European experience—the Greek myths, the Roman Empire, early Christian doctrine, medieval Islamic thought, Jewish mysticism, academic theology, philosophical idealism, French symbolism, Victorian orientalism, Irish republicanism, English sleuth yarns and spy thrillers—and then remakes these variegated disciplines, subcultures, and genres (playfully, ironically, irreverently, fancifully, sometimes magically) into fresh forms and new structures. On the other hand, conspicuously absent in Borges's later writings, save for many allusions to Cervantes, are Spain and its literature. At the same time, it is unfair to say, as do many of his detractors, that Borges turns his back on local materials, for his works include numerous stories dealing with Argentine subjects such as gauchos, rural toughs, urban gangsters, the Martín Fierro legend, and the nineteenth-century civil wars. For that matter, as we have seen, even the cosmopolitanism of Borges's celebrated fantasies reflects a specific and identifiable quality in the Buenos Aires way of life, a set of values that has played a key role in Argentine history.

Borges's universalism has its Latin American side as well. The intimate history of that continent presents numerous individual figures who, by dint ofreading all the books, manage to absorb more of European culture than most Europeans could ever imagine. From the seventeenth century nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (who studied vast amounts of philosophy and theology on her own, wrote some first-rate specimens of Baroque poetry, and also displayed an uncanny sense of scientific method, all of whose talents were eventually stifled by colonial Catholicism and male prejudice) to the twentieth-century poet and novelist José Lezama Lima (who gave the impression of carrying all of world literature within his square head and gigantic body, and yet scarcely ever set foot outside his native Cuba), Spanish America has produced these freak intellects who live a kind of vicarious cultural ecumenism while remaining as local as the next fellow in their daily lives. A familiar fictional instance of this is Aureliano Babilonia in García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the last scion of the Buendía household, a bookworm who seldom leaves his study and somehow learns everything, including the street names of Brussels and Rome and even some practical Sanskrit too.

Borges's defense, indeed advocacy, of the cosmopolitan position dates from the 1940s. In its wake, in the novels of the so-called Latin American boom, his formulation has been keenly borne out and vindicated. Authors like Cortázar, García Márquez, Carpentier, Cabrera Infante, and Puig in their very best books have judiciously shunned the pitfalls of excess localism. Though the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier was actively involved in Fidel Castro's revolution, his greatest book, Explosion in a Cathedral, is set in Haiti, France, Guadeloupe, Spain, and various ships on the ocean, as well as his native Cuba. Similarly, the action of Cortázar's Hopscotch moves to Buenos Aires from the Latin Quarter in Paris, with much discussion on subjects ranging from Zen Buddhism, American jazz, and Argentine tangos along the way. Even when a work by these novelists depicts a small provincial town, the larger outside world is shown to enter and affect the locality, be it in the direct form of travelers or through the cultural medium of foreign movies and books (as Puig does in his novels). García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude portrays a remote village in Colombia, yet Colombia and its geography are seldom mentioned, though convincingly evoked; at the same time, there are tales of journeys across the globe, with numerous place-names given. García Márquez's cast of characters includes a learned gypsy, an Italian dance teacher, a Catalan bookseller, a Belgian entomologist, various North American banana-company types, and even the Wandering Jew. The range of cultural references in these authors' work is also quite vast, with artifacts, names, and assorted "isms" from Europe entering freely into the texts—if only to be held up for subtle criticism.

In reality, the issue of local versus cosmopolitan, national versus universal, is a deceptive, probably false, opposition, for neither portion of the dichotomy has greater intrinsic value than the other and each one in its pure form can be harmful. A cosmopolitanism without some local roots easily becomes lifeless and academic, sterile, snobbish, and abstract, while a localism unmitigated by broader outside influences leads to smallminded gossip or self-congratulatory xenophobia. Any art worthy of esteem finds an adequate blend of both, or, as the critical commonplace says, great works of art are somehow both concrete and universal.

Though Borges's stories are the works most immediately associated with his name, they form but a fraction of his total output—some forty books and probably thousands of magazine articles. Moreover, as we saw earlier, not a few of those stories make use of Argentine subjects; in the same way, roughly half of Borges's lyric verse (some three or four hundred pages) has a nativist touch and deals with Buenos Aires landmarks or Argentine historical figures. Borges's literary journalism—written for local consumption and published in small journals, news dailies, and middlebrow magazines such as Hogar (Home), where in the 1930s Borges reviewed foreign books—far outweighs, in terms of bulk, the fine-grained stories on which his global fame rests. Hence, throughout his fife as a man of letters, Borges has written not for foreigners but for interested Argentine readers and friends. And though his universalism is obviously essential to his work, it is something picked up on native ground, through family ties and from wide reading at home. Borges never went the route of self-exile, which has been the lot of many an author of peripheral origins since the Yankee James and the Irishman Joyce. Except for his seven years as a late adolescent and young adult in Europe, and his globetrotting dating from the 1960s, Borges's life and work are experientially rooted in the world of Buenos Aires.

Borges's personal identity, moreover, originates in the historical reality of Argentina. Names of his ancestors figure prominently in the nation's books, archives, and street signs. They are men who founded and governed colonial settlements, who fought in the wars of liberation from Spain, who took part in the politics of early independence, and who spearheaded the frontier warfare that shaped the Republic. Among Borges's ancestors are Juan de Garay, founder of Buenos Aires; Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, who founded Córdoba (Argentina's second largest city); a distant great-uncle, Francisco Narciso de Laprida, who, at the 1816 Congress of Tucumán, declared the independence of "the United Provinces of South America" from Spanish control; great-grandfather Colonel Isidoro Suárez, who led a decisive battle against the Spaniards in the early nineteenth century; and his grandfather, Colonel Francisco Borges, who fought against Indians and gaucho insurgents. The Borges line is one rich in martial antecedents, a fact of which the author was always proud. As a boy, he grew up with swords, knives, and other such battle gear decking the walls of the family home. As a poet, he often wrote movingly of them, both the men and the instruments.

Needless to say, bookish Borges stands far removed from this world of fast action, blood, and gore—except through the vicarious medium of those poems dealing with military battles and his stories depicting gauchos. Thomas Mann in his novel Buddenbrooks gave striking shape to this historical phenomenon in the character of young Hanno, a delicately artistic boy, who emerges and flourishes only at the point when the grand old Buddenbrooks family is in decline, is indeed nearing the end of its existence. The real-life artist Borges vividly incarnates Mann's notion, for he is the very last of the immediate Borges line, there being no brothers or sons to perpetuate the name. Beyond the family, Borges himself once remarked to some reporters that his career as author closely coincides with the secular decline of the Argentine nation.

The paradox, then, is that Borges's greatest writing—universalist and cosmopolite but also porteño in outlook—issues from a man whose roots he deep in his country's past. As a minor indication of this, Borges's Argentine interviews differ substantially in content from his hundreds of published conversations with foreign interlocutors; for in the company of compatriots his allusions, hints, and echoes are of an extremely local kind, recognizable only by other Argentines. In a quite literal sense, Borges's family past and personal handiwork are part of the national history; he is as much an Argentine author as, say, Robert Lowell (whose Boston-Brahmin origins are analogous to Borges's own background) is an American one.

The strong British and even Anglophile streak in Borges also comes, to some extent, out of family ties. His grandmother, Frances Haslam, was a Victorian lady who, on a chance visit to her sister in Argentina in 1870, happened to meet Colonel Francisco Borges and there married him within a year; tragically widowed in 1874., she stayed on with the family in Buenos Aires until her own death, six decades later, in 1935. Among the offspring of the union was Borges's father, Jorge Guillermo, bilingually raised; Jorge Guillermo in turn nurtured his son Jorge Luis—"Georgie," as he was affectionately called—on both Spanish and English, while Grandmother Haslam used to recite to him from the King James Bible, much of which she knew from memory. (Borges once recalled how, as a child learning to talk, he found himself addressing his Argentine grandma one way, his English one another; it was only some time later that he realized he had been employing different languages.)

In sum, the author-to-be grew up in what was a happy blend, a richly harmonious world of two languages and their cultures: military-historical Argentina and nineteenth-century England, with the intellectual and political attitudes of each. It is thus understandable that Borges should see no conflict between European and Argentine cultural values, inasmuch as he stems from and is a beneficiary of both. These nativist-cum-foreign strands in Borges's genealogy are also the basic constituents of his artistic makeup, persisting throughout his life as a man of letters.

 

The author of several works of criticism and fiction, Gene H. Bell-Villada is Professor and Chair of Romance Languages at Williams College in Massachusetts.