By Edwin WilliamsonViking
In early 1925, in a literary magazine in Buenos Aires called Proa ("Prow"), which he had helped to found, Jorge Luis Borges wrote an essay called "El Ulises de Joyce." He would then have been just twenty-five years old, and was anxious to boast of being "the first Hispanic adventurer to have arrived at Joyce's book." Far from content with this avant-garde claim, he evolved the further ambition to do for his native Buenos Aires what Joyce had done for Dublin, and to weave from its slums and boulevards the lineaments of a universal city. On the centennial of Leopold Bloom's epic meanderings this is a delightful coincidence to come upon if you believe—but cannot perhaps quite prove—that there is something universal about literature, too, and that unforgiving Time, as Auden said in farewell to Yeats, nonetheless "Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives."
In this altogether first-rate biography, Edwin Williamson identifies another element in Joyce that kindled an answering spark in Borges. The Irish, Borges wrote, "have always been famous agitators of the literature of England." Might it not be possible, then, that a young writer in Spanish, in a Spanish ex-colony at the other end of the world, could also raise a body of work that would resonate in the wider tongue, and bring the local practice of letters one step beyond the national, the folkloric, and the epic?
Had he cared to do so, Williamson could have pressed the analogy a little further. Like Joyce, Borges was never quite at ease with his countrymen, and was permanently at odds with the Roman Catholic Church. Like Joyce, he was immured within an increasingly untreatable blindness. He was fascinated by Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon philology. He is buried in Switzerland, which he loved and where he died. He even had a tempestuous girlfriend named Norah. But with the ostensibly negligible difference made by that single, redundant, non-aspirate h—a Borgesian micro-element of distinction between his own adored object and Nora Barnicle—the parallels would begin to diverge. Borges did not have even a hundredth of Joyce's libido. And he had been cursed with the opposite of Joyce's family problem: he had a somewhat weak and futile father and a mother who just would not quit. The father made the decision to send him, on or around his nineteenth birthday, to a brothel in Geneva. This was a course of action that, we can be sure, Joyce could and would have decided on for himself; but the effect on a sensitive boy who could not quite rise to the occasion appears to have been lifelong and disabling. (It put me in mind of the narrator of Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy, a much less tender figure who is quite as thoroughly nauseated by the same paternal notion of what constitutes un rite de passage.)
Joyce had to struggle for his cosmopolitanism, and indeed for his philo-Semitism, which were in Borges's case innate. As well as Spanish-Argentine lineage, Borges had a grandmother called Fanny Haslam, than which I suppose there could be no more English name outside the pages of Jane Austen; and she made sure to rear him (as he once told me) so that he spoke both tongues before he could become aware of any distinction between them. His first immersion was in the literature of Anglophilia, from Stevenson to Shakespeare. The name Borges is originally Portuguese, and this Lusitanian-Brazilian blood was commingled through another branch of the family tree with that of an Italian Jew named Suárez. Buenos Aires has always had ethnic neighborhoods, principally Italian and German and Jewish, on which the grandeur of Spanish conquest and the aloofness of a British merchant-and-rancher colonial class are superimpositions. Someone had to be born to whom this was a natural and also appealing state of affairs—someone to whom the Babel of discrepant languages and cultures was not chaos but, rather, the design for an eventually imposing but also microscopically intricate tower.
Williamson lays stress on the word criollo, which in Argentina is cognate with "Creole" without having at all the same meaning. It signifies an Argentine of inarguably Spanish descent, and it mixes this definition of ethno-linguistic security with the more uncertain pursuit of a distinctly "Argentine" identity. For Borges, taking up this cultural ambiguity meant trying for a specific national literature that could nonetheless be valuable and intelligible to non-Argentines. Taking up the same ambiguity in its political form involved a belief in democracy and in local vernaculars and idioms. Yet, as Joyce himself found when the Irish repudiated his beloved Parnell, a democrat and republican can sometimes find himself sickened by public opinion. A version of this irony was to break Borges's heart.
Given the somewhat conservative demeanor that he had adopted by the time he became globally celebrated, it is fascinating to find just how much Borges in his earlier years was prepared to stake on radical and modernist positions. He came onto the stage almost like an extra in Tom Stoppard's Travesties, in which James Joyce converges with Lenin and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara in Zurich. He welcomed the Russian Revolution, made lifelong friendships with Swiss Marxist Jews, took part in Surrealist and Expressionist masquerades, and shuttled between Europe and Latin America. In 1928 he gave a public address in Buenos Aires in which he told his fellow criollos to integrate.
In this house which is America, my friends, men from various nations of the world have conspired together in order to disappear in a new man, who is not yet embodied in any one of us and whom we shall already call an "Argentine" so as to begin to raise our hopes. This is a confederacy without precedent: a generous adventure by men of different bloodlines whose aim is not to persevere in their lineages but to forget those lineages in the end; these are bloodlines that seek the night. The criollo is one of the confederates. The criollo, who was responsible for creating the nation as such, has now chosen to be one among many.
As far as was possible, Borges remained true to this loftily expressed ambition. He argued earnestly about the national epic The Gaucho Martín Fierro, which is to Argentina—though it boasts a far more "accessible" demotic appeal—what the sagas are to Iceland or Beowulf is to Anglo-Saxon England. That the lone gaucho might be the nation's emblematic figure—a Robin Hood or a Daniel Boone—Borges was happy to concede. But that such a person—unscrupulous, untied by any social obligation, and thirsty for murder and spoils—should be the model citizen was a bit more debatable.
This may be the moment to say that Borges's repeated fascination with tigers, knife fighters, daredevils, and solitary horsemen, some of it passed on from his stiff-necked criollo mother, has a tinge of the vicarious about it, and strikes the only faintly inauthentic note in his fiction. It corresponds, probably not all that obliquely, to his oft manifested wince of fascinated disgust at sexual relations. In his intense story "The Cult of the Phoenix," for example, the initiates are wedded to lubricity and, indeed, "slime" (légamo), and the penny will drop for most readers long before Borges closes by saying,
On three continents I have merited the friendship of many worshipers of the Phoenix; I know that the Secret at first struck them as banal, shameful, vulgar and (stranger still) unbelievable. They could not bring themselves to admit that their parents had ever stooped to such acts … Someone has even dared to claim that by now it is instinctive.
Williamson permits himself a rare lapse into the dead-literal by noting with solemnity that "years later Borges would tell Ronald Christ that he meant the Secret to refer to sexual intercourse." Perhaps the name of this interlocutor was irresistible …? Incidentally, I have taken the quotation above, and also the title of the story, from Andrew Hurley's translation. Some may prefer Norman Thomas di Giovanni's version, "The Sect of the Phoenix." It sometimes amazes me that Borges, with his immaculate English, felt he needed a dragoman at all. But who would not have desired the job?