NOT long ago I spent a few weeks in Buenos Aires, and the man I wanted most to meet there was Jorge Luis Borges, the remarkable poet, essayist, scholar, storywriter, and specialist in the abstruse. Borges is one of the most provocative writers South America has ever produced, with a reputation gradually spreading outside his native Argentina and the Spanish-speaking world. Four of his books are available in English — Dreamtigers, Fictions, Labyrinths, and Other Inquisitions —— and in 1961 he reached the world stage for the first time by sharing the Formentor International Publishers’ Prize with Samuel Beckett.
Born in 1899, Borges has lectured and taught in the United States, and has been the director of the Argentine National Library and professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Even so, several supposedly literate Americans in Buenos Aires had never heard of him when I asked his whereabouts. But I tracked him down, reached him on the telephone, and asked if we could meet. He said that he would pick me up in my hotel one afternoon that week. I was not sure of the quality of his English, and I invited a bilingual friend to stand by and serve as an interpreter, if necessary. I need not have worried. Borges’ English is as good as mine, and he speaks with no trace of accent. It impressed me that he had suggested meeting in my hotel, because I had been told by Argentine acquaintances that it was difficult for him to get around.
Borges has a wonderful face — seared, humorous, questing, faery. His voice has a light puckish tone, and he loves to talk, making gestures as if he were juggling invisible small balloons. We drove to the National Library, which he described gaily as being of the “Turkish bath school of architecture,” and then proceeded to the headquarters of the Argentine Writers’ Club, a building at once haughty and ramshackle which, of all things, reminded me of the Tolstoyan headquarters of the Writers’ Union in Moscow. Here Borges pointed out literary souvenirs precious to him — various portraits and manuscripts, a ravishing portrait of Victoria Ocampo, and an impressive line drawing of himself. “I look like an archbishop. I was fat then.” Maybe so, but the picture didn’t look fat, and I remembered stories I had heard about Borges in his youth, when he was one of the most romantic beaux of his time.
bv John Gunther
Some members of the Argentine avant-garde tend to dismiss Borges for being old-fashioned, but he is an extremely modern writer by any reasonable definition of the term. His dark, haunting, infinitely subtle stories resemble those of De Quincey, Poe, G. K. Chesterton, Kafka, the contemporary German existentialists, and above all, Joseph Conrad. He is a difficult writer to grasp, if only because he combines melodrama with elaborate intellectualization. He thinks of life, he told me, as a “maze without a center.”
One of his most celebrated stories. “Funes the Mcmorious,” which appeared in the Paris Review in 1962, has been explained as being a cryptic study of insomnia, but its metaphorical quality is such that this theme is not easily visible. One subject that appealed to him — so, at least, I have heard—was suggested by the early H, G. Wells, dealing with a flower that devoured a man. One critic in Holiday calls him “arcane,” “defiant,” “ornately mannerist,” “outrageous,” “metaphysical,” and “hallucinatory.” John Updike, discussing him at appreciative length in the New Yorker (October 30, 1965), refers to his inveterate bookishness, his preoccupation with the “hidden pivots” of history, and his basic concern for “the gravity of the human condition.” He is a narrow writer, but one of tempestuous intensity.
This is a Borges poem which reflects one aspect of his disposition. He wrote it in English:
I offer you lean streets.
I offer you the bitterness of a man who has
looked long at the lonely moon.
I offer you my ancestors.
I can give you my loneliness, my darkness,
the hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe
you with uncertainty, with danger, with
Borges is blind. He told me that he could not see my face or tell the color of my tie. Yet, with a stick he walks with perfect security and grace in the surroundings with which he is familiar. His great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all slowly went blind; he himself began to lose his sight about a decade ago. I urged him to travel to the United States to see some ophthalmological specialists there, but he replied with a sigh that he had tried everything and that his condition — he didn’t define it exactly — was incurable. His sister, a painter, is going blind as well.
Borges lives with his mother, a spry old lady of nearly ninety; his background is continental Spanish crossed with English and Portuguese. One of his grandparents came from Northumberland; another was a Portuguese ship’s captain; still another forebear was an army officer who led a cavalry charge in an Argentine civil war, an event which still seizes his imagination. “Argentines are the best fighters in South America; after that, Venezuelans and Colombians.”
He was born, he told me, in an old house in what is now the commercial center of Buenos Aires; it has long since disappeared, but it had a patio, iron gates, creepers, birds. He learned English as soon as Spanish; French came later. I asked him about the derivation of the name Borges, and he sailed off at once into a far-traveling survey of its etymology; the name connotes not only “city” (Pittsburgh, Burgos, Edinburgh) but “mountain,” “citizen” (burgher), and “bourgeois.” Did I know that Kierkegaard meant “churchyard” in Danish, and could this have any symbolic significance? Where did the word “Zen” come from? (He fairly rolled in delight when I mentioned something that happened to be new to him, that a favorite Zen Buddhist riddle asks what is the noise of one hand clapping.) Did I know that the Russian word for bread, khleb, had a close relation to “loaf” in Middle English?
Borges is positively mad about early English, and conducted a postgraduate class in Anglo-Saxon. He was close to retirement from the university, having passed sixty-five. “But I feel younger now than when I was forty. At that age I was miserable, but I enjoyed the misery.” He loves to make literary pilgrimages, and visiting the graves of English poets or pausing at their tombstones, recites long sections of their verse by heart. He was once so moved by a church in the Cotswolds, I was told, that he fell on his knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Middle English. Not only is his memory for verse striking; so is his universal capacity for literary allusion. During our afternoon he broke into recitations from Chesterton, Valery, Edgar Lee Masters (“Anne Rutledge”), and several other poets, and mentioned a wide miscellany of writers. One paradox, if it can be believed, is that he cannot memorize his own verse, although he knows countless other poets by heart; thus it is very difficult for him to put down his own work on tape .since he cannot see to read.
It was difficult to persuade him to talk about Argentina, about which I was eager to have his opinion. “Argentina was a quite important country.” Now, “All is disintegration—we stagnate.” The Argentines have pride, humor, and “intellectual but not moral conscience.” He listened with delight to an off-color joke about Evita Peron, and called her husband an abomination, a laughingstock and coward. “We were taken in, bamboozled. Both my mother and sister were arrested. 1 lost my job because I had sympathized with the Allies during the war. . . . Perón sent firemen to burn the churches. . . . Nobody had the guts to fight.”
Then his talk fluttered and floated back to Middle English, the Stoic philosophers, Greek texts, and the “wonderful nightmares” of Conrad, Wells, and Chesterton. “You will think I am an old fogy to talk about Chesterton.” I asked him if he knew a small book by Chesterton on Robert Browning, and remarkably enough, he quoted from it the very sentence I had in mind, a passage explaining Browning’s ambiguity on the grounds that he was always in such a hurry. Borges’ talk, in spite of its range, is not in the least heavy. He is airy, colloquial, full of “don’t-you-knows,” quaintness, nuances, small jokes, and quips. Late in the day, when I had to go, he told me how he had come to take up writing short stories, after decades devoted solely to verse and essays. He had never tackled fiction. Then he had a severe fall, and was ill for a long time; he showed me the bumps still visible on his head. He did not write a word for months, and did not dare to return to verse because he feared that he might have altogether lost his powers. So he said to himself cheerfully, “But if I try fiction, that will be something new, and readers will not be able to compare my old self with the new and hold the new against me.” Thus began the stream of stories that have made him famous in his old age.
Borges took me to the door with a light resonant laugh. This was the best afternoon I had in South America.