The Immortal

A new biography reaches the heart of the labyrinth—the intense and wondrous life of Jorge Luis Borges

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?

Keeping up his cultural optimism about Argentina in public, and spending ever more of his private and literary life in codexes and codicils, Babels and Babylons, lotteries and labyrinths, Borges postponed for some time the disagreeable realization that his country and his culture were turning against him. In the 1930s he took a bold position against the local version of fascism while simultaneously distrusting and even disliking the great cats of the Hispanic literary "left," Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca, both of whom paid notable visits to Buenos Aires. Williamson suggests persuasively that there was an element of sexual envy involved in this too. But no such considerations would have influenced Borges in the detestation he felt for Juan Perón, and the fear that he experienced as he witnessed the birth of a raw, localist populism. The foul genius of Peronism lay in its demagogic dexterity: it was at once anti-oligarchic, anti-Jewish, and anti-English. By persecutions large and small—he lost his job at a library; his mother and sister were briefly imprisoned; "elitist" magazines and clubs were peremptorily closed down—Borges became persuaded that the masses who applauded this kind of thing were not to be trusted. Every time Perón fell or was exiled, the crowd yelled for him to come back. And in the sordid figure of his whorish wife Eva (or "Evita") all the brothels and tango bars, all the popular culture of the city, allied to all the suspect machismo of the Martín Fierro ballad tradition, underwent a horrid mutation into the philistine, the greedy, and the cruel. Borges's story "Ragnarök," about false gods and the need to destroy them, is very probably derived from his contempt for the votaries of such idols.

Perón, like Franco and Salazar, survived the supposed defeat of fascism in the Second World War, and he kept on torturing Argentina with his revenant third and fourth acts, ultimately dying and then ruling by posthumous proxy through the cult of his dead wife and the actual agency of his second one, the charmless Isabel. At a point in the mid-1970s the armed forces decided to put a stop to all this, and to much else besides, by an employment of the mailed fist. So when I called on Jorge Luis Borges in his upstairs apartment, 6B at Calle Maipú 994, just off the Plaza San Martín, in December of 1977, the streets of the city were being prowled by death squads.

The inscription on Edgar Allan Poe's door at the University of Virginia—"Domus parva magni poetae" ("Small home of a great poet")—would have been almost perfectly apt for the tiny quarters in which Borges and his tireless mother had for so long resided. But, no less aptly, the place was lined and piled with volumes, and the blind old man seemed to know the location of every one of them. He liked my English voice, and asked me if I would do him the courtesy of reading aloud (I later discovered, without chagrin, that he did this to a lot of visitors). Pointing to where a Kipling anthology could be found, he asked me to begin with "Harp Song of the Dane Women." "And please, read it slowly. I like to take long, long sips."

This lovely and stirring poem is made up almost entirely of Anglo-Norse words (and, incidentally, there is no way to read it fast). He told me that he'd taken up the study of Old English in 1955, when he went blind, and that "increasing blindness helped me to write 'The Library of Babel.'" Language in any permutation was a subject for which he showed immediate enthusiasm. "Do you know that in Mexico they say 'I am seeing you' when they mean 'I will see you'? I find the translation of the present into the future very ingenious." Without the smallest appearance of affectation, he said that reverse and obverse were always the same to him, "which is why I find infinity almost banal," and that in his dreams he was always "lost"—"hence perhaps my interest in labyrinths."

His shy invitation to return on the morrow and read further from his library was at once the mildest and the most imperative request I have ever received. Later leading him slowly downstairs, and across the perilous traffic to La Ciudad for lunch, I felt as if I had been entrusted with a unique coin or ancient palimpsest or precious astrolabe. (What if I tripped and took him down with me? It would be scant consolation to reflect that such a calamitous narrative would contain all other potential narratives: I was Anglo-Saxon enough to see myself being stuck with the ur-one.)Whatever I read, he commented on. "Kipling was not really appreciated in his own time because all his peers were socialists.""Chesterton—such a pity he became a Catholic!"When I queried his rather stilted praise for Neruda, he admitted that he preferred Gabriel García Márquez. (In 1926 Borges had written an essay, "Tales of Turkestan," praising stories in which "the marvelous and the everyday are entwined … there are angels as there are trees." In "The Postulation of Reality" (1931) he declared that fiction was "an autonomous sphere of corroborations, omens and monuments," as demonstrated by the "predestined Ulysses of Joyce."Along with so-called "magic realism," this prefigures the realistic magic of his "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"—another work that it is highly inadvisable to read in a hurry.)

The enduring rapture with magic and fable has always struck me as latently childish and somehow sexless (and thus also related to childlessness). But "Orbis Tertius" ("Third World") had another, less innocent and more concrete meaning in those days, symbolizing the grainy and harsh battles of urban guerrillas against the metropole. Buenos Aires was the scene of such combat as we spoke: it was impossible to avoid the subject. Borges placidly replied with a couplet from Edmund Blunden: "This was my country and it might be yet, / But something came between us and the sun." That something, he left me in no doubt, had been Peronism. As for the generals and admirals who had seized power—he sounded like an Evelyn Waugh impersonator ("the sword of honor" is a frequent reference in his work) when he announced that it was better to have a government "of gentlemen rather than pimps." Seizing the occasion to elucidate the specific Buenos Aires dockland slang for "pimp," which is canfinflero (a term of almost untranslatable—or do I mean too easily translatable?—obscenity), he discoursed with some warmth about his enthusiasm for dictatorship. (Re-reading my notes of our conversation today, and knowing now about that shriveling moment in the Geneva brothel, I wonder if the flesh trade had a special horrorfor him.) When he invited me back for the following day, I had to decline, with real regret, because I was taking an early plane to Chile. At this he asked me with perfect gravity if I would be calling on General Pinochet, and hearing my answer in the negative, expressed regret in his turn, adding, "A true gentleman. He was kind enough to present me with a literary award when I last visited his country."

Edwin Williamson's biography passes what I consider to be a small but by no means paltry test. It is absolutely solid wherever it can be checked against this reviewer's knowledge. In particular it brought back to me with extraordinary vividness the vertiginous shifts in feeling that I experienced during those two Borgesian days of languorous conversation, attentive reading, and sheer alarm. Moreover, the book shows with great care and fairness what had brought Borges to this pass. The world now knows, and some of us knew even then, that the regime of General Videla, too, was depraved by violence and corruption, and was viciously anti-English and pathologically anti-Semitic. As for the canfinflero question: Henry Kissinger's old confrere Videla is now in prison for his part in selling the babies of the rape victims he held in secret prisons—something a little rawer than mere "pimping."

At our lunch Borges joked a bit about his failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. ("Though when you see who has had it … Shaw! Faulkner! Still, I would grab it. I feel greedy.") In another context he described the sport of denying him the prize as "a minor Swedish industry." Williamson shows that by his defense of Videla and especially Pinochet, and his public attack on the memory of García Lorca during a visit to post-Franco Spain, Borges was almost willfully denying himself the laureateship. That was a measure of how distraught he felt about chaos and subversion in Argentina. Thus it speaks doubly well of him that before the dictatorship fell, he signed a statement of concern about the desaparecidos ("disappeared") and wrote a sardonic poem lampooning the mad war of grandiose and futile aggression launched by the generals against the Falkland Islands.

If there is a key story in Borges, as Williamson seems to imply, it may be contained in or near The Aleph. Much of his work led up to this collection, and much depends on it. In one of the tales within—"The Immortal"—we come upon this:

There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal. I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one's own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.

It is this capacity, I believe, that promotes Borges so far above the level of the exotic antiquarian, the obsessed bibliophile, the cloistral mapmaker, the crazed pedant, and the unreliable editor: diverting roles that he vastly enjoyed and at which he excelled. So often one comes across a passage as perfectly cut and honed as that one, uttered with a certain diffidence and yet—as is frequent with perfectionists—the product of much silent labor, reflection, and, I might add, stoicism.

When his yearning heart and brain were not engaged with the Vikings and the gauchos, or the equally heroic explorers and cartographers of the New World, Borges would turn again and again to the shaded stone arbors of Córdoba and Baghdad and ancient Persia. He was evidently magnetized by the great scholars and reasoners of the Andalusian renaissance, as they sought to peer beyond the veils of clerical dogma. (His love for Fitzgerald and Omar Khayyam makes the same point in a different fashion; how marvelous that he praised Fitzgerald's "indolence and tenacity.") Other fascinations—with the Jewish Prague of Kafka and also of the golem—manifest the same commitment to cities that are at once authentic and imaginary. If Borges could have drawn at all, he would have wanted to fuse Piranesi with Escher. It was not by chance that one of his absolutely favorite critics was F. H. Bradley, the author of Appearance and Reality.

Borges may have secretly wanted a happy ending, and certainly appears to have secretly planned for one. Having survived a number of inconclusive courtships and a null marriage, all under the vulturelike surveillance of his mother, he managed at the end to form some kind of alliance with María Kodama, a devoted young half-Japanese student of his work who was, like him, a "seeker," albeit a more amateur one. His subsequent interest in Shintoism and Buddhism lacks the mordancy and introspection (the "agenbite of inwit," as Joyce liked to put it) of his earlier hermeneutic investigations. At a certain point talk about "essence" and "oneness" and the universal becomes more tautological than inquisitive. But Borges did live to be honored eventually by a democratic Argentina; did finally get some time to himself with a girl of his own choosing; and did ultimately elect to arrive in Geneva and to surprise Kodama by telling her with decision that he wouldn't leave again. Thus he managed to cancel—I should probably say "exorcise"—his adolescent humiliation in that city, and some of the disappointments of his maturity as well. His lengthy examination of his own life, one undevoutly hopes, had proved it to be worth living. Long before, F. H. Bradley had provided Borges with a reflection that is exactly right, in that it promises more than it delivers: "For love unsatisfied the world is a mystery, a mystery which satisfied love appears to understand."

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Freedom Fries: The Political Art of Steve Brodner. Foreword by Ralph Steadman; introduction by Lewis Lapham. Fantagraphics Books. Steve Brodner's illustrations appear regularly in The Atlantic.