Visions from the Library Basement: A Mid-life Rebirth
Borges’s biggest fear was that he had lost his creative ability; that the disease had burned it out of him. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth – he was about to embark on a creative arc that would eventually carry him to world fame. In an attempt to discover whether or not he still possessed his creative faculties, he penned a new story, an attempt at something different, something unique. The result was “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” Next he wrote “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Both were well received and published in Victoria Ocampo’s Sur. Delighted at his new surge in creativity, he began writing stories in the basement of the library, and so while his co-workers above obliviously frittered away their time on gossip, Borges was busy in the basement planting the seeds of postmodernism. “The Library of Babel” became his nightmare allegory for his job, and other stories quickly followed. In 1941, a collection of these stories was published, The Garden of Forking Paths, which would later be added to Artifices and retitled Ficciones in 1944. In 1942 he published a series of spoof detective stories with his younger friend Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, under the joint pen-name of “Bustos Domecq.”
In addition to his new stories, which ingeniously mixed philosophy, fact, fantasy and mystery, Borges also began to write political articles again. Appearing in El Hogar, these articles didn’t so much support any one political system as criticize many of the general trends of the time: anti-semitism, nazism, and the increasing decline into fascism. Ironically he gained wider recognition for his articles than for his brilliant, but largely unnoticed, fictions – a fact that was to cause him problems when the fascists came into power in the mid forties. In 1946 Juan Perón was elected president, and due to his political affiliations, Borges was “promoted” to “Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the Public Markets.” He immediately decided to resign, remarking that “dictatorships foment subservience, dictatorships foment cruelty; even more abominable is the fact that they foment stupidity. To fight against those sad monotonies is one of the many duties of writers.”
God’s Splendid Irony: The Fifties
Fortunately for Borges, being fired revealed itself as a mixed blessing. Soon after leaving the library, he accepted positions as a lecturer on American and English literature. He travelled across Argentina and Uruguay, giving talks on subjects that ranged from Blake to Buddhism. He was paid well, and for the first time in a long while, he was happy – although he could not conceal his pain at the direction taken by his country. The Perón regime, though coming short of directly detaining him, did attempt to make life more difficult for his family and friends. After taking part in a protest, his mother and Norah were arrested in 1948; his mother was placed under house arrest, but Norah was thrown in a jail primarily reserved for prostitutes. (When given the opportunity to be set free – if she wrote a letter of apology to Evita Perón – Norah elected to remain in jail.) Borges could rarely give a lecture without the presence of a police informer in the audience . . . although on a very Borgesian note, he actually came to know the agent, who himself was less than thrilled with his duties but needed to earn a paycheck. Still, his work went on. In 1949 his second major book of short stories appeared, The Aleph. It is perhaps notable that the title story concerns a disillusioned man who painfully denies his enemy the chance to experience the entire universe.
In 1950 Borges was elected President of the Sociedad Argentina de Escritores (The Argentine Writer’s Society.) The SADE had mainly political overtones – as in non-Peronista – and was under scrutiny. A typical meeting eventually fell into an interesting pattern, whereby the artists would airily discuss complex literature and philosophy until the police agents present would be bored into sleeping or departing, after which the real political discussions would take place. Despite their precautions, however, the SADE was eventually closed.
In 1952 Borges published his major collection of essays, Other Inquisitions.
In 1955 the “Revolución Libertadora” took place, and Borges was back in favor. Even though the government was still military in nature, they decided that too much culture was wounded under the gentle graces of Juan Domingo and his lovely wife Evita. The SADE was reopened, and much to his amazement Borges was appointed Director of the National Library, the job of his dreams. By this time Borges was going completely blind; interestingly two of the previous directors of the National Library had also been blind. He took it as stoically and gently as possible: “I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness.” He took his job very seriously, and determined to make the library into a cultural center, he started a program of lectures and resurrected the library’s journal. In 1956 he was named to the professorship of English and American Literature at the University of Buenos Aires, a position he was to hold for twelve years; and later that same year, he unsurprisingly won the National Prize for literature. By the late fifties, he was astonished to find out that books were being written about his life and work, and he rapidly attracted a wide circle of dedicated students. It was around this time that he wrote one of his most intriguing pieces, “Borges and I.”
With the assistance of his students and of his mother, who had begun to translate English classics into Spanish, he continued his career. To compensate for his loss of vision, he turned again to poetry, a form of writing that he could more easily revise in his head than on paper. He also continued his pursuit of knowledge, acquiring a taste for the old Anglo Saxon language and Old Norse. In 1960 he published El hacedor or “The Maker,” which was later retitled in English as Dreamtigers. Essentially a collection of prose pieces, parables, and poems, Borges considered El hacedor to be his best, and most personal, work.
An End to Solitude: The Sixties
Although it was the 1940’s that first gave Borges the glimmer of international fame, when his works were translated into French by Ibarra and Callois, it wouldn’t be until 1961 that he would gain genuine world-wide recognition. That year he and Samuel Beckett were jointly awarded the second-ever International Publishers Prize (the Formentor Prize, which included an award of $10,000), and he found that the global spotlight was suddenly turned upon him. His work was translated into English, and all at once he became in demand. Ficciones was translated into several languages and made its way into many countries, becoming the first Latin American work to achieve such attention. He was invited to the University of Texas, and in 1961, in the company of his mother, he experienced America for the first time, a country that he had always considered in semi-mythic proportions. He spent six months travelling across America, lecturing at universities from San Francisco to New York. He would visit the United States numerous times over the rest of his life, giving lectures, readings, and informal discussions.
In 1963 he travelled again to Europe, revisiting many locations from his childhood memories and meeting again with old friends and associates, and in 1967 he was invited by Harvard to spend a year in the U.S. as a visiting professor. There he met Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who would become a good friend, a literary collaborator, and one of his principal translators. That same year he also married his old friend Elsa Astete Millán, whose husband had died in 1964. Unfortunately it was not a fulfilling marriage for either of them – Elsa had grown used to a settled, married existence, and Borges was still too much the explorer. In addition, Elsa spoke only Spanish and felt uncomfortable in English-speaking countries and in front of English-speaking guests. The marriage lasted for less than three years, and in 1970 Borges and Millán obtained a divorce, and Borges moved back with his mother. Throughout these years, however, Borges still traveled quite extensively, visiting Europe, England, Scotland, and Israel. He wrote many more volumes of poetry, and a few collections of short stories and essays. In 1967 – the year that Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was published – he and his old friend Bioy-Casares published another “Bustos Domecq” book, The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq. In 1970 a collection of more traditionally “Argentine” stories came out, El Informe de Brodie, “Dr. Brodie’s Report.” He developed an acquaintance with one of the students who attended his lectures, María Kodama, an Argentine with Japanese ancestry. She agreed to work as his secretary, and eventually their association blossomed into a collaborative friendship. He would later marry her during the last year of his life.
So Many Mirrors: The Long, Wandering Autumn
In 1973, Juan Perón, recently returned from exile in Spain, was again elected president of Argentina. Although Borges’s fame was now extensive enough to render him immune from persecution, the writer refused to be a part of a Perón government. In 1973 he resigned as Director of the National Library, and decided to spend the next few years travelling and lecturing, producing another collection of stories, El libro de arena, or “The Book of Sand” in 1975. That same year, his mother died at the age of 99. Long ago people had begun mistaking Borges and his mother for brother and sister.
Life still had much in store for Borges, however. In 1976, the Japanese Ministry of Education invited him to Japan, and he finally got to visit a culture that had long fascinated him. When Isabel Perón was replaced by another military coup later that year, Borges began another one of his periodic flirtations with politics. In a similar vein to his earlier experience with Yrigoyen, Borges at first accepted the new government with a certain amount of trust and tolerance – a stance that won him the surprised disappointment of many of the Argentine left. But as mounting evidence revealed that the new government was just as abusive of power as any other traditional Argentine junta, Borges began to criticize its policies, until the “absurd war” over the Falkland Islands instigated yet another disgusted withdrawal from the world of politics.
His travels continued, and accompanied by María Kodama he journeyed around the world and compiled a travel atlas – he provided the text, and she the pictures. The resulting work, Atlas, was published in 1984, and presented their journeys as an almost mythical voyage of discovery, a travelogue through both time and space. It was during these travels that he finally had the chance to fulfill a childhood dream – stroking the fur of a living tiger. Unfortunately, the tiger’s thoughts are unrecorded.
Two years later, near the end of his long and wondrous life, he and María were married. On June 14, 1986, at the age of 86 and having never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer in Geneva.
“Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.”
In His Own Words. . . .
Oh destiny of Borges
to have sailed across the diverse seas of the world
or across that single and solitary sea of diverse names,
to have been a part of Edinburgh, of Zurich, of the two Cordobas,
of Colombia and of Texas,
to have returned at the end of changing generations
to the ancient lands of his forebears,
to Andalucia, to Portugal and to those counties
where the Saxon warred with the Dane and they mixed their blood,
to have wandered through the red and tranquil labyrinth of London,
to have grown old in so many mirrors,
to have sought in vain the marble gaze of the statues,
to have questioned lithographs, encyclopedias, atlases,
to have seen the things that men see,
death, the sluggish dawn, the plains,
and the delicate stars,
and to have seen nothing, or almost nothing
except the face of a girl from Buenos Aires
a face that does not want you to remember it.
Oh destiny of Borges,
perhaps no stranger than your own.
– Jorge Luis Borges
Timeline – A brief timeline for Borges’ life and works
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Autobiographical Essay” from El Alef
Lennon, Adrian. Jorge Luis Borges.
New York: Chelsea House, 1992.
Monegal, Emir Rodríguez. Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography.
New York: Paragon House, 1978.
Sorrentino, Fernando. Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges.
Troy, NY: Whitson, 1981.
Sturrock, John. “Introduction to Ficciones.”
New York, NY: Knopf Everyman’s Library, 1993.
Williamson, Edwin. Borges: A Life
New York, NY: Viking, 2004.
Woodall, James. Borges: A Life
New York, NY: Basic Books/HarperCollins,1996.
A special “thank you” to these kind people who sent me information, recollections, or corrections:
Francisco de Monasterio
–Allen B. Ruch
21 September 2004