Jorge Luis Borges: a universal Argentine

Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine poet, essayist, and writer who was born on August 24, 1899, is widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of all time. The events recounted here occurred in his actual life.

Jorge Luis Borges: a universal Argentine
Jorge Luis Borges in the 1920s. Credit: Jorge Luis Borges Collection. San Telmo Foundation, Buenos Aires.
The emotions that literature arouses are perhaps eternal, but the means must constantly vary, even in a very slight way, so as not to lose their virtue.

Jorge Luis Borges

"Thinking, analyzing, inventing [...] are not anomalous acts, they are the normal breathing of intelligence," wrote Jorge Luis Borges in a fictional story entitled Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote. And there is no doubt that this is precisely what the writer bequeathed to humanity, through his numerous works of poetry, fiction, and literary essays, by thinking and analyzing the events that surround human beings and inventing profusely, creating works of great workmanship in which intelligence and sensibility operate in unison.

Jorge Luis Borges as a child.
Jorge Luis Borges as a child. Credit: Fundación Borges

Jorge Luis Borges' Family History

Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on August 24, 1899. The full name of the now known simply as Borges was Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo; the first three names corresponded to those of his father and grandparents, the fourth to an Uruguayan uncle, who was a diplomat.

The father was named Jorge Guillermo Borges and the mother Leonor Acevedo. The former was of English descent: Borges' paternal grandmother, Fanny Haslam, was a native of Staffordshire, England. This last fact, which may seem trivial, will be important in Borges' life since it marked the beginning of the condition of universal man that characterized him all his life.

Grandmother Haslam, who lived for many years with Borges and his sister Norah -the only one he had- used to talk to the children in English, besides reading them stories and novels in this language.

Because tuberculosis was highly contagious at that time, Borges -Georgie, as his grandmother called him- was not taken to school until he was 9 years old. During this time, the child learned to read and write in Spanish and English, thanks to the teachings of his grandmother and father.

In 1914, the family traveled to Europe in search of a medical specialist to cure his father, who suffered from a hereditary eye disease, which would afflict Borges throughout his life and, after the age of fifty, would leave him in almost total darkness.

This stay in Europe, which was intended to last about a year, was prolonged due to the war. The family settled in Geneva for a while; there, the parents decided to look for a school for their teenage children.

Borges learned French and German and included among his favorite readings works in these languages by authors such as Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Heine, Rilke, and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, just to mention a few. At the age of sixteen, Borges was an assiduous reader of literature in four languages; at eighteen he was already an aspiring poet.

In 1921, the family returned to Buenos Aires, which was completely devastating for Borges, at least at first. He had made his first close friendships in Europe and was returning to a country he felt unfamiliar with. But very soon these ideas left him and Borges devoted himself fully to his profession.

In nine years, between 1921 and 1930, he had already published seven books including poems, essays, and a biography: Evaristo Carriego; his vocation was more than proven. The first book published by Borges was entitled Fervor de Buenos Aires (poems), and it was an edition paid for by Jorge's father, published in 1923; this book opened the doors for him as a poet in a definitive way.

When the family returned to Europe in 1924, it was clear to Borges that he had to write in his language and that, far from thinking of becoming a European writer, he had to consecrate himself as an Argentine writer. A few years after the independence of Latin American countries, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a special interest in constructing and investigating the national traits that gave identity to each country. Being in his native land, Borges had been impressed by the personality of the Argentine native, whom he was discovering.

His curiosity and insatiable appetite for knowledge led him to explore the forms of everyday life of typical Argentines, hence his fondness for reading the authors of the gaucho tradition, such as Almafuerte, Ascasubi, Estanislao del Campo, and José Hernández. When Borges began to write prose, through his short stories, he would enter a sordid, dark world of crimes, passions, and conflicts, which attracted his attention.

Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Credit: Fundación Borges

Jorge Luis Borges' Search for the Narrative Form

Borges is a modern author, not only for having been linked to an avant-garde movement, which he did only for a few years, as mentioned above but also for having explored beyond the literary formulas known until then. His second aesthetic incursion was in criollismo, a field in which he also set out to find the original expression.

The Argentine author opted to move away from the bucolic, idyllic metaphor, and he set out to review the relationship that existed between the expensive suburbs and the city center, between the marginal and the urban, to find the metaphor in present, with a higher level of textual resolution, to search for the narrative form that would give a more precise account of his apprehension of reality.

Part of his search consisted of excavating, in the language of the Argentines, what was different in the use of Spanish; words such as pampa and gaucho exalted his sensibility and did not seem to him to be detrimental to Spanish, but on the contrary, they renewed it.

In the 1920s he published, among others, a book entitled El idioma de los argentinos, in which he rescued the speech as a feature of national identity, which seemed to him of great richness. This approach would not last forever, although a substratum of it would remain in stories and poems. In his mature books, the author would enter into new aesthetic searches.

The young Borges, not yet thirty years old, was still in a position to experiment literarily. At that time he did not see himself as a fiction writer, although he had already written some prose works, especially essays: Inquisiciones (1925) and El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926). It would take him even longer to publish the stories that made him famous.

In the 1930s, he collaborated in an important magazine called Sur, alongside his later close friend, Victoria Ocampo, a cultural personality of the time, nine years older than Borges, who had noticed in the "young" Borges's great literary aptitudes. Through this publication, Borges would become an international figure.

During those years, the writer established a very important friendship with an Argentine writer, a few years younger than him, who would become very famous: Adolfo Bioy Casares. From the literary point of view, the writer was leaving behind his preoccupations of the previous decade: ultraism and criollismo, and was moving toward new directions.

Jorge Luis Borges with a cat.
Jorge Luis Borges with a cat. Credit: Fundación Borges

An Unexpected Decade of Borges' Life

Towards the end of the 1930s, after his father had passed away, Borges found himself in need of a steady job. Until then, his income came from the magazines in which he collaborated. In 1937, he started working at the Miguel Cané Library, located in the neighborhood of Boedo, near La Plata Avenue.

His job consisted of classifying and cataloging the library's holdings. His stay in that library, until 1946, was neither satisfactory nor very happy. The indolence of the workers did not allow him to do his job as he wished. But like any restless spirit, he knew how to take advantage of this situation; in his free time, he dedicated himself to work on his texts, which were becoming more and more powerful and masterful.

The 1930s were especially turbulent years for Borges. During this decade his father and grandmother Fanny died, his sister had gone to live in Spain with her husband, Guillermo de Torre, and he and his mother, alone, would share an apartment. In addition, towards the end of this decade, in 1938, the author of Historia universal de la infamia (1935) suffered an accident that would definitively mark his life.

While going up the stairs to his apartment, he hit his head on the edge of an open window. This accident, which kept him between life and death due to an infection that caused septicemia, would give an important turn to his facet as a writer. Due to the strong blow, Borges believed he had lost his talent, however, after the accident, he would produce the works that finally took him to the top.

In those years he wrote two of his most relevant stories, Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote, published in 1939, and Tlón, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, published in 1940, both in Sur magazine. These two stories would be part of a volume entitled El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, whose first edition was published in 1941.

Borges' Approach to the Novel and the Structure of the Story

Borges' genius, his hallmark as a fiction author, consisted in having questioned, using his texts, the procedures hitherto used to write stories. His approach ostensibly moved away from conventional proposals and attempted a search based on the assumption of the inability of the written word to do more than imitate, to reflect.

By not launching himself totally into fiction, according to the parameters known up to then, the author of Ficciones (1944) creates a hybrid, blurs the boundaries between the genres of fiction and essay, and makes his proposal. His incursions into the spatio-temporal structure of the story represent an important break with the usages of the time.

For Borges, time will not exist in a disposition of succession of events, but of circularity: one always returns to the starting point.

Language is a reflection of what the human being can know, but it will not be reality. For Borges, the idea of the simulacrum is fundamental: the world does not exist, for us, except as a simulacrum. "The world, for Borges, is an imaginary projection, a fabulation conceived according to our intellectual structure, by our operational needs; but the reality is refractory to this mold shaped by man".

Borges, thanks to his celebrity, would get to see the world.
Borges, thanks to his celebrity, would get to see the world. Credit: Fundación Borges

Theoretical Mastery in Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis Tertius

One of his most spectacular tales of this period is Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis Tertius. In this tale, there are two imaginary countries, a country called Uqbar, located in an unknown part of Asia Minor, which is described using an American encyclopedia, of dubious provenance, and another called Tlon, discovered in an encyclopedia, also dubious, sent from Brazil to Herbert Ashe. Tlon is a unique place where time and space do not exist as we know them.

This idea of a different time is conveyed to the reader through a complex play with nouns and verb tenses. Borges thus enters into the exploration of the so-called metafiction forms, critical approaches to fiction, which will be used by many other authors. Part of Borges' theoretical mastery consists in analyzing, in deconstructing, the language that constructs the "social symbolic", based on the conventionalisms of doxa.

The publication of this book would change Borges' life. From then on, the writer would travel around Argentina giving courses and lectures. Later, his international fame would lead him to travel all over the world, invited by universities and governments. The decade of the 1940s was definitive for his consolidation as one of the best writers in Latin America.

The young poet Jorge Luis Borges
The young poet Jorge Luis Borges. Credit: Fundación Borges

Borges and the Classical Poetry

Although Borges showed a taste for fiction, he never abandoned poetry. In 1943 he published a volume of collected poetry entitled Poemas (1922-1943). In this genre, his searches were less audacious: from the ultraist, novel forms with which he began, in the poems of his maturity, he retreated more and more towards classical forms, no less valuable for that. The author no longer believed in unusual metaphors, in freedom without ties; he preferred the metaphor that remains. His poetry stands out for its precision, conceptual articulation, symmetry, and syntactic coherence.

The Missteps and the Best of Borges' Life

But not everything was fortunate in Borges' life. On the sentimental level, the Argentine writer encountered numerous impediments; he fell in love with several women but was never reciprocated. His life was surrounded by constant rejections and breakups.

Finally, in 1967, the writer decided to marry an old acquaintance of his, Elsa Astete; unfortunately, the marriage ended in complete failure. In 1970, at the age of 71, he decided to legally separate (in Argentina there was no divorce). This time it is not the woman who leaves him, but he who decides to end the relationship, arguing that he had made one of the worst mistakes of his life.

According to some of his biographers, part of his love affair was due to two circumstances: first, his father induced him into sexual initiation with a prostitute, at the age of nineteen, when they lived in Geneva, an experience that Borges found humiliating and marked him for life; second, his mother was an authoritarian woman who inhibited his possibilities of sexual maturity. Whatever the reason, the fact is that Borges suffered from loneliness and sadness due to this impossibility of amorous fulfillment.

Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinean with global appeal.
Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinean with global appeal. Credit: Fundación Borges

The Aleph: A Story with a Special Reference to the Buenos Aires Artifact

In 1949, Borges published a volume of short stories, which bears the title of one of his most famous tales: The Aleph. This story, which has achieved great popularity, has been the subject of numerous studies and commentaries throughout the world. The Aleph, an artifact containing the sum of the mysteries of all knowledge, is located in the basement of Beatriz Viterbo's house, which was to be demolished. Carlos Argentino Daneri draws the narrator's attention to the existence of this artifact; both decide to go and look for it.

Upon encountering the artifact, the narrator experiences a peculiar event: spatio-temporal relations have disappeared and Buenos Aires is nowhere to be found, just as there is no history or time. Through this artifact, the world appears, to the beholder, in an instant with all its wisdom, as a kind of eternal illumination. In this story, Borges named the streets, and concrete squares of Buenos Aires, as well as artifacts of modernity, telephones, and telegraphs, which was a step further from his previous stories, in which the city was a more abstract entity.

By the 1960s his works were translated into French and English, and he was invited to teach at American universities. Towards the end of the decade, he was finishing the book entitled El informe Brodie (The Brodie Report, 1970). This book will be different from Ficciones and El Aleph, because Borges, in a way, returns to the themes that occupied him before his fortieth birthday, related to the dark and somber side of Argentine life: crime, gauchos, machismo. This book contains three fundamental stories: La intrusa, El encuentro and El evangelio según San Marcos.

Borges was presented with honorary degrees by educational institutions throughout the world.
Borges was presented with honorary degrees by educational institutions throughout the world. Credit: Fundación Borges

Borges Never Received the Nobel Prize for Literature

From 1961 until he died in 1986, Borges received more than sixty international distinctions and awards, including honorary doctorates from universities around the world, poetry prizes, keys to cities, and legions of honor, among others. However, he would never receive the Nobel Prize. For several years, the Argentine author was nominated to receive the most important literary prize so far, but he was always denied.

It is not known precisely the reasons that prevented Borges from obtaining this recognition. It is presumed that his political ideas (he was never convinced of Peronism and he publicly attacked it) had self-marginalized him from this possibility, in addition to the racist behavior that has been imputed to him, which has not been proven. Be that as it may, at present, not having awarded this prize to the one who deserved it, appears as a historical mistake.

Borges' Last Love Story: Ulrica (The Last Novel)

From 1970 onwards, Borges would constantly travel around the world. On one of his trips, he would meet what would later become the last companion of his life: María Kodama. María Kodama met Borges when she was twelve years old. She was born in 1946, which made her forty-seven years younger than him. The Scandinavian literature scholar was Borges' assistant in his last years. Eight weeks before the poet's death in June 1986, María Kodama and Jorge Luis Borges formally married.

In the seventies, Borges would publish several books: El libro de arena (short stories) (1975); La rosa profunda (poetry) (1975); La moneda de hierro (poetry) (1976); Rosa y azul (two short stories) (1977); Historia de la noche (poetry) (1977). From El libro de arena, Borges' last book of fiction, the only love story of his production stands out: Ulrica, which, it is said, was written as a tribute to María Kodama. Four months after the appearance of this book, Leonor Acevedo, Borges' mother, who played a very important role in her son's life as a writer, died.

The poet Jorge Luis Borges with María Kodama, the last companion of his life.
The poet Jorge Luis Borges with María Kodama, the last companion of his life. Credit: Telam

Jorge Luis Borges' Last Word: Los conjurados

Los conjurados, his last book, with poems and a short prose text, was published in 1985. In the prologue to this volume, Borges wrote:

"No one can be surprised that the first of the elements, fire, do not abound in the book of a man in his eighties. A queen, at the hour of her death, says that she is fire and air; I usually feel that I am earth, tired earth. I continue, however, to write. What other fate is left to me, what other beautiful fate is left to me?"

In 1986, in Geneva, Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer. After numerous romantic disagreements, the writer was neither alone nor abandoned in his last days; his wife, María Kodama, would remain by his side until the end. His remains lie in the Plain-Palais cemetery, the cemetery of kings, as it is known in Geneva.

Jorge Luis Borges lived for literature; it was his one true love. His thirst for knowledge led him to explore numerous languages and literature, spirits, and forms of daily life. The Argentine writer spent most of his time reading and inventing; he was an innovator who explored the human imagination further than in any other field. Reading Borges' stories, poetry and essays become an intellectual and sensitive experience that those interested in the possibilities of human intelligence and emotion cannot do without.

Author: Angelica Tornero, Source: Correo del Maestro. No. 39, pp.48-54.

Bibliographical references:
Barnatán, Marcos Ricardo. Borges: biografia total, Madrid, Temas de Hoy, 1995.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Discusión, Buenos Aires, Emecé, 1989.
. El Aleph, México, Alianza Editorial, 1984.
. El informe Brodie, México, Alianza, 1987.
. Nueva antología personal, México, Siglo xxi, 1994.
. El libro de arena, México, Alianza Editorial, 1989.
. Ficciones, México, Alianza Editorial, 1991.
. Los conjurados, México, Alianza Tres, 1986.
. Antología poética 1923-1977, Madrid, Alianza, 1982.
Olea Franco, Rafael. El otro Borges, el primer Borges, México, FCE, 1993.
WWoodall, James. La vida de Jorge Luis Borges, Barcelona, Gedisa, 1999.
Yurkievich, Saúl. Summa crítica, México, FCE, 1997.