Jorge Luis Borges
BORN: 1899, Buenos Aires, Argentina
DIED: 1986, Geneva, Switzerland
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, and criticism
Passion for Buenos Aires (1923)
The Aleph (1949)
Other Inquisitions (1952)
Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1972)
Jorges Luis Borges. Charles H. Phillips / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images
Jorge Luis Borges, considered by some as one of the great writers of the twentieth century, was an Argentine writer and poet. Borges was a significant influence on such celebrated Latin American writers as Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa. He is best known for his short stories, but was also an established critic and translator. His early works were classified as avant-garde, or innovative and daring compared to mainstream literature; later, his style evolved into what can best be described as ‘‘post-avant-garde.’’
Jorge Luis Borges. Borges, Jorge Luis, photograph. The Library of Congress.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A few years later his family moved to the northern suburb of Palermo, which he was to celebrate in prose and verse. He received his earliest education at home, where he learned English and read widely in his father’s library of English books. When Borges was nine years of age, he began his public schooling in Palermo, and in the same year, published his first literary undertaking—a translation into Spanish of Oscar Wilde’s ‘‘The Happy Prince.’’
European Education and Influence In 1914 the
Borges family traveled to Europe. When World War I broke out, they settled for the duration in Switzerland where young Borges finished his formal education at the College in Geneva. During World War I, most of Europe was engaged in the conflict by siding with either the Allied powers—headed by Great Britain, France, and Russia—or the Central powers, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, a handful of countries remained neutral throughout the four-year war; these countries included Spain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—where the Borges family waited out the war. By 1919, when the family moved on to Spain, Borges had learned several languages and had begun to write and translate poetry.
In Seville and Madrid he frequented literary gatherings where he absorbed the lessons of new poetical theorists of the time—especially those of Rafael Cansinos Assens, who headed a group of writers who came to be known as ‘‘Ultraists.’’ When the family returned to Argentina in 1921, Borges rediscovered his native Buenos Aires and began to write poems dealing with his intimate feelings for the city, its past, and certain fading features of its quiet suburbs.
Back to Argentina. With other young Argentine writers, Borges collaborated in the founding of new publications in which the Ultraist mode was cultivated in the New World. His first volume of poetry, Passion for Buenos Aires (Fervor de Buenos Aires), was published in 1923, and it also made somewhat of a name for him in Spain.
In 1925 his second book of poetry, Moon Across the Way (Luna de enfrente), appeared, followed in 1929 by San Martin Copybook (Cuaderno San Martin)—the last new collection of his verse to appear for three decades. Borges gradually developed a keen interest in literary criticism. His critical and philosophical essays began to fill most of the volumes he published during the period 1925-1940.
A New Style. In 1938, with his father gravely ill from a heart ailment, Borges obtained an appointment in a municipal library in Buenos Aires. Before year’s end, his father died. Borges himself came close to death from complications of an infected head injury.
This period of crisis produced an important change in Borges. He began to write prose fiction tales of a curious and highly original character. These pieces seemed to be philosophical essays invested with narrative qualities and tensions. Others were short stories infused with metaphorical concepts. Ten of these concise, well-executed stories were collected in Ficciones (1944). A second volume of similar tales, entitled The Aleph (El Aleph), was published in 1949. Borges’s fame as a writer firmly rests on the narratives contained in these two books, to which other stories were added in later editions.
Writing Under Peron. In 1946, the military-led government of Argentina came under the control of Juan Perrin, a leader beloved by many lower-class Argentineans but viewed as an anti-intellectual dictator by those skeptical of his policies. Under Perrin’s regime, Borges was removed from his position at the Buenos Aires Municipal Library. He boldly spoke out against Perrin, and remained in Argentina despite the persecution he faced. In 1955, following the overthrow of the Perrinist regime in Argentina, Borges was named director of the National Library in Buenos Aires. In that same year his sight deteriorated to the point where he became almost totally blind.
After The Aleph, Borges published an important collection of essays, several collections of poetry and prose sketches, and two collections of new short stories. Aside from these works, Borges wrote over a dozen books in collaboration with other persons. Foremost among his collaborators was Adolfo Bioy Casares, an Argentine novelist and short-story writer, who was Borges’s closest literary associate for nearly forty years. A Viking collection of Borges’s work began in 1998 with Borges’s Collected Fictions and followed by Selected Poems (1999), a bilingual volume of two hundred poems covering the range of Borges’s work.
World Recognition. In 1961 Borges shared with Samuel Beckett the ten-thousand-dollar International Publishers Prize, and world recognition at last began to come his way. He received countless honors and prizes. In 1970 he was the first recipient of the twenty-five- thousand-dollar Matarazzo Sobrinho Inter-American Literary Prize.
Borges married Elsa Astete Millan in 1967 but divorced in 1970. He married Maria Kodama in 1986, shortly before his death on June 14 in Geneva, Switzerland.
On March 13, 2000, the National Book Critics Circle honored Borges’s memory with the criticism award for his collection Selected Non-Fictions. The collection won praise for its sharp criticism and philosophical incisiveness.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Borges's famous contemporaries include:
Juan Peron (1895-1974): General and politician, president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and again from 1973 to his death a year later. A divisive figure, his ardent supporters praised him for his support of the working classes while his opponents considered him little more than a dictator and Nazi sympathizer.
Eva Peron (1919-1952): Wife of Juan Perron and founder of Argentina's first female political party. She seriously considered a run for the vice presidency before being appointed with the official title of Spiritual Leader of the Nation; a year later, she was dead from cancer at the age of thirty-three.
James Joyce (1882-1941): Irish modernist writer and expatriate. By the time his last novel, Finnegans Wake, was published in 1939, his influence on Latin American writers was firmly established, leading to the later ''boom'' of Latin American literature by the likes of Borges and Marquez.
H. G. Wells (1866-1946): British author known primarily for such works of science fiction as The Time Machine (1888) and The War of the Worlds (1897). Wells was also an outspoken socialist and pacifist. Borges, an admirer of Wells, was influenced by both his literature and his politics.
Works in Literary Context
In his 1969 study The Narrow Act: Borges’s Art of Allusion, Ronald J. Christ offers an important piece of advice to anyone reading Borges for the first time: ‘‘The point of origin for most of Borges’s fiction is neither character nor plot ... but, instead, as in science fiction, a proposition, an idea, a metaphor, which, because of its ingenious or fantastic quality, is perhaps best call[ed] a conceit.’’
The Labyrinth. Borges’s signature in literature is the construct known as the labyrinth. The writer’s life is transmuted into images that are reanimated in his work. Reid wrote, ‘‘The library becomes the infinite library of Babel, containing all the possible books and turning into nightmares.’’ In a 1983 interview with Nicomedes Suarez-Arauz in the Massachusetts Review, Borges discussed his discovery of the labyrinth as a youth in his father’s library. A book he found there included a large engraving of a building with many cracks. With his myopic vision, Borges thought that with a magnifying glass he would find a Minotaur—a fierce creature who inhabited a maze in Greek myth—within the seemingly exitless maze. Of the experience he stated, ‘‘That labyrinth was, besides a symbol of bewilderment, a symbol of being lost in life. I believe that all of us at one time or another, have felt that we are lost, and I saw in the labyrinth the symbol of that condition.’’
The lost labyrinth is a particularly favored form in the author’s work, especially in the story ‘‘The Garden of the Forking Paths.’’ Borges told Suarez-Ariuz that such a construct was something magical to him. He said that the ‘‘lost labyrinth seems to me to be something magical because a labyrinth is a place where one loses oneself, a place (in my story) which in turn is lost in time. The idea of a labyrinth which disappears, of a lost labyrinth, is twice as magical. That story is a tale which I imagined to be multiplied or forked in various directions. In that story the reader is presented with all the events leading to the execution of a crime whose intention the reader does not understand.’’
Postmodernism. Continuing the tradition of fantastic literature established by Edgar Allan Poe in the nineteenth century, Borges transformed the genre into an electric whole that allowed him to explore philosophical ideas and to pose relevant questions. After participating in and observing the development of the avant-garde during the first quarter of the century, Borges created his own type of post-avant-garde literature in order to reveal the formal and intellectual density involved in writing. Borges’s influence is seen, especially in Latin American literature, in various writers such as Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his confessed admirers.
The first half of the twentieth century saw an explosion of literary schools, styles, and attitudes espoused and practiced by Argentine poets, novelists, and short-story writers. By the time Borges wrote The Aleph, his country had witnessed the birth and death of several literary movements, all of which surface in the whole of Borges’s work.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Borges's work is often marked by extreme erudition and a concern more with fantastical ideas rather than plot or character. Other such works include:
Foucault's Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco. Three friends hatch an occult conspiracy plan that takes on a life of its own in this novel.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) by Milan Kundera. Czech writer Kundera explores the idea of ''forgetting'' in different contexts in this novel.
Murphy (1939), by Samuel Beckett. Beckett, like Borges, experimented with the short story form and adapts many of the latter's techniques in this novel, especially the incorporation of various types of obscure knowledge as an essential element of the story.
Works in Critical Context
Borges is universally regarded as a major and powerful figure in twentieth-century literature; indeed, it is as difficult to find a negative critique of Borges’s work as it is to find an essay on the failures of Shakespeare as a dramatist. Most critics agree with James E. Irby, who boldly states in his preface to the 1962 collection Labyrinths that Borges’s work is ‘‘one of the most extraordinary expressions in all Western literature of modern man’s anguish of time, of space, of the infinite.’’
When Borges’s collection of short stories The Garden of Forking Paths initially appeared in Argentina in 1941, reviewers were quick to recognize something new. Most critical commentary had concentrated on his poetry, although in 1933 a special issue of the magazine Megafono devoted to a discussion of him reveals that critics had begun to treat him as a writer of prose as well as poetry.
Although Borges’s stories garnered critical acclaim, the jury charged with selecting the 1941 National Literary Prize did not choose The Garden of Forking Paths as the recipient of the award. Many Argentinean writers and critics were outraged, and they subsequently dedicated an entire issue of Sur, an important literary magazine, to a consideration of his work. Nevertheless, even among those critics who felt he should have received the award, there was some reservation. Most commonly, these reservations focused on his cerebral style and his esoteric subject matter.
Other critics, however, found Borges’s work to be important and original. In his book Jorge Luis Borges, Martin Stabb cites, for instance, Pedro Henriquez Urena’s famous comment: ‘‘There may be those who think that Borges is original because he proposes to be. I think quite the contrary: Borges would be original even when he might propose not to be.’’
In the early 1940s the translation of his work into English began in literary magazines, although it was not until the early 1960s that whole collections were translated and published. However, the work made an immediate impact. John Updike presented an important survey of his work in the New Yorker in 1965, a review in which he noted his fascination with calling attention to a work of literature as a work of literature. Another seminal article on Borges by the novelist John Barth appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. In the article, Barth discussed the literature of the 1960s, placing Borges at the center of such literature. In addition, Barth paid careful attention to his use of the labyrinth as an image in his work.
Other critics attempt to trace the influences on Borges’s work. Andre Maurois, in a preface to Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby’s edition of Labyrinths, directly addresses his sources. He cites H. G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, G. K. Chesterton, and Franz Kafka as important influences on Borges’s writing. Borges himself noted in several places the debt he owed to Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling.
‘‘The Aleph”. ‘‘The Aleph’’ is conventionally praised as one of Borges’s most important stories. In her 1965 study Borges the Labyrinth Maker, Ana Maria Barrenechea argues that ‘‘the most important of Borges’s concerns is the conviction that the world is a chaos impossible to reduce to any human law.’’ She specifically praises ‘‘The Aleph’’ as an example of ‘‘the economy of Borges’s work’’ in its ability to erase ‘‘the limits of reality’’ and create in the reader ‘‘an atmosphere of anxiety.’’ In his 1969 study, Ronald Christ contends that ‘‘The Aleph’’ stands as wholly representative of Borges’s art and his attempts to ‘‘abbreviate the universe in literature.’’ To Christ, the Aleph of the story’s title is a symbol of Borges’s style and desire to compose another of his ‘‘resumes of the universe.’’ Martin S. Stabb, in his 1970 book Jorge Luis Borges, suggests that ‘‘The Aleph’’ is Borges’s attempt to explore his dominant themes in a lighthearted fashion that may not possess the depth of his other work that reads as a ‘‘half-philosophical, basically playful composition—generously sprinkled with Borgesian irony and satire.’’ Perhaps the most effusive praise of the story comes from George R. McMurray, who (in his 1980 study Jorge Luis Borges) states that the story not only reflects the ‘‘mystical aura of magic that imbues so many of Borges’s works,’’ but also ‘‘emerges as a symbol of all literature, whose purpose ... is to subvert objective reality and recreate it through the powers of imagination.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Look at some of the other writers of the Latin American ‘‘boom.’’ What are some of the countries that produced important writers after World War II? What political or social changes happened in those countries that these writers comment on in their works?
2. Borges lived during a very tumultuous time in Argentine history. What were the important political events in Argentina from 1900 to 1986? What happened in the 1970s and 1980s? Why do you think many of the Latin American writers who were influenced by Borges criticized his refusal to write about politics?
3. Research the philosophical puzzles known as the paradoxes of Zeno and Pascal’s sphere. How do stories such as ‘‘The Aleph’’ dramatize these paradoxes in narrative form?
4. Part of what makes ‘‘The Aleph’’ a success is Borges’s setting it in an everyday location and describing the fantastic event in everyday language. Compose a story in which a character discovers a fantastic object or event and use Borges’s style to describe it. How does the use of everyday language heighten the believability of the event for the reader?
5. Literary allusions are references within a story to other historical or literary figures, events, or objects. Try to identify at least five allusions in ‘‘The Garden of Forking Paths.’’ Look up the allusions in a dictionary and/or encyclopedia. How does your understanding of the story change with your understanding of these allusions?
Balderston, Daniel. The Literary Universe of Jorge Luis Borges: An Index to References and Allusions to Persons, Titles, and Places in His Writings. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Cheselka, Paul, The Poetry and Poetics of Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.
Sole, Carlos A., ed. Latin American Writers, vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
SEE Maryse Conde