The love-life of a literary guru


Biography/Borges: A Life By Edwin Williamson: Perhaps more than any other writer, and most famously in his story 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote', the Argentine, Jorge Luis Borges, drew attention to the ambiguous nature of the reality-status of fictional texts. Every generation and indeed every reader, according to Borges, will elicit from the "same" text a different reading, writes Michael Smith

The validity of any one reading is always debatable. G. Bell, commenting on Borges's essay on Kafka, has written: "In a very real sense, Borges has created his own precursors by recasting them in his native tongue". Arguably, Borges has recast a huge corpus of English fiction - most notably, the stories of Kipling, Wells, Stevenson and Chesterton - and in doing so has provided the contemporary reader with new and exciting readings of so many texts long buried under library dust. Among his many achievements, "Mister" Borges, the Argentine, has done an immense service to English literature, and at the same time brought not only Argentine fiction, but indeed the fiction of the whole Latin American Continent, on to the stage of world literature. And that is no small achievement.

Although he was garrulously repetitive in writing about writers and literature, Borges was always massively reserved in writing and speaking about his personal life. The same few autobiographical details were trotted out again and again and their repetition provides no additional insight into the inner workings of the man. Moreover, he loathed that ruthless investigator of the personal, Freud. He was characteristically scathing of biographers who delve into the personal lives of their subjects at the expense of the appreciation of their writings; and notwithstanding all the literary showmanship displayed on the American campus and elsewhere, no one, not even di Giovanni, his official translator, in the 'Autobiographical Essay' (extracted by di Giovanni and which Borges demanded would never be translated into Spanish) ever managed to get beneath the skin of Borges. Now, in his Borges: A Life, Prof Edwin Williamson has attempted a personal analysis of the Argentine literary guru.

Let me say straight away that Prof Williamson, especially in the opening chapters of his book, is superb in informing us of the historical and sociological background of Borges and the Argentina of his times. No one, so far as I know, has as yet done this better, either in Spanish or English. And this kind of background knowledge enhances enormously our understanding of Borges's writings. But this is not the selling point of Williamson's book. Instead. Williamson has focused on Borges's love life, on that private life of which Borges was always so protective.

Many women featured in the life of Borges: among them, and these are the ones who mainly concern Prof Williamson, his paternal English grandmother, Fanny Haslam, his mother, Leonor Acevedo (the major figure), and, after these, there are, according to Prof Williamson, a Genevan girlfriend, Emilie, a porteña, Concepción, a distant relative, Norah Lange, a wife of brief duration, Elsa Astete, and finally, María Kodama, who married Borges at the end.

Of all of these relationships, it is those with his English grandmother and his formidable mother, Leonor, that have always struck me as the most crucial. There can be absolutely no doubt that Leonor ruled the roost in the Borges household, even when the easy-going, affable and rather philandering father was alive. Leonor dominated Borges's life. Her possessively maternal influence doubtless caused sexual problems, problems which Borges never, it would seem, successfully managed to overcome.

Leonor was a self-conscious member of the Argentine criollo caste, a devout Catholic, a snob and a self-conscious member of the old aristocracy of Argentina, that had wrested independence from Spain but was later displaced, at least economically and, consequently, socially, by the new arriviste ruling oligarchy that came to power in the closing decades of the 19th century. Put bluntly, Borges never escaped from her influence. She was his mentor in most areas of his life, and his dependence on her, until her death in extreme old age, was almost childlike. Needless to say, there were conflicts in their relationship.

We come now to the question of the importance of the influences of other women in Borges's life. Prof Williamson, as I have already mentioned, makes a great deal of these. That Borges was influenced by them, there can be no doubt. Yes, he did fall in love, and with women who, it seems, did not reciprocate that love. But he was not a free agent. Mother Leonor was a constant presence, physically or psychologically. There was no one too good for her beloved son.

I learnt more from Emir Rodriguez Monegal's seminal biography on Borges, despite its shortcomings (the problem here, as elsewhere, is the partisan nature of so much writing on Borges), than I have learnt from Prof Williamson's thoroughly researched biography. His efforts to relate Borges's love "affairs" to the writings are not very convincing. I'm afraid that his reading of Borges's texts through the filter of failed love-affairs produces little new illumination of the work, at least for this reviewer.

Borges's main problem was that of identity, though, understandably, he had his sexual difficulties. That central problem of identity was caused by a complex of factors, familial and social rather than sexual. He attempted to resolve the problem in the manner of Joyce, but he was not ruthless enough to do what Joyce did. Although there were two Norahs in his life, there was no Nora Barnacle. He did not espouse the strategy of "silence, exile and cunning", though he did mythologise Buenos Aires, as Joyce did Dublin.

At the end of the day, Borges will be found to be a writer of a few masterpiece short stories such as 'The South' and a handful of very readable poems. He felt himself that he was a minor writer, even when the literary media were pushing him forward as a major writer. His marvellous ability as a reader meant he knew better. So far as literary history is concerned, there can be no doubt that he opened up South American literature to a wider world than it had ever previously known. Possibly, the international phenomenon Márquez could not have happened without him, or Julio Córtazar, to mention just two names.

He had a strong identification with Ireland, and made one visit here. One of his earliest translators, and perhaps his best (admitted by Borges himself), Anthony Kerrigan, lived in Dublin and was part of the Irish literary scene in the 1960s. It's a pity Prof Williamson doesn't mention the beautifully produced book of Kerrigan's and Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin's bilingual translations published by Dolmen Press in 1975 and the interesting prose pieces by Kerrigan in that book. But, that said, Prof Williamson's book is a valuable and interesting contribution to the mounting number of studies of Borges's life and works.

Michael Smith is a poet and translator. His two latest books, The Purpose of the Gift: Selected Poems, and Maldon & Other Translations were launched in the Adam Michiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, last month

Borges: A Life By Edwin Williamson Viking, 574pp. £25