Borges, Jorge Luis (1899–1986)

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Borges, Jorge Luis (1899–1986)

Jorge Luis Borges (b. 24 August 1899; d. 14 June 1986), Argentine writer. Born in Buenos Aires, Borges attended the Collège de Calvin in Geneva during World War I. In the period immediately after the war, he became involved with ultraism, an avant-garde movement in Madrid, and on his return to Argentina helped start an Argentine ultraist group. His earliest surviving poems are iconoclastic, showing concern with the trench warfare of the Great War and sympathy for the Bolshevik Revolution. In the 1920s Borges published three books of poetry (Fervor de Buenos Aires, Luna de enfrente, and Cuaderno San Martín) and three books of essays (Inquisiciones, El tamaño de mi esperanza, and El idioma de los argentinos); his writings of the period are imbued with cultural nationalism, in keeping with his support for the populist leader Hipólito Irigoyen.

In the early 1930s Borges worked for a time on the literary supplement of Natalio Botana's innovative daily Crítica; it was there that he first published the sketches of the lives of various gangsters, pirates, imposters, and murderers that became his first book of fiction, Historia universal de la infamia (1935). In 1937 he became an employee at the Miguel Cané Municipal Library in Buenos Aires, a job that afforded him abundant time for reading and writing. From 1939 to 1953 he produced his most famous stories, collected as Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949). These years also saw the publication of the essays in Otras inquisiciones (1952), most of which were first delivered as lectures in Argentina and Uruguay after Borges was fired from his job in the municipal library for signing a petition against the alliance of the Argentine military with the Nazis. His lectures and essays were no doubt celebrated in part because he was viewed as a symbol of opposition to Juan Domingo Perón. When Perón fell in 1955, Borges was named director of the National Library, a job he held until the return of Peronism.

The final years of Borges's life were marked, or perhaps marred, by celebrity. Beginning in 1961 when he was awarded the Formentor Prize (an international publishers' prize, which he shared with Samuel Beckett), Borges's work was translated into many languages and became the subject of an ever more vast critical bibliography. Borges was also pursued by students of literature and by journalists; even one of Woody Allen's characters in Manhattan boasts of her intentions to interview him. As a result, we know Borges's opinions on soccer, politics, Richard M. Nixon, Argentina, blacks, the English language, Federico García Lorca, and so forth, and for a time these (often misinformed or bigoted) opinions seemed to eclipse Borges's own work. Even years after his death, the details of his life seem to have the power to fascinate or titillate the public, particularly the Argentine public; revelations on his love life, brushes with psychoanalysis, proxy marriage, and death in Geneva have all, rather improbably, been major news in Argentina and elsewhere. The first English language compilation of all his short stories was published as Collected Fictions in 1998.

Of greater interest in the long run, perhaps, are Borges's complex relations to Argentine culture, history, and politics. His initial populist nationalism (and enthusiasm for Irigoyen) included a measure of intolerance for "low-brow" Argentine culture: he condemned the poet Alfonsina Storni for what he termed her shrill sentimentality, and he made similar attacks on Carlos Gardel's tangos in the 1920s and 1930s. The national tradition to which he was to prove most faithful was liberal and cosmopolitan, as defined in his lecture "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" in 1951 (later included in the second edition of Discusión in 1957); his version of the Argentine national tradition necessarily competed with a number of others, and one of them, that of Perón, was to prove rather more decisive.

Two stories written in the late 1940s illustrate Borges's complex relations to the time in which he lived. "La fiesta del monstruo," written (in collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares) in 1947 but not published until after the fall of Perón, is a ferocious satire on the Peronist mass meetings in the Plaza de Mayo in the first years of the new regime; the "Monster" of the story is Perón himself, who inspires his followers from afar in their torture and killing of a Jewish passerby. The story is narrated by a brash young Peronist and is an obvious recasting of two crucial liberal texts of the nineteenth century by opponents of the government of Juan Manuel de Rosas: Esteban Echevarría's short story "El matadero" and Hilario Ascasubi's gauchesque poem "La refalosa."

In 1948 Borges's sister and mother were arrested for taking part in a demonstration against the new Peronist constitution (which among other things, of course, gave women the right to vote). A few months later, Borges wrote a curious story, "Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva," which (when compared to "La fiesta del monstruo") is a rather more nuanced reflection on the need for political action. The character Droctulft, the Germanic invader of Italy who changes sides to join the inhabitants of Ravenna in the defense of their city, is an unequivocal convert to "civilization" but is offset in the story by an English captive woman who chooses to remain with her Indian husband. The captive's story is retold later by Borges's English grandmother, Fanny Haslam de Borges, in a way that barely alludes to the two events that consolidate her feelings of solidarity with the captive woman she saw so many years before on the pampas: her husband, Colonel Francisco Borges, was killed in the civil war in 1874 when he chose to follow Bartolomé Mitre against Adolfo Alsina; the English captive's husband was no doubt to be captured or killed in the "Conquest of the Desert" in 1879. Who is to know, Borges seems to be saying, whether one ultimately is taking the part of civilization or of savagery?

See alsoLiterature: Spanish America .


For details of Borges's life, see Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography (1978), though the text is sometimes rather untrustworthy; of great interest also is Estela Canto, Borges a contraluz (1989). Sylvia Molloy, Las letras de Borges (1979), translated as Signs of Borges (1994), is the best critical book on the author; see also Beatriz Sarlo, Jorge Luis Borges (1993) and Daniel Balderston, Out of Context (1993). A good article on Borges's cultural nationalism is Graciela Montaldo, "Borges: Una vanguardia criolla," in Yrigoyen, entre Borges y Arlt (1916–1930), edited by David Viñas (1989), pp. 213-232. Reference works include Daniel Balderston, The Literary Universe of Jorge Luis Borges (1986), which indexes most of Borges's works; Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Hughes, A Dictionary of Borges (1990), which focuses on the stories; and Ion Agheana, Reasoned Thematic Dictionary of the Prose of Jorge Luis Borges (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Alvarez, Nicolás Emilio. Discurso e historia en la obra narrativa de Jorge Luis Borges: Examen de Ficciones y El Aleph. Boulder, CO: Society of Spanish and Spanish American Studies, 1998.

Gómez López-Quiñones, Antonio. Borges y el nazismo: Sur (1937–1946). Granada: Universidad de Granada, 2004.

Salas, Horacio. Borges: Una biografia. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1994.

Woodall, James. The Man in the Mirror of the Book: A Life of Jorge Luis Borges. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996.

                                           Daniel Balderston

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Borges, Jorge Luis (1899–1986)

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