Beyond the labyrinth
The first comprehensvie biography of Jorge Luis Borges offers a nuanced view of the elusive man of letters
Borges: A Life
By Edwin Williamson
Viking, 574 pp., illustrated, $34.95
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) persuaded his readers that he was a writer without a biography. He used to write that nothing more important than reading a line of Shakespeare happened to him. In the end, he wrote, the forms that a writer traces in his work compose his true face. Borges was displeased by psychological writing (Dostoyevsky proves that nobody is impossible, he joked) as much as by self-expression (any I could be another I) and realism (to duplicate reality is perverse). By revising his early poetry, Borges was capable of rewriting his painful youth and lonely adulthood. Three Borgeses emerged from these radical revisions -- the young, emotional poet, amused with local colors; the mature poet, careful with sentimental overtones; and the old man, classical in taste and decorum. He also rejected his first books of essays, excusing his baroque style.
Literary theorists took on Borges as their favorite reference. He was useful to illustrate ''the death of the author" and the ''literary infinite," but also the irrelevance of the archive (classifications are arbitrary and self-parody). Moreover, to say ''I am," proposed Jacques Derrida, is to declare, ''I am mortal," because nobody could say ''I am immortal" without losing his only temporal ''I" -- a reference to Borges's story ''The Immortal," in which those who find eternal life don't have any use for the ''I."
But in this era of biographical engagement, it was only a matter of time before Borges's library would open its doors to the shy, stuttering, and suffering man who would eventually displace the Latin American gentleman who used to exercise modesty as good manners and humor as active skepticism. There were already some attempts to deal with the biographical Borges, but they followed his own game so closely that the narratives derived from the author's editing of his life and career.
Edwin Williamson, a professor at Oxford, has taken on the formidable task of providing Borges with a life, against his will and despite his masks. ''Borges" is a wonderful biography with a point. To fulfill Borges's rebirth it calls on the forces of love. The story is about Borges's wounded search for love, traumatic sexual life, distracted fiances, agonizing brief marriage, and late happiness. Even if such private stories arise from humiliation and speculation, and it is not possible to document all versions, we follow Borges's pains with the sympathy and tact of this unsentimental biography.
On occasions, it is difficult to share Williamson's biographical reading of the stories, but his vast store of testimonies, recollections, and correspondence, and his piecing together of material, seem to reveal the probable face of the Argentine master. It was inevitable that Williamson needed to venture into psychoanalytic derivations. We do not have to agree with his version of Borges's inner conflict with his father, although it is a suggestive proposition; and we do not have to accept all testimonies as factual, given the need of some old friends to include themselves in Borges's tall tale. The author could have been more skeptical of some accounts, considering the talkative willingness of hopeful disciples, literary aficionados, interlocutors with a tape recorder, and, of course, senoritas with the aura of muses.
Williamson, though, proves to be an honest biographer because his objective is not the final, elusive truth but the plotting of a character. He manages to give us a Borges with a big heart. In addition to Borges the master of intellectual ficciones and metaphysical games, we now have this vulnerable Borges, capable even of considering suicide due to unrequited love.
This is also the chronicle of a fascinating literary career, one that starts in the avant-garde of the '20s and ends up being that of one of the last ''homme de lettres," perhaps the last humanist. Borges was able to rewrite philology (the model of reading literature in Spanish) by establishing that there are no definitive texts (only for religious faith or due to fatigue, as he used to say). At the same time, he opened an international scene for Latin American literature by incorporating all traditions (to be free of a national literature is to exercise a healthy ''irreverence"). That is, innovation and appropriation were the mechanics of his critical deconstruction and inquisitive imagination. Williamson follows this process one step at a time, from the young expressionist to his play with folklore and myths, from his foundational reenactments to his definitive stories of the fantastic. Through women of conviction, true characters in the national melodrama, Borges became himself.
There are many poignant moments in this story. It had already been reported that his father took him to a brothel in Geneva to be initiated into manhood. There are conflicting versions of his failure at this rite of passage, but Williamson adds that the chosen lady was one of Borges's father's favorites, and he calls the episode Borges's original trauma. In order to advance this, his main point, Williamson takes Estela Canto's story of her love affair with Borges in the '40s at face value, supported by the psychiatrist whom Borges consulted about his shyness and guilt and who prescribed tenderness and marriage.
Almost an oral history, the book is a fine discussion of Borges's involvement in Argentine politics, literary life, fame, travel, as well as political redemption when, finally, he opposed the military, protested the abuses, and demanded human rights.
That this extraordinary life and moving book could have a final chapter on happiness and fulfillment is due to the presence of Mara Kodama, Borges's student, secretary, companion, wife, and literary executor, who, having the last word, brings us a Borges fully alive.
Julio Ortega teaches Latin American literature at Brown University.