On Borges

My thoughts have recently turned to Jorge Luis Borges, one of the greatest fantasy short story writers that ever lived. I have read Collected Fictions, a comprehensive collection of his short stories, several times cover to cover. His story “The Aleph” is on my list of the greatest short stories of all time.  Two things brought Borges back to my attention.

First of all, I saw a notice online that interested persons can cast votes for Seattle’s EMP science fiction museum hall of fame, and one of the names on the list of nominees was Borges.  I was surprised and pleased to see his name among more ostensibly popular modern writers, as he is truly worthy of the honor.  In fact, I took the trouble to cast my vote just so I could vote for Borges.

Also, while browsing the books at the Friends of the Library book sale last weekend, I came across a volume called Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography by Emir Rodriguez Monegal.  The author evidently had known Borges for decades and was a personal friend.

I had great hopes for this book.  As soon as I finished my previous reading project, I jumped on it.

Alas, it did not live up to expectations.  To put it bluntly, it’s boring.  The author spends too much time psychoanalyzing Borges’ intentions in writing and too little time simply telling the story of his life and how he came to write his books.  Every little detail about his past is punctuated with analyses of how, consciously or unconsciously, it eventually erupted in his prose.  The author goes way overboard with it.  Writers themselves generally don’t take things to such extremes.  It’s true for every writer I’ve ever read about or spoken to: we write what we write.  We want to tell a story, or evoke mystery, or create mood, or whatever.  But to nitpick it apart like this biographer does takes all the fun out of it – plus his explanations do not ring true.  For the most part, they smack of wild speculation.

Especially for a writer like Borges, to pick apart what he has written in such a manner does him a great disservice.  Although the writer was supposedly his friend, Borges did not approve the biography; it is not “official.”

The book got so boring, in fact, that I stopped reading it all and started skimming through for the good parts.  It is intermittently interesting, but you have to dredge through a lot to get to the gold.  The chapter discussing the period when he got a job at the public library to help provide for his household resonates with me.  Until he was forty, although he had published several books of poetry and essays, he lived with his parents and relied on his father’s pension for subsistence.  Here he was, writing brilliant, innovative prose, but he couldn’t make enough money at it to support himself.  So he was forced to seek employment, and ended up at a position in which he was profoundly dissatisfied.  That’s the way it is with me right now.  I’m forced to use most of my time writing Internet articles to keep myself and my household going so that I can also, in whatever snatches of time I can manage, write my stories and memoirs.

In the end, of course, Borges became renowned as a short story writer, won all kinds of honors, and got invited all over the world.  But he was already elderly and blind by the time that happened.

What a shame that this biography could not have been what it should have been.  This shining light of world literature who probably should have won the Nobel Prize deserves a definitive biography.  In the meantime, read Collected Fictions.  You won’t be disappointed.

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One Response to On Borges

  1. ergeller57 says:

    I heartily agree with your statement that Borges is among the greatest authors of our era, matching Somerset Maugham even in translation. Less known is the quality of his essays, also available in english. Recommended.

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