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Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)


Argentine poet, essayist, and short-story writer, whose tales of fantasy and dreamworlds are classics of the 20th-century world literature. Borges was profoundly influenced by European culture, English literature, and such thinkers as Berkeley, who argued that there is no material substance; the sensible world consists only of ideas, which exists for so long as they are perceived. Most of Borges's tales embrace universal themes – the often recurring circular labyrinth can be seen as a metaphor of life or a riddle which theme is time. Although Borges's name was mentioned in speculations about Nobel Prize, Borges never became a Nobel Laureate.

Toward dawn, he dreamed that he was in hiding, in one of the naves of the Clementine Library. What are you looking for? a librarian wearing dark glasses asked him. I'm looking for God, Hladik replied. God, the librarian said, is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes in the Clementine. My parents and my parents' parents searched for that letter; I myself have gone blind searching for it. (in 'The Secret Miracle', tr.  Andrew Hurley, Collected Fictions, 1998)

Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires. His family included British ancestry and he learned English before Spanish. Jorge Guillermo Borges, his father, was a lawyer and a psychology teacher, who demonstrated the paradoxes of Zeno on a chessboard for his son. In the large house was also a library and garden which enchanted Borges's imagination. Borges's mother, Leonor Acevedo Haedo, was a translator; she lived far into her 90's. In 1914 the family moved to Geneva, where Borges learned French and German and received his B.A. from the Collège of Geneva. According to a story, Borges's father, worried about his son's sexual initation, sent him to a prostitute in the red-light district area, the Place Dubourg de Four. There Borges started to think that his father was her "client". Borges's visit failed miserably and perhaps contributed to his lifelong difficulties with women.

After World War I the Borges family lived in Spain, where he was a member of avant-garde Ultraist literary group. His first poem, 'Hymn to the Sea,' written in the style of Walt Whitman, was published in the magazine Grecia. In 1921 Borges settled in Buenos Aires. There he started his career as a writer by publishing poems and essays in literary journals. Among his friends was the philosopher Macedonio Fernandez, whose dedication linguistic problems influenced his thought. Borges's first collection of poetry was Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). He contributed to the avant-garde review Martin Fierro, and co-founded the journal Proa (1924-26). For decades Borges was the chief contributor of Sur, Argentina's most important literary journal, which was founded in 1931 by Victoria Ocampo. He also served as literary adviser for the publishing house Emecé Editores, worked as a literary editor of the Saturday Color Magazine of the tabloid newspaper Crítica, and wrote weekly columns for El Hogar from 1936 to 1939. As a critic Borges gained fame with interpretations of the Argentine classics. His writings displayed a deep knowledge of European and American literature, in particular for such writers as Poe, Stevenson, Kipling, Shaw, Chesterton, Whitman, Emerson, and Twain. He also translated Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Henri Michaux's A Barbarian in Asia, Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, and William Faulkner's The Wild Palms.

Borges's father died in 1938, a great blow because the two had been unusually close. Borges also suffered a severe head wound. He developed a blood poisoning and nearly died. The experience freed in him deep forces of creativity, and at the hospital, where he spent several weeks, he wrote several of his most important stories. His first collection, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941) was nominated for the National Literary Prize, but a lesser book was awarded, in spite of a special issue by Sur, in which a number of his friends and acquaintances expressed their support. Later collections include Ficciones (1944), El Aleph (1949), and El hacedor (1960). Borges's interest in fantasy was shared by another well-known Argentine writer of fiction, Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq several collections of tales.

From 1937 Borges worked as a cataloguer at the Miguel Cane branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library. The job did not interest him and he usually disappeared into the basement to read (especially Kafka), write, and translate. The never-ending process of cataloguing inspired one of Borges's most famous short stories, 'The Library of Babel' (1941), in which the faithful catalog of the Library is supplemented with "thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog". Borges spent nine years at the suburban library. He was fired in 1946 from his post by the Péron regime, and appointed poultry inspector for Buenos Aires Municipal Market, a position he declined.

Borges's political opinions were not considered inoffensive. As a sign of negative attention, an attempt was made to bomb the house where Borges lived with his mother. His sister was imprisoned and his mother was placed under house arrest. With he help Miguel Cohen-Miller, a psychotherapist, Borges managed to overcome his shyness and he could accept lecture offers. Dr Cohen-Miller also noted that Borges was exaggerated sensitive, had guilt feeling and fear of sex. Later Estela Canto, whom Borges met in 1944, wrote in Borges a contraluz (1989), that Borges's attitude toward sex was one of "panic and terror".

In 1946 Borges took over the editorship of Los Annales de Buenos Aires, an academic magazine. His first story in English, 'The Garden of Forking Paths', was published in 1948 in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. After Peron's deposition in 1955 Borges became Director of the National Library. "I speak of God's splendid irony in granting me at once 800 000 book and darkness," Borges noted alluding to his now almost complete blindness. Borges also was professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires, and taught there from 1955 to 1970.

Borges shared the Prix Formentor with Samuel Beckett in 1961. After the death of his mother, his constant companion, Borges started his series of visits to countries all over the world, continuing traveling until his death. In 1967 Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with Norman Thomas di Giovanni, and gained new fame in the English-speaking world. When Juan Perón was again elected president in 1973, Borges resigned as director of the National Library. Despite his opposition to Perón and later to the junta, his support to liberal causes were considered too ambiguous. "If he thinks like a dinosaur, that has nothing to do with my thinking," said once the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. "He doesn't understand a thing about what's happening in the modern world, and he thinks I don't either." In 1980 Borges signed protests against the political repression and the "disappeared". In 1982 he condemned the Falkland Islands War – "Two bald men fighting over a comb" was his cited comment in the international media.

Borges, who had long suffered from eye problems, was totally blind in his last decades, but never taught himself Braille. He had a congenital defect that had afflicted several generations on his father's side of the family. However, he continued to publish several books, among them El libro de los seres imaginario (1967), El informe de Brodie (1970), and El libro de arena (1975). "I need books," he once said. "They mean everything to me." In New Orleas he developed a passion to jazz.

Borges was married twice. In 1967 he married his old friend, the recently widowed Elsa Asteta Millán, whom he had met decades ago when she was just seventeen. Elsa shared none of his literary interests and the marriage lasted three years. One night at Harvard, Borges was found outside the residence, in his pajamas, because she had locked him out. Since divorce did not exist in Argentina, they entered into a legal separation agreement, and Borges moved back in with his mother. His last years Borges lived with María Kodama, his assistant; they married on 22 April in 1986, though his marriage to Elsa had never been annulled. However, the relationship brought much happiness in the authors life. Kodoma had earlier participated in Borges's Old English study group and earned doctorate in English from the University of Buenos Aires. In 1984 they produced an account of their journeys in different places of the world, with text by Borges and photographs by Kodoma. Borges moved in 1985 permanently to Geneva, Switzerland. Far from Buenos Aires he died there of liver cancer on June 14, 1986, and was buried at the old Plainpalais Cemetery.

Borges's fictional universe was born from his vast and esoteric readings in literature, philosophy, and theology. He sees man's search for meaning in an infinite universe as a fruitless effort. In the universe of energy, mass, and speed of light, Borges considers the central riddle time, not space. "He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time." The theological speculations of Gnosticism and the Cabala gave ideas for many of his plots. Borges has told in an interview that when he was a boy, he found an engraving of the seven wonders of the world, one of which portrayed a circular labyrinth. It frightened him and the maze has been one of his recurrent nightmares. "Almost instantly, I understood: 'The garden of forking paths' was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'the various futures (not to all)' suggested to me the forking in time, not in space. A broad rereading of the work confirmed the theory. In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse time which themselves also proliferate and fork." (from 'The Garden of Forking Paths')

Another recurrent image is the mirror, which reflects different identities. The idea for the short story 'Borges y yo' was came from the double, who was looking at him – the alter ego, the other I. There is a well-known man, who writes his stories, a name in some biographical dictionary, and the real person. "So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away - and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man."

Influenced by the English philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), Borges played with the idea that concrete reality may consist only of mental perceptions. The "real world" is only one possible in the infinite series of realities. These themes were examined among others in the classical short stories 'The Garden of Forking Paths' and 'Death and the Compass', in which Borges showed his fondness of detective formula. In the story the calm, rational detective and adventurer Erik Lönnrot (referring to the philologist/poet Elias Lönnrot, 1802-1884, the collector of Kalevala poems) finds himself trapped in cryptographic labyrinths in a fantastical city, while attempting to solve a series of crimes. However, Borges's Lönnrot has more in common with C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown and their amazing powers of deduction than with the Finnish namesake, who traveled in the northwest Russia to collected ancient poems. The Kalevala was created by Lönnrot, edited from poems of his own and a number of separate poems and poem-fragments he had received from rune-singers. In similar way, Erik Lönnrot creates a coherent story from a series of crimes by interpreting cryptic messages and filling the holes with his own insights. Detective stories bring order into chaos. "In this chaotic era of ours," said Borges, "one thing is has humbly maintained the classic virtues: the detective story. For a detective story cannot be understood without a beginning, middle, and end... I would say in defense of the detective novel that it needs no defense; though now read with a certain disdain, it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder." ('The Detective Story', 1978)

In 'The Library of Babel' the symmetrically structured library represents the universe as it is conceived by rational man, and the library's illegible books refers to man's ignorance. In 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' Borges invented a whole other universe based on an imaginary encyclopedia. The narrator states, that 'Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men."

As an essayist Borges drew on his European education and brought attention to ancient philosophers and mystics, Jewish cabbalist and gnostics, French poets, Cervantes, Dante, Schopenhauer, and above all such English writers as Shakespeare, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, H.G. Wells, and G.K. Chesterton. His key books were Discusión (1932), Historia de la eternidad (1936), and Otras inquisiciones (1952). When many Latin American writers dealt with political or social subjects, Borges focused on eternal questions and the literary heritage of the world. However, Borges has criticized his friend Pablo Neruda, a politically highly visible author, for denouncing all the South American dictators except Juan Perón, Borges's own arch-enemy. "Perón was then in power. It seems that Neruda had a lawsuit pending with his publisher in Buenos Aires. That publisher, as you probably know, has always been his principal source of income." (Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, ed.  Richard Burgin, 1998)

For further reading: Paper Tigers: the Ideal Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges by J. Sturrock (1977); Jorge Luis Borges by G.R. McMurray (1980); Jorge Luis Borges by Donald Yates (1985); The Aleph Weaver by Edna Aizenberg (1984); Jorge Luis Borges, ed.  Harold Bloom (1986); The Poetry and Poetics of Jorge Luis Borges by Paul Cheselka (1986); Borges a contraluz by Estela Canto (1989); A Concordance to the Works of Jorge Luis Borges 1899-1986 by Rob Isbister and Peter Standish (1992); Jorge Luis Borges by Beatriz Sarle (1993); A Dictionary of Borges by Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Hughes (1990); Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, ed. by Richard Burgin (1998); Borges and His Fiction by Gene H. Bell-Villada (1999); Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge by Beatriz Sarlo, John King, James Dunkerley and Jean Franco (2007); Borges' Short Stories: A Reader's Guide by Rex Butler (2010); The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch (2011)

Selected works:

  • Fervor de Buenos Aires, 1923
  • Luna de enfrente, 1923
  • Inquisiciones, 1925
  • El tamaño de mi esperanza, 1926
  •  El idioma de los argentinos, 1928
  • Cuaderno San Martín, 1929
  • Evaristo Carriego, 1930
    - Evaristo Carriego: A Book about Old-Time Buenos Aires (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1984)
  • Discusión, 1932
  • Las Kennigar, 1933
  • Historia universal de la infamia, 1935
    - A Universal History of Infamy (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1972) / A Universal History of Iniquity (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999; translated with an introduction by Andrew Hurley, 2004)
  • Historia de la eternidad, 1936
    - A History of Etenity (in Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, 1999)
    - Ikuisuuden historia (teoksessa Haarautuvien polkujen puutarha, suom. Matti Rossi, 1969)
  • Virginia Woolf: Uu cuarto propio, 1936 (translator)
  • Virginia Woolf: Orlando, 1937 (translator)
  • Franz Kafka: La Metamorfosis, 1938  (ed.)
  • William Faulkner: Las Palmeras salvajes, 1940 (translator)
  • El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, 1941
    - The Garden of Forking Paths (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999)
    - Haarautuvien polkujen puutarha (suom. Matti Rossi, 1969)
  • Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi, 1942 (under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq, with Adolfo Bioy Cesares)
    - Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1981)
  • Poemas (1922-1943), 1943
  • Herman Melville: Bartleby, 1943 (translator)
  • Ficciones (1935-1944), 1944
    - Ficciones (edited and with an introd. by Anthony Kerrigan, 1962)  / Ficciones  (edited and introduced by Gordon Brotherston and Peter Hulme, 1976) / Fictions (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999) / The Library of Babel (engravings by Erik Desmazières, translated by Andrew Hurley, 2000)
  • Dos fantasías memorables, 1946 (under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq, with Adolfo Bioy Casares)
  • Un modelo para la muerte, 1946 (under the pseudonym B. Suárez Lynch, with Adolfo Bioy Cesares)
  • Nueva refutación del tiempo, 1947
  • El Aleph, 1949
    - The Aleph and Other Stories (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1970) / The Aleps (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999) / The Aleph (including the prose fictions from The Maker, translated with an introduction by Andrew Hurley, 2004)
  • Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca, 1950
  • La muerte y la brújula, 1951
  • Antiguas literaturas germánicas, 1951 (with Delia Ingenieros)
  • Otras inquisiciones 1937-1952, 1952
    - Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 (translated by Ruth L.C. Simms, 1964)
  • El Martín Fierro, 1953 (with Margarita Guerrero)
  • Días de odio, 1954 (screenplay, dir. Leopoldo Torre Nilsson)
  • Los orilleros, 1955
  • Leopoldo Lugones, 1955 (with Betina Edelberg)
  • Manual de zoología fantástica, 1957 (rev. ed. El libro de los seres imaginarios, 1967)
    - The Book of Imaginary Beings (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1969) / The Imaginary Zoo (translated by Tim Reynolds, 1969) / The Book of Imaginary Beings (translated by Andrew Hurley, 2005)
    - Kuvitteellisten olentojen kirja (suom. Sari Selander, 2009)
  • Obras Completas, VIII 1954-60
  • Libro del cielo y del infierno, 1960
  • El hacedor, 1960
    - The Dreamtigers (translated by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland, 1964) / The Maker (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999) / Everything and nothing (translated by Donald A. Yates et al., 1999) 
    - Unitiikerit (teoksessa Haarautuvien polkujen puutarha (suom. Matti Rossi, 1969)
  • Antología personal, 1961
    - A Personal Anthology (translated by Anthony Kerrigan, 1967)
  • Labyrinths; Selected Stories & Other Writings, 1962  (edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby)
  • El otro, el mismo, 1964
  • Obras Completas III, 1964
  • Para las seis cuerdas, 1965
  • Introducción a la literatura inglesa, 1965 (with  María Esther Vázquez)
    - An Introduction to English Literature (translated by L. Clark Keating and Robert O. Evans, 1974)
  • Literaturas germánicas medievales, 1966 (with María Esther Vásquez)
  • Crónicas de Bustos Domecq, 1967 (with Adolfo Bioy Casares)
    - Chronicles of Bustos Domecq (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1976)
  • La noche que en el sur lo velaron, 1967
    - Deathwatch on the Southside (translated by Robert Fitzgerald, 1968)
  • IIntroducción a la literatura norteamericana, 1967 (with Esther Zemborain de Torres)
    - An Introduction to American Literature (translated by Clark Keating and Robert O. Evans, 1971)
  • Nueva antología personal, 1968
  • Elogio de la sombra, 1969
    - In Praise of Darkness (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1974) / In Praise of Darkness (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999) / Brodie's Report: Including the Prose Fiction from In Praise of Darkness  (translated with an introduction by Andrew Hurley, 2005)
  • Invasión, 1969 (screenplay, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Hugo Santiago, dir. Hugo Santiago)
  • El informe de Brodie, 1970
    - Dr. Brodie's Report (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1972) / Brodie's Report (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999) / Brodie's Report: Including the Prose Fiction from In Praise of Darkness  (translated with an introduction by Andrew Hurley, 2005)
    - Hiekkakirja (suomentanut Pentti Saaritsa, 2003)
  • Il congresso del mondo, 1972
    - The Congress (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1974) / The Congress of the World  (translated by Alberto Manguel, 1981)
  • El oro de los tigres, 1972
    - The Gold of Tigers (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in The Book of Sand, 1975) / The Gold of the Tigers: Selected Later Poems: A Bilingual Edition  (translated by Alastair Reid, 1977)
  • Borges on Writing, 1973  (edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Daniel Halpern, and Frank MacShane)
  • Siete Conversaciones con Jorge Luis Borges, 1973 (with Fernand0 Sorrentino)
    - Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges  (translated by Clark M. Zlotchew, 1982)
  • Obras Completas, 1974 (edited by Carlos V. Frías)
  • El libro de arena, 1975
    - The Book of Sand (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 1977) / The Book of Sand (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999)
    - Hiekkakirja (suomentanut Pentti Saaritsa, 2003)
  • La rosa profunda, 1975
  • Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos, 1975
  • La moneda de hierro, 1976
  • Libro de sueños, 1976
  • Asesinos de papel, 1977 (with others)
  • Historia de la noche, 1977
  • La rosa de Paracelso, 1977
  • Nuevos cuentos de Bustos Domecq, 1977 (with Adolfo Bioy Casares)
  • Tigres Azules, 1977
  • Adrogué, 1977 (illustrated by Norah Borges)
  • Norah, 1977 (with Norah Borges)
  • Obras completas en colaboración, 1979
  • Narraciones, 1980 (ed. Marcos Ricardo Barnatán)
  • Prosa completa, 1980 (2 vols.)
  • Siete noches, 1980
    - Seven Nights (translated by  Eliot Weinberger, 1984)
  • La cifra, 1981
  • Nueve ensayos dantescos, 1982
  • Veinticinco agosto 1983 y otros cuentos, 1983
    - Shakespeare's Memory (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999)
  • Obra poética 1923/1977, 1983
  • Atlas, 1984 (with María Kodoma) 
    - Atlas (translated by Anthony Kerrigan, 1985)
  • Los conjurados, 1985
  • Textos cautivos, 1986 (edited by Enrique Socerio-Gari and Emir Rodríguez Monegal)
  • El aleph borgiano, 1987
  • Borges: El judaismo e Israel, 1988
  • Páginas escogidas, 1988 (edited by Roberto Fernández Retamar)
  • Biblioteca personal: prólogos, 1988
  • Obras completas 1975-1985, 1989
    - Shakespeare's Memory (translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions, 1999)
  • Selected Poems, 1998  (edited by Alexander Coleman)
  • Collected Fictions, 1998 (translated by Andrew Hurley)
  • Selected Non-Fictions, 1999 (edited by Eliot Weinberger, translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, Eliot Weinberger)
  • Correspondencia, 1922-1939: Cronica de una Amistad, 2000 (edited by Carlos García)
  • This Craft Verse, 2000 (edited by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu)
  • Borges en el hogar, 2000
  • Textos recobrados 1919-1929, 2002
  • Obras completas. Edición crítica. 1. 1923-1949, 2009 (edited by Rolando Costa Picazo)
  • Obras completas. Edición crítica. 2. 1952-1972, 2010 (edited by Rolando Costa Picazo)
  • The Sonnets: A Dual-Language Edition with Parallel Text, 2010 (edited by Stephen Kessler)
  • Poems of the Night: A Dual-Language Edition with Parallel Text, 2010 (edited  by Efrain Kristal)
  • Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations, 2013 (by Jorge Luis Borges and Kit Maude)
  • Borges at Eighty: Conversations, 2013 (edited and translated by Willis Barnstone)

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