Jorge Borges: Short Stories

Life and career

Early life and education

Jorge Luis Borges was born into an educated middle-class family on 24 August 1899. They were in comfortable circumstances but not wealthy enough to live in downtown Buenos Aires. They resided in Palermo, then a poorer suburb. Borges's mother, Leonor Acevedo Suárez, came from a traditional Uruguayan family of criollo (Spanish) origin. Her family had been much involved in the European settling of South America and the Argentine War of Independence, and she spoke often of their heroic actions.[9] Borges's 1929 book Cuaderno San Martín includes the poem "Isidoro Acevedo", commemorating his grandfather, Isidoro de Acevedo Laprida, a soldier of the Buenos Aires Army. A descendant of the Argentine lawyer and politician Francisco Narciso de Laprida, Acevedo fought in the battles of Cepeda in 1859, Pavón in 1861, and Los Corrales in 1880. Isidoro de Acevedo Laprida died of pulmonary congestion in the house where his grandson Jorge Luis Borges was born. Borges grew up hearing about the faded family glory. Borges's father, Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam, was part Spanish, part Portuguese, and half English, also the son of a colonel. Borges Haslam, whose mother was English, grew up speaking English at home and took his own family frequently to Europe. England and English pervaded the family home.[9]

At nine, Jorge Luis Borges translated Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince into Spanish. It was published in a local journal, but his friends thought the real author was his father.[10] Borges Haslam was a lawyer and psychology teacher who harboured literary aspirations. Borges said his father "tried to become a writer and failed in the attempt." He wrote, "as most of my people had been soldiers and I knew I would never be, I felt ashamed, quite early, to be a bookish kind of person and not a man of action."[9]

Borges was taught at home until the age of 11, was bilingual in Spanish and English, reading Shakespeare in the latter at the age of twelve.[9] The family lived in a large house with an English library of over one thousand volumes; Borges would later remark that "if I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father's library."[11] His father gave up practicing law due to the failing eyesight that would eventually afflict his son. In 1914, the family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and spent the next decade in Europe.[9] Borges Haslam was treated by a Geneva eye specialist, while his son and daughter Norah attended school, where Borges junior learned French. He read Thomas Carlyle in English, and he began to read philosophy in German. In 1917, when he was eighteen, he met Maurice Abramowicz and began a literary friendship that would last for the rest of his life.[9] He received his baccalauréat from the Collège de Genève in 1918.[12][Notes 1] The Borges family decided that, due to political unrest in Argentina, they would remain in Switzerland during the war, staying until 1921. After World War I, the family spent three years living in various cities: Lugano, Barcelona, Majorca, Seville, and Madrid.[9]

At that time, Borges discovered the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and Gustav Meyrink's The Golem (1915) which became influential to his work. In Spain, Borges fell in with and became a member of the avant-garde, anti-Modernist Ultraist literary movement, inspired by Guillaume Apollinaire and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, close to the Imagists. His first poem, "Hymn to the Sea," written in the style of Walt Whitman, was published in the magazine Grecia.[13] While in Spain, he met noted Spanish writers, including Rafael Cansinos Assens and Ramón Gómez de la Serna.

Early writing career

In 1921, Borges returned with his family to Buenos Aires. He had little formal education, no qualifications and few friends. He wrote to a friend that Buenos Aires was now "overrun by arrivistes, by correct youths lacking any mental equipment, and decorative young ladies".[9] He brought with him the doctrine of Ultraism and launched his career, publishing surreal poems and essays in literary journals. Borges published his first published collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires, in 1923 and contributed to the avant-garde review Martín Fierro. Borges co-founded the journals Prisma, a broadsheet distributed largely by pasting copies to walls in Buenos Aires, and Proa. Later in life, Borges regretted some of these early publications, attempting to purchase all known copies to ensure their destruction.[14]

By the mid-1930s, he began to explore existential questions and fiction. He worked in a style that Argentinian critic Ana María Barrenechea has called "Irreality." Many other Latin American writers, such as Juan Rulfo, Juan José Arreola, and Alejo Carpentier, were also investigating these themes, influenced by the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. In this vein, his biographer Edwin Williamson underlines the danger in inferring an autobiographically-inspired basis for the content or tone of certain of his works: books, philosophy and imagination were as much a source of real inspiration to him as his own lived experience, if not more so.[9] From the first issue, Borges was a regular contributor to Sur, founded in 1931 by Victoria Ocampo. It was then Argentina's most important literary journal and helped Borges find his fame.[15] Ocampo introduced Borges to Adolfo Bioy Casares, another well-known figure of Argentine literature, who was to become a frequent collaborator and close friend. Together they wrote a number of works, some under the nom de plume H. Bustos Domecq, including a parody detective series and fantasy stories. During these years, a family friend Macedonio Fernández became a major influence on Borges. The two would preside over discussions in cafés, country retreats, or Fernandez's tiny apartment in the Balvanera district. He appears by name in Borges's "Dialogue about a Dialogue",[16] in which the two discuss the immortality of the soul.

In 1933, Borges gained an editorial appointment at the literary supplement of the newspaper Crítica, where he first published the pieces collected as Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy) in 1935.[9] The book includes two types of writing: the first lies somewhere between non-fictional essays and short stories, using fictional techniques to tell essentially true stories. The second consists of literary forgeries, which Borges initially passed off as translations of passages from famous but seldom-read works. In the following years, he served as a literary adviser for the publishing house Emecé Editores and from 1936 to 1939 wrote weekly columns for El Hogar. In 1938, Borges found work as first assistant at the Miguel Cané Municipal Library. It was in a working class area[17] and there were so few books that cataloguing more than one hundred books per day, he was told, would leave little to do for the other staff and so look bad. The task took him about an hour each day and the rest of his time he spent in the basement of the library, writing and translating.[9]

Later career

Borges's father died in 1938. This was a particular tragedy for the writer as the two were very close. On Christmas Eve that year, Borges suffered a severe head injury; during treatment, he nearly died of septicemia. While recovering from the accident, Borges began playing with a new style of writing for which he would become famous. His first story written after his accident, "Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote" came out in May 1939. One of his most famous works, "Menard" examines the nature of authorship, as well as the relationship between an author and his historical context. His first collection of short stories, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), appeared in 1941, composed mostly of works previously published in Sur.[9] The title story concerns a Chinese professor in England, Dr. Yu Tsun, who spies for Germany during World War I, in an attempt to prove to the authorities that an Asian person is able to obtain the information that they seek. A combination of book and maze, it can be read in many ways. Through it, Borges arguably invented the hypertext novel and went on to describe a theory of the universe based upon the structure of such a novel.[18][19] Eight stories taking up over sixty pages, the book was generally well received, but El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan failed to garner for him the literary prizes many in his circle expected.[20][21] Victoria Ocampo dedicated a large portion of the July 1941 issue of Sur to a "Reparation for Borges." Numerous leading writers and critics from Argentina and throughout the Spanish-speaking world contributed writings to the "reparation" project.

With his vision beginning to fade in his early thirties and unable to support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer.[Notes 2][22][23] He became an increasingly public figure, obtaining appointments as President of the Argentine Society of Writers and as Professor of English and American Literature at the Argentine Association of English Culture. His short story "Emma Zunz" was made into a film (under the name of Días de odio, Days of Hate, directed in 1954 by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson).[24] Around this time, Borges also began writing screenplays.

In 1955, he was nominated to the directorship of the National Library. By the late 1950s, he had become completely blind. Neither the coincidence nor the irony of his blindness as a writer escaped Borges:[9]

Nadie rebaje a lágrima o reproche
esta declaración de la maestría
de Dios, que con magnífica ironía
me dio a la vez los libros y la noche.
No one should read self-pity or reproach
Into this statement of the majesty
Of God; who with such splendid irony,
Granted me books and night at one touch.[25]

The following year the University of Cuyo awarded Borges the first of many honorary doctorates and in 1957 he received the National Prize for Literature .[26] From 1956 to 1970, Borges also held a position as a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires and other temporary appointments at other universities.[26] In the fall of 1967 and spring of 1968, he delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University.[27]

As his eyesight deteriorated, Borges relied increasingly on his mother's help.[26] When he was not able to read and write anymore (he never learned to read Braille), his mother, to whom he had always been close, became his personal secretary.[26] When Perón returned from exile and was re-elected president in 1973, Borges immediately resigned as director of the National Library.

International renown

Eight of Borges's poems appear in the 1943 anthology of Spanish American Poets by H.R. Hays.[28][Notes 3] "The Garden of Forking Paths", one of the first Borges stories to be translated into English, appeared in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, translated by Anthony Boucher.[29] Though several other Borges translations appeared in literary magazines and anthologies during the 1950s, his international fame dates from the early 1960s.[30]

In 1961, Borges received the first Prix International, which he shared with Samuel Beckett. While Beckett had garnered a distinguished reputation in Europe and America, Borges had been largely unknown and untranslated in the English-speaking world and the prize stirred great interest in his work. The Italian government named Borges Commendatore and the University of Texas at Austin appointed him for one year to the Tinker Chair. This led to his first lecture tour in the United States. In 1962, two major anthologies of Borges's writings were published in English by New York presses: Ficciones and Labyrinths. In that year, Borges began lecture tours of Europe. Numerous honors were to accumulate over the years such as a Special Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America "for distinguished contribution to the mystery genre" (1976),[31] the Balzan Prize (for Philology, Linguistics and literary Criticism) and the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and the Cervantes Prize (all 1980), as well as the French Legion of Honour (1983).

In 1967, Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, through whom he became better known in the English-speaking world. He also continued to publish books, among them El libro de los seres imaginarios (Book of Imaginary Beings, (1967, co-written with Margarita Guerrero), El informe de Brodie (Dr. Brodie's Report, 1970), and El libro de arena (The Book of Sand, 1975). He also lectured prolifically. Many of these lectures were anthologized in volumes such as Siete noches (Seven Nights) and Nueve ensayos dantescos (Nine Dantesque Essays). His presence, also in 1967, on campus at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA) influenced a group of students among whom was Jared Loewenstein, who would later become founder and curator of the Jorge Luis Borges Collection at UVA,[32] one of the largest repositories of documents and manuscripts pertaining to the early works of JLB.[33]

Later personal life

In 1967, Borges married the recently widowed Elsa Astete Millán. Friends believed that his mother, who was 90 and anticipating her own death, wanted to find someone to care for her blind son. The marriage lasted less than three years. After a legal separation, Borges moved back in with his mother, with whom he lived until her death at age 99.[34] Thereafter, he lived alone in the small flat he had shared with her, cared for by Fanny, their housekeeper of many decades.[35] From 1975 until the time of his death, Borges traveled internationally. He was often accompanied in these travels by his personal assistant María Kodama, an Argentine woman of Japanese and German ancestry. In April 1986, a few months before his death, he married her via an attorney in Paraguay, in what was then a common practice among Argentines wishing to circumvent the Argentine laws of the time regarding divorce.

On his religious views, Borges declared himself as an agnostic, clarifying: "Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen".[36]

Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer in 1986 in Geneva and was buried there in the Cimetière des Rois. Kodama, his widow and heir on the basis of the marriage and two wills, gained control over his works. Her assertive administration of his estate resulted in a bitter dispute with the French publisher Gallimard regarding the republication of the complete works of Borges in French, with Pierre Assouline in Le Nouvel Observateur (August 2006) calling her "an obstacle to the dissemination of the works of Borges". Kodama took legal action against Assouline, considering the remark unjustified and defamatory, asking for a symbolic compensation of one euro.[37][38][39] Kodama also rescinded all publishing rights for existing collections of his work in English, including the translations by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in which Borges himself collaborated, and from which di Giovanni would have received an unusually high fifty percent of the royalties. Kodama commissioned new translations by Andrew Hurley, which have become the standard translations in English.[40]

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