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The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries... Like all men of the Library, I have travelled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book...
- from The Library of Babel
Jorge Luis Borges1 is considered one of greatest writers of the 20th Century, but he never wrote a novel; his longest short story runs to around a dozen pages while some of his essays are slightly longer. In these short works he laid some of the foundations of post-modernist literature and Magical Realism2. He is famous for his stories that explore the nature of time, space and the infinite.
Early Life and Poetry
Borges was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on the 24 August, 1899. He came from a distinguished, middle class family of Spanish, Portuguese, English and Jewish descent. The Borges had played significant roles in Argentina's fight for independence in the 19th Century as soldiers and freedom fighters.
His father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was a lawyer and a teacher of psychology. He was also a failed writer and he desperately wanted his son to become a successful one. From an early age Borges was surrounded by books. His favourites were Mark Twain, The Arabian Nights, Dickens and various encyclopaedias.
He was a shy child, an attribute that continued up to middle age, and his only real friend was his sister Norah. When he first went to school in 1908 he was bullied relentlessly. This came to an end in 1914 with his family's relocation to Switzerland. He went to school in Geneva until 1919 and it was here that he discovered many of the writers and thinkers that were to influence him throughout his life.
After he finished his education he travelled in Europe and lived briefly in Spain between 1919 and 1921. While in Spain he was associated with the avant-garde poetic movement known as Ultraista whose main doctrine was 'the one elementary fact about literature is the metaphor'. It was at this time that he published his first poem in the Spanish magazine Grecia.
In 1921, the Borges family returned to Argentina. He quickly became part of the city's literary society and founded an Argentinean Ultraista group, producing several periodicals. With his father's money, he published his first collection of poetry in 1923. Unconcerned with selling the 300 copies published, he gave many away. His reputation as a poet, essayist and critic grew throughout the '20s. By 1930, he was the foremost voice in Argentinean literature.
Ficciones, Libraries and Peron
With the onset of the '30s, Borges slowly changed his method of working. He moved away from poetry and began to write fiction. His first story, published under a pseudonym in a local newspaper, was a great success.
The style of his stories was not conventional. In his first series of fiction Historia Universal de la Infamia ('A Universal History of Infamy') he took real and mythical characters and created new stories around them. Sometimes creating new events for fictional characters, at other times creating fantastic incidents involving real life characters. In these stories, again published in newspapers, it can be said he laid the foundations for Latin American Magical Realism3.
In 1937, financial concerns meant that he had to take his first 'proper' job. He became an assistant in a municipal library in Buenos Aires for $70 per week, cataloguing books, sometimes those written by himself. He found the work tedious, but it allowed him to spend many hours in the basement reading and writing the stories that would bring international glory. His life here gave rise to one of his most famous stories: The Library of Babel.
Borges gave these pieces the collective title of ficciones (fictions) as opposed to stories and the book published with this title is regarded by many as the beginnings of post-modernist literature.
In late 1945, Borges upset the then vice-president Colonel Juan Peron in a public statement addressing fascism in Argentine society. When Peron was elected president a few months later, he 'promoted' Borges to the role of Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the market in Cordoba. Borges resigned rather than take the position. He turned to lecturing throughout the country and became one of the most public opponents of the Peronist regime. As a result of this, in 1948 Peron imprisoned his sister and placed his mother under arrest.
Blindness and Later Years
In 1955, Peron was overthrown and Borges was made Director of the National Library of Buenos Aires. At this time however, he had been given some devastating news. He had become blind. In a 1977 lecture, he said:
In my case, that slow nightfall, that slow loss of sight, began when I began to see. It has continued since 1899 without dramatic moments, a slow nightfall that has lasted more than three-quarters of a century. In 1955 the pathetic moment came when I knew I had lost my sight, my readers and writer's sight.
This was a genetic condition. His father had also gone blind in middle age and Borges had had trouble with his sight since childhood, but it was in 1955 that doctors finally ordered him never to read or write again.
Ficciones had been translated into French in the early '50s and despite his fame at home it was only in the '60s that he became known internationally. In 1961 he was jointly awarded the Formentor Prize with Samuel Beckett. His work was then translated into many languages and Borges travelled the world at the invitation of countless universities. Up until his death, he received around 50 prizes and honorary doctorates. He became famous among students and drifted into the popular culture of the '60s4.
However, he was no longer able to write as he had done because of his blindness. From the '60s onwards, he identified himself with the blind poets Homer5 and John Milton. He returned mainly to poetry, which was easier to revise in his head. He published several anthologies as well as a few collections of (very) short prose pieces and stories.
He continued to be the Director of the National Library but resigned in 1973 when Peron returned to Argentina from exile in Spain. Borges travelled abroad for many years after this, always protesting against the excesses of the military dictatorship.
He died of liver cancer on 14 June, 1986, in Geneva, where he had his schooling.
If one thing can be said about Borges it is this: he read more books than you ever will. This love of books, which continued unabated after his blindness, was a springboard for his fictions. He would read his favourite philosophers and create stories around these (and his own) ideas.
Many words and concepts reappear throughout his writing: labyrinths, mirrors, dreams, illusion, infinity... He was fascinated by these as metaphors for the human mind, a fascination created when his father would teach him philosophy and psychology as a child.
Some stories take the form of reviews of imaginary books or essays. Others are simply fantastical situations taken to their logical extremes.
The following is a brief description of a few of his stories6.
In The Library of Babel, Borges imagines an infinite library filled with every conceivable book, but most of these contain random sequences of letters. Somewhere, he explains, there must be a book that is the catalogue of all of these, a book that contains the key to all the others. The person who owns this book is 'analogous to a god'.
The Garden of Forking Paths is the story of an infinite Chinese novel in which every event that can happen does happen. It is part spy story and part metaphysical inquiry into the nature of multiple realities.
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius concerns an imaginary world created by a secret society of philosophers that slowly begins to take over our real world.
Funes the Memorious is about a man with a completely infallible memory. Borges imagines what it would be like to be aware of and to remember every single detail of a person's life.
In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, the eponymous 20th Century author re-writes Don Quixote word for word. This book, Borges argues, is superior to Cervantes' original despite the fact that they are identical. 'The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer'.
Borges' significance cannot be overestimated. The flavour of 20th Century Latin American fiction can be traced to him. But his influence is not a stylistic one, but more in a way of thinking. He opened a way for authors to diverge from the more traditional methods of telling a story.
Despite the awards and prizes he received, Borges never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a decision that surprised many in the literary world. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when receiving the award in 1982, commented: 'I hope he receives it [the prize]... And I still don't understand why they haven't given it to him.'
He has a reputation for being an 'author's author', as one who writes philosophical games of interest only to other writers. But he dismissed this, as he dismissed his own reputation:
I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as 'The Masses'. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.
- from the introduction to The Book of Sand
Many people have happily called themselves his friend.