Borges: A Life Hardcover – Aug 3 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Only one of the most paradoxical men of 20th-century Spanish-language letters could have authored an equally complicated literary work such as Labyrinths. And Jorge Luis Borges's life (1899–1986) imitated his art. In this dynamic biography, Spanish literature scholar Williamson (The Penguin History of Latin America) pieces together the life of Argentina's elusive literary master against a backdrop of the country's history and the author's oeuvre. While Borges was known as a rebel of narrative form and a crusader against conservative politics, Williamson argues that in spite of his ultracerebral writing style, he lived and died with very ordinary regrets. Borges was the son of battling parents from opposing political parties and the grandson of some of Argentina's most revered military generals. Williamson shows the young writer (whom he nicknames "Georgie" for effect) as a weakling and social recluse, unable to defend himself from the world's bullies. Ultimately, Borges chose the pen over the valiant dagger, so often used in his family's bloody history, as a means of protection. Later in life, displeased with his early books of essays, he set out to buy and burn all available copies. With just the right balance of fact and insight to make for a composed and not overly inflated biography, Williamson's psychoanalysis of Borges in love and in alienation is compelling. Replete with the most detailed facts about the air surrounding Borges, the book maintains human drama without overloading on unnecessary facts to create a poignant overview of a peculiar man.
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*Starred Review* Jorge Luis Borges is one of the giants of twentieth-century literature, an Argentine writer of singular vision and talent profoundly inspired by mythology, metaphysics, detective stories, and the deepest, most contrary emotions aroused by family, country, and love. Borges greatly enhanced the philosophical and aesthetic dimensions of fiction in his provocative story-essay hybrids, entwined personal passions with political convictions in his poetry, and made of his life a quest to understand the parameters and significance of the self within the mysterious, labyrinthine universe. The withdrawn, myopic, and bookish son of a literary half-English father and a fiercely class-conscious mother, Borges began writing early on, but neither fame nor happiness found him until his later years, after he lost his sight. Williamson is the first to chronicle in full Borges' tumultuous private life, and, therefore, the first to draw crucial connections between his haunting imagery, momentous themes, and indelible voice and his smothering familial relationships, disastrous love affairs, and valiant opposition to tyranny, especially that of the Peron regime. The result is a richly psychological, dynamically intellectual, and deeply affecting portrait of an often anguished and inhibited man who, through heroic perseverance and spiritual conviction, found salvation in writing and transformed literature for all time. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Williamson does a particularly good job of pointing out the parallels between Borges' personal preoccupations, particularly his search for love, and changes in directions in his work. Borges was a sickly, bookish child who became one of those people who view the world through a highly intellectualized prism. For example, one of his enduring preoccupations was a search for love that would accomplish what Borges thought the love of Beatrice had done for Dante. Borges also had a complex relationship with his parents which also had significant intellectual dimensions and was entangled with his sense of identity as an Argentine. Like many very creative people, Borges was an odd and often unhappy individual who was able to turn some of his personal conflicts and agony into substantial work. Many of the apparently metaphysical themes of his fictions were personal issues for Borges. Williamson does an excellent job of illuminating Borges' work.
Williamson is also very good on Borges' somewhat convoluted relationship to his home country. As mentioned about, this was bound up with his complex relations with his parents. Borges was often, however, an engaged intellectual. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, he was an outspoken opponent of the right and of Peron. Some of his stands demonstrated real courage because he spoke out when Peron was at the height of his power. Late in life, unfortunately, his hatred of Peronism led to him to give support to the detestable military dictatorship responsible for the Dirty War. He came to regret this stance and did exhibit some moral leadership in human rights campaigns against the dictators.
This will be the standard biography, at least in English, for some time.
All that made for a challenging assignment for biographer Edwin Williamson, who pulled it off surprisingly well. Mr. Williamson certainly did his leg work: he apparently read everything Mr. Borges wrote short of his laundry lists, and he talked to scores of people who knew Mr. Borges when he was alive.
But the most interesting parts of this book's 384 pages was still the examination of the literature, where Mr. Williamson convincingly reveals how much of the great writer's work was an elaborate code hiding his personal suffering coming from failed loves, and a feeling of inadequacy in regard to his mother, who all but worshipped the heroes of the Argentine independence movement in her family line.
But that is about as close as Mr. Williamson comes to uncovering Mr. Borges' inner self. He could have come a bit closer had he not left out several important facts that must have been easy to come by: Mr. Borges' finally found love with former student María Kodama, who was many years younger than the writer. But Mr. Williamson doesn't tell us how much younger. Additionally, Mr. Borges' well-known and important (but puzzling) estrangement from his boyhood friend Adolfo Bioy Casares gets only a passing mention. And Mr. Borges' political naïveté and confusion -- he called Argentina's dictatorship of the mid-1970s to the early 1980s a "necessary evil" and he turned his back on his native land by choosing to die in Switzerland -- is chronicled but not explained.
It's difficult to judge how much of this is Mr. Williamson's fault. As one of the 20th century's most important and influential writers, Mr. Borges is clearly a worthy subject for a major biography. But the man's private life perhaps means that a worthy biography is impossible. Despite Mr. Williamson's noble effort, the best biography of the enigmatic Argentine may still be his collected works.
JLB was characteristically insightful and concise when he wrote in his own biography of Evaristo Carriego: "That someone may want to awaken in someone else memories that only belonged to a third person, is an obvious paradox. To carry out that paradox with nonchalance, is the naïve purpose of every biography." Edwin Williamson, apparently unsatisfied with the difficulty posed by that paradox, has raised the challenge. With this book he has set out to show the world the secret impulses behind Borges's works, to explain how even the slightest event in his life dictated everything he wrote down to the last comma, to discover things Borges would never have guessed. As one would expect, Williamson prefers psychology to logic, and non-sequiturs to arguments.
First of all, there is Williamson's habit of inferring something that in little probability happened and for what there is little or no evidence, and then taking that assumption as a hard fact throughout book. For example, since Borges used daggers as a recurrent symbol, and since in his short-story "The Maker" the main character's father gives his son a dagger to stand up to someone who disrespected him, Williamson is convinced Borges's father actually gave his son a dagger when he was a small child, too. (Apparently, it is perfectly rational to suppose an educated man would give his doted son - who happens to be short-sighted, sickly, and bookish - a dagger to "have it out" with school bullies.) This "episode" is then used as one of the keys to crack Borges's work.
Another of Williamson's earth-shaking discoveries is that Borges tried to write a novel in his thirties. Twice. He proves this with an irrefutable syllogism:
1- Borges said that he had been planning "The Congress", a long short-story published in 1971, for some 30 or 40 years.
2- In 1932, he had published his first review of an apocryphal book, "An Approach to Al-Mu'tasim", a text which, like "The Congress", dealt with pantheism.
3- Therefore, that review was originally a novel Borges struggled to write.
No other explanation is given: Q.E.D. The very important fact that "Al-Mu'tasim" was the first of the many faux reviews that would become a Borges trademark, that he himself described it as "both a deceit and a pseudo-essay", that he declared several times he was not a fan of novels, that in his own autobiography he doesn't mention ever trying to write one, and that pantheism is a recurrent theme in his works, are all some of the many things to which Williamson chooses to turn a blind eye. Furthermore, since in "Al-Mu'tasim" two editions of the book are described, he infers that, after failing once, Borges tried to write his "novel" a second time, also to no avail. To top it all off, he claims this failed novel was supposed to be a "masterpiece that would justify his whole career as a writer". He then uses this useful information to interpret the author's later works. This sort of topsy-turvy reasoning pervades the whole book. The least evidence there is for assuming something actually happened, the more importance and attention is given to it. Borges's life, it seems, revolved around the implausible.
Although Williamson does occasionally offer enlightening comments on some texts, he mostly sticks to ludicrous literary interpretations (who would have thought "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", of all stories, "evinces Borges's fears of ending up as a reflection of his father"?) and even indulges in weird, far-fetched orthographic cabbalism, like devoting half a page to prove how the name Emma Zunz, a name JLB once said he chose because it was "so insignificant, so meaningless", actually "functions as ideogram of the kind of solipsistic labyrinth in which Borges imagined himself to be trapped..."
Besides the gaps of logic, there are important gaps in a few other areas: Borges's estrangement from life-long friend Bioy Casares is just faintly alluded to, and nothing is said about Maria Kodama's alleged part in it. In fact, one would hardly guess from reading this book what a controversial figure Kodama - who has spent most of the last two decades suing liberally and fending off accusations - actually is, since Williamson gives such a romanticized portrait of her.
All that being said, however, it must be admitted that, when it sticks to the facts, this can truly be a very illuminating piece of work. Williamson has spent nearly ten years of his life reading and re-reading piles of documents and interviewing dozens of people to gather as much information as possible -and it shows. The amount of detail provided here surpasses any previous book on the subject. Therefore, if we judge biographies solely by the amount of research behind them or by the audacity of their assertions, Borges: A Life will seem truly impressive. The problem is that, in my opinion, a biography is supposed to be more than scholarly work or a provoking string of theories; it is supposed to be the picture of a man. And Williamson, whose garrulous prose frequently descends to cheap drama, illogical hypothesis and contorted psychology interpretations, is the exact opposite of the lucid, succinct, elegant and witty Borges -who, it should be noted, never had more than contempt for psychological literature in general. I don't think the irony would have escaped him. Indeed, sometimes Williamson comes off as the sort of writer Borges would have created to poke fun at everything he thought ridiculous in modern biographies; an apocryphal author weaving delusions about a weaver of dreams.
I would recommend those who are interested on the life of the great Argentinean author to check out his own "Autobiographical Essay", Yates's biography, or, if able to read in Spanish, Vaccaro's recent Vida y Literatura and Bioy Casares's priceless "Borges". Considering the amount of books, essays and bios on JLB published every year, and the number of documents still unavailable to the public, I suppose a "definite" biography is still a long way off. But there is obviously nothing preventing us from rebuilding on our own, little by little and reading upon reading, that perplexing labyrinth that was the life of this great man.
The results are decidedly mixed for Mr. Williamson sometimes seems to omit detail for conjecture without justifying his viewpoint. The author may make too much of some of the linked themes here, for sometimes he seems to be straining to force circumstances in Borges' life to correspond to a story or poem. That is not to deny the clearly articulated autobiographical nature of Mr. Borges' writing. But Borges favored the aforementioned themes and a well-known and oft-used set of symbols---tigers, mirrors, daggers, books, and so on---throughout his career and did not necessarily employ a specific theme because of a particular event.
Borges' political philosophies and missteps are crucial elements as are his early artistic leanings toward the avant garde. His boldness in those areas contrasts harshly with his sometimes weak personality, most notably demonstrated by his nearly lifelong deference to his mother (who lived to be 99) and his repeated failing at establishing and maintaining a meaningful, normal long-term romantic relationship until he was elderly.
Whether one quibbles with Mr. Williamson's presentation, one has to admire the attention to detail and the effort he has poured into "Borges: A Life." Mr. Williamson has consulted with an array of sources, reviewed myriad documents, and perhaps more crucially, interviewed many who knew Borges, especially Maria Kodoma, his companion and eventually his wife. Yet while he often seems to leave no stone unturned, he otherwise glosses over other significant events such as Borges' estrangement from his remaining family after his mother died or his separation from literary compatriots and collaborators.
As a previous reviewer here noted---and I agree---there is some degree of repetition employed in this biography, perhaps a tad too much. At times the book drags a bit and in other spots it does compel one to stay up a bit too late. All in all, this biography meets its stated goal of examining Borges' literary output in context of his life. But the result of applying this lens is that Borges the person does not fully come into view and the characterizations may make him appear more ineffectual and enigmatic that he actually was.
I support the notion that this work will remain an important but imperfect distillation of Borges' life but suspect that some scholarly missive will one day supplant "Borges: A Life" as the definitive biography of Borges.
Having read several Borges biographies I was surprised at the considerable links between his life (especially his sentimental life) and his work. Williamson teases the meaning of many obscure lines in Borges's work, by showing how they emanated from specific experiences, usually negative. This approach, while frequently enlightening, occasionally has its limitations. This biographer attempted to show that virtually everything Borges ever wrote , said or thought (at least until he met Maria Kodama, in the early 1970s) was a consequence of a battle in his head, between his mother ("the sword of honor") and his father ("the dagger of the compadrito"). While this framework can be enlightening, Williamson is so exhaustingly repetitive at flogging this horse, that the reader ends up feeling rather like someone who is accosted in a bar by a tiresome drunk who just goes on and on about some pet peeve. An insight is not a worldview, Mr. Williamson! Also, some of the chapters repeat themselves almost word for word, as if though the author had forgotten what he wrote before. The reader, alas, like Funes the Memorious, cannot forget and is therefore tempted to gloss over these bits. I was also surprised not to see any reference to Naipaul's essay "The Return of Eva Peron". Naipaul met Borges, interviewed him and also reviewed his work in a very lucid fashion. Surely the thoughts of one of the greatest living writers about one of his predecessors would have been of some interest?
The conclusion is that Borges definitive life in English (such as Boyd's life of Nabokov) remains to be written. While that happens, this is a better place to start than most. I give the book four stars because it has rekindled my old love for the Master's work. I think I'll dip into it in the next few weeks.