It could be said that Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most important writers of the 20th Century, was also one of its most interesting individuals, a person who led an uneventful and yet strangely fascinating life. Anyone who has read his works has probably been charmed by this man who so kindly invites the reader into his own world of sparkling erudition and ceaseless invention. Little is there to wonder, then, that so many books have been written about him. Borges: A Life, manages to be both the most detailed and problematic of such books.
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.