Jorge Luis Borges’s earliest attempt at writing, a ten-page handbook on Greek mythology, was embarked on not in his native Spanish but in the mother tongue of his paternal grandmother, Fanny Haslam, an Englishwoman from Northumberland. She more than anyone taught her grandson to love English prose, in the evenings guiding him through selections of Kipling, Poe, Stevenson, and Scott. When Borges eventually came across the masterpiece of his native language, Don Quixote, he read it not in Spanish but in English. In the original, he said, it sounded like a bad translation.
For the young Borges, English was the true language of literature. In his father’s teeming library on the second floor of the family home in Palermo, then a slummy barrio on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, he discovered the many English and American authors whose works he would turn to repeatedly throughout his writing life: Carroll, Chesterton, De Quincy, Dickens, Whitman, Wells, Poe. “For years I believed I had grown up in one of the suburbs of Buenos Aires,” he later wrote, “a suburb of adventurous streets and visible sunsets. The truth is that I grew up in a garden, behind a speared railing, and in a library of unlimited English books.”
Borges, who would go on to master several languages, viewed his ability to read in English as an escape from what he perceived as his narrow, Catholic origins (chiefly on his mother’s side) into a world of literary and metaphysical splendor. His father, a lawyer with literary aspirations, read English poetry aloud to himself, a habit his son inherited to such an extent that his mother could barely distinguish her son’s voice from her husband’s. According to Emir Rodriguez Monegal, a friend and early biographer, Borges spoke like a nineteenth-century gentleman, an appropriate distinction that somehow suits the slightly arcane line-up of English-language authors so cherished by Borges. He raved about Wells and Chesterton, elevated Sinclair Lewis above Scott Fitzgerald, and considered Robert Browning the “forerunner of all modern literature.”
Albert Manguel once said that you could construct a perfectly acceptable literary canon from all the authors Borges rejected. This seems a fairly uncontroversial statement; Borges was less a discerning critic than someone who read to extend his creative imagination. His literary criticism is so profoundly bound up with his fiction writing that they are virtually indistinguishable (“Pierre Menard,” for instance, is equal parts fiction and literary theory). In “Kafka and his Precursors,” Borges wrote that all writers create their own precursors. He might have added that all critics create their own canons, but for him the two were never really separate activities. An early collection of his writings in English, Borges: A Reader, selected by the author himself, makes no distinction between his fiction and non-fiction. In the introduction the editors (Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid) observe that “reading is at the chore of everything [Borges] writes,” a slightly moot point, but one that nevertheless calls attention to the fact that for Borges the library was the focal point of his existence. Through it he achieved his stated ambition, gleaned from Valéry, of writing a history of literature as though a single author, a single persona, was behind it all. Whether writing about Thomas Carlyle or Edward Gibbon, Henry James or H. G. Wells, Borges somehow managed to transform these individual writers into an extension of their reader.
* * * *
A groundbreaking new volume published by New Directions, Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, offers unprecedented insight into the writer’s lifelong relationship to the English language, as well as an affecting portrait of the Argentine master as lecturer. These twenty-five classes on English literature were recorded by a small group of students in 1966 and later edited by two leading Borges scholars, Martín Arias and Martín Hadis. They have now finally been rendered into English by the incomparable Katherine Silver. Naturally, “English literature” as defined by Borges is highly idiosyncratic and inescapably, well, Borgesian: the book opens with a study of the Norse and Anglo-Saxon inheritance and go on to deal with central figures of English literature proper—Samuel Johnson and Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Blake—before bottlenecking into character studies of Borges’s all-stars: Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, William Morris, and Robert Luis Stevenson.
Reading this book, one gathers that Borges’s initial fears of lecturing—he had to overcome both stammer and shyness—eventually gave way to genuine enthusiasm. Colloquial expressions—“Let’s dig into Beowulf”—help convey a sense of what it must have been like listening to him. At times he will appeal directly to his students for help (“There is an expression I have never been able to figure out, and perhaps you can help me solve it”), and elsewhere offer his apologies: “I am going to have to end this class ten minutes early because I have promised to give a lecture on Victor Hugo. So, please forgive me . . .” At one point, he tells the students to listen carefully because they have an exam coming up.
Of course, Borges’s oral lectures do not always translate seamlessly into written prose; phrases and statements meant for the ears of his students often sound jarring to readers. Conjunctions don’t always connect clauses so much as interrupt them, and perhaps we could have done with fewer Now let’s look ats and Now we wills. Even certain blunt pronouncements—for instance, the description of Coleridge’s work as “not infrequently unintelligible, tedious, and plagiarized”—seem designed for a listening audience rather than a reading one. With that said, there are numerous instances in which Borges tosses off a phrase so beautiful or arresting that it ought to have been etched in prose in the first place. On Dickens: “The characters Dickens create live in the perpetual rapture of being themselves.” On the historical predominance of poetry over prose: “It seems that man sings before he speaks.” On Wilkie Collins: “a master in the art of weaving complicated, but never confusing, story lines. That is, his plots have many threads, but the reader holds them in his hand.”
As lectures go, the classes recorded in Professor Borges are fast-paced, digressive, and generous with knowledge. They are like narratives; Borges is never able to quell his desire to tell a story. This often results in an overly thick padding of biographical details, but even then Borges manages to put his unique packaging on it. Take this summary of the life of Samuel Johnson:
Samuel Johnson was a wreck, physically, even though he was very strong. He was heavy and ugly. He had nervous tics. He went to London, where he lived in poverty. He attended Oxford University, but he never graduated or even came close: he was laughed out of the place. So he returns to Lichfield and founds a school. He marries an old woman, older than he. She was an old, ugly, ridiculous woman. But he was loyal to her. Then she dies. Perhaps, at that time, such a detail might indicate how religious he was. He also had phobias. For example, he carefully avoided stepping on the cracks between the flagstones. He also avoided touching poles. Nevertheless, in spite of these eccentricities, he had one of the most sensible intellects of his era, a truly brilliant intellect.
What begins as a seemingly random list of irrelevant biographical details becomes, the more random and irrelevant it gets, a valuable insight into Borges’s generous appetite for human eccentricity. He takes a great and towering intellect—in this case Johnson—and humanizes him through these odd and unflattering biographical asides. “When I think of English literature,” Borges says in a 1967 interview made newly available in Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview, “I’m thinking about men more than about books. I think that English literature, like England, is very personal.”
The subjects of his lectures are personal, too. We learn, for instance, that Browning was “educated, more than anywhere else, in his father’s library” and that “there is a strong affinity between Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons” (Borges liked to think that his Northumbrian ancestors linked him to a Danish past). In the end, we are offered not a comprehensive history of English literature but a survey of individual authors Borges was inescapably drawn to. “I have preferred to teach my students not English literature,” he said, “but my love for certain authors, or, even better, certain pages, or even better than that, certain lines. One falls in love with a line, then with a page, then with an author. Well, why not? It is a beautiful process.”
Borges confessed to being a hedonistic reader—to reading only for the sake of pleasure—and in his first class he made it clear that history and politics would not enter into any discussion of a literary text unless absolutely necessary. No doubt there were personal reasons for this. Following the election of the populist, quasi-fascistic Juan Perón as President of Argentina in 1946, Borges, a longstanding opponent of Perón, was mysteriously “promoted” from being an assistant at the Miguel Cané Library to “inspector of poultry and rabbits in the public markets.” Two years later Borges’s mother and sister were arrested after taking part in an anti-government demonstration. In the ’30s, as fascism encroached on Argentina, Borges had bravely waved the banner for cosmopolitanism. He wrote a fortnightly literary column for the women’s magazine El Hogar called “Foreign Books and Authors,” and, in 1934, provoked the anti-Semitic right-wing elite with a mischievous essay, “I, a Jew.”
By the ’60s, however, a once courageous stance against xenophobia had ossified into a stubborn refusal to keep up with political reality. (By the late ‘70s, during the reign of General Videla and the military junta, Borges’s political complacency was alarming.) The extent to which Borges had become distanced from the currents of progressive politics is made clear in one of the conversations included in The Last Interview, in which he mentions an incident involving a student protest: as he was giving a lecture on Coleridge, four students interrupted the class to inform everyone that a strike was now in effect and Borges should stop lecturing. Unfazed, the elderly, half-blind writer told the four students to either leave or step outside, if they wanted to pursue the matter further. In the interview he expresses regret about his somewhat threatening behavior yet remains adamant about his right to continue teaching. “That they should [strike] is right, but that they should prevent other people from going to classes, I don’t understand,” he tells Burgin. “What is important is that I should not let myself be bullied before my students; because if I do, they won’t respect me, and I won’t respect myself.”
Borges rightly felt bullied by Perón, and it needs to be said that his initial support for the military coup in 1976 was short-lived. When a young Christopher Hitchens paid the ageing writer a visit in 1977, Borges had already signed a protest about some 15,000 “disappeared” Argentines and criticized the junta’s aggression toward Chile over the Beagle Channel. “I can never hear the sneer about ‘ivory towers,’” Hitchens later wrote, “without reflecting that Borges, who was confined to one by his blindness, managed to make honourable amendments to his cherished point of view.”
In his fine biography Borges: A Life, Edwin Williamson mentions that, in the summer of 1980, a woman whose daughter had been disappeared came to see Borges to ask his support for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement, an association of mothers petitioning the government to learn the fate of their missing children (all of whom were victims of the Dirty War). After listening carefully to her, Borges regrettably explained that he “lived a very insulated life because he was blind and could not read the newspapers, and was dependent on whatever information people chose to give him.” Nevertheless, he was very moved by her story and agreed to lend his name to various public declarations in support of human rights in Argentina. He was soon recognized by the military as a public enemy.
Politics nevertheless remained a source of great discomfort for Borges. Political conviction was alien to him, and it is likely that he also objected to the nowness of politics—objected, that is, to its temporal rootedness. To engage with current events one had to resign oneself to the current moment, and nothing could have been more remote from Borges. “Might I permitted to repeat that my father’s library has been the chief event in my life?” he wrote in the epilogue to A History of Night (1977). “The truth is that I have never emerged from it.” Like his father, he had very poor eyesight and spent his life losing what little he was born with. Literature was his escape from the blindness and loneliness that increasingly confined him to his apartment near the Plaza San Martin; English literature was a further escape from both his self and his Argentine origins. A committed dabbler in metaphysics, he was in a state of perennial wonderment at the universe and thought it strange that he should be who he was. Often he protested this fact, as if what he really wanted was to go outside and picket the human condition. In the conclusion to his essay “A New Refutation of Time,” he wrote:
Our destiny (unlike the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not horrible because of its unreality; it is horrible because it is irreversible and iron-bound. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.
In his class on Johnson and Boswell, Borges approached similar territory when he said, “I . . . was born the exact same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same,” and admitted to feeling “that there is something deep down inside me that remains separate.” Perhaps the thought of his posthumous life would have pleased him; certainly it is something “separate” that only continues to expand, like some well-tended library stretching toward the infinite.
Morten Høi Jensen has written for Salon, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Dublin Review of Books, and The Millions.
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