Borges, Jorge Luis

Borges, Jorge Luis
born Aug. 24, 1899, Buenos Aires, Arg.
died June 14, 1986, Geneva, Switz.

Argentine poet, essayist, and short-story writer.

Educated in Switzerland, Borges recognized early that he would have a literary career. From the 1920s on he was afflicted by a growing hereditary blindness. In 1938 a severe head wound seemed to free his deepest creative forces. His blindness was total by the mid 1950s and forced him to abandon the writing of long texts and begin dictating his works. From 1955 he held the honorary post of director of Argentina's national library. Much of his work is rich in fantasy and metaphorical allegory, including the story collections Ficciones (1944), which won him an international following, and The Aleph (1949). Dreamtigers (1960) and The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) almost erase the distinctions between prose and poetry. Though he later repudiated it, he is credited with establishing in South America the modernist Ultraist movement, a rebellion against the decadence of the established writers of the Generation of '98.

Jorge Luis Borges.

Courtesy of Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

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▪ Argentine author
born August 24, 1899, Buenos Aires, Argentina
died June 14, 1986, Geneva, Switzerland
 Argentine poet, essayist, and short-story writer whose works have become classics of 20th-century world literature (Latin American literature).

      Borges was reared in the then-shabby Palermo district of Buenos Aires, the setting of some of his works. His family, which had been notable in Argentine history, included British ancestry, and he learned English before Spanish. The first books that he read—from the library of his father, a man of wide-ranging intellect who taught at an English school—included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the novels of H.G. Wells, The Thousand and One Nights, and Don Quixote, all in English. Under the constant stimulus and example of his father, the young Borges from his earliest years recognized that he was destined for a literary career.

      In 1914, on the eve of World War I, Borges was taken by his family to Geneva, where he learned French and German and received his B.A. from the Collège de Genève. Leaving there in 1919, the family spent a year on Majorca and a year in mainland Spain, where Borges joined the young writers of the Ultraist movement (Ultraism), a group that rebelled against what it considered the decadence of the established writers of the Generation of 1898.

      Returning to Buenos Aires in 1921, Borges rediscovered his native city and began to sing of its beauty in poems that imaginatively reconstructed its past and present. His first published book was a volume of poems, Fervor de Buenos Aires, poemas (1923; “Fervour of Buenos Aires, Poems”). He is also credited with establishing the Ultraist movement (Ultraism) in South America, though he later repudiated it. This period of his career, which included the authorship of several volumes of essays and poems and the founding of three literary journals, ended with a biography, Evaristo Carriego (1930).

      During his next phase, Borges gradually overcame his shyness in creating pure fiction. At first he preferred to retell the lives of more or less infamous men, as in the sketches of his Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy). To earn his living, he took a major post in 1938 at a Buenos Aires library named for one of his ancestors. He remained there for nine unhappy years.

      In 1938, the year his father died, Borges suffered a severe head wound and subsequent blood poisoning, which left him near death, bereft of speech, and fearing for his sanity. This experience appears to have freed in him the deepest forces of creation. In the next eight years he produced his best fantastic stories, those later collected in Ficciones (“Fictions”) and the volume of English translations titled The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–69. During this time, he and another writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares (Bioy Casares, Adolfo), jointly wrote detective stories under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq (combining ancestral names of the two writers' families), which were published in 1942 as Seis problemas para Don Isidro Parodi (Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi). The works of this period revealed for the first time Borges's entire dreamworld, an ironical or paradoxical version of the real one, with its own language and systems of symbols.

      When the dictatorship of Juan Perón came to power in 1946, Borges was dismissed from his library position for having expressed support of the Allies in World War II. With the help of friends, he earned his way by lecturing, editing, and writing. A 1952 collection of essays, Otras inquisiciones (1937–1952) (Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952), revealed him at his analytic best. When Perón was deposed in 1955, Borges became director of the national library, an honorific position, and also professor of English and American literature at the University of Buenos Aires. By this time, Borges suffered from total blindness, a hereditary affliction that had also attacked his father and had progressively diminished his own eyesight from the 1920s onward. It had forced him to abandon the writing of long texts and to begin dictating to his mother or to secretaries or friends.

      The works that date from this late period, such as El hacedor (1960; “The Doer,” Eng. trans. Dreamtigers) and El libro de los seres imaginarios (1967; The Book of Imaginary Beings), almost erase the distinctions between the genres of prose and poetry. His later collections of stories include El informe de Brodie (1970; Dr. Brodie's Report), which deals with revenge, murder, and horror, and El libro de arena (1975; The Book of Sand), both of which are allegories combining the simplicity of a folk storyteller with the complex vision of a man who has explored the labyrinths of his own being to its core.

      After 1961, when he and Samuel Beckett (Beckett, Samuel) shared the Formentor Prize, an international award given for unpublished manuscripts, Borges's tales and poems were increasingly acclaimed as classics of 20th-century world literature. Prior to that time, Borges was little known, even in his native Buenos Aires, except to other writers, many of whom regarded him merely as a craftsman of ingenious techniques and tricks. By the time of his death, the nightmare world of his “fictions” had come to be compared to the world of Franz Kafka (Kafka, Franz) and to be praised for concentrating common language into its most enduring form. Through his work, Latin American literature emerged from the academic realm into the realm of generally educated readers.

Emir Rodríguez-Monegal

Additional Reading
Ana María Barrenechea, Borges: The Labyrinth Maker (1965; originally published in Spanish, 1957), is a critical study, with bibliography. Ronald J. Christ, The Narrow Act: Borges' Art of Allusion (1969; reissued 1995), perceptively analyzes one of Borges's key methods of creation. James Woodall, Borges: A Life (1996, also published as The Man in the Mirror of the Book: A Life of Jorge Luis Borges); and Edwin Williamson, Borges: A Life (2004), are well-researched biographies. Efraín Kristal, Invisible Work: Borges and Translation (2002), treats Borges's work as a translator. Harold Bloom (ed.), Jorge Luis Borges (1986), is the best collection of critical essays.

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Universalium. 2010.

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