Borges and Me: An Encounter 
by Jay Parini.
Canongate, 299 pp., £14.99, August, 978 1 83885 022 7
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JorgeLuis Borges’s visit to the Home of Golf in 1971 is still remembered. Edwin Williamson devotes a page of his 2004 biography to the event, calling attention to Borges’s wish to recite Scottish Border ballads while in St Andrews, and to stand alone beside the North Sea. Not long before, the 71-year-old Borges had published a story called ‘The Congress’ which, as well as mentioning ‘Caledonians’, features several of his obsessions, including vast libraries, Don Quixote and lost love. Towards the end of ‘The Congress’ a Norwegian called Nora is joined briefly by a man called Glencoe as they sing from the doom-laden ‘Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens’, which begins in ‘Dunferline toun’ – like St Andrews, in Fife – and chronicles the loss of a ship and its crew on the North Sea, while bringing a Norwegian princess to marry the Scottish king. In the version transcribed by Walter Scott, one of the stanzas runs:

Be it wind, be it weet, be it hail, be it sleet,
Our ship must sail the faem;
The king’s daughter of Noroway,
’Tis we maun fetch her hame.

Williamson relates this to Borges’s obsession with his long-lost love Norah Lange, an Argentinian writer who lived for a time in Oslo. Published in 1933, Lange’s second novel, 45 días y 30 marineros (45 Days and 30 Sailors), is the story of a woman who travels to Norway with thirty sex-starved sailors and a man called Stevenson – who may be based on Borges, who admired Robert Louis Stevenson. Williamson presents Borges’s visit to St Andrews as a coming to terms with his early lost love.

The New Yorker writer Alastair Reid, a Scot who was one of Borges’s translators and with whom Borges stayed in St Andrews, mentions the visit at least twice. Reid’s essay ‘Borges and Neruda’ describes how Borges ‘took walks with my son beside the North Sea and pulled Border ballads from his memory’. For Reid, ‘in those few unplanned days’ Borges lived in a cottage beside the Old Course, the most famous golf links in St Andrews, he ‘laid aside the obligation to be Borges, the public self to which his writings bound him’ and which he describes in his famous short fiction ‘Borges and I’. In another essay, ‘Digging up Scotland’, Reid again recalled Borges reciting Border Ballads and said he had been ‘much affected by being in Scotland, although his blindness denied him the sight of it’. No doubt embellished, other stories of Borges and his entourage still circulate in St Andrews fifty years later. One has him standing at the end of the pier, reciting lines from Beowulf in Old English.

None of these accounts mentions a gauche, anxiety-ridden young American called Jay Parini. In 1971 Parini, a wannabe poet in flight from the call-up to Vietnam, in search of love and eager for literary mentorship, was beginning a PhD at St Andrews on the laconic Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. Things did not look promising. His PhD supervisor was Alexander Falconer, a wartime naval officer whose ‘masterwork’ was Shakespeare and the Sea (1964), which he had followed up with A Glossary of Shakespeare’s Sea and Naval Terms including Gunnery (1965). Obsessed with the idea that Shakespeare, like himself, had been a sailor, Falconer appeared on the edge of senility. ‘It’s a cruel night on the sea, lad. A cruel night,’ he would tell Parini. He was sceptical about the proposed thesis, not least because Mackay Brown was still alive. One day, meeting Parini in the street, Falconer said he wanted to introduce him to a fellow student, ‘an American, much like yourself. Interested in poetry, whatnot.’ After a short conversation, Falconer revealed that the other student’s name was Jay Parini. ‘But, professor,’ Parini was forced to reply, ‘I’m Jay Parini.’ A decade later, Parini was unsurprised to hear that his supervisor had ‘succumbed to dementia, ending his days in a mental asylum at Stratheden, a few miles from St Andrews, where he spent his time writing Shakespeare’s sonnets from memory, convinced they were his own and amazed by the felicity of his pen.’

Readers of Borges may detect winks towards Borges’s celebrated short fictions of doubling, ‘Borges and I’ and ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’. In the latter, a modern author writes down short sections of Don Quixote as if they were his own. Parini, however, had never heard of Borges until he met Alastair Reid in St Andrews; nor had he read Don Quixote; but Parini’s partly fictionalised memoir, Borges and Me, presents a Scotland infected and inflected by Borges as well as a Borges infected and inflected by Scotland. In 1971, having fallen under the spell of a beautiful fellow student poet (here called Bella Law) and the worldly-wise, joint-smoking Reid, Parini was urged to read Stevenson’s narrative of Jekyll and Hyde (which, Parini jokes, might be Reid’s ‘autobiography’). Then, not long afterwards, he was told by Reid’s precocious son that ‘Borges is coming.’ Having only just learned who Borges was, Parini soon found himself getting high with Reid and the Argentinian maestro, who quoted at length from De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Soon afterwards, Borges declared that ‘The North Sea beckons!’ and they strolled across the Old Course towards the beach, where the ‘blind old poet beside a putting green’ recited ‘in a thundering manner’ the opening words of ‘The Seafarer in its original Anglo-Saxon’.

After Reid was summoned south to attend to a family emergency, Parini found himself in sole charge of Borges, who was eager to undertake a tour of Scotland. Fortunately, Parini could drive and had a car, a rust-bucket 1957 Morris Minor. Borges called him ‘Giuseppe Parini’ (the name of one of his favourite Italian poets), and told him ‘I have dreamed of being in Scotland through my whole life.’ Regarding himself as Don Quixote, Parini as Sancho Panza, and the Morris Minor as Rocinante, he insisted they ‘“discover this Wonderland together … I know the points on the map: Perth, Aviemore, Inverness. Loch Ness and its monster, Grendel! And the battlefield of Culloden! Just to read a map of the Highlands is to recite poetry.”’

Even before their road trip started, Parini had registered that Borges combined aspects of a ‘boisterous two-year-old’ with a generally benign but daunting and hypnotic way of speaking that mixed ‘impressionistic bullet points, circumnavigations, and associations: a wild disjunctive manner’. Anyone who has ever had to chaperone a demanding Man of Genius will recognise something of his plight. Parini had to be Borges’s guide, driver, listener, eyes, protector, interlocutor, pal and even (on one chaste occasion) sleeping partner: an exhausting role. Polymathic and passionate, Borges dispensed anecdotes, literary advice, and, Quixote-like, led the pair into mishaps. People who saw them together thought Borges must be Parini’s grandfather or father, but noted that they seemed oddly matched. At first, they ventured to nearby sites of interest such as Dunfermline’s Carnegie Library and the Crusoe Hotel in the Fife village of Lower Largo, the birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, on whom Robinson Crusoe is thought to be based. Soon, though, they headed north into the Highlands. At the heart of Borges’s great story ‘The Aleph’ is a mysterious phenomenon in which (as in a proto-internet) all things can be seen, including ‘a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget’. Unsurprisingly, Inverness was on his itinerary, though when the motoring duo arrived it turned out that the Mr Singleton of Inverness with whom Borges was hoping to discuss Old English riddles was actually a resident of Inverness in New Zealand.

Things took a dangerous turn when Borges, tapping ‘his way forward and up the road with his cane’, wandered off into a rainstorm in the Cairngorms, quoting from King Lear ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!’ then tumbling headlong down a scree slope. Parini, who had been wrestling with the Morris Minor’s dodgy handbrake, realised his passenger had vanished, and panicked: ‘Dear God in heaven, I thought: I had killed Borges!’ He was found face-down, scratched and somewhat dizzy ‘in a tuft of thistle, with his cane a few yards beyond him’. In another death-defying stunt, the old man insisted on standing up in a rowing boat on Loch Ness so that he could brandish his cane ‘like a claymore’ and declaim Old English to the Grendel-like Nessie. This did not go well.

As in the Highland excursion made by Dr Johnson and James Boswell two centuries earlier, shared experiences led to shared confidences. Parini confided in Borges about his Vietnam draft terrors, his longing for Bella Law and his literary aspirations. Borges, ranging across Latin, Spanish, Old English, Italian and other literatures – and quoting from everyone from the minor Renaissance poet Chidiock Tichborne to Stevenson and Frost – told stories of his fighting ancestors, his disastrous passion for Norah Lange, his relationship with his own parents, and his labyrinthine adventures in writing. Generally, the dialogue is rendered deftly, though sometimes the desire to shoehorn material into the text can seem a little effortful.

‘Bella is an object of your desire, and you will know her. I promise this. Borges predicts as much.’
        ‘I hope you’re a gifted fortune-teller.’
        ‘Call me Scheherazade,’ said Borges. ‘The Arabian Nights is the source of everything I do.’
        ‘Who actually wrote those stories?’
        ‘I did. I’ve written everything.’
        ‘That’s ridiculous.’
        ‘No, but it’s true. I’ve written every classic several times. This has, of course, often irritated my contemporaries.’

He was generous not just with advice and bons mots but with cash. When Parini warned him that the Inverness Palace Hotel might be expensive, Borges retorted: ‘There’s no need for cash in the corridors of oblivion that await me.’

The tale grows more improbable. Parini offloaded his charge on a local man at Loch Ness and set off to visit George Mackay Brown in Stromness on Orkney with the man’s daughter, Ailith. Borges, still smarting from his boating accident on Loch Ness, refused to make this further voyage on northern waters, but conveyed greetings to Mackay Brown, who turned out to be a Borges fan and to share his love of Norse sagas. Parini paints an affectionate portrait of Mackay Brown (though his use of the term ‘Celtic’ sounds odd in the context of an Orkney writer).

First published in the US last year, Borges and Me is now published in Edinburgh on the fiftieth anniversary of the Scottish visit, and the centenary of Mackay Brown’s birth. It is a warm, sly and beguiling tribute to both writers, and to Reid. It contains, however, at least two telling misprints which, almost like Freudian slips, are revealing about the way the narrative functions. The first misprint is when the opening of ‘The Seafarer’ is translated as ‘I can make a true son/of myself.’ The word ‘son’ should be ‘song’. But, like ‘The Other’, the elderly Borges’s story of an ‘encounter’ in which he sits down on a bench beside his much younger self, Parini’s book (which is subtitled ‘An Encounter’) is at once a much older man’s narrative about his younger self and a story about a son searching for an alternative father. Falconer, Reid, Mackay Brown and Borges all function as potential literary father figures encountered by the anxious young writer. Borges and Me also brings together the youthful Parini and the present-day Parini, who is now roughly the age Borges was in 1971. Through artifice and recollection – fiction-making and memory – Parini seeks to make himself something of a son of Borges, and ‘a true son’ of his own earlier self: the student who sought in St Andrews and in Scotland clues that would let him become a writer. His memoir brings that earlier self back to life, and lets those father figures speak again. In so doing, it is attuned to the Borges who wrote in his poem ‘La lluvia’ (‘Rain’) as translated by Alastair Reid, that

                                        The evening’s rain
brings me the voice, the dear voice of my father,
who comes back now, who never has been dead.

Borges’s widow, Maria Kodama, has criticised Parini’s ‘story’ as ‘untrue’, and says it ‘should be understood as fiction’. Some of the book’s North American reviewers treated it as straightforward memoir; others regarded it as a novel. Ian McEwan rightly sees it as a ‘Borgesian marriage of fiction and history’. ‘Ulrikke’, a story Borges wrote around the time of his visit, features a passionate encounter with a Norwegian woman as the narrator travels ‘towards Edinburgh’; as many Borgesian fictions do, it plays with mixing ‘reality’, ‘recollection’, ‘dream’ and ‘the habit of literature’. Parini’s afterword says the book ‘began as a novel’, then moved towards ‘a kind of novelistic memoir’.

I never met Borges, but I have heard about him from people who did, and I have known several of the people and many of the places Parini writes about. There is much in Borges and Me that is accurate and, even if it is partly imagined, much will ring true to readers well versed in Borges (as Parini clearly is) and in Scotland. This leads to the second misprint. Walter Scott, who loved to blend history and fiction, is invoked more than once here, as is his literary descendant Stevenson. When Borges is treated by a Dr Brodie this is surely a nod not only to Borges’s 1970 collection, Brodie’s Report, but also to Deacon Brodie, whose famous double life (a reputable man and a burglar) underpins both Stevenson’s Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Also in the background is the sly fiction of James Hogg, whose most famous novel of doubling includes its author: ‘God knows! Hogg has imposed as ingenious lies on the public ere now.’ In one vignette Borges licks the spine of one of the Waverley Novels.

All of this makes it all the more surprising that in this book published in Edinburgh the name of Scott’s Waverley appears at one point as ‘Waverly’. If Canongate reused the original typography, this sloppiness can be blamed on Doubleday, the book’s US publisher. It is, however, an indication that even in the city where he lived, wrote and published, Walter Scott, the most globally influential of all Scottish novelists, is largely unread. In celebrating the abiding and metamorphic powers of memory, invention and narrative, Parini’s book shows that there is room for both Borges and Scott.

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