Goodbye to Borges

John Sturrock

Borges died on 14 June, in Geneva – which bare fact virtually calls for an ‘English papers please copy,’ as they used to say, so complacently scant and grudging were the notices which we were given to read at the time. There was much Englishness about him, starting with his mother’s family, which was English, but obvious also in the plain way that he wrote, and in the humour with which he used to deprecate his own high literary standing. Anglo-Saxon was the strange hobby of his old age, because it was northern and pleasantly formal, and in his earlier days, before his eyesight got too weak, he had read more in English literature than in any other. Critics might say, because there were labyrinths and what seemed like anxiety in his stories, that he followed on from Kafka: Borges himself said, rather, from Kipling. But none of this saved him when he died from being a foreigner, and a writer, hardly worth the column-inches of our barbarically parochial papers.

Borges was an old man, in his 87th year, a few weeks married, working – word had it – on a screenplay for a film about Venice. He had been ill for months but was well enough by June to have gone home to Buenos Aires if he had wanted to: perhaps Buenos Aires was not home enough to reclaim this comfortless man, who had learnt in his old age to travel the Western world, first-class and rather gloriously, as a late-maturing literary lion. He chose to stay on in a hotel in Geneva and to die there. The interviewers – did anyone ever give more interviews than Borges, or should it be the same interview more times? – were always asking him about death, and whether he was worried by it, and his answer was no, he wasn’t, that he looked forward to it, that he was tired. This answer echoed what he once wrote about his own father, whom he admired for his invincible modesty and for being ‘impatient for death’ after he had had a stroke. It was the answer, too, of someone addicted to narrative, who was far from presuming that his own life had made a good story but was comforted by the nearness of a dénouement.

Geneva was not just anywhere for Borges – he had old and supportive memories of the place. There is an entry for it in the slight, peripatetic pages of his Atlas: ‘Of all the cities on this planet, of all the diverse and intimate places which a man seeks out and merits in the course of his voyages, Geneva strikes me as the most propitious for happiness. Beginning in 1914, I owe it the revelation of French, of Latin, of German, of Expressionism, of Schopenhauer, of the doctrine of Buddha, of Taoism, of Conrad, of Lafcadio Hearn and of the nostalgia of Buenos Aires. Also: the revelation of love, of friendship, of humiliation and of the temptation to suicide.’ Facing which compacted reminiscence there is a photograph of the mild, more or less sightless Borges sitting, both hands folded on his stick, as they so often were, before some Calvinist memorial, stony and overbearing, with a group of robed predestinarians staring out above the head of this shy and sceptical man who thought that all such large ideas, of God, grace or free will, were good only for playing about with, and not for committing yourself to, when there was every chance that they answered to nothing at all in the actual, probably soulless constitution of the universe.

Borges lived in Geneva as an adolescent, from 1914 until 1919. With hopelessly poor timing his lawyer father had decided, very impulsively, that the family should go in the summer of 1914 to be Europeanised, as the better-off Buenos Aires families then did. But the Grand Tour fell foul of the Great War; they were stuck in Geneva. So Borges went to a lycée there, adding new languages to his native Spanish and practically native English, which he had got from an English grandmother and from his English governess, Miss Tink. Miss Tink, for all the monosyllabic innocence of her name, had a bad cousin, John, who may well also have influenced the child Borges, because he was one of the street-corner ‘hoodlums’ who later fascinated him, partly for being so brave as well as bad, when they fought, and partly because he saw them as ideal compendia of the local mythology, the fallen descendants of something more honourable in the nation’s past and at the same time an essential inclusion in its literature. Seen from Switzerland, Buenos Aires toughs like John Tink looked like just the sort of stereotype Borges wanted, defined by distance and already more than half imaginary.

Geneva encapsulated for Borges his introduction to the frontierless world of the mind. In a story which he wrote in 1972, called ‘The Other’, the old Borges confers with the young, the old one sitting, as a grand visitor to Harvard, beside the Charles River in Boston, the young one beside the Rhône in Geneva, as the eager representative of his immaturity. In Geneva he grew for ever beyond the confines of Argentina, laying down other literatures and philosophies on top of whatever he had met with as a boy. The philosophy especially, idealist or oriental and quietist, alienated him from the simple empiricism in which he might otherwise have grown up. After a course of Schopenhauer, and of the seamlessly idealist Bishop Berkeley, he was an ‘Argentinian strayed into metaphysics’, as he later wryly put it, as if to apologise for holding such a futile interest before compatriots whom he mainly thought too backward to share it. Geneva was a great good place because it was to him like a library, a truly eclectic experience for someone who believed that being Argentinian was an opportunity to gather in cultural goods from wherever you wanted. And can we even be sure that the other ‘revelations’ he lists, the ‘humiliation’ and ‘temptation to suicide’, did not also come from his reading? When writing or talking about himself Borges was fearlessly misleading and saw no call to separate real events from imagined, on the grounds that he no longer knew or cared greatly which was which. He had an unusual sense of the power of repetition, of how a memory repeated over and over, as he freely repeated some of his own memories, grows increasingly unreal as it enters into the equivocal realm of literary art. To memorialise one’s own life a single time, in an autobiography, is to try to keep facts merely as facts: to do it more than once and in the same terms is to ensure that the factual becomes the legendary. And if, like Borges, you have gone in more for reading and thinking than for the bolder kinds of living, there is even less cause to hold to puritanical, possibly deceptive distinctions between first and second-hand encounters with life.

In 1919, set free by the peace, the Borgeses moved on to Spain, and then in 1921 back to Buenos Aires. Apart from one more, much briefer time in Europe, in 1923, Borges was then nearly forty years at home, until at the start of the Sixties the quite sudden ubiquity of his reputation as a writer drew him out from Buenos Aires: he was invited to move as ambitiously about the world in the body as he had long done, discreetly and undemandingly, in the mind. In Spain he started to write seriously, though what he wrote was not yet in the wonderfully spare manner of later on. Spain then had its Ultraistas, or noisy and insolent modernists, and the Expressionism which Borges had picked up in Switzerland gave him his entrée there. He was mad for Walt Whitman, for parataxis (he never lost his belief in that: the shock cuts of such enlightened directors as Josef von Sternberg were a chief reason why he loved the movies, and his own finest stories make tremendous if unobtrusive capital out of them), and first and foremost for metaphors. Of these he had so many to hand that when his father, who was trying to write a novel, ran dry, Borges offered him spares of his own, which that father of exemplary modesty ‘accepted out of resignation’. Borges himself produced a fine story about a werewolf, as a typical item of cultural emigration from Europe to Latin America, but no one would publish it. He wrote essays, including one whose subtitle was ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Spanish Brothels’ and in which the allurements of the girls were highmindedly neutralised by being assimilated to those of Quevedo’s poetry; and a collection of poems entitled, according to Borges, ‘either The Red Psalms or The Red Rhythms ... in free verse and in praise of the Russian revolution, the brotherhood of man, and pacifism’. Bolsheviks, like brothels, were too furious a theme to stay for very long in Borges’s delicate imagination, and theirs was certainly the first and the last revolution he ever warmed to.

He took either a poor view of politics, or, most of the time, no view at all, which wasn’t easy or always wise, as a citizen of Argentina. Politics caught up with him only once, under Peron in the Forties. Peron was a fascist and a populist who liked to put down the smart, salon-dwelling European culture for which Borges stood. Borges had been for the Allies in the war of 1939-45, and he was against Peron, who had been for Hitler and Mussolini. Borges signed manifestos against the dictator and the dictator, famously, took his job away from him. It wasn’t much of a job, something like number three in a local library, but it was a political appointment and he was promoted to oversee chicken and rabbit sales in a street-market, because chickens and rabbits were just the sort of wimpish creatures an intellectual ought to feel kinship with. Borges did not accept the appointment: he resigned and was out of work. He turned, because it was all there was for him to do, to teaching and lecturing, which he went on doing for most of the rest of his life: Seven Nights is the text of seven lectures given in Buenos Aires in 1977, but the subjects are ones he could have lectured on at almost any date after 1930 – Dante, the Thousand and One Nights, Buddhism, the Kabbala, Nightmares, Blindness, Poetry. These are old lectures remembered – which is to say, refined by time, in that temporal process of distortion and oblivion which Borges saw it as his task to mimic.

The political credit which he earned by standing out against Peronism, he later dissipated. He was far too tame and olympian to be a hero to younger, angrier South American writers, nothing of a nationalist, too openly a conservative. In later life, when the test case of Cuba arose, Borges was sardonic towards Castro, to the point of preferring not to name him, and ungenerous towards the Argentinian Che Guevara, who died in what Borges clearly thought was a rotten cause, even though he might at a pinch have been found room in the writer’s own mythology of Argentina, as a legendary bravo. During the bad days of military juntas in Argentina Borges seems to have kept silent, to have not wanted to know. Against Peron he had made a public statement, that ‘dictatorships foment oppression, dictatorships foment subservience, dictatorships foment cruelty; even more abominable is the fact that they foment stupidity.’ In the time of Peron maybe stupidity was the most abominable effect, in the later time of the des-aparecidos it was not: things had got too murderous for Borges’s fastidious argument to be even worth restating. But in some of his later stories there are signs that he saw the savageries of Argentina’s history as no longer a safely catalogued stereotype, and more as a topical threat.

Borges’s conservatism was frequently offered as the reason why he never got the Nobel Prize, because it was not what the very progressive Swedish Academy liked, especially in writers from Latin America, who do well to show themselves as radical and indigenous, and not, like Borges, as aloof and rootless. This is more likely to be true than another, literary reason why he did not get given the prize, which is that he was simply too literary, that he wrote about literature and not, as Nobel Prize-winners are meant to, immediately about life. The Nobel Prize is a simple-minded affair, invented for writers who are realists, but Borges was that for only a few years, when he began: a realist and a romantic, because the two go together. The first collection of poems which he published in the Twenties was called Fervor de Buenos Aires, and it displayed a zest for local colour and for aggressive imagery of which the older Borges was not proud: there is a story, his own presumably, that when he eventually became head of the National Library in Buenos Aires he used this delegated power of life and death over his own bibliography to remove, first the copies of his earlier books, now disowned, and then the entries in the catalogue that had once led people to them. Certainly, when some of the poems from Fervor and from his other early collections were brought into his Obras Completas in the late Sixties, the style had been quietened down and the unity of his oeuvre retrospectively established. In a preface Borges measured the change in himself between 1924 and 1969 with his usual incomparable neatness: ‘In those days I sought out sunsets, suburbs and unhappiness; nowadays, mornings, the centre and serenity.’

What turned Borges into Borges was the knowledge he came to that realism was no closer to reality than any other form of words. Reality is simple and sensuous, language complicated and intellectual; Borges will not have it that there can be a canonical account of things, an écriture blanche from which all other accounts are deemed to depart in greater or lesser measure, according to how far they are ‘stylised’. In a lecture on ‘Poetry’ in Seven Nights he disputes an ‘idea attributed to the short story writer Horacio Quiroga’ (a realist if ever there was one, seeming to write eyeball to eyeball with his native Uruguayan landscapes) that ‘if a cold wind blows from the bank of the river, one must write simply “a cold wind blows from the bank of the river.”’ That sentence, decrees Borges, is ‘as complex as a poem by Gongora or a sentence by Joyce’. Some such shock comparison was needed, to expel the tenacious idea that realism has ontological privileges denied to other literary modes. Realism for Borges is merely one form of idealism, one way of arranging words. Because things themselves are beyond words the writer is free to arrange words as he will, in the delusion, it may be, that he is also arranging things, but Borges is always adamant that reality will never tell him what to do when he is writing, even if he must be its slave when he is not.

The world is much richer in its infinite particularities than the disarmingly few generalisations we are able to rise to in our language. Between the uniqueness of our experience, and the by definition ‘iterable’ (as Derrida has it) signs that are all we have with which to represent it, there is a gap which only the foolish – the realists – would fancy themselves competent to span. Borges, more sensibly, delights in what to more earnest souls seems a grievous discrepancy and in the succinctness of his own writing makes a memorable virtue of language’s necessary power of abstraction. He has the Platonic idea that it is by forgetting, or by leaving things out, that we become creators. Total recall is a disaster, the affliction of those too enamoured of a naive realism. One of Borges’s most sardonic stories is that of Funes the Memorious, a young unfortunate unable to clear his memory of anything at all, and so for ever debarred from the least creative act. He mercifully dies, very young, of a ‘congestion’, lost to literature for having been unable to penetrate the secret of language.

Only in the Thirties did Borges take to writing fiction or, better, fictions, a plural called for by the brevity and manifest fictitiousness of what he wrote. In 1935, he published a set of short pieces called The Universal History of Infamy, stories of malfeasance none of which were of his own first making. Borges was not here telling stories but retelling them, playing ‘the irresponsible game of a diffident man lacking the nerve to write stories but who amused himself by falsifying and twisting the stories of others’. Of others, or of no one – because the stories are from stock, they have no rightful owners. Borges does what he wants to do with them and then returns them, puts them back into circulation. These version, in fact, are object lessons in originality. Borges’s major premise is that by this time the literary world is saturated with stories, so that to suppose that one might somehow be able to add entirely new ones is presumptuous. Storytellers do not own the stories that they tell, though they may put their mark on them. Borges asks that they remain modest and not, as they usually are, possessive. The most modest of all Borges’s storytellers is Pierre Menard, ‘the author of Don Quijote’, who after great labours produces two and a bit chapters of a text which already exists. Not the same text at all, urges Borges, because Menard’s verbatim feat was achieved nearly three centuries after Cervantes and by a man whose native language was French: but that is not an argument that he himself believes for one moment, because Borges is anti-author, as anti-author in his whimsical way as Roland Barthes in his more hectoring one.

Borges never mistook literature for life. Literature is better for us than life because it is more interesting, and more interesting because it has been planned, whereas life is so dishearteningly plotless. Borges’s finest stories – ‘The Library of Babel’, ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘Death and the Compass’, ‘South’, ‘Pierre Menard’ – are narratives of heroic ingenuity, the exquisitely planned fantasies of a remarkable intelligence. Their subject is narrative itself, its forms, its syntax, and above all its seductiveness. Borges did not think that literature improved us, but he did think that it diverted us; his own, in its ironic, unassuming way, is for some of us the most diverting there is.