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.

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