Labyrinths of Identity

Does it change Borges' fiction to know about Borges' life?


Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer, first encountered Cervantes' Don Quixote in his father's library, in an English-language translation. Borges was just a boy at the time, and he was soon enraptured by both the work and the edition. The book on his father's shelves was, if I remember correctly, the old Grolier edition with its impressive steel engravings, and it imprinted itself on the imaginative boy's mind.

For the rest of his life, this English version with its evocative visualizations was to remain for Borges the only "real" Don Quixote. Of course, he was eventually to read the novel in its original Spanish, but as he was to describe it, the experience was a disappointing anticlimax. Indeed, Cervantes' Spanish prose actually struck him as if it were a clumsy translation from what had become, in his mind, the authentic English version. At least, that's how the imaginative old man told that tale.

I feel the same way about the real Borges that Borges felt about the original Quixote: As far as I'm concerned, the real one is a shadow of the literary double that emerged from it. Borges used himself (or some version of himself) by name in a number of his now-famous stories and sketches, and wrote in an unidentified but consistent first-person narrator's voice in many others. These stories, with their contemplations of time and imagination, of dreams and doubles, of labyrinths and mirrors, are among the most admired short works of the last century and may rightly be said to have transformed literary fiction.

The author of these tales is very much at their center: a carefully crafted and essentially imaginary character ("presence" might be a better term) who is sometimes called "Borges." But the real Borges is lately threatening to get in the way of Borges' fictionalized version of himself. If that happens, it may well be a triumph of biographical scholarship, but it's apt to have literary consequences too.

There's a fat new biography of Borges by Edwin Williamson, a professor of Spanish at Oxford. Very thorough stuff. Runs 574 pages, including index, plus xviii pages of prefatory material. As far as I know, Williamson's Borges: A Life is the first major inquiry into Borges (at least in English) since his death in 1986. Borges, by the way, strongly believed that a life of reading was not an alternative to a life of action but that it too was legitimately a life of action–only action of a different kind. Much of his literature has to do with reading and is thus about literature. He would appear to be a biographer's challenge, unless that biographer decided that if a life could be about literature, then its biography should be about literature too. Emir Rodriguez Monegal's 1978 "literary biography" of Borges, the first full-length biographical attempt, made just that choice.

Williamson's work reverses this premise. Borges' life was not about literature, he suggests; his literature was–primarily–about his inner life. Since that inner life was filled with unattractive aspects, the literature itself is at issue. Specifically, the "Borges" of the stories ceases to be an appealing narrative presence and threatens to be revealed as a disguise. If one reads the stories through this prism, their subject may well change.

The new biography promises rather a lot. Not only will the biographer chart the evolution of Borges' ideas (great!), it will give you the full man: Borges "in love and in despair" (uh-oh). But that's just the start. Edwin Williamson, promises the publisher, "reconstructs the dynamics of [Borges'] inner world–the conflicts, desires, and obsessions that drove the man and shaped his world."

Williamson's massive and ambitious project is clearly the result of his admiration of Borges' work and his desire to understand its origins. He deserves a sympathetic critique, and he received one from Washington Post critic Michael Dirda, who suggested earlier this year that despite what he regarded as the book's flaws, "fans of the Argentine's ficciones will want to read it without delay."

But Dirda also wrote that the biography "left me at least a sadder if wiser reader: I will miss picturing the author of 'Death and the Compass' as a lovable scholarly antiquarian" rather than as the figure that emerges from Williamson's work. That person, concludes the Dirda, "was essentially a wimp, probably impotent, certainly indecisive and weak-willed, thoroughly self-pitying, surprisingly vindictive and often cowardly."

There's a problem here, an interesting one if one is concerned about reading as an act of pleasure as opposed to literature as a field of scholarship. What interests me is that Dirda writes here as if he has allowed Williamson to intervene in his relationship not only with Borges the author but with "Borges" the fictional presence.

Why is it readerly wisdom to stop imagining Borges "as a lovable scholarly antiquarian"? Because his last wife might have been a gold digger? Because he allowed himself to be ruled by an imperious mother? Because he might have been impotent? Williamson may be quite right; these factors may have shaped Borges' work in fundamental ways. But they are extraneous to my relationship to the work, which, after all, I share in imagining as I read them.

The art of imagining an author
happens to be the subject of one of Borges' most famous stories. In "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," the desire of the writer Pierre Menard to identify with Miguel de Cervantes has been so great that he has sought to write Don Quixote himself: not to write a version of it, but rather to become the novel's author and to create it with his own hand. After immense effort, he manages to produce "the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Part One," plus a fragment of a third chapter.

It isn't only Menard's imagination that is at issue; it is also the narrator's. "Shall I confess," writes the narrator of Menard's attempt, "that I often imagine that he finished it and that I am reading Don Quixote–the entire work–as if Menard had conceived it?" Indeed, the narrator has decided that reading Don Quixote as if it were by Pierre Menard renders it a more subtle work, superior to Cervantes' original. A Quixote by Menard, concludes the narrator, enriches "the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading."

"Borges" is a narrative presence imagined by the writer, but Borges is an author imagined by the reader. Since I don't believe it is possible to authoritatively reconstruct anybody's inner world, "Williamson's Borges" is yet another imaginary character, this one imagined by the biographer.

To be fair to Dirda, he ultimately concludes the same thing. Williamson has "imagined" the psychology behind the works, and anyway only the works themselves matter at this point. These works present us with many images and symbols, above all the challenge of Borges' favorite symbol, the labyrinth. Yet the challenge of the labyrinth, and its pleasure as well, is that one enters it alone.?