Book Essay - Summer 2012

An Unquenchable Gaiety of Mind

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On visits to Cambridge University late in life, Jorge Luis Borges offered revealing last thoughts about his reading and writing

By George Watson


 

By his last years Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) was often seen as a skeptic. Michel Foucault began Les mots et les choses (1966, published in English as The Order of Things) by acclaiming him for having defied certainty and demolished every familiar landmark of knowledge, since everything “bears the stamp of our age and our geography.” Foucault cited something Borges claimed to have found once in an old Chinese encyclopedia, a hilarious taxonomy of animals using the following categories: those belonging to the emperor, those that are embalmed, those that are tame, sucking pigs, sirens, stray dogs, et cetera. That was impressively credulous of Foucault, since Borges (as I once heard him say) often made up his quotations: “One is allowed to change the past.” Among the literal minded, however, his reward was to be thought to have sounded the death knell of all human hopes to know the world or to understand our place in it.

Nearly 30 years ago I wrote down my recollections of Borges’s visits to Cambridge, mainly in 1984, which was coincidentally the year Foucault died. Perhaps I should have published them sooner, since they suggest an unquenchable gaiety of mind: Foucault’s mistake would undoubtedly have amused him. He might even have made a story of it. Though blind, Borges was not sad. His name and fame survive as the author of several dozen stories; he never wrote a novel, and cheerfully called himself lazy.

He was a traditionalist—the last Victorian—mindful, perhaps, that when Queen Victoria died he was already in his second year of life. In a 1979 BBC radio conversation with Graham Greene, John Updike, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Carlos Fuentes celebrating Borges’s 80th birthday, he cheerfully conceded it. “What is the matter with being an old-fashioned storyteller?” he asked, and he politely disdained an accolade from Robbe-Grillet calling him the enemy of realism and father of the nouveau roman. Realism, after all, never confined itself to reality: it embraces coincidence, for example, and foreboding. “You don’t think of life as being like a realistic novel, do you?” he asked. All lives are rich in fantasy, and to depict fantasy is to depict life. Flaubert’s Emma Bovary fantasized, after all, and so did Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Borges’s own life, aptly enough, was outwardly uneventful. Born in Argentina, he was schooled in Geneva and then spent three years in Spain as a young man before returning home in 1921, living out a long life in Buenos Aires, twice briefly married, as a librarian and a man of letters.


The sweet-tempered octogenarian I knew needed in his blindness to be helped gently across carpeted floors. His preoccupations, notably Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, were above all philological. His father had taught in English, which Borges used to say was the first language he ever spoke, though you would probably not have guessed it. He first read Cervantes’s Don Quixote in English, and when he came to read it in the original Spanish he imagined it was a translation. His own spoken English was poised and faintly overcorrect, shot through with teasing ironies that were somehow continental; he might have been another Voltaire, gently mellowed with the years. Anglophilia did not make an Englishman of him or anything like one, and you felt that a café would have suited him far better than a pub.

As for his native land, his attitude was critically detached. Deeply distrustful of dictators, he was rewarded with an office of note—as director of the national library in Buenos Aires—only after the fall of Juan Perón in 1955, and he disdained all publicity and acclaim.

My recollections of his talks, taken from notes recently unearthed among my papers, suggest a refreshing inde- pendence of mind rather than willful iconoclasm, along with what would have looked to our grandparents like an abiding passion for an entirely familiar canon of English: Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible, which his English grandmother used to read, along with Robert Louis Stevenson and G. K. Chesterton. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings meant nothing to him. He was a skeptic of religion but not of the literary canon. Or, as he once put it in heartfelt certainty, we must never “destroy by human reasoning the faith that art requires of us.” No fantasist, after all, can afford to doubt reality or the knowledge of reality. “The world, unfortunately, is real,” as he once remarked, “and I, unfortunately, am Borges.”

What follow are the notes I made. They are verbatim, in answer to questions put by a large audience (on one occasion) and at one or two small gatherings. I have not recorded the dates, but they are all from the 1980s, which is why I presume to call them last words.


I have no religion and no desire for immortality. I know a writer who believes his soul is immortal, and if I were he I might wish it too. But for myself I hope to die altogether, body and soul, and at times I am impatient for death.

As for books, I sometimes browse in them nowadays but seldom read them to the end. I know many languages, including Latin but not Greek. Old English I love passionately—Anglo-Saxon—and it was through Old English I learnt Old Norse. It is by knowing a language that you come to know poems. You come to know them physically, and unless you know a poem physically you do not know it at all.

Learning languages is a physical pleasure. Words are somehow personal and uncanny. My best story is “The Book of Sand,” with no beginning or end. We do not read to discover the end. After all, people reread stories, so it is impossible to believe they read to discover how they will end.

Algebra interests me, as numbers do, but not geometry, and I know very little mathematics. As for my last book, it will include a story called “Shakespeare’s Memory”—the last story of my last book. That will take a year. At 84, I need another year to live.

I respect translators, and my stories have sometimes been greatly bettered by them. One of them told me so himself. Besides, I am so fond of English that I like anything better in English than in Spanish.

Dante’s Inferno I prefer to the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. That is because people talk about their own lives. They speak out.

As for writing stories, I have often reused the same plot three or four times, though unsure I was doing that until I had finished. My own idea of paradise is a library—that is my personal heresy. Now that I cannot read I have become so fond of books. I still have many of my father’s. He read Swinburne, Shelley, Keats, and of course Shakespeare. My maternal grandmother was English, and she read the Authorized Version of the Bible and Charles Dickens.

Some faces I recall from childhood, but less well than books. I am still fond of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, from which as a child I read about Druids and Dryden on the same day. I was too shy to ask for a book I really wanted. When I began to write, I wondered at first, “Who am I to write short stories?” So I began by playing games with them and claiming sources. But believe me, all the sources I cite are bogus. As for the nature of fiction, that is a 19th-century theme. But then I am a Victorian. I know little about contemporary writers. If I say something happened in a slum in Palermo in 1890, who will contradict me? One is allowed to change the past: the present is so stubborn.

When I write, four or five pages may take a month, and there are blind days when I do not have a secretary. But I am a happy man. Tragic is too big a word for me.

I never reread what I publish. Awful to think students are examined on what I write. But what can I do about it? Reading is felicity, and I hate the thought it should be forced on anyone. My sister, Norah, is a painter, and she says a painting, too, exists to give happiness.

Because I cannot read I enjoy groping for a story. Writing a novel or a play would be beyond me. As for nationalism, I hate it whether it is South American or European.

The chief influences on my stories have been Robert Louis Stevenson and G. K. Chesterton. Stevenson is the most wonderful of all English writers, after Shakespeare. I am utterly defeated by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Critics of myself I don’t read: I am afraid I might be detected at any moment. Any story should be extended by its readers, and I would not complain if they extended mine.


Those, in their entirety, are my notes of what I heard Borges in Cambridge say. They are presumably his last recorded words in English, although he had conversations in Spanish on a Buenos Aires radio station in the two years before his death.

George Watson is a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge. He is the editor of the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature and the author of The Lost Literature of Socialism and Take Back the Past.


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