Borges Had A Genius For Literature But Not Love Or Much Else

The Argentinian literary genius married at the age of 68. It was not a wise move, but then Borges was never known for wise moves except when writing.

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In 1967, Jorge Luis Borges, 68 years old and almost entirely blind, stunned his family and friends by marrying a 57-year-old widow, Elsa Astete Millan. The sudden impulse yielded consequences as bizarre as anything in Borges’s fictional oeuvre.

Elsa had been one of Georgie’s early loves—they probably met sometime around 1927 when she was 17—and Borges remained infatuated with her for years. Finally, after phoning her house for months, her mother revealed to Borges that Elsa was married. The man who would become the most influential fictionalist of the last half of the 20th century cried, “Ah, caramba!” and hung up.

Georgie’s eventual marriage to Elsa resulted in a three year hell of his own making. Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Borges’s translator and, in effect, his personal secretary for several years, writes in Georgie & Elsa that Borges “was engaged in domestic civil war, in conjugal torture, and he thought it best, as much as he was able, to keep these troubles to himself.” Borges did indeed do a pretty good job of hiding his misery; there is little about the marriage in Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life (2004) or in James Woodall’s identically titled 1996 biography.

A cover blurb for Georgie & Elsa from Paul Theroux declares that “Georgie & Elsa is the book that all lovers of Borges have longed for.” I don’t know about that, but di Giovanni’s text is amusing and insightful about an area of Borges’s life that no one else has delved into, and he doesn’t try to make the book into more than it is. Georgie & Elsa is “an attempt to find out whether a person’s life can be typified by a single part of it … can a marriage of only a few years duration reveal a man’s whole life?” The sensible answer is no, but di Giovannni gleaned much from those three years. The inner Borges, it seems, was often a mystery to a man he practically lived with: “What on earth could have provoked those pathetic effusions—pleading with Elsa to deliver him from his loneliness and the pointlessness of his existence … All so uncharacteristic of the Borges he allowed the public to see.”

Then, “Borges’s love life was always a cerebral business.”

Apparently Elsa was petty, jealous, and spiteful. She hated sharing Georgie with his admirers, particularly on lecture tours in in North America. The problem wasn’t her lack of English, as American academics who lionized Borges usually spoke Spanish: “Rather, it was her lack of intellect.” Borges, at first, was oblivious to her absolute lack of intellectual acuity.

Seemingly possessed by demons, she would slip objects from the homes of rich people they visited into her pocketbook. Things that if she had asked for they probably would have been given to her. During a visit to the U.S., she weaved in and out of the Rockefellers’ mansion snapping photographs of their bedrooms and bathrooms. She avoided her husband’s lectures, but named her expensive coats for the subjects of his lectures: “This is Walt Whitman, and this is Edgar Allan Poe, and this one is Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

Perhaps they both had an inkling of how bad a marriage theirs was going to be before the ceremony: “Neither Georgie nor Elsa looked as if it were the happiest day of their lives … the couple seemed glum.”

Her demands were so constant and outrageous that to get any work done her husband and his translator often hid in the basement of The National Library at the University of Buenos Aires (where Borges was director for many years). Their inevitable divorce was messy, bitter, and packed with bizarre occurrences. After Borges’s first audience before a judge, di Giovanni reports, “He came back in a gleeful state, and, with smiles and laughter, told me that the judge had spent the court’s time reading Borges’s poems back to him.”

After the divorce he never mentioned Elsa again.

Not that Georgie was any great bargain himself. The man who explored universes in his works was ridiculously small-minded. After a visit from two Brazilian female fans, he was told that the women were black. “Why didn’t you tell me? Que horror, I would have thrown them out!” He insulted a female poet of his acquaintance by remarking “that she and her family were Jews.” (Though he would insist in a famous essay in Other Inquisitions that “For several reasons I am not anti-Semitic.”)

The man was—or pretended to be—an English snob. His father was half English, and Georgie grew up with English practically as a first language. Di Giovanni thought “He wrote Spanish while in his ear he heard English.” He effected a clipped English accent.

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Borges had an almost Evelyn Waugh-like capacity for sucking up to the upper classes. As for the lower classes, he once said to di Giovanni, “I don’t understand why the working man isn’t content to just read his Shakespeare or his Dante.” Let them eat poetry.

Though he espoused anti-Peron sentiment, “In his political myopia it never occurred to Borges that it was his social class who had opened the door to Peron and was responsible for his rise to power.” The Argentinian poor “were invisible to Borges and to his circle of conservatives …” When di Giovanni was shocked at Borges’s support for Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies, “It was the first time I was exposed to his blind political views.” But not the last. When Borges traveled to Chile to receive a medal from Pinochet, his lame excuse was that he thought it was “a gift of the Chilean people.”

To be fair, he might not have known that Pinochet was a ruthless dictator. Borges could not read newspapers and wouldn’t let others read them to him. He didn’t listen to the radio and disliked political discussions because they were “too boring for his consideration.”

More than any of the lengthy biographies, Georgie & Elsa makes clear exactly how narrow Georgie’s world finally became. His reading “had stopped around 1930, and he knew little or nothing of contemporary writers.” He may have been telling the truth when, on hearing that Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize, he remarked, “Never heard of him.”

In old age his capacity for self-delusion was staggering. At a bar with di Giovanni, he couldn’t reach the men’s room in time and peed all over his pants and shoes. Di Giovanni offered to take him home to change. “‘No, we’ll go on,’ he said, ‘this is just an illusion.’” Another illusion was calling himself an anarchist. A real anarchist, writes di Giovanni, “has a committed conscience and a thirst for social equality, concepts far beyond Borges’s powers of interest or comprehension. Here was another example of his posturing.” Di Giovanni believes that Borges was a consummate liar, and “Because he was Borges, a writer of recognition and with a certain charisma, his lies became automatically and universally believed. In the end, “he believed the lies he told.”

Di Giovanni is regarded by many Borges’s aficionados as his best translator—he worked side-by-side with the master—and the reader is free to assume that di Giovanni might be harboring some resentment for being shut out from royalties when Georgie’s second wife, who inherited all the publishing rights, commissioned new translations. But there is no rancor in Georgie & Elsa, and di Giovanni’s evaluation of Borges is generous, and accurate.

He concludes that Borges’s “political and social views gained him notoriety and probably cost him a Nobel Prize.” However, something else may have undermined Borges’s reputation. There has always been a lingering distrust in the critical establishment for writers who become too famous too fast, especially after having published so little. Borges’s ultimate fame, writes di Giovanni, “is based on a mere thirty-four stories written between 1933 and 1953.” Surely no other writer in the 20th century has had such a huge impact from so little work. Except for the cognoscenti, he was little read in his native country until he shared, with Beckett, the International Publishers Prize (Prix Formentor) in 1961. (As early as 1945, novelist Ernesto Sabato cracked that “If Borges were French or Czech, we’d all be reading him enthusiastically in bad translations.”)

When fame did come, it was with dizzying swiftness. In less than a decade he was transformed into a literary rock star. In Nicholas Roeg’s Performance (1970), Mick Jagger stops the film to quote from one of Borges’s most famous stories, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. That same year, Bernardo Bertolucci released The Spider’s Stratagem, adapted from Borges’s Theme of the Traitor and Hero.

Over the next couple of years, though, some felt a letdown when they discovered that Borges had written no long works. Nabokov, who one might think would be a kindred spirit, told Time magazine in 1969, “At first Vera [his wife] and I were delighted at reading Borges. We felt like we were on the portico of a great house. Then we realized there was no house.” I hope when he said that Nabokov didn’t know that by that time Borges had been functionally blind for decades. Anyway, Nabokov, of all writers, should have known that in reading Borges he wasn’t entering a house but a labyrinth.

To criticize Borges for not writing novels is to assume that the novel is superior to the short story—or parables or “inventions” or whatever label one chooses to put in works such as Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, and other “reviews” of fictitious books. Are long poems by definition superior to short ones? Are murals inherently greater than miniatures? Borges’s miniatures are gravid with more charisma and more intellectual elan than all but a handful of modern writers, no matter how long their books.

Still other critics are baffled that Borges was influenced by such strange and disparate sources. Andre Maurois called Borges’s sources “innumerable and unexpected. Borges had read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Kabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound … but it is vast.” Di Giovanni thinks much the same, and in nearly the same words: “Here was a writer worshipped for being the last word in avant-garde, and he was claiming just the opposite. He would mention and quote from writers nobody read anymore—DeQuincey, Wells, Stevenson, Chesterton—suddenly giving them, in his audience’s view, a new allure, a new promise.” Borges started to read everything, but there was much he didn’t finish, including The Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, In Search of Lost Time, the novels of Thomas Mann—a great deal of high-falutin’ western literature left little or no impression on him. Instead he was mesmerized by the Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany, enthralled by the chief propagandist for the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling, and delighted by the American cowboy-turned-writer Will James, whose short westerns Borges preferred to Henry James’s lengthy easterns.

Happily for the current generation, the literary squabbles and partisan politics of the ’60s and ’70s that once swirled around Borges and his work have faded. And while Borges the man becomes smaller with each new biography or memoir, The Aleph, The Garden of Forking Paths, The Library of Babel, Borges and I and a couple of dozen other pieces continue to expand in our imagination.