I’ve just written a short memoir, Borges and Me, to be published next month, about a strangely moving encounter in 1971 with Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine fabulist. At the time I was 22 and had no idea that he was one of major writers of the century, in the same class as Beckett and Nabokov. To me, he was a blind old man who was visiting a friend.
Weird circumstances brought us together.
I was running away from the States, from the Vietnam War, from my family in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I had spent a year already at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and I left only to return briefly to the States. When my draft status changed to 1-A after an army physical, I had a brief phone call with my draft board that terrified me. I had a good number in the lottery; but I had no belief they wouldn’t come after me, especially since one of my best friends from high school had been drafted and sent to Southeast Asia to slog through jungles on those infamous “search-and-destroy” missions. The last thing I wanted was to go to Vietnam, as I detested that war. I went rushing back to St. Andrews, enrolling as a graduate student.
Month after month, letters arrived from my draft board, but I didn’t open them. A friend told me not to look at them or I’d be liable. This was crazy, though it made peculiar sense, and the unopened letters accumulated in the top drawer of my dresser.
In a pub one day, by arrangement through a mutual friend, I met Alastair Reid in the fall of 1970. He was a poet and translator of Spanish writers, especially Borges and Neruda—a man of immense charm and verbal dexterity. He soon became my close friend and mentor. Most afternoons I would stop by his seaside cottage on the West Sands just outside of town. I’d often bring him a poem for him to “correct,” as he put it. He was a bit of a schoolmaster, and he was strict. He crossed out words, moved stanzas around, added lines. I learned how to write poems by sitting next to him at the pocked wooden table in his kitchen.
One day Borges arrived, a frail man in his seventies, blind, and wildly talkative. He appeared to have memorized the whole of western literature, quoting vast stretches of poetry by heart. I listened to him recite bits and pieces from Anglo-Saxon poetry, Shakespeare, Milton, Chesterton, Kipling, Stevenson, and Yeats, among others. “My grandmother was English,” he told me, as if to explain his virtuosity, “and English was my first language, my first love.”
One night the phone rang, and Alastair told me he had unexpectedly to go to London for a week or so. An elderly relative had taken ill. He wondered if I might “babysit Borges” while he was gone.
I couldn’t say no, although I had my doubts. I arrived at Alastair’s cottage the next morning in my recently acquired 1957 Morris Minor, which I’d bought with a friend. It was a terrible rust bucket of a car, but I loved it. And Borges seemed excited for me. “A motor vehicle of your own!”
He said, “Let’s drive into the highlands. I’ve wanted to see the highlands of Scotland.”
I said, “But Borges, you’re blind!”
To which he replied, “Oh, no, dear boy. Don’t tell me that you’re blind as well.”
So off we went for a week, the two of us. He christened my car Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s lazy horse. I, sadly, became Sancho.
Borges had a firm idea of where we must go. First we must visit a nearby village where Alexander Selkirk once lived—the model for Robinson Crusoe. From there, it was on to Dunfermline to visit the first library opened by Andrew Carnegie in 1883.
We arrived quite late in the afternoon at the Carnegie Library, and it was closed. When I knocked loudly, an elderly librarian in a tweet jacket appeared at the door with an angry look. “We’re not open!” Borges said, “Dear sir, I’ve come all the way from Argentina to see this library! I’m the National Librarian of Argentina.”
The poor man shrugged and, with some reluctance, led us around the building. “This was the first of fifteen hundred libraries that Mr. Carnegie founded,” he explained to his unwanted visitors.
“One would have been enough!” said Borges.
He was, he explained, a great believer in what he called the Universal Library—a library that contained all the books ever written, a simulacrum for reality itself.
Borges went over to a row of books and ran his fingers along the dusty spines. Then he pulled one volume off the shelf and, without hesitation, began to lick the spine. It was odd.
The Carnegie’s librarian objected, but it was no use. “Some books should be tasted,” Borges announced, quoting Francis Bacon. “Others devoured!”
I was taken aback by the antic side of Borges. He was irreverent, funny, insistent on his ways, and brilliantly talkative. I mostly listened, although he interrogated me, and I shared what little I knew of life. He seemed quite moved by my anger with the war in Vietnam, and we talked about our childhoods rather candidly.
Perhaps the strangest night was spent in Killiecrankie, an isolated village in the mountains north of Perth. We stopped at a pub first, where Borges consumed several pints of beer. Then checked into the Morag B&B. It was the only place to stay within dozens of miles, and Morag—a woman of eighty with her hair in a white bun and pince-nez—explained there was “only the one bed.” The guest bathroom wasn’t working, so we’d have to knock on her door and use her toilet. “Do not knock on the door after ten,” she told us. “I do not sleep well.”
Sleeping in the same bed with Borges proved awkward. He wasn’t exactly incontinent. Neither was he continent. I had to lead him into Morag’s bedroom to use the toilet perhaps half a dozen times, including at 4 a.m., by which point our host had lost all patience with us. I sat on her bed while Borges did his thing and felt quite worried when he hadn’t shown signs of life in perhaps twenty minutes. I knocked on the door to ask if he was all right. There was no answer. Some minutes later, he shouted, “It is finished.” Morag, a very religious woman, said, “The last words of our Savior.”
She explained to us that her husband, Baldie (from Archibald), had “died on the Crapper” ten years before.
Borges was sympathetic and told us quite dramatically how his own father in Buenos Aires had suffered the same fate.
We moved on through the Cairngorm mountains to Inverness, where Borges hoped to meet a man called Mr. Singleton, who had written to share his enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon riddles. He asked Borges to look him up if he were ever, by chance, to visit Inverness. Borges had the number in his jacket pocket, and he was quite excited. “Mr. Singleton will be so happy!” When we checked into the hotel, I called the number from the lobby. Alas, it turned out that Mr. Singleton lived in Inverness but—as the operator patiently explained to me—in Inverness, New Zealand. When I brought this news back to Borges, he sighed, saying, “I won’t ask you to drive me to New Zealand.”
The journey continued with stops in Culloden and Loch Ness—never without incident. Needless to say, our adventures on the road stayed in my head for decades. I told and retold the story—a fund of anecdotes—many times. In 2017 I was in Italy, having lunch with friends, and one of them brought out a volume of Borges stories—he happened to be reading them. I said, “Let me tell you about my travels with Borges through the highlands of Scotland.”
He and my other friends sat up. When I finished, my friend said, “That’s a book. Write it.”
I’d somehow never thought it was a book, but when I started to write, the narrative sped forward with its own sweet will. I couldn’t stop it. As I wasn’t carrying a tape recorder, I relied on memory—that notoriously imperfect instrument. There were a few jottings in my diary from this trip, and this was all I needed: I found I could “do” Borges. Anything that passes through memory, of course, is fiction: I had already shaped the incidents, retold them many times.
These travels ended on a poignant note. When we got back to St. Andrews, I learned that my friend in Vietnam had been killed. Borges was deeply sympathetic, and he told me to bring the letters from my draft board to Alastair’s house the next night. “I have something in mind,” he said.
I did as instructed, and we—Alastair was back from London by now—built a bonfire on the beach from driftwood, and I burned the letters from my draft board, one by one. Then we locked arms and danced, led by Borges, around the fire as the sun set on the West Sands.
This little journey was, for me, a turning point. I felt liberated by Borges, whose wild imagination thrilled me. I now moved into my new life as a writer with renewed energy and hope. Borges gave me something of himself. And I’d like to think that, in some little way, I gave something to him as well.