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Sunday, September 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
"Borges: A Life" Illuminating biography shows the intricacy of Borges' work

By Clarence Brown
Special to The Seattle Times

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When I was teaching at Princeton, I always looked forward to the moment in one course when Borges would be the topic. It was a thrill to witness the discovery by the students of a writer who spoke intimately to them in ways they could not have anticipated.

In this he resembled Kafka, another thrilling discovery. Borges resembles the Czech writer in many ways, but perhaps most of all in that his "stories" are often parables in disguise, and like parables, they yield more the more one reads them.

I wish that I had had then "Borges: A Life," the splendid biography of Jorge Luis Borges by Edwin Williamson. In his bibliography, he lists 11 biographies of Borges, but I daresay there can be no competitor to his own, based as it is upon unimpeded access to the most recent materials in the archives and to most of the surviving acquaintances of the writer.

There is no evidence that the author ever met his subject in person (as I once did, when we had lunch at Princeton and spoke of nothing but English etymology for two solid hours), but this is hardly a handicap for a scholar who has read everything and met everyone related to his subject.

"Borges: A Life"


by Edwin Williamson
Viking, 592 pp., $34.95

There is something altogether fitting and even predictable about the best life of Borges having been written by a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Borges did not require an English grandmother and other Anglo-Saxon connections to become thoroughly at home in English (including Anglo-Saxon). He is said to have read Don Quixote first in English and then to have found the original a rather poor translation.

I can imagine Borges as a difficult subject for a biographer, for everything about him seems incredible, beginning with his origins, in a country where he was torn between his proper English ancestry and his blood kinship with fierce Argentinian horsemen and warriors. Until he was in his 60s, he was utterly unknown except in the environs of Buenos Aires. In a very few years he was known in literary circles all over the world. Indeed, he was acknowledged as the leader of an entire movement in South American writing, and even world writing.

Borges resembled Faulkner in one respect. Faulkner said he'd tried to write poetry, then the short story and "settled for the novel." Borges, having tried this and that, settled for ... what? To speak of his short works as stories requires a radical redefinition of the term, for a story by Borges is as often a riddle or a meditation or a philosophical theory, or ... what?

This is what the students so enjoyed. Having absorbed the dogma that a short story must begin with a short and punchy sentence, as one of Hemingway's did ("Mr. and Mrs. Elliott tried very hard to have a baby."), they were first flabbergasted and then charmed by the opening of Borges' "The Sect of the Phoenix," which space forbids my quoting at length: "Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts ... " Take my word for it, this goes on and on, only to reveal to the undiscourageably curious that it deals with the very process by which Mr. and Mrs. Elliott were trying to have that baby.

Borges found the supreme defect of the realistic novel to be its obsession with causality, the attempt to explain everything. He might perhaps have objected to his biographer's effort to see his artistic development as the outgrowth of this or that event in his life: "now, after the loss of Norah Lange, he was proposing an aesthetics of radical mistrust ... " But the biographer is writing history, not fiction, and Williamson does a splendid job of suggesting without insisting upon the plausible sequences of traumatic or victorious causes in the life and their effects in the work. The reader of fiction must accept what is given, but the reader of a biography can only be grateful for interpretations that are reasonable without being obligatory.

Clarence Brown is professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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