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Borges: A Life

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page BW15


By Edwin Williamson. Viking. 574 pp. $34.95

Edwin Williamson's new life of the great writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is thoroughly engrossing, and fans of the Argentine's ficciones will want to read it without delay. But like socialist literature of the 1930s, this biography wants to fit unruly human life into a theoretical mold. Throughout these pages, Borges is made to appear a divided man, one who desperately, and until his final years unsuccessfully, yearns for spiritual unity. Williamson discovers polarities everywhere. As a child Borges is torn between admiration for his martial ancestors (symbolized by the sword) and an equal admiration for the romantic violence of raffish knife-fighters and petty criminals (the dagger). As a young man, he is caught between the example of his father, the bookish, philandering would-be artist, and the demands of his controlling mother, whom he never disobeys, no matter how stultifying her attentions, how suffocating her devotion. Worst of all, as an adult, Borges repeatedly desires the love of a good woman or even a bad one, but though his spirit may sometimes be willing, his flesh is apparently always weak: Whether traumatized by memories of an unsuccessful adolescent visit to a prostitute or fearful of offending imperious Mama, he can never, his biographer strongly suggests, actually bring himself to go to bed with anybody.

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It doesn't take long, then, for a reader of these pages to conclude that Latin America's most important 20th-century writer was essentially a wimp, probably impotent, certainly indecisive and weak-willed, thoroughly self-pitying, surprisingly vindictive and often cowardly (lacking the courage to tell the first woman he married that he was leaving her, he flew to another country while she was being served the divorce papers). Consider this, too: In many cultures, grown children often remain in their natal home, but Borges was still living with his mother in a small apartment well into his sixties. Once, at dinner, a Yale scholar overheard a maid ask if the famous writer would like some wine, only to be amazed by his formidable mother answering, "The boy won't have any wine."

Borges once wrote that "All literature is autobiographical, in the last instance." For Edwin Williamson, however, it is autobiographical in the first instance too. He reads Borges' poetry and fiction as sublimations of the Argentine's erotic daydreams and disappointments, or as reflections of conflicted feelings about his country's true national character -- was Argentina best represented by the high-born criollo of relatively pure Spanish blood or by the romantic gaucho and knife-wielding compadrito? Rather surprisingly, especially in a professor of Spanish at Oxford, Williamson appears to have only the slightest interest in, say, "The Zahir" or "The Aleph" as highly original works of art. They are viewed as refractions of their author's emotional crises. When Borges claims The Divine Comedy to be the greatest masterpiece of world literature, his biographer immediately jumps in to point out that Dante's love for Beatrice replicates that of Borges for the poet and novelist Norah Lange. The poetry is regarded as straightforwardly or symbolically confessional, and so mined for insights into the writer's psyche.

Annoying though Williamson can be (repeating, again and again, his theory about the sword and the dagger as emblems of opposing psychological tugs), he usefully reminds us that Borges was more than the blind seer and gentle mage of his last world-famous years. He founded literary magazines like Proa (meaning "prow"), promoted avant-garde art, translated bits of Joyce and Kafka into Spanish before anyone else, loved a good literary squabble, loathed fascism, Nazis and Peron, and made lots of bad decisions, both personal and political (he supported the oppressive government that caused so many in Argentina to disappear).

Despite a flabby body, ugly mug and owlish myopia (and eventual blindness), Borges must nonetheless have been immensely charming, and not just vastly well read. (When, by the way, did the man do all this reading? Or writing, for that matter? We're told seemingly everything about his social life and hardly anything about his desk habits.) Invariably, Borges gravitated toward the sort of women his mother would not approve of. Norah Lange brought out the scandalously titled (and semi-autobiographical) novel 45 Days and 30 Sailors, cavorted (perhaps intimately) with Pablo Neruda, and then, after a brilliant early flowering, squandered her talents by becoming a mere social eminence and popular after-dinner speaker. The free-spirited Estela Canto offered to sleep with Borges, and he refused (even though they were supposedly engaged); she finally broke off the relationship after realizing that her fiancé was interrupting their evenings together to sneak away and call his mother.

And then there's Maria Kodama. Late in life, Borges grew fascinated with a very young Japanese-Argentine woman who soon became his travel companion and eventual second wife. She was left the writer's entire estate, to the disgust of his extended family and the disappointment of his longtime cook and housekeeper. The true nature of Kodama's relationship with Borges has long been problematic: Did she truly love him? Was she merely a gold digger? Has she sacrificed her own life to become a keeper of the flame? Or has she tried hard, like other literary widows before her, to control or hamper the work of researchers and legitimate scholars? Edwin Williamson insists that Kodama helped him with this biography but that it is in no way authorized. If we assume this to be true, the actual book nonetheless suggests that all of Borges's early life finds its fulfillment and resolution in Maria Kodama. Williamson portrays her as almost saintly and her relationship with Borges as deeply affectionate and tender, a sudden, unexpected idyll of serene happiness before the blind storyteller's death. Yet other scholars view the same woman with considerable distrust. Even Adolfo Bioy-Casares -- Borges's sometime collaborator -- took a strong dislike to her. Borges simply stopped seeing his oldest and best friend.

To be fair, Williamson doesn't shrink from mentioning the controversies surrounding Kodama. Nor does he shortchange Borges the smiling, public man. For instance, he offers extended analyses of the writer's shifting political views, and his journey from liberal, even radical literary firebrand to conservative, establishment icon. Yet, in the end, Williamson's biography, for all its readability and extensive research, simply feels too programmatic, at times almost Freudian, while also underplaying the importance of books and scholarship to Borges's existence. After all, it was the author of "The Library of Babel" who proudly confessed that "people say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."

So this is a useful and important biography, if slightly flawed in its focus. Moreover, it 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 this self-tormented mama's boy. Oh well. It's worth remembering that a writer's true life takes place at his desk, and the poor, paltry human being he may be away from it merely serves to provide him with material for his art. Only "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" matter at this point. In the end, I wish this biography had told me more about the gestation of these classic stories than about their author's imagined psychology.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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