The gentlemen who hand out the Nobel medal for literature every year should be embarrassed, and deeply so. Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most original literary talents of this century, lived to be 86, time enough to produce volumes of crystalline astonishments and have them translated into nearly every conceivable language, and yet the committee ignored him, sometimes in favor of mediocrities.
Borges, who died Saturday in Geneva, now joins the Nobel's Pantheon of the Overlooked, the luminous company of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, Isak Dinesen, Vladimir Nabokov, W.H. Auden.
The Nobel committee has traditionally been blind to literature that does not take politics or social depiction as a foremost aim, and it has been unwisely generous to a few with big hearts, if leaky pens. Hence, Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck and a jumble of inconsequential Nordics. Blindness to a giant such as Borges once more tarnishes the Nobel bauble.
Although he was a severe critic of Juan Peron, many of his countrymen -- and presumably the Nobel committee -- were frustrated by the lack of political statement in his work and his lack of activism. Borges, who was more of an internationalist than a purely Argentinian writer, said an artist "should be judged by the enjoyment he gives and by the emotion one gets. As to ideas, after all it is not very important whether a writer has some political opinion or other because a work will come through despite them."
To those who look to short stories and novels as if they must be sociological reports or political tracts in fictional dressing, his was an unacceptable esthetic. Happily Borges persisted in his own way, recording the glittering shards and dark mazes of the mind that were his inner universe. The imagination was his gift, his generosity.
After receiving the Nobel in 1982, Gabriel Garcia Marquez said of Borges, "I still don't understand why they don't give it to him." Marquez was acknowledging a debt as well as a reading pleasure. His own "magical realism" in "One Hundred Years of Solitude" owed a great deal to Borges' ficciones, those otherworldly pieces -- part-story, part-essay -- that revealed a mind like no other.
Borges did not worry much about honors and such. "I don't want respect," he said. "I want my work to be read and enjoyed." And of immortality: "I don't care what people think after I'm dead. I won't be here."
His sense of intellectual play and absolute freedom, his ability to extend and transform his favorite books of the past into "new" books, made him impossible to label. And so now we have the term "Borgesian," a term to describe the influence felt on writers all over the world, as diverse as Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino.
While the Nobel committee's blindness was absolute, Borges' blindness -- he lost nearly all his sight 30 years ago -- was like Milton's, profoundly shaping his imagination, forcing him into a reliance on memory and cadence, the creation of a magical kingdom of tigers, labyrinths and a long-gone version of his home, Buenos Aires. Borges did not rage against the darkness; for him, blindness was "no handicap for a writer of fantasy. It leaves the mind free and unhampered to explore the depths and heights of human imagination.
"I'm not in darkness. In my case I have lost the darkness, the blackness. I live in luminous mist. At the moment I don't know whether it's bluish or graying, but it's always luminous."
It was as if Borges lived the line of Rupert Brooke's: "And see, no longer blinded by our eyes."
If Borges had a primary subject, it was reading. By reworking the fictions of the past in stories such as "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" and "Inferno I, 32" or inventing new "old" books in "Tlon, Qubar, Orbis Tertius" and "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," Borges reminded us that reading is not a passive pleasure, but rather a personal reinvention of what is on the page, an experience parallel to life, full of conflict, adventure, pain, passion, confusion, even boredom.
The obituarists tell us that Borges was born at a particular time and place (August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires), lived abroad with his family as a youth (in Geneva, from 1914 to 1921), married twice (to Elsa Astete Millan, then, after a divorce, to his secretary, Maria Kodama), worked (as a librarian, as a poultry inspector, as a literary celebrity) and died (of liver cancer).
But the most important experiences of his life took place in an armchair, with a book open on his lap. Blindness altered this only slightly. As his sight clouded and then disappeared, he listened as various friends read to him and helped him learn new languages. When he was not reading or writing, he was translating writers he loved: Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Andre' Gide.
Borges was his reading.
"If I were asked to name the chief event in my life," he once wrote, "I should say my father's library. I sometimes think I have never strayed outside that library. I can still picture it. It was in a room of its own, with glass-fronted shelves, and must have contained several thousand volumes. Being so nearsighted, I have forgotten most of the faces of that time . . . and yet I vividly remember so many of the steel engravings in 'Chamber's Encyclopedia' and in the 'Britannica.'
"The first novel I ever read through was 'Huckleberry Finn.' Next came 'Roughing It' and 'Flush Days in California.' I also read books by Captain Marryat, Wells' 'First Men in the Moon,' Poe, a one-volume edition of Longfellow, 'Treasure Island,' Dickens, 'Don Quixote,' 'Tom Brown's School Days,' Grimm's 'Fairy Tales,' Lewis Carroll, 'The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green' (a now forgotten book), Burton's 'A Thousand Nights and a Night.' "
Borges' early reading, so rich with fancy, sounds a great deal like the early literary experience of Nabokov, another author who eschewed the documentary element of literature in favor of the magic. Borges and Nabokov both were in love with languages, obscure sagas, the unreal. Oscar Wilde once bemoaned the 'decay of lying'; Borges and Nabokov, master liars, would have been his heroes.
Unlike Nabokov, Borges devoted himself completely to short forms. His precursors included Poe, Kafka and Paul Vale'ry. Andre' Maurois once remarked that " Kafka's 'The Castle' might be by Borges, but he would have made it into a 10-page story, both out of a lofty laziness and out of concern for perfection."
"In the course of a lifetime devoted chiefly to books," Borges wrote, "I have read but few novels, and, in most cases, only a sense of duty has enabled me to find my way to their last page. At the same time, I have always been a reader and re-reader of short stories. Stevenson, Kipling, James, Conrad, Poe, Chesterton, the tales of Lane's Arabian Nights, and certain stories by Hawthorne have been habits of mine since I can remember."
One of Borges' triumphant stories is "The Maker," published in 1958. Here, in the guise of a history of Homer's blindness, Borges may be telling us something about his own art, his own loss of one kind of vision, the deepening of another:
"Little by little, the beautiful world began to leave him; a persistent mist erased the lines of his hand, the night lost its multitude of stars, the ground became uncertain beneath his steps. Everything grew distant and blurred. When he knew he was going blind, he cried out; stoic fortitude had not yet been invented, and Hector could flee from Achilles without dishonor. I shall no longer look upon the sky with mythological dread (he felt), nor this face which the years will transform.
"Days and nights passed over these fears of his body, but one morning he awoke, looked (without astonishment now) at the dim things around him, and unexplainably felt -- the way one recognizes a strain of music or a voice -- that all this had already happened to him and that he had faced it with fear, but also with joy, hope, and curiosity. Then he went deep into his past, which seemed to him bottomless, and managed to draw out of that dizzying descent the lost memory that now shone like a coin under the rain, maybe because he had never recalled it before except in a dream."
For the Nobel committee, Borges' dreams were not enough. For the rest of us they are as glittering as the stars.