The authors we discover when young typically retain their magic throughout our lives. To this day, for example, I will read just about anything by or about Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. During the 1960s and ’70s, they were the most admired, and certainly among the most distinctive and original, writers in the world.
Since their deaths, Beckett has, in my view, gained in overall stature; Nabokov lost readers, except for one controversial book (“Lolita”); and Borges’s iconic image — as the gentle antiquarian Argentine — has been destroyed by his biographers and by unseemly legal battles over the translations of his short stories. Happily, those tantalizing Escher-like mind-spinners, including “The Circular Ruins,” “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Aleph,” “Pierre Menard, author of the ‘Quixote’ ” and “The Garden of Forking Paths” remain inviolable and endlessly re-readable, no matter whose the translation. Nevertheless, Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s “Georgie & Elsa,” a memoir by Borges’s best-known collaborator, reveals once more just how weak and pathetic Argentina’s great writer could be.
In 1967, Borges — then 68 years old — unexpectedly wed the 11-years-younger Elsa Astete Millan. A widow, Elsa had been an early flame of “Georgie” (as Borges was known to intimates). However, it would appear that their late-in-life marriage came about for completely unromantic reasons: Borges was blind and needed someone to take care of him, given that his strong-minded mother was now in her 90s. Elsa, in turn, may have felt some initial tenderness for Borges, but, in di Giovanni’s account, gradually reveals herself to be simply a middle-aged gold-digger.
Shortly after the wedding, the new couple left Buenos Aires for Harvard, where Borges was to deliver, in English, the Charles Eliot Norton lectures. On stage, discussing “this craft of verse,” he presented an impressive figure:
“Borges sat behind a table, stiff and upright, always insisting on having a glass of water in front of him, which he would reach out to touch to make sure it was the right distance from his hand. . . . Being blind he used no papers or notes. He had a large round pocket watch attached by a chain to his left lapel and would start by lifting the dial right up to his eye. That much he could make out. . . .
“He always dressed in a grey suit of a decidedly out-of-date cut. His necktie, which he referred to as ‘a trick tie,’ was one of those ready-made affairs that he could clip together himself under his collar and not have to bother to knot. His stiffness and his old-fashioned clothes lent him an air of formality that he would not have been aware of. At the same time, unable to see or gauge his audience, he exuded unworldliness, vulnerability, and perhaps a hint of pathos.”
After hearing the second lecture (on metaphor), di Giovanni wrote to Borges asking if he might produce a volume of his poems in English. The two men then met, hit it off, and before long, the young American had been invited to Buenos Aires. There, over the next few years, he and Borges worked closely together on a series of translations, as well as a long and important, if not wholly reliable, autobiographical essay (included in “The Aleph and Other Stories”). Much of “Georgie & Elsa” describes their hours together, discussing poetry and favorite writers (Borges loved H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton and Robert Louis Stevenson), attending dinners, traveling to conferences. Di Giovanni even assisted Borges when he needed to visit the bathroom.
But it’s important to bear a few facts in mind. Though excellent, di Giovanni’s versions of Borges are now out of print, mainly because the writer’s estate eventually balked at a 50/50 split on royalties and instead commissioned new translations. From one point of view, di Giovanni had been taking advantage of Borges’s financial innocence for his own profit; from another, he had devoted years of his life to serving as the writer’s amanuensis, advisor and, not least, confidant. For “Georgie” soon realized that the marriage to Elsa was a disaster and turned to di Giovanni to help him get out of it.
Elsa, according to these recollections, cared for little beyond buying expensive clothes and cosmetics, funneling money to her philandering son and squeezing every penny possible out of any group that invited Borges to speak. She was not only ignorant of literature but also embarrassingly vulgar. Di Giovanni recounts one especially amazing evening at a dinner hosted by Nelson Rockefeller’s son Rodman. Elsa, beside herself, “pulled a small Kodak out of her handbag and began diligently to photograph the interior of the house. She asked Mrs. Rockefeller to sit on the bed while she took a picture of the bedroom. . . . When she photographed the bathroom she got another guest to sit on the toilet.” We are told that on visits to a jeweler-friend of Borges, Elsa would surreptitiously pocket “small treasures.” Di Giovanni even implies that Elsa was carrying on a lesbian affair with her cousin Olga, partly because Borges was impotent.
Is all this true? No one can say for sure, but I suspect that most of it is. “Georgie” was always a mama’s boy and though he worshipped beautiful women throughout his life, he seems to have done little except compose poems about them. Despite stories glorifying both his military ancestors and knife-wielding street fighters, Borges was clearly a wimp; even his mother says he lacked backbone. Having finally decided on a divorce after three stressful years of marriage, he shamefully said nothing to Elsa and simply slinked off to Córdoba, while lawyers in Buenos Aires presented her with legal papers and movers quickly took away his books and personal possessions.
Di Giovanni also depicts Borges as one of those people who lies to get out of difficult situations and bad-mouths even old friends. Though regularly praising “mediocre scribblers,” he unsurprisingly “harboured resentments about the fame of real writers.” When Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize, the American novelist was dismissed with the words, “Never heard of him.” Politically, too, Borges was either naïve or callous, actually traveling to Chile to receive a medal from its dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
Written in careful, simple sentences (di Giovanni is now past 80), “Georgie & Elsa” is compulsively readable, though padded. Several pages simply list the legitimate causes for divorce in Argentina, charmingly noting, for instance, that “the revelation that the other spouse is a communist does not constitute excessive abuse.”
In the end, serious Borges fanatics won’t be able to resist “Georgie & Elsa,” if only for the photograph of the writer clowning with a napkin and a pie pan on his head. More reasonable people should just stick with the marvelous stories and essays of “Labyrinths,” “Ficciones” and “Other Inquisitions.”
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife: The Untold Story
By Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Friday Project/HarperCollins. 259 pp.