Librarian of Babel
Discussed in this essay:
Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger (Viking). $40, hardcover; $17, paper; 547 pp.
Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, edited by Andrew Hurley (Viking). $40, hardcover; $16.95, paper; 565 pp.
Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman (Viking). $40, hardcover; $17.95, paper; 477 pp.
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges became a cultural icon in avant-garde literary circles and on American college campuses in the 1960s. Borges's characteristic works were short "fictions," rarely more than a few pages, that described paradoxical realities bordering on the magical and traced labyrinthine flights of reason. The stories were often verbal equivalents of the drawings of M.C. Escher, also popular at the time, who used tricks of perspective to make stairs leading upwards suddenly transform into stairs going down, interiors seamlessly merge with exteriors, and other feats of optical illusion. Like Escher, Borges appealed to a wide segment of young people experimenting with drugs, sex, and alternative life styles because he seemed to undermine conventional reality. Also, it did not hurt that his "fictions" did not require long attention spans; for most readers in those days, it was enough to feel the thrill of disorientation.
Yet the writer who produced this remarkable body of work was the least bohemian of men and, unlike many of his admirers, fiercely intellectual. His family was comfortably middle-class, though not wealthy. The Argentine peso was so strong in Borges's teenage years that it was cheaper for them to live in Switzerland than in Buenos Aires. So they spent seven years in Europe before Borges turned 21, exposing him to a wide world of culture and literature. But except for one other brief European sojourn and a few excursions into the Argentinian countryside, Borges spent the next 40—very productive—years living quietly and frugally in his native Buenos Aires, mostly with his ...