An eminent Oxford scholar offers a trenchant analysis of the ethnic, historical-political, and cultural matrices that produced the late (1899–1986) Argentinean literary magus.
Borges was born into a liberal Buenos Aires family with a history (sometimes retrospectively exaggerated) of active involvement in the liberation of its country from Spain and its city's economic and cultural development. Williamson places understandable emphasis on Borges's unbreakable lifelong attachments to his “spirited, highly intelligent” mother and his morose father, a prominent physician and failed writer. Deftly connecting the son's later poems and stories with the events and stages of his early life, Williamson constructs a vividly convincing picture of a bookish, sickly boy who in effect grew up in a library, developed a personal aesthetic based largely on his introduction to modernist literary movements during his family's European travels, and rose gradually to prominence among the Argentinean avant-garde. Several failed relationships with women inspired a Dantean search for love and wholeness, and the incipient blindness that would eventually overtake him narrowed his artistic horizons—even as his conflicted stances vis-à-vis his country's political revolutions doubtless influenced his rejection of attempts to contain reality within formal literary structures (e.g., the novel) and his embrace of irony, relativism, “verbal artifice,” and the liberating energies inherent in myths and legends. Williamson expertly summarizes the years of Borges's international fame, earned by his landmark 1944 volume Ficciones and its similarly distinguished successors, and movingly evokes the image of an aging literary lion out of touch with the failed regimes that followed Juan Perón's disastrous tenures, incessantly traveling to lecture abroad and collect awards and honorary degrees, finding muted happiness at last with the much younger Maria Kodama, the “literary secretary” who became the consolation of his old age, and—at last—his Beatrice.
A literary life of major importance, authoritatively told in an exceptionally fine biography.