Last reviewed: June 2017
Argentine poet, essayist, short-story writer, and translator
August 24, 1899
Buenos Aires, Argentina
June 14, 1986
Jorge Luis Borges, South America’s most famous writer of short fiction, was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the son of Jorge Guillermo Borges, a lawyer and psychology teacher, and Leonor Acevedo de Borges, a descendant of old Argentine and Uruguayan families. An extremely intelligent child who spent much of his childhood indoors, Borges named his father’s library as the most important influence on his career. Based on his reading in that library, he began writing at the early age of six, imitating classical Spanish authors such as Miguel de Cervantes and others.
Borges attended school in Switzerland during World War I. While there, he became strongly influenced by his reading of the French Symbolist poets as well as such English prose writers as G. K. Chesterton and Thomas Carlyle. After the war, he spent two years in Spain, where he became the disciple of Rafael Casinos-Asséns, leader of the so-called Ultraist movement in poetry. It was at this time that he began writing poetry himself. Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges
Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges
Borges published his first book of stories, A Universal History of Infamy, in 1935; however, his most important stories did not appear until 1941, when they were published under the title El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (the garden of the forking paths). When his third collection of stories, Ficciones, was published in 1944, he was awarded a literary prize by the Argentine Society of Writers. Because of increasing blindness, he was forced to stop reading and writing in the late 1950’s; however, his mother became his secretary, and he continued to work by dictating to her.
In 1961, Borges was awarded a major European literary prize in conjunction with Samuel Beckett. As a result of this recognition, his international reputation began to grow rapidly; he was invited to the United States to give several lectures. Soon after, translations of his books began to appear, and he received a number of honorary doctorates and literary prizes from universities and professional societies. Borges died in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 14, 1986.
Jorge Luis Borges might well be called a writer’s writer, for the subject of his stories is more often the nature of writing itself than actual events in the world. By the same token, Borges should be seen as a metaphysical writer, for his stories most often focus on the fantastic metaphysical paradoxes that ensnare those who think. Because of his overriding interest in aesthetic and metaphysical reality, his stories often resemble fables or essays.
One of his best-known stories, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” deals with a French writer who decides to write Don Quixote in spite of the fact that it has already been written by Cervantes. Borges then compares the two versions and finds them identical; however, he argues that the second version is richer, more ambitious, and in many ways more subtle than Cervantes’s original. In another well-known story, “Funes the Memorious,” Borges presents a character who is unable to forget details of his experience, no matter how small.
If the situations of these two men seem alien to ordinary human experience, it is because Borges was interested in the extraordinary nature of metaphysical rather than physical reality. The fact that Pierre Menard can rewrite Don Quixote from the original yet create a more complex and subtle work can be attributed to the notion that one reads a present work with all previous works inscribed within it. The fact that Funes is condemned to remember every single detail of his experience means that he can never tell stories because he is unable to abstract from his experience.
Borges maintained that human reality is the result of language and game, as well as the result of the projection of the mind itself. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” explores the intellectual productions of an imaginary planet. “The Library of Babel” deals with a library that is infinite in its circular and cyclical structure. “The Lottery in Babylon” deals with a lottery that transforms all reality itself into chance.
Borges’s most common technique was to take previously established genres—such as the science-fiction story, the detective story, or the philosophical essay—and parody those forms by pushing them to absurd extremes. Thus, most of Borges’s fictions are puzzling, frustrating, sometimes shocking, and often humorous, but they are always profoundly thought provoking.