When Jorge Luis Borges died in 1986, at the age of 87, he left behind 100-odd slender fictions and as many poems, but no novels. Compared with the blockbusting authors of our age, this was a small (if perfectly formed) output. Many of Borges’s glittering ficciones are mere ironic fragments, at best notebook jottings. To his detractors his work amounted to little more than a babble of sweet nothings. ‘Who is Jorge Luis Borges?’ Philip Larkin gruffly enquired. (Larkin had not seen Nic Roeg’s trippy film Perfomance, where Mick Jagger is shown reading the Argentine author in the bathtub.)
Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, Borges was acutely myopic as a child and in middle age he went blind. Inhabiting his own dark inner world, ‘Georgie’ led a bookish childhood haunted by dreams of Bengal tigers, gaucho knife-fighters, mirrors, masks, mazes and other exotica. From these juvenile imaginings he created the gems of laconic wit and invention contained in the volumes Ficciones and El Aleph, published in 1944 and 1949 respectively. Borges’s fame as a writer rests on these two lapidary story collections.
By the time the first English translation of his work appeared in 1948, the Perón dictatorship had taken hold in Argentina. With a half-English father, Borges was at heart a Johnsonian Tory, who scorned the Spanish-American tradition of the caudillo (strongman leader) and its crowd-pleasing populism. He made no secret of his aversion to Perónism, and for his troubles was demoted from assistant librarian to municipal poultry inspector. His patrician disdain for Eva Perón (‘a gold-digger’) would be matched three decades later by his Olympian verdict on the Falklands conflict: Britain and Argentina, he observed in 1982, were ‘like two bald men fighting over a comb’ (a plastic comb, he specified).
The first English-language biography of Borges, by James Woodall, came out in 1996 and gave a clear if rather sketchy account of the writer and his work. Edwin Williamson’s 2004 biography, by contrast, was fraught with verbose prose (‘the numb unreality of the not-I’) and psychobabble exegesis. Williamson knew his subject well, though, and had much to say about Borges that was new, not least his marriage to the half-Japanese María Kodama, who was his junior by almost 40 years. Borges’s sole ambition as an old man, apparently, was to live with his startlingly young wife in a house in Geneva which had no name or number on the door. There was little to disturb the dying writer’s peace, that way, save the bells from nearby St Pierre cathedral.
Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Borges’s best-known English translator, is by all accounts a prickly man who can bear a grudge. His prickliness intensified in 1985 when the raven-haired Kodama took control of the Borges estate and allowed the di Giovanni translations to go out of print. Consequently he was denied his share of the Borges royalties and left smarting in the doghouse.
In his five-year collaboration with Borges between 1967 and 1972, di
Giovanni rendered the maestro’s notoriously terse Spanish into exacting enough English (as Anthony Kerrigan and Alistair Reid had done before him). Without di Giovanni’s tireless promotion of the Borges cause, it is safe to say, the writer would not have been feted in the English-speaking world by the likes of John Updike and Graham Greene.
Georgie & Elsa, an account of Borges’s ill-fated marriage to his first wife, Elsa Astete Millán, is quite un-Borgesian in its excess of small talk and its small-minded derogation of others. Rival Borges commentators are dismissed by di Giovanni as ‘puffed-up’ and ‘unreadable’. Only he, Norman, knows the truth about the man they called Georgie.
In 1967 when Georgie married Elsa he had no idea, apparently, of what was in store. Borges was then a weak and exploitable man looking for love; Elsa, a widow, was a relentlessly grasping woman with ‘scorched peroxide’ hair and a Miami Beach suntan to match. Frumpish and ‘lacking in looks’, moreover, she wore fur coats fashioned from brown river rat and liked to stuff herself full of barbecued sweetbreads. To top it all, she suffered from liver complaints and was about as far removed in manner and mentality from the sober-suited Borges as could be. She was 57 to his 68.
With her provincial background, Elsa was fearful of Borges’s cerebral women friends. She had no interest at all in books but loved to shop for perfumes, furs, scented candles and false eyelashes. Not that this tells us much about Elsa: many wives might dislike ‘highbrow’ women. Borges’s brash consort was anyway unknown to literary Buenos Aires and bound to feel excluded. Her husband’s tight-knit circle of futurist-inspired poets and Frenchified society belles wanted nothing of her. The parlous state of the marriage was the talk of the town, and Borges was moved to confess to di Giovanni, ‘I’ve committed a quite inexplainable and mysterious mistake.’
Di Giovanni’s book is the most explicit record one is likely to read of a writer’s domestic unhappiness. While Elsa is portrayed as a constraining spouse and an entrapment, Borges is a sexually timorous and mother-bound man. He was ‘impotent’, actually, but Elsa felt the need for sex. In the voice of a hurt child Borges complained to di Giovanni of his wife’s cutting retorts and attempts to eavesdrop on the phone calls he made to his nona-genarian mother Leonor.
Borges was despondent when he spoke to di Giovanni, and much of what he had to say about his hideous peroxide wife was tainted, surely, by the warped outlook caused by his unseeing immersion in literature and hermit-like existence. Elsa is pointedly denied her side of the story; she is, simply, a ‘bitch’ (and, it seems certain, no longer alive).
After 36 months of marriage — some of them surely not too bad — Borges wanted out. Things had come to a head in the autumn of 1967 when Elsa accompanied him on a Harvard lecture tour. Clearly out of her depth, she embarrassed the Borges retinue by excitedly photographing the contents of a Rockefeller home during a cocktail party. (She even got a fellow guest to sit on the lavatory, preparatory to snapping one of the bathrooms.) ‘The name Rockefeller had her entranced,’ di Giovanni explains.
The plot to free Borges from his death-by-marriage involved a deal of subterfuge and Machiavellian manoeuvrings on the part of di Giovanni. Borges gratefully divorced Elsa in 1970. In his desire to bask in Borges’s reflected glory, curiously, di Giovanni demeans the writer. As well as being a ‘sexual failure’, Borges was periodically incontinent (with, on one occasion, ‘urine gushing down his legs inside his trousers’).
Why we need this prying inquiry is unclear. The writing is scarcely distinguished (‘Borges opened up like a sun-kissed blossom’). Di Giovanni’s impulse to belittle Borges at every turn is presumably vengeance for his high-handed treatment (as he sees it) by the writer’s estate. Jorge Luis Borges, a strange and lonely prospector in the universe of words, can survive the sour- grapes scrutiny.
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