About Borges and Not About Borges

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    About Borges and Not about Borges

    Author(s): Keith BotsfordSource: The Kenyon Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Autumn, 1964), pp. 723-737Published by: Kenyon CollegeStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4334494

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    Keith Botsford

    A B O U T BORGESA N D N O T A B O U T BORGE SThis text is based on a series of dialogues with the Argentinepoet, critic, and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges. Dia-logues of every kind. Some between the two of us, recordedon tape; sonme ust noted; some that took place in my imagina-tion; and some that are beyonid both of us, whose relation toBorges is that they exist because Borges exists, and would notif he did not. A word aboout method: this essay is not a workof cr iticism on Bor ges but rather an image of him that isstrictly my own. The method is the only one that I felt I couldfollovw, for there are, to be honest, as many Jorge Luis Borgesas there are persons who have been led into his extraordinaryand magic art.-K.B.MEETINGBORGESCANBEAN UNUSUALEXPERIENCE.THE FIRSTtime, I believe, was with the poet Alberto Girri, in the loftyroom that serves as an office for Borges in his position as di-rector of the National Library in Buenos Aires. There is along table in the center of the room and a circular bookshelflike an English postbox: much waste space through which thealmost-blind Borges navigates with the certainty of a manwho knows landfalls in the midst of a sea.As we were leaving, that first time, Borges detained meand said, "How curious it is that people always pride them-selves on that blood of which they have the least: I of myEnglish grandmother, Argentinians in general of their Basqueblood-when the best that can be said of Basques is that theyare honest though crude."

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    724 ABOUT BORGESOne's normal persona is dull; the exotic attracts. Borgeshimself grew from the quotidian Buenos Aires (many likehim best there, in his early poems) to Babylon, and from thedictionary of Argentinismos (without leaving the Argentine)to his present eminence as the most universal-in the senseof least limited to a time, a place, or a theme-of SouthAmerican writers.The next time I saw him, again at the library, my notessay:He gives the impression of a strange frailty, as though his near-blindness hobbled his walk; as though, unable to see his words, hecould only speak in short phrases, and the phrases themselves hadto touch the walls along which they walked, so that a spoken sen-tence is like an endless tapping with a stick.About Borges' written sentences, later notes say:They are composed in the ear and in the memory. They begin witha mnemonic process, which is why their rhythm is so peculiarly hisown, and so recognizable, timeless, like inscriptions. His narrativecomes from a different direction, but is also governed by his sight:it is a storyteller's narration, not an observer's. It selects ratherthan retails; it is richer in imagination than the narratives of thosewho have the world ever before them. His criticism springs fromqueer and surprising ideas, on the borderline between art and com-mentary on art: this, too, is a product of enforced solitude andof a vision ever turned back on itself.Why should the two most intelligent men I know in Buenos Aires-Borges and Leopoldo Torre-Nilsson-have bad eyes? But the im-pression is not of valetudinarianism. Ancien regime, perhaps, itbeing impolite to raise one's voice.I also noted that it was hard to imagine a youth for him.The entry ends:That overwhelming suspicion one has of persons whose youth isunexplained, whose childhood and adolescence are not to be readin their adult faces. True bureaucrats have, in the seams of theirskins, the opacity of their eyes, this quality of having devouredtheir childhoods. Of the authentic geniuses I have known, like thepoet Lowell, or the novelist Bellow, each retains his boyhood bi-

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    KEITH BOTSFORD 725cycling and the slingshot in his back pants pocket: a childhood singsout from behind a consuming intelligence. Is one to ascribe thisto America, wearing its heart on its sleeve?One of our meetings took place just after the ArgentineIndependence Day. From the windows of the Hotel Con-tinental, I had watched the Household Cavalry, all gleamingcurried horses with tasseled tails, all blue with silver and goldepaulets, parading under my window. The broad avenue be-fore me, shut in by imposing buildings,' was dotted withpassers-by on a morning that had begun with fog and wasthen thinning out under a wan sun. In the distance there wasa sound of bands, a trifling musketry of speeches and ap-plause. The citizens of this city, muffled in their overcoatsof a thick and padded style like an expressionist Berlin, lookedboth tedious and shabby, and more particularly old. The pen-sioners were out en masse, but of course it was their sort of

    day. Also, they had not been paid their pensions in severalmonths. Everyone seemed poor, but their poverty was of aspecial kind: in the shabby-genteel tradition. The people werepoor by reason of their expectations, by contrast with theirappetites.I think it was on this occasion that Borges received amedal. It was exhibited to me-the Legion of Honor in Cul-ture, or some other French toy of M. Malraux's-togetherwith its rosette and, if I remember rightly, a spare. Unac-countably, the conversation that morning, in Borges' crowdedapartment (over which his mother, infinitely regal, presides),took a genealogical turn: officers of singular bravery, ladiesliving in primitive conditions in the desolate spreads of theci-devant Jesuit missions, garrison towns.

    Here must be inserted a conversation that occurred scanthours later. Beatriz Guido, the novelist, was discussing hersister, who apparently had the gift of speaking to animals."Yes," Beatriz said, "she really loved animals."1. That angry and quarrelsome and yet very fin critic Hector Murenasays that the only monuments in Argentina are banks.

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    726 ABOUT BORGESTorre-Nilsson, her husband, leaned back from the driver'sseat: "She married an army officer," he argued.To which his wife answered, perfectly calmly, "Oh, yes,that's true!"God knows, there is unreality everywhere in Buenos Aires.Just before another meeting with Borges I recall a womanhanding out drinks to soldiers from the forward turret of a

    tank: an awesome brute of a thing, filling up the street andbristling, like a mechanical ant, with antennae. The warmsunshine belied the revolution that had just taken place, andI wandered to all parts looking for it-even for the one soldiersupposedly wounded by the recoil of his own rifle (fired at ablackbird?). Apart from the fact that everyone remainedshuttered at home, nothing had changed.Borges' own reaction was typical. One's impression, heindicated, was that the wrong people had won."They lacked the epic touch," he said. He found the "wholerumpus rather personal." He added that he had been inter-ested in politics after the war, or in something wider anddeeper than politics. "During the dictatorship, one soughtcommon decency, and not fine shades of meaning. With thisrevolution, the actual actors may feel happy. The governmentcontributes to their happiness by not taking them seriously."I quoted to him Torre-Nilsson's observation: "The troublewith Argentina is that it has never had a civil war, but isalways on the verge of having one. It wastes its energies pre-paring indecisive struggles. The two parties are the, City andthe Country, the machine versus the Horse and the Cow."That poor hero of El cuchillo makes his journey from theone world to the other, in what terror! Had he written thepoem then, I could have quoted Borges a few stanzas fromLowell's "Buenos Aires":

    A false fin de siecle decorumsnored over Buenos Aires,lost in the pampasand run by the barracks.Old strong men denied apotheosis,bankrupt, on horseback, welded to their horses, movedwhite marble rearing moon-shaped hooves,to strike the country down.