(I’ve read three writer’s biographies recently, on Chester Himes, Raymond Chandler, and Jorge Luis Borges. Himes is a bizarre creature, weirdly overlooked by tastemakers but probably overpraised by genre buffs, and Chandler remains one of the great writers who remained loyal to a character and type of storytelling he outgrew. But Borges has, over the years, become more relevant, not less, more influential. Below is a sample from James Woodall’s Borges: A Life.)
“In Britain, post-colonial fiction was hidebound by an obstinate naturalism. German writers were left to lick the wounds of their country’s horrifically exposed psyche. Spain and Italy, whose languages and cultures might be said to have much in common with Borges’s, not unnaturally took him on board to chart a course out of relative literary emptiness.
“For literature everywhere, Borges was a way out. His intellectual rigor, decorated with that twinkling veneer of comic playfulness, was both a reflection of, and an answer to, the fractured cultures of Europe. Borges’s stories, moreover, were entertaining. It was a relief to find a world-class writer who did not insist on strictly representational fiction, on a primordial psychological seriousness. After Borges, it seemed, writers could return, to a new, knockabout narrative freedom.”
Yes, Woodall nails it, Borges is an essential figure to 20th century literature, a hinge, a way forward. He remains an enchanting, beguiling figure, almost a character—like Kafka—that Borges himself would have created.
But Borges is also a dead-end. No one else can really write like him—his essays read like fiction and his fiction reads like essays and it’s all bound together by a warm, but ironic and wry heart—and people who try often fail spectacularly. Even his more talented progeny (Barth and Barthelme are two examples) are often too enamored with polyglot word games and narrative sleight of hand, missing out on the fun of it all, the japery, the hijinks. Borges was indeed one of the first anti-novelists (even through he only wrote short stories) always collapsing his narratives in on themselves. But he was erudite and clever, a scholar with an abiding passion for tales. His children and grandchildren are more aggressive; they often intentionally cancel out the pleasure of reading, the pleasure and the escape.
More on Borges at some future point, for we always come back to him, in one way or another.