One of the reasons that I’m writing this series is to introduce readers to Borges. I’m not writing for literary scholars; I have nothing new to add in that category. Many have heard of Borges, a lot have read Borges, most have not despite Borges being one of the great writers of the 20th century. And that’s where today’s post comes in. I want to dispel the image of Borges as the blind, wise elderly sage.
While Borges wrote during his entire life, there are definite phases to his writing career. Many people might be surprised to learn that Borges didn’t really begin writing fiction until his thirties, and not successfully until his late thirties. Writing is a craft developed over time, with a lot of practice. Even Borges didn’t emerge from the womb fully-formed as a writer.
Indeed, Borges didn’t become internationally famous until his early sixties, some twenty years after his best fiction was published.
Briefly, Borges went through these phases in his writing (since Borges was born in 1899, the decades of his life handily correspond to the decades of the century):
1920s – Borges focused on poetry and essays. His poetry of this period is very sentimental, formal and usually deals with mythological aspects of Buenos Aires – gauchos, knives, cobbletone streets, etc., The poetry of this period is not as refined as his later verse. In the ’20s he also wrote three books of essays, which he later would not allow to be reprinted during his lifetime. Some of those essays are not that bad and there are several theories in the scholarship as to why he didn’t want the essays to be republished. During the ’20s he was also involved in the avant-garde scene that was very active in Buenos Aires.
1930s – Borges stopped writing poetry around 1930. The Williamson biography posits that Borges experienced a crisis over his unrequited love for the writer Norah Lange. (A lot of people criticize the Williamson biography since it portrays Borges as a lovesick puppy. I don’t know, but any guy who spends his entire adult life living with his overbearing mother probably has difficulties in the romance department.) During the ’30s Borges started to experiment with fiction, publishing the odd collection A Universal History of Iniquity in 1935. He also wrote some significant essays.
1938 was a critical year for Borges. His father died. And Borges suffered a near fatal accident which confined him for several months. When he recovered, he started writing fiction vigorously.
1940s – These were the most productive years of his writing career, producing the fiction for which he is most famous. THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS [El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan] was pubished in 1941, containing eight stories. ARTIFICES [Artificios] was published in 1944, containing nine stories. These two collections were published together in December 1944 under the title FICCIONES. In 1949 EL ALEPH was published, containing seventeen stories. He also continued to write essays in the ’40s but no poetry. Despite his publications, Borges remained unknown outside of Latin America during the 1940s.
1950s – Borges stopped writing fiction in 1952 and returned to poetry. He continued with the essays but no other stories would appear until the 1960s. In 1951 a French translation of FICCIONES was published. In 1952 a French collection of stories by Borges was published under the title LABYRINTHES.
In 1955 his long, hereditary struggle with his poor eyesight resulted in blindness. Throughout the 1950s more works by Borges were translated into French. By the end of the decade, most of his writings were available to the French literary community. His works were also translated into Italian and German. Borges was still unknown in the English-speaking world.
1960s – Borges returned to writing stories. For the remainder of his life he would compose stories and poetry by dictation. He gave a number of lectures that were transcribed. In 1961 Borges was the co-recipient of the International Publishers Prize, which he shared with Samuel Beckett; the English reading world sat up and took notice.
FICCIONES was published in English in 1962, DREAMTIGERS [El Hacedor] in English in 1964, LABYRINTHS in 1964 in English. Other collections by various translators appeared throughout the sixties and seventies, most by Norman Thomas di Giovanni who collaborated with Borges on the translations. Borges spent a significant amount of time in the 1960s traveling, with his very old mother, in the US and Britain, speaking at various universities.
The point of the chronology is to show that Borges was not always the famous writer that he is today. He lived most of his life in obscurity. He was fortunate to live long enough to appreciate his fame.
Should make you wonder what great writers you’re missing now in 2006.