One of the pleasures of living here in Buenos Aires is encountering novelists and poets that have been unknown to me. Almost each day I seem to “discover” an Argentine writer, or Spanish language author, that brings a new perspective to my now seemingly narrow literary world. Yet, I’ve always considered myself well-read. When I was an undergraduate at Sewanee I majored in English and American literature and took eight college-level courses in Russian, four focused primarily on 19th-century Russian literature. But, why am I so unaware of writers in the Spanish language?
Of course, I learned about Borges as an undergraduate, though not actually as part a course syllabus. It was in a conversation with my freshman English teacher Cheri Peters who recommended Borges to me, particularly the selections known in English as Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings . We had been given a writing assignment on a short story by either Robert Coover or another author from the Norton Anthology. It turns out that I was the only student in that particular class who chose Coover’s “the Babysitter” over the other story, which I now forget. Most likely the other students found Coover’s disturbing sexual storyline about the babysitter too embarrassing to write an essay about. I don’t know why I didn’t, considering that I was incredibly shy at the time. But, it was the unusual narrative approach of Coover that really intrigued me. (And, well, the story is pretty good itself!) Anyway, when Dr. Peters discussed the paper with me (my essay wasn’t anything spectacular, by any means) she mentioned that if I liked Coover’s style then I should read the stories by Borges in Labyrinths. A year or so later I remember my college friend David, who was from Puerto Rico, telling several of us about Borges and that we should read Borges before he died. David’s comment reminded me of Dr. Peters recommendation. So I went to the library at Sewanee and read my first Borges. The great Argentine writer would die midway through my undergraduate studies. Little did I know at the time that I would someday be living in Buenos Aires and walking his beloved streets for myself.
The bombings in London also remind me how I became aware of two other significant Argentine literary figures, people who played an important role in Borges’ life: Norah Lange and Oliverio Girondo. It was last September and we had gotten a good rate through Priceline at the Novotel London Euston hotel, which overlooks the British Library. Earlier in the week I had given a presentation at the Digital Resources in the Humanities conference in Newcastle. After the conference Ceci & I went up to Edinburgh for a few days then took an EasyJet back to London. As a discount airline EasyJet lands in Luton rather than Gatwick or Heathrow, so we took the Thameslink train from the Luton station to King’s Cross – the same train into London that the bombers took on the morning of July 7.
Relaxing in the hotel I vividly remember reading the literary section of the Guardian and was delighted to read about a new biography of Borges by Edwin Williamson was being published (Borges: A Life). The Guardian was running an excerpt Moth to the Flame that told how Borges’ infatuation with the poet Norah Lange impacted him. I immediately asked Ceci if she had heard of this Norah Lange. Ceci asked, “How do you spell her name?”. I replied, “L-A-N-G-E”. She answered, “Oh, yes, but the name is pronounced ‘Lan-hay’ and not ‘Lang’ as it would be in English.”
According to Williamson’s 500 page biography, Borges was fascinated by the redheaded Norah Lange and spent countless hours in her company though it’s never really clear to what extent she returned his affections. Certainly, she was his close friend and admired his intelligence. But it seems like the classic case of unrequited love – the shy, awkward guy yearning for the woman always just beyond his grasp.
It turns out that Norah was the center of a conflict between Borges and Oliverio Girondo. Before reading the Guardian piece, I also was unaware of Girondo. I asked Ceci about him and she proceeded to tell me that Oliverio Girondo was a very important figure in 20th century Argentine literature. Sometimes I feel ignorant for not knowing these things. But I just did a Google search on Oliverio Girondo and in the first five result pages only 1 entry is in English: the Oliverio Girondo Collection in the Rare Books and Special Collections of the University of Notre Dame library.
Borges introduced Lange to Girondo in 1926 at a party by the lake in the park in Palermo. For years a rivalry would ensue between Borges and Girondo, not just over Norah but over the literary leadership of Buenos Aires. One of the great things about Williamson’s biography is that it reminds the modern reader that Borges’ fame and popularity only occurred rarely late in his life. Through the 1920-1940s Borges was recognized as a writer but certainly not of the exalted stature that he would later achieve.
Indeed, one of Williamson’s main points is that Borges’ development as a fiction writer was intertwined with his love for Norah Lange:
“Since being rejected by Norah at the end of 1926, he had gradually lost his voice as a poet and had turned to essay writing to start with and then, very tentatively, to fiction, but his ideas had not yet cohered into a new aesthetic.” (Williamson p.192)
The relationship between Lange and Girondo was not an easy one. Borges knew this and continued his own attempts at winning Lange’s heart. Indeed, Lange and Girondo had an on-again, off-again relationship for eight years until 1934 when their relationship became stable, even though Girondo would not marry Lange for another nine years – on July 16, 1942.
Borges “had looked to Norah as the muse who would take him beyond the adventure of the avant-garde to the high summer of mature achievement, and for a while, in that annus mirabilis that was 1926, it appeared that his courtship of Norah might yet raise him to a high plane of happiness where his pen would blaze in the Whitmanesque ecstasy of communing at last with the essence of the world. But the collapse of that dream had cast him into a void from which he had found it impossible to emerge. Time and again since 1929 he had tried, and failed, to give an account of his experience with Norah and Girondo in his writing. The truth was that for so long as he failed to understand why he had lost Norah, he would remain enslaved to her memory, trapped in a circle of nostalgia and frustration. it was only by burrowing down to the roots of his private suffering that he would discover the true subject matter of his writing, and in the last months of 1937, his life took such a wretched turn for the worse that, after a troubled gestation of nearly ten years, he would be born at last as a writer of fiction. (Williamson p 229).
The section in the Guardian isn’t so much of an extract or even an excerpt from the biography as it is a summary of the chapters that deal with Borges, Lange, and Girondo. The biography itself is extremely well-written, very readable, and worth reading by any admirer of Borges. While the biography by Williamson has received some criticism for delving too much into a biographer’s psychoanalytic conjecture about Borges innermost thoughts and feelings, I found the interpretation by Williamson to be very insightful. Williamson, who is the King Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish at the University of Oxford, also provides critical analysis of many works by Borges and attempts to demonstrate how certain works relate to significant events in Borges’ life. A critic could rightly argue that such a psychological undertaking is not the role for a biographer. But as I come to know Buenos Aires and its residents more and more each day, it seems to be the nature of many Porteños to reflect on psychoanalytical perspectives.
Williamson clearly admires Borges and his biography attempts to demythologize the writer so that the reader can see Borges not just as a wise, elderly, blind scholar who loves books but as a young man with all his insecurities and his own self-doubts that he struggles with in order to bring meaning to his life.