In 1960, prior to his astonishing swift ascendance to literary fame, Jorge Luis Borges must have seemed an unlikely candidate for the unofficial title of World’s Most Influential Fiction Writer.
Borges, born in 1899, seldom ventured far from his home in Buenos Aires; when he left Argentina to lecture at the University of Texas in 1961, it was the first time, says Edwin Williamson in his exhaustively researched and richly detailed biography “Borges: A Life,” that the writer “had set foot outside the region of the River Plat since 1924.”
Frail, balding, and timid, Borges had written practically nothing of interest even to Buenos Aires literary salons since 1953. In truth, he hadn’t written much before then. His oeuvre consisted of a few darkly elegant poems, some provocative and idiosyncratic essays, and a few slim volumes of what he called “ficciones” that even his most ardent admirers were unsure whether to place under the category of fiction or nonfiction.
Then, in 1961, Borges’ life and Western literature were both changed forever. As Mr. Williamson phrases it, “a stroke of luck that came like a bolt from the blue” arrived in the form of the International Publishers’ Prize, which a handful of European writers, including British Iris Murdoch and Italian Alberto Moravia, had lobbied for him to win. Borges had never heard of the prize or of many of the writers who championed him.
The IPP was to be awarded to an author “of any nationality whose existing body of work will, in the view of the jury, have a lasting influence on the development of modern literature.”
They had no idea.
“As a consequence of that prize,” said Borges, “my books mushroomed overnight throughout the Western world.” Much to the astonishment of Borges and his Argentine colleagues, within 10 years he had become the most influential fiction writer since James Joyce, having wide effect, in the words of the great Italian novelist Italo Calvino, “On creative writing, on literary tastes and on the idea of literature itself.”
He was read avidly by college students, lionized by rock stars, and, on one bizarre occasion, at a reading, mobbed by (or so reported the Argentinean press) “an audience of London hippies … hairy, disheveled, wildly enthusiastic young people.”
Such dazzling short works as “The Aleph,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The South,” “The Dead Man,” “Borges and I,” and, most famously, “Pierre Menard, Author of ‘Don Quixote’” redefined and redirected the course of fiction. “Metaphysical fantasies,” as Mr. Williamson calls them, they followed the outline of traditional genres such as detective and adventure stories but were laced with symbols and allusions to philosophy, myth, and legend from all of the world’s literatures.
By the end of the 1970s, the little man who nearly gave up writing three decades earlier for failure to find an audience was being studied and imitated by writers in North and South America, then Europe.
Mr. Williamson, a Spanish scholar at Oxford and author of “The Penguin History of Latin America,” is the first to map Borges’ strange odyssey from a bookish, reclusive youngster in an obscure corner of the world to international literary celebrity.
He was raised by an uncaring father and domineering mother, who would continue to exercise an unhealthy control over his life till Borges was in his sixties — all his life, writes Mr. Williamson, “he fell for women who would be unacceptable to mother, either because they came from an inferior social class or because they did not meet the high standards of respectability required by Dona Leonor.”
Battling illness for much of his childhood, Borges had few friends and spent most of his formative years wandering in his father’s enormous library, which included such works as Sir Richard F. Burton’s “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” philosophy by Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, the science fiction of H.G. Wells, studies of the Talmud, and lurid tales of Argentina’s bloodthirsty frontier bandits.
By the time he turned 20, Borges was fluent in English and French with a rudimentary knowledge of Latin and Hebrew. He dabbled in several literary forms, settling on none, and contributed to several local avant-garde publications.
Exhilarated by the mad rush of artistic and intellectual trends that filtered down to Argentina after World War I, he felt free to invent. On several occasions he astonished and angered his peers by writing heartfelt reviews of books that did not exist.
None of this helped him earn a living. He disgraced his father by taking humbling jobs such as clerk in the Buenos Aires Municipal Library. One day a co-worker stumbled on a biographical reference to a little-known but critically acclaimed writer named Jorge Luis Borges and pointed out the amazing coincidence of the name.
Gradually, with painful slowness, his reputation filtered out to European intellectuals on the lookout for new currents from the world’s literary suburbs. When the great boom in Latin letters finally came in the Seventies, Borges, the first Latin writer most non-Latins had ever heard of, was at the crest.
Because he labored for most of his life in obscurity (and partly for his opposition to the government of the dictator Juan Peron), Borges’ life is nearly as labyrinthine as his fictions.
Mr. Williamson is the first to secure the cooperation of Maria Kodama, the Japanese woman who became Borges’ companion and finally, in his later years when he was almost totally blind, his wife. Ms. Kodama has long been a controversial figure among Borges aficionados, many having accused her of denying legitimate scholars access to Borges’ papers and of trying to shape interpretations of his life and work.
Edwin Williamson has successfully weaved a precarious path between authorized and uncompromised biography, and in the process has given us what will surely be regarded for many years as a definitive one.
Allen Barra is the author of “Brushback and Knockdowns — The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries.” He writes regularly for Salon.com.