contaminated by unreality....


Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography

Emil Rodríguez Monegal

Paragon House, 1978, ISBN 0913729981; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

Emil Rodríguez Monegal was a Uruguayan writer, editor and critic, the founder of numerous Spanish-language literary magazines and a powerful advocate of Latin American writers. His Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography, published in 1978, was the first major biography of Borges available in English, and remained “the” Borges biography for almost twenty years.
Monegal’s book has much to recommend it. Its value as a seminal work is indisputable, and Monegal’s position as a critic is clearly evident in his frequently insightful discussions of Borges’ writing. However, many have complained of factual inaccuracies – Borges scholars have cited over sixty errors – and Monegal’s style is surprisingly dry and pedantic at times. He is also fond of projecting his own theories into his subject, a disagreeable approach that nears an attempt at Freudian analysis. ( James Woodall has accused Monegal of having an “obsessively psychoanalytical view,” and correctly called the book “humorless.”) Despite these flaws and idiosyncrasies, there aren’t exactly a wealth of alternatives in Borges biography, and Monegal’s work remains indispensable.

Hispanics of Achievement: Jorge Luis Borges

Adrian Lennon

Chelsea House, 1992, ISBN 0-7910-1236-0; Hardcover, $22.95 [Browse/Purchase]

Part of an educational series intended for school libraries – witness the patronizing title – Lennon’s slim biography is actually quite charming, filled with photographs and amusing illustrations. As one might expect from a book designed for students, Lennon writes in a simple, direct style; sticking to the basic facts, avoiding critical judgments, and keeping an upbeat and positive tone throughout. Nevertheless, he makes good use of the format, and his cheerful enthusiasm lightens up each page. (An author of mystery novels, Lennon also turns the occasional striking phrase – this book is actually a “good read.”) While certainly not a replacement for Monegal or Woodall, Lennon’s Jorge Luis Borges makes a very handsome introduction.

With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires: A Memoir

By Willis Barnstone

1. University of Illinois Press, 1993, ISBN 0252018885; Hardcover $34.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. University of Illinois Press, 2000, ISBN 0252068637; Paperback $14.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Commentary is planned for the future. Until then, here are two borrowed reviews, with the one from Library Journal being much more accurate:

From Publishers Weekly
The author first met Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) at a New York City poetry reading in 1968; their friendship deepened through the following years in encounters held in Buenos Aires and Cambridge, Mass. In this intimate, invaluable portrait, Barnstone, a professor of comparative literature at Indiana University, presents the poet-storyteller as a figure of paradox and contradictions. Nearly blind in his last decades, Borges longed for his life to end; he was obsessed with the instant after death that, he hoped, would reveal the mysteries of the universe. We see Borges, in place of the popular image of the cerebral metaphysician, as an itinerant sage, a tender lover who married his muse María Kodama on his deathbed, a troubled sleeper whose nightmares were filled with mazes. Barnstone’s fluent translations of Borges’s verses enliven these reminiscences and conversations.

From Library Journal
This whimsical account intersperses random recollections of desultory musings on such topics as death, suicide, and, especially, literature, with both pithy sayings (“We are always inventing the past’’) and snatches of poetry from Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges. As outtakes from Barnstone’s journal, transcribed during the 1970s and 1980s, about his worldwide travels and encounters with Borges, the reminiscences smack of deja vu, recalling in particular his more illuminating Borges at Eighty, from which he has cloned an entire interview. The final product is a work that is too much Barnstone and not enough Borges. Not an essential purchase.

Borges: A Life

James Woodall

1. Basic/HarperCollins 1996, ISBN 0-465-04361-5; Hardcover, $30.00, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a copy]

2. Basic/HarperCollins 2000, ISBN 0-465-00724-4; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a copy]

Published in Britain in 1992 as Borges: The Man in the Mirror of the Book, James Woodall’s study of Borges was an attempt to make a “considerable improvement” upon Monegal’s Borges: A Literary Biography. In his introduction, Woodall compares Monegal’s work to Herbert Gorman’s seminal biography of James Joyce – an important but flawed early attempt, ripe to be replaced by a successor. Given this comparison – and it is a fair one – the logical question may be asked, is Woodall’s biography then akin to Richard Ellmann?
As Woodall himself would probably agree, the answer to that is “no.” First of all, Borges is not Joyce, and it is unlikely that we’ll get a biography as comprehensive as Ellmann’s classic James Joyce. The state of Borges scholarship is rife with discord and controversy – much original material remains scattered, whether in the hands of private collectors or jealously guarded by friends and relations. At the center of this controversy sits Borges’ widow, María Kodama, who maintains a famously tight hold on the Borges estate. Writing a comprehensive Borges biography is no simple task, and among other things, it would requite Kodama’s complete cooperation. Although she agreed to be interviewed for Woodall’s book, she declined to grant it authorized status or even grace it with any distinct recommendation. (Indeed, Woodall’s trials are the main focus of the book’s Afterword, and make for some interesting reading, if occasionally suggesting the tart smack of sour grapes.)
Secondly, Woodall’s book is not aimed for the kind of totality present in James Joyce, let alone modern works like Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon B. Johnson or Parker’s study of Herman Melville. Borges: A Life is a solid, no-nonsense kind of biography, well-written and essentially engaging. Woodall eschews any literary analysis of his own, keeping the focus squarely on Borges’ life and the reception and impact of his work. Although numerous critics have found various faults with his approach – from nit-picking the absence of this or that influence on Borges’ writing, to the more serious accusation that Woodall misunderstands Borges’ role in the evolution of Spanish-language literature – a general feeling pervades that Borges: A Life is a significant step in the right direction, if not yet the definitive work. But for the general Borges enthusiast, especially one who enjoys him only in English translation, Woodall’s readable biography is a solid and enjoyable choice.

Go To:

Criticism Main Page – Returns you to the Main Criticism page and the Quick Reference Card of titles.

General Criticism 1 – General literary criticism or commentary on Borges and his writing up until 1989.

General Criticism 2 – General literary criticism or commentary on Borges and his writing from 1990 to the present.

Contextual Criticism – Borges criticism with a specific angle: existential, psychological, Latin American, religious, mathematical, etc.

Comparative Criticism – Studies of Borges in relation to other authors or artists.

Bibliography – An alphabetized bibliography of Borges criticism.

Variaciones Borges – Takes you offsite to the homepage of Variaciones Borges, the biannual international journal of Borges studies.

–Allen B. Ruch
3 July 2004

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