Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life is the standard biography in English. But it is, sadly, not a good book.
Williamson is frankly obsessed with Borges’s sexual history. The irony is that there really isn’t that much to be obsessed about: Borges had a whole series of crushes on various women, but so far as one can tell they were very seldom consummated; he didn’t marry until he was almost 68; and both Borges himself and the women with which he was in one way or another involved were almost all very discreet and have left little in the way of written record of their relationships.
Inevitably, then, Williamson is reduced to conjecture. There is much talk about what “must have” or “may have” been the case: “the truth may have been that he needed to feel close to the woman he loved” in order to write his longest fiction, The Congress (279); “he may have blamed Perón for coming between him and” a woman he asked to marry but who refused (332); the violence of his reaction upon hearing that another former crush was to marry someone else “must surely have been due to the symbolic significance of the occasion” (358); the woman who would become his second wife “must have been a soothing presence” from the time he first met her (370). And so on and so forth.
More seriously still, and in lieu of any other evidence, Williamson turns to Borges’s writing and reads it often as though it were almost directly confessional and autobiographical. So, for instance, almost any number of the earlier fictions are read as barely-disguised accounts of a putative love triangle between Borges and fellow writers Norah Lange and Oliverio Girondo. So Williamson has much to say about the “autobiographical subtext” of the novel outlined in “El Acercamiento a Almotásim,” which “can be discerned without difficulty” and features “a woman–Norah Lange–[who] seemed to represent a higher truth” (180). Likewise, in “Hombres de las orillas,” the protagonist’s “mysterious passivity suggests that Borges himself was at a loss to explain why Norah Lange had left him for his rival” (172). Moreover, most of Borge’s contributions to the newspaper Crítica are “a cryptic record of his feelings and attitudes to Norah Lange” (195). Meanwhile in “The Aleph” Williamson once again zooms in on an “autobiographical subtext” which, apparently, “alludes to his thwarted love for Norah Lange” (202). And reading the books described in “Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain” we are told that “as with everything Borges wrote, there was an autobiographical subtext [. . .], a grieving heart beating in the depths of the narrative, as it were” (215).
Admittedly, the biographer’s bias may well be to read the work in biographical terms. But the problem is that, here, such reductive interpretations edge out any other possible reading. Williamson has little if any concern for the aesthetic dimensions to Borges’s poetry or prose. Indeed, he evinces scarcely any interest in literature at all. Everything has always to shed light on the life. And yet, especially in the case of Borges, it should surely be the writing that counts. For, however you look at it, the life is frankly not that interesting. This was a man of habit and routine: he lived with his mother until her death at the age of ninety-nine, and with their maid for another nine years thereafter; for decades he dined two or three times a week with his friends Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; though he travelled both when young and when old, for the middle 35 years of his life from 1924 to 1961 he never once left the River Plate. If his romantic life was, as it seems, characterized by a series of fantasies and self-delusions, then it is precisely the creative power of fantasy that is of interest, not the banal details of who didn’t do what with whom.
Again and again, Williamson comes out with the notion that Borges was looking for a “new Beatrice” to enable a “Dantean vision” of literature as a “project of salvation through writing” (243). There may be many ways to read Borges, but this is surely among the least interesting, and least productive.
Or perhaps it is the second-least interesting and productive. For Williamson’s other major idée fixe is even more ponderous. This is the theory that Borges’s life and art were guided by the struggle between the “sword of honor” bequeathed him by his mother, with her anxiety about her criollo heritage and breeding, and what is either the “dagger of desire” (359) or the “dagger of rebellion” (463) inherited from his father, who was not particularly rebellious but who did once try to encourage his son’s sexual initiation (via what seems to have been a rather traumatic encounter with a Geneva prostitute). Borges struggles between the choice either to live up to his somewhat invented patrician upbringing, an image carefully nurtured by the woman that Williamson simply calls “Mother,” or to risk Mother’s wrath with any number of possible personal or political betrayals of family and class. This is the “deep-seated conflict between sword and dagger” (144) that structures Williamson’s biography.
In practice, the endless invocation of the “sword of honor” or the purported conflict between sword and dagger is a heavy-handed refrain, a blunt dichotomy that on the one hand steadily unravels (is it a dagger of desire or of rebellion, or is perhaps the opposing term to honor in fact “the solipsism fostered by his father’s library” ) and, on the other, has to be endlessly restated precisely to ward of the threat of the unraveling. Frankly, by the end I was thoroughly sick both of “Borges’s Dantean dream” (429) and of “the ancestor’s sword of honor” (44), “the ancestral sword, associated with Mother” (145), “the oppressive authority of the ancestral sword of honor” (211), “the sword of honor his mother held dear” (286), “Mother’s ancestral sword of honor” (318) and all the other slight repetitions of the same simplistic basic concept.
Ultimately, the most disappointing aspect of Williamson’s book is the way in which it takes one of the most sophisticated and subtle writers of the twentieth century, a man whose writing is always alive to complication, ambiguity, allusion, uncertainty, and undecidability, and writes a Life that not only shows precious little curiosity about that writing (or about literature in general), but also precious little understanding of it. This is a book that might was well have been written with a sword or a dagger. It’s a hatchet job, not in the sense that Williamson denigrates his subject (au contraire, he is if anything far too forgiving, not least about Borges’s anti-democratic impulses and his many political mis-steps of the 1970s and 1980s), but because it is as crude as anything written with a hatchet has to be. And that, in the end, is the worst denigration one can offer to a writer as careful, as precise, as subtle, and as sophisticated as Borges.