Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.
– Jorge Luis Borges
From Volume 320 of Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism:
Jorge Luis Borges is known for complex, idiosyncratic fictions, often filled with puzzles and intellectual games, in which readers must navigate multiple layers of meaning, philosophical subtext, and intertextual reference. His most celebrated works are short, abstract narratives that cross genre boundaries and raise provocative questions about the nature of literature and reality. In addition to his innovative and influential short stories, he also wrote many volumes of poetry and wide-ranging essays about literature, philosophy, language, religion, and history. Borges’s work appeals to general readers as well as to academics, intellectuals, and fellow writers. His work has been translated into many languages and has been the subject of extensive critical commentary.
Borges was born on 24 August 1899 in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and grew up in the moderately prosperous suburb of Palermo. Although he received little formal education as a child, he was raised in an intellectually rich environment and was bilingual from an early age. His half-English father was a lawyer who aspired to be a writer, and whose large library included books in both English and Spanish. The young Borges exhibited interest in the fantastic in literature, particularly the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. G. Wells. He was seven years old when he wrote his first short story and nine when his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s 1888 short story “The Happy Prince” appeared in a Buenos Aires newspaper in 1908. From 1914 to 1921 the family lived in Europe, first in Switzerland, where Borges attended secondary school at the Collège de Genève, then in Spain, where he was exposed to such avant-garde literary movements as Dadaism and Imagism. By this time literary journals were publishing his reviews, essays, and poems, and when he returned to Buenos Aires at the age of twenty-two, he was recognized as an important new voice in the city’s intellectual community. In addition to three volumes of poetry, he published three collections of essays on metaphysics, language, and philosophy during the 1920s and helped to found several literary journals.
In 1935 Borges published his first fiction collection, Historia universal de la infamia (published as A Universal History of Infamy), a series of vignettes that combine the conventions of crime fiction with sly erudition to present seemingly factual accounts of real and mythical world criminals. The appearance in 1936 of “El aceramiento a Almotástim” (published as “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim”) marked Borges’s first attempt at the playful, genre-defying approach for which he is best known. Taking the form of a literary note, the piece was published as straightforward criticism, but it is actually a review of a nonexistent novel by an Indian author of Borges’s own creation, with false quotes by actual literary critics and authors. Another important work in this vein, “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” (published as “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”), appeared in 1939 to great acclaim, and it served as a template for the group of highly conceptual and often mysterious fictions that gained him international renown in literary circles. Many of these stories were collected in the volumes El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941; may be translated as The Garden of Forking Paths), Ficciones (1935-1944) (1944; may be translated as Fictions (1935-1944)), and El Aleph (1949; may be translated as The Aleph). Critics generally regard the works of this period as masterpieces of innovation.
Borges had been vocal in denouncing anti-Semitism and fascism in the 1930s, and in the 1940s he was openly critical of Argentinean leader Juan Perón. In retaliation, Perón removed him from his post at a municipal library in Buenos Aires. In 1955, when Perón’s government was overthrown by a coup, Borges was named director of Argentina’s national library. Two years later he was appointed professor of English at the University of Buenos Aires. By this time an inherited condition had almost completely deprived Borges of his eyesight, but he continued to write prolifically, generally dictating his works to his mother and, after her death in 1975, to a secretary. His late work explores many forms and topics, from poetry, essays, and translations to philosophy, history, and literary criticism. Borges came to world-wide attention in 1961 when he and the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett were co-recipients of the first Prix International Formentor, a literary award that showcases the work of published authors who are not widely known outside their own countries. Borges was long considered to be a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but many believe that his tacit support for repressive governments in Argentina and Chile during the 1970s may have cost him the prize. Nevertheless, he was a literary celebrity in later years, traveling widely to deliver lectures and accept awards. Shortly before his death on 14 June 1986, he married his former student and long-time companion María Kodama.
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For more information on Borges, see SSC 170, 183, 187, 191, 215; and TCLC 320.