Mirror, Mask, Labyrinth
During this year's long white winter, blank with snow and early dark, I kept two volumes from the South close at hand—just-published Penguin paperbacks of the poems of Jorge Luis Borges in facing-page translations. One, The Sonnets, is organized by form; the other, Poems of the Night, by theme. To say so, however, is to oversimplify, for Borges wrote many sonnets on nocturnal themes, and his night poems, like most nocturnes, poetic or musical, wander and return in line with our experience of night itself. The editors of these volumes, Stephen Kessler for the sonnets and Efraín Kristal for the poems of night, called upon some of the same translators (including Robert Fitzgerald, Alastair Reid and W.S. Merwin) but otherwise stayed out of each other's way as they culled poems from the entirety of Borges's career. Kessler includes Borges's first known sonnet in Spanish, "Pedro Luis in Martigny," a portrait of a friend enclosed in a letter to another friend in Geneva in 1920, when Borges was 21, and both editors include work from Borges's last publications in 1985 and 1986, the year of his death, which found him as well in Geneva.
In the introduction to his Obra Poética 1923–1985, brought out by Emecé Editores in Buenos Aires in 1989, Borges recalls a passage from a letter of his beloved literary ancestor Robert Louis Stevenson: "I do not set up to be a poet. Only an all-round literary man: a man who talks, not one who sings.... Excuse this apology; but I don't like to come before people who have a note of song, and let it be supposed I do not know the difference." This borrowed strategy of first apologizing, then dazzling, was an intrinsic aspect of Borges's public persona; we find it, too, in the doubled being of his well-known little essay "Borges and I." There he writes: "news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical dictionary. My taste runs to hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson; Borges shares those preferences, but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor.... I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification."
Obscure provincial of the New World, destined to live out his life as a near invalid in a tiny apartment with his mother once he loses his "reading and writing" sight in his mid-50s; prim celibate; lover, Platonic or otherwise, of dozens of women and husband of two in his late age; firebrand of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, who brought the news of Geneva, Madrid, Seville and Majorca to Buenos Aires; publisher, in the 1920s, of the "Ultraist" Symbolist journal Prisma and of Proa, the journal of democratic reform and liberal, syncretic, poetics; high school dropout; devotee of Federico García Lorca, denigrator of García Lorca; the most learned reader of the twentieth century; in a bizarre historical irony, the third person to hold the position of director of the National Library of Argentina "whom God granted both books and blindness"; professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires and scholar of Anglo-Saxon; recipient of honorary degrees from Oxford, Columbia, Cambridge and elsewhere, of the Jerusalem Prize, the Alfonso Reyes Prize and the Cervantes Prize; longstanding supporter of the Radical Party; fearless opponent of the dictatorship of Juan Domingo Perón; willfully naïve apologist for the brutal late-1970s military regimes of Argentina and Chile. There is no end to the string of paradoxes that arise from the biographies of Borges and "Borges."
Such contradictions were indeed part of Borges's legacy—from his family, his nation, his literary tradition. A descendant of the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas, Borges was more interested in his nineteenth-century ancestors who had helped to found Argentina as a nation. In a poem from 1940, "The Cyclical Night," translated by Alastair Reid, he writes of the "Pythagorean" rotation of reincarnation that has landed him in Buenos Aires:
This, here, is Buenos Aires. Time, which brings
Either love or money to men, hands on to me
Only this withered rose, this empty tracery
Of streets with names recurring from the past
In my blood: Laprida, Cabrera, Soler, Suárez...
Names in which secret bugle calls are sounding,
Invoking republics, cavalry, and mornings,
Joyful victories, men dying in action.
Francisco Narciso de Laprida and Gerónimo Salguero de Cabrera were signatories at the Congress declaring Argentina's independence; Miguel Estanislao Soler fought with San Martín against Spain; and Manuel Isidoro Suárez, who is also the subject here of a sonnet, "Colonel Suárez," was Borges's great-grandfather on his mother's side, acolyte of Bolívar and hero of the penultimate battle of Latin American independence, the Battle of Junín, which was fought high in a snowy field in the Peruvian Andes in 1824. The writer's grandfather Col. Francisco Borges—husband of his paternal grandmother, the Englishwoman Fanny Haslam—is in turn the subject of five of Borges's poems. Family legend described Francisco, as he took part in the failed rebellion of General Mitre against the elected government in 1874, defying orders to retreat and riding out bravely alone into the field with his arms across his chest, although in truth he was killed by two bullets at the height of the conflict.
If Borges at times seemed to find the lives of these men of action more suited to poetry than his own experiences as a man of letters, this sentiment arose not only from the vivid folklore that celebrated the liberal unitario politics of both sides of his family but also from his conviction that the root of all literature is the epic. He liked to quote from The Odyssey. "The gods weave adversities for men," said Borges, "so that future generations will have something to sing about." In a late "poem of the night" with the title "Yesterdays," here translated by Kessler, Borges begins:
From a lineage of Protestant ministers
and South American soldiers
who fought, with their incalculable dust,
against the Spaniards and the desert's lances,
I am and I am not.
Then he quickly turns to his "true lineage," that of poetic lines, and the memory of his father reading aloud Swinburne's pounding rhythms.