Jorge Luis Borges (born August 24, 1899 in Buenos Aires, Argentina; died June 14, 1986 in Geneva, Switzerland) was an Argentine writer who is considered one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century. Best-known in the English speaking world for his short stories and fictive essays, Borges was also a poet, critic, and man of letters.
In addition to his short stories for which he is most famous, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, several screenplays, and a considerable volume of literary criticism, prologues, and reviews, edited numerous anthologies, and was a prominent translator of English-, French- and German-language literature into Spanish (and of Old English and Norse works as well). His blindness (which, like his father's, developed in adulthood) strongly influenced his later writing. Paramount among his intellectual interests are elements of mythology, mathematics, theology, philosophy, and, as a personal integration of these, Borges's sense of literature as recreation — all of these disciplines are sometimes treated as a writer's playthings and at other times treated very seriously.
Borges lived through most of the twentieth century, and so was rooted in the Modernist period of culture and literature, especially Symbolism. His fiction is profoundly learned, and always concise. Like his contemporary Vladimir Nabokov and the somewhat older James Joyce, he combined an interest in his native land with far broader interests. He also shared their multilingualism and their playfulness with language, but while Nabokov and Joyce tended, as their lives went on, toward progressively larger works, Borges remained a miniaturist. Also in contrast to Joyce and Nabokov, Borges's work progressed away from what he referred to as "the baroque," while theirs moved towards it: Borges's later writing style is far more transparent and naturalistic than his early style.
Many of his most popular stories concern the nature of time, infinity, mirrors, labyrinths, reality, and identity. A number of stories focus on fantastic themes, such as a library containing every possible 410-page text ("The Library of Babel"), a man who forgets nothing he experiences ("Funes, the Memorious"), an artifact through which the user can see everything in the universe ("The Aleph"), and a year of time standing still, given to a man standing before a firing squad ("The Secret Miracle"). The same Borges told more and less realistic stories of South American life, stories of folk heroes, streetfighters, soldiers, gauchos, detectives, historical figures. He mixed the real and the fantastic and fact with fiction. On several occasions, especially early in his career, these mixtures sometimes crossed the line into the realm of hoax or literary forgery.
Borges's abundant nonfiction includes astute film and book reviews, short biographies, and longer philosophical musings on topics such as the nature of dialogue, language, and thought, and the relationships between them. In this respect, and regarding Borges's personal pantheon, he considered the Mexican essayist of similar topics Alfonso Reyes "the best prose-writer in the Spanish language of any time" (In: Siete Noches, p. 156). His non-fiction also explores many of the themes that are found in his fiction. Essays such as "The History of the Tango" or his writings on the epic poem Martín Fierro explore specifically Argentine themes, such as the identity of the Argentinian people and of various Argentine subcultures. His interest in fantasy, philosophy, and the art of translation are evident in articles such as "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights", while The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thoroughly and obscurely researched bestiary of mythical creatures, in the preface of which Borges wrote, "There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition." Borges's interest in fantasy was shared by Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967, sometimes under different pseudonyms (see main article: H. Bustos Domecq).
Borges composed poetry throughout his life. As his eyesight waned (it came and went, with a struggle between advancing age and advances in eye surgery), Borges increasingly focused on writing poetry, because he could memorize an entire work in progress. His poems embrace the same wide range of interests as his fiction, along with issues that emerge in his critical works and translations, and from more personal musings. This breadth of interest can be found in his fiction, nonfiction, and poems. For example, his interest in philosophical idealism is reflected in the fictional world of Tlön in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", in his essay "New Refutation of Time", and in his poem "Things." Similarly, a common thread runs through his story "The Circular Ruins" and his poem "El Golem" ("The Golem").
As well as his own original work, Borges was notable as a translator into Spanish. He translated Oscar Wilde's story The Happy Prince into Spanish when he was ten, perhaps an early indication of his literary talent. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of the Prose Edda. Borges also translated (whilst simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, André Gide, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, and G. K. Chesterton. In a number of essays and lectures, Borges assessed the art of translation and articulated his own view of translation. Borges held the view that a translation may improve upon an original, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally valid, and further that an original or literal translation can be unfaithful to the original work.
Borges also employed two very unusual literary forms: the literary forgery and the review of an imaginary work. Both constitute a form of modern pseudo-epigrapha.
Borges's best-known set of literary forgeries date from his early work as a translator and literary critic with a regular column in the Argentine magazine El Hogar. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works after the style of the likes of Emanuel Swedenborg or The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, originally passing them off as translations of things he had come upon in his reading. Several of these are gathered in the Universal History of Infamy. He continued this pattern of literary forgery at several points in his career, for example sneaking three short, falsely attributed pieces into his otherwise legitimate and carefully researched anthology El matrero.
At times, confronted with an idea for a work that bordered on the conceptual, Borges chose — instead of following through with the idea in the obvious way, by writing a piece that fulfilled the concept — to write a review of a nonexistent work, writing as though the work had already been created by some other person. The most famous example of this is "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", which imagines a twentieth-century Frenchman who so immerses himself in the world of sixteenth-century Spain that he can sit down and create a large portion of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote verbatim, not by having memorized Cervantes's work, but as an "original" work of his own mind. Borges's "review" of the work of the fictional Menard effectively discusses the resonances that Don Quixote has picked up over the centuries since it was written, by way of overtly discussing how much richer Menard's work is than Cervantes's (verbatim identical) work.
While Borges was certainly the great popularizer of the review of an imaginary work, it was not his own invention. It is likely that he first encountered the idea in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, a book-length review of a non-existent German transcendentalist philosophical work and biography of its equally non-existent author. This Craft of Verse (p. 104), records Borges as saying that in 1916 in Geneva he "discovered — and was overwhelmed by — Thomas Carlyle. I read Sartor Resartus, and I can recall many of its pages; I know them by heart." In the introduction to his first published volume of fiction, The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges remarks, "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them." He then cites both Sartor Resartus and Samuel Butler's The Fair Haven, remarking, however, that "those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books." [Collected Fictions, p.67]