Borges in Cambridge


Jorge Luis Borges

From The American Scholar:

The sweet-tempered octogenarian I knew needed in his blindness to be helped gently across carpeted floors. His preoccupations, notably Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, were above all philological. His father had taught in English, which Borges used to say was the first language he ever spoke, though you would probably not have guessed it. He first read Cervantes’s Don Quixote in English, and when he came to read it in the original Spanish he imagined it was a translation. His own spoken English was poised and faintly overcorrect, shot through with teasing ironies that were somehow continental; he might have been another Voltaire, gently mellowed with the years. Anglophilia did not make an Englishman of him or anything like one, and you felt that a café would have suited him far better than a pub.

As for his native land, his attitude was critically detached. Deeply distrustful of dictators, he was rewarded with an office of note—as director of the national library in Buenos Aires—only after the fall of Juan Perón in 1955, and he disdained all publicity and acclaim.

My recollections of his talks, taken from notes recently unearthed among my papers, suggest a refreshing independence of mind rather than willful iconoclasm, along with what would have looked to our grandparents like an abiding passion for an entirely familiar canon of English: Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible, which his English grandmother used to read, along with Robert Louis Stevenson and G. K. Chesterton. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings meant nothing to him. He was a skeptic of religion but not of the literary canon. Or, as he once put it in heartfelt certainty, we must never “destroy by human reasoning the faith that art requires of us.” No fantasist, after all, can afford to doubt reality or the knowledge of reality. “The world, unfortunately, is real,” as he once remarked, “and I, unfortunately, am Borges.”

“An Unquenchable Gaiety of Mind”, George Watson, The American Scholar