Having begun with the poet Esteban Echeverría and journeyed through such influential authors as José Hernández, Leopoldo Lugones and Roberto Arlt, The Argentina Independent’s Beyond Borges series arrives at its namesake.
Born in the city of Buenos Aires in 1899, poet, short story author, essayist, translator and critic Jorge Luis Borges went on to become not only the most recognisable name, but also the most recognisable face, in Argentine writing.
Widely acknowledged during his lifetime as a master of 20th century literature, a large proportion of local literary pride can be attributed to Borges’ extensive back catalogue. His impact on literature is remarkable, not only in terms of his contribution to Argentine writing but also his far-reaching and profound influence on literature worldwide.
Arguably Argentina’s finest export and commonly held up as a poster boy of its national literature; the relationship between the country and its most famous author seems, in true Borges fashion, to be both reciprocal and eternal.
Raised in a middle class family home, Borges grew up surrounded by the dizzying heights of his father’s multi-lingual library. Harbouring literary aspirations of his own, Jorge Guillermo Borges had never succeeded in becoming an author, but his young son seemed destined to become a prolific figure.
With English as his first language, Borges had made an active decision to embark on a literary career from a young age. His translation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ was printed in an Argentine newspaper when he was only nine years old.
In 1914, his family moved from Argentina to Europe and settled in Switzerland until the end of the war. Home-schooled until age 11, this period of stability afforded Borges an opportunity to complete an institutional education. Following his graduation from the College of Geneva in 1918, the family lived in several European countries, spending time in the Spanish cities of Barcelona, Seville and Madrid.
It was in Spain that Borges fell in with ultraism- an avant-garde movement that had grown up in response to the modernism that dominated Spanish poetry. Having already published book reviews for newspapers in Geneva, he became a regular contributor to Spain’s literary press. In 1921, he returned to Buenos Aires, bringing with him the fresh ideas of ultraism.
The Face of Argentine Literature
Borges’ first poetry collection, ‘Fervour de Buenos Aires’, was published only two years after his return to the city, but it was his page presence in local reviews and journals that really launched his literary career in Argentina.
Already established as a central figure in a circle of vanguard authors, Borges became a regular contributor to the avant-garde magazine ‘Martin Fierro’ and a cofounder of several others, including ‘Proa’ and a broadsheet journal named ‘Prism’. Though he would later denounce both the avant-garde and ultraism, his involvement in these publications provided a valuable platform for his work and played an important part in increasing his public profile.
Much of the writing collected under the 1936 title ‘Historia universal de la infamia’ had been previously published inside the literary supplement of Crítica, where Borges had assumed an editorial role in 1933.
In addition, several of the short stories contained the 1941 novel ‘El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan’, had also appeared inside Victoria Ocampo’s ‘Sur’ magazine as early as 1931. It was with this collection of stories that Borges arguably invented the concept of a hypertext novel, preceding both Julio Cortázar and Macedonio Fernández.
In his earlier writing he had experimented with using fictional techniques to tell what were essentially true stories and became the first author to create elaborate reviews of imaginary works. This playful approach extended to publishing, where collaborations under pseudonyms and frequent experimentations with literary forgery resulted in occasional false accreditations.
In basing much of his writing in his home city of Buenos Aires, Borges was adopted as a figurehead of criollismo, a Latin American movement that had its counterpart in North America’s regionalism.
But whilst he had built up a huge body of work based on Argentine culture and history, his themes were generally more universal. During the 1930s he began exploring existentialist ideas in line with increasing public interest, but it was following his father’s death and a near fatal accident of his own, that Borges’ imagination grew progressively fertile.
Argentina’s Finest Export
Among Borges’ best-known works are ‘Ficciones’ in 1944 and ‘The Aleph’ in 1949; two short story collections famed for their complex philosophical concepts. Interconnected by themes of infinity and time, dreams, mirrors, labyrinths, and religion, the stories play on a mix of fantasy and reality and are credited with marking the beginnings of magic realism.
Reacting against the realism of 19th century literature, magic realism gained popularity during the 1960s, when Latin American literature experienced a worldwide “boom”. Until this time, Borges remained little known outside Argentina and, although he preceded Cortázar and the other authors of the boom period, he undoubtedly benefitted from the exposure it provided.
Already a public figure in Argentina, Borges was appointed president of the Argentine Society of Writers, professor of English and American Literature at the Argentine Association of English Culture and was, for some time, director of the National Library.
Receipt of the International Prize in 1961, awarded jointly to Borges and Samuel Beckett, projected him into an international arena and spurred overseas interest in his work for the first time.
His elevated profile enabled him to embark on a prolific lecturing career whereby he lectured extensively on the art of translation. Having himself translated the work of Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling and William Faulkner, his stance was both new and controversial, declaring translations that contradicted or improved the original to be “equally valid”.
A succession of esteemed literary awards honoured Borges’ work both retrospectively and continuously. Having received the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, the Cervantes Prize in 1979, a Balzan Prize in 1980, and a French Legion of Honour awarded only three years before his death, some say he was systematically overlooked for the Nobel Prize in literature. “Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition,” he said. “Since I was born they have not been granting it to me.”
Still, the impact of Jorge Luis Borges on Argentine literature and literature in general cannot be underestimated. Often described as the most important Spanish language writer since Cervantes, he has been credited as an author who renovated Argentine fiction, paving the way for a remarkable generation of Spanish language writers and turning ‘Borges’ into a household name.