How a timid, subdued, frustrated man from Buenos Aires, with failing eyesight and blind for the last part of his creative years, turned out to be one of the major, if not the major writer of the 20th century, is the central mystery this book preserves, untouched, at its centre.
Edwin Williamson’s biography of Borges is what its title claims to be — ‘a life’. Whether it is the ‘definitive biography’ (as Mario Vargas Llosa in a publicity blurb claims it to be) is something only time, unearthed documents and loosened tongues may prove. But ‘a life’ is two things — Borges’ own and Williamson’s version of it. In this last sense, Borges: A Life works with two major metaphors as instruments to cut their way through an overgrowth of unreliable information. ‘The Sword and the Dagger’ title of Part I stands for the inherited cult of courage — military and criminal — that a weakling growing up secluded in the family library tried to emulate through writing. Dante’s Commedia, with the poet’s adoration of an ever-elusive Beatrice, provides a recurrent simile for Borges’ string of unfulfilled romantic fantasies.
Williamson probes into Borges’ writings for the elaboration of biographical facts and, mostly, psychological hypotheses. Some interpretations are far-fetched, others prove far-reaching, really illuminating. Borges’ fumbling, distorted way of realising his father’s frustrated literary ambition is one of the latter — immediately apparent to anybody who has read El caudillo (1921), the senior Borges’ only attempt at a novel. It is given an additional twist by the episode first revealed in Emir Rodr
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 13, 2004