‘The story that Jay Parini recounts in Borges and Me is untrue,’ a recent letter in the TLS claimed, ‘and it should be understood as fiction.’ The author, Maria Kodama, Borges’s widow and literary executor, has also told the press that she ‘will have to act in some way or other’ should the book come out in Argentina. Borges memoirs have long exceeded the master’s oeuvre by what must amount to the library of Babel in volume. The author of one classic of the genre, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Borges’s translator and collaborator, told me a decade ago: ‘I’m not going to lie to you now and say, you know, we were so close Borges cried every time he saw me.’
Parini is the author of several books based, as they say, on true stories, including The Last Station, a novel about Tolstoy. His latest one is labelled as ‘novelistic memoir’ — hence the subtitle. The events described took place 50 years ago. An impressionable young American in search of a purpose in life, a poet, a virgin, a draft dodger and a son trying to escape the protective cocoon of his family, Parini arrives at St Andrews as a graduate student in 1970. One of his mentors there, the poet and translator Alastair Reid, tells him that ‘history is a form of fiction’. Another Scottish poet, George Mackay Brown, the subject of Parini’s thesis, says that ‘perhaps history is the only reader who matters’.
These father figures frame the central one — Borges — who arrives in early 1971 to work with Reid. Blind and frail, he is briefly left in Parini’s care. As they travel together to the Highlands, ‘this one-man literary spectacle’, a ‘blizzard of facts and fantasies’, a compulsive storyteller ‘oblivious to everything but his own dreams’, encourages his companion to be his eyes, while talking to him about whatever happens to be on his mind.