|Jorge Luis Borges|
In Memory of Borges
by Norman Thomas di Giovanni
In Memory of Borges
The reading world, inundated with daily information, is quick to lose sight of yesterday's facts and too lazy or uncaring to track down simple truths. For these past forty years rumours and lies - even spilling over into slander and libel - have been circulating about the years I spent at the side of Jorge Luis Borges. All of it, of course, behind my back.
Only the other day, I learned via the pages of the internet that María Kodama, Borges's executor, accuses me of stealing money from him and from her. The origin of the dispute, I read, harks back to a certain contract from 1969. This was news to me. In the intervening four decades, neither Borges nor Kodama nor the Estate's agent, Andrew Wylie, ever confronted me with questions of financial irregularities.
Enough is enough. In an attempt to set the record straight, I present here my initial salvo, a simple account of my friendship and working relationship with Borges. I wrote this memoir in 1987, the year after his death, and it now forms the opening section of my book The Lesson of the Master (2003). I promise further installments. At the reach of my hand, I have a mass of illuminating documents. Is it not high time I made them public?
15 December 2008
In Memory of Borges
There is an article, really a piece of photojournalism, in one of those Argentine weekly magazines, in which I can be seen walking down a Buenos Aires street with Borges leaning on my arm. Was the magazine Siete Días or Gente? That I no longer remember, but all the other details I am fairly clear about. It was 1969; we were walking east along Belgrano Avenue, crossing Santiago del Estero or more likely Salta, a block or two from the small flat where Borges was still living with his first wife. I am wearing my brown herringbone tweed suit and a tie, concessions to the demands of sober, formal Buenos Aires. We are crossing or about to cross Salta, Borges clutching my right arm in his somewhat frantic blind man's vice, and the large photograph in the magazine is a picture of me with him on my arm and definitely not the other way round - it is not a photograph of Borges being led along by some anonymous younger man, a foreigner, an American.
That year, on the dot of four every afternoon, five days a week, I picked Borges up from the Belgrano flat and, his arm firmly gripping mine, we walked the ten slow blocks east to the National Library, in Mexico Street, where our early evening's work awaited us. By this time, he had been Director of the Argentine National Library for fourteen years. The post, of course, was a sinecure. Borges was not a librarian, much less an administrator, and a loyal assistant director, José Edmundo Clemente, did the real work. Once or twice a month perhaps, like a ritual, a secretary came into the big office where Borges and I sat across from each other at a solid long mahogany table, and she would stand over a thick sheaf of papers, turning a corner of each page for him to initial. Whatever the bulk of paperwork, it never proved much of an interruption. Most of the time he initialled away while carrying on his discussion with me; but if things were going particularly well and he was in one of his playful moods, which were frequent, he might indulge in a bit of good-natured ribbing, poking fun at her to me in English or at me to her in Spanish.
'You see, di Giovanni, how mercilessly she makes me work.' Often the woman would be halfway out of the room before Borges would remember himself and, for form's sake, think to ask exactly what it was he had just signed.
'Only the usual accounts, Señor Borges,' she would say assuringly, the epitome of correctness and respect.
'Ah, yes,' he would rejoin, as if suddenly reminded of some immutable truth.
It was a game. The secretaries, one or two in the morning, a different one or two in the afternoon, hated troubling Borges about anything, especially when he was working, and to this day I am sure that even after it had been explained to him Borges never had the foggiest notion what he was signing.
'Borges,' I'd quip when the mood came over me, 'I can see from here that that sheaf you're putting your John Hancock to grants the whole library staff an extra two-week holiday with pay.'
And he would do a comic double-take, feigning astonishment, stop scribbling, look up trying to locate the secretary's face, and repeat my remark in Spanish to her.
'No, jamás nunca, Señor Borges; le juro.' And with her oaths to the contrary and not-on-your-lifes, he let himself be readily convinced every time.
This is not to suggest that Borges did not take the job in earnest. He did. But at the same time he knew he was a figurehead - a mere figurehead, he would have phrased it - and, never pompous about anything, he allowed himself to be ironic about the post. Deep down, he was proud of the library, of the position, and grateful for it too. Almost in the manner of a credulous child, he would recite for visitors that the library contained 800,000 volumes. Or later, 900,000. It was one of the few facts Borges ever had at his fingertips. To him facts were the antithesis of the essence of truth, and he found them meaningless. This was the only fact I can remember his spouting that required - unlike the year of his birth, say - frequent updating. The job was the perfect symbol for him, and he was the perfect symbol for the job. Indeed, what library in the world would not have rejoiced at having a Borges as its titular head? He performed the office like a master - as if he had been born to it, or, better, because he had been born to it.
Those evenings of ours were devoted to the translation of stories, poems, and essays of his into English. 'My afternoons now are usually given over to a long-range and cherished project,' Borges was to write a year later, when he was seventy-one. 'For nearly the past three years, I have been lucky to have my own translator at my side, and together we are bringing out some ten or twelve volumes of my work in English, a language I am unworthy to handle, a language I often wish had been my birthright.'
As the young man from Siete Días or Gente knew, all this made a good story: the American from Boston who had suddenly popped up and was shepherding the legendary Borges along the streets of Buenos Aires and working with him at the National Library. In fact, the story had a bit of everything - the exotic and the homely. Here was the lofty National Treasure, for whom New York publishers were competing, for whom they had sent one of their own to the ends of the earth to watch over. It proved Borges really was a world figure and not just an oddball local, an Anglophile with a passion for books; it meant that Buenos Aires and Argentina counted in the world for something more than excellent steaks and crack football players. It was a fine tonic for the constant doubt about his identity that assails the porteño at the best of times. These were not the best of times. 'Nationalism is creeping in all the time,' Borges sneered. It was the military dictatorship of General Onganía; soon grim-faced Federal police, more of them every week, would be appearing on street corners wearing jackboots and wielding stubby submachine guns; soon the faithful flock would be bleating for the return of Perón. With the horizon fast shading from leaden to black, enter the young American in the tweed suit who had something in common with half the population of Buenos Aires - a comforting Italian surname. Which was why the story was about me, why the pictures were of me with the National Treasure on my arm and not of Borges with me on his.
I often joked with him about this. As we moved through Florida Street, a pedestrian precinct on the way to his mother's, people would open a way, turn round, gape, point. 'It never ceases to amaze me the way strangers seem to recognize me,' I would tell him, deadpan. 'Look,' they say, 'there's di Giovanni - there, with the old man on his arm.'' It made Borges laugh every time. The passers-by never failed to greet him; some even held their children up for him to touch. He always asked people their names, where they were from. Ah, yes. He had a friend there. A lawyer and a fine poet named Fernández Ordóñez. Borges was a living monument, and the Argentines revered him.
At the library we shuffled through the revolving door and up the grand marble staircase, entering first the outer office with the scruffy, bare, wooden floor, where the secretaries huddled at a tiny table in the corner by the window. Except by that window, the room was lightless, bleak, and spartan. A small wire wastebasket stood beside the table. There was one telephone - big, clumsy, black, its cord frayed. It didn't matter. The phones, like the secretaries, only worked part-time. The building dated from 1901 and had been, as Borges was fond of telling visitors, the seat of the national lottery. The inner sanctum, Borges's office, had an extraordinarily high ceiling, green wallpaper printed with bamboo-like fronds, polished mahogany panelling and a parquet floor. We worked at the old-fashioned conference table in the centre of the room. At the far end was the desk that Paul Groussac, a distinguished predecessor, had had built to his own design. It was U-shaped. If you sat behind it, as Borges never did, it surrounded you. It had strange drawers and odd compartments. Borges later described it briefly at the end of his story 'There are More Things'.
The room's other furnishings were a couple of revolving bookshelves and a tall set of drawers where Borges slipped the drafts of poems he dictated in the morning to a secretary. Two pairs of doors led off the room straight onto a corridor. These we used only when trying to give the slip to someone who might be waiting in the outer office or when we went to the vast, stark loo that was used only by us. Next door was the room Groussac had died in, a detail Borges took ghoulish delight in recounting. For once upon a time the director had lived on the premises. There were traces of a kitchen that proved it. But Elsa, the new Mrs Borges, whom Borges had married at sixty-eight (she was some ten or twelve years younger), would have none of it. She was right, of course. The library was a gloomy place, and I thought I too would go blind there. There was a dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy, whose paper and binding Borges and I were fond of smelling, on the main table. The one place in all Buenos Aires where my tweed suit was no match for the winter was in the dank cavern of Borges's office. But there was a large, ornate fireplace at my back, where a fire of eucalyptus logs would glow - not burn but glow. If I backed up to it now and again, the icy chill was momentarily dispelled. Still, one was thankful for small mercies.
What the photographs in the magazine article do not show is the crablike walk I had developed, much to the detriment of my lower back muscles. Buenos Aires pavements are narrow, and to negotiate them with Borges on my right arm I had to learn to master the art of walking with my left hip and left arm leading the way. To make matters worse, my extended left hand always carried a briefcase bulging with papers and books. There I was with the National Treasure on my arm, keeping him safe from the murderous traffic, the ubiquitous excavations, and the broken tiles of the city's pavements, steering him round open pits or dodging beau traps. And all the while the squat buses inched along in step with us, throbbing and belching thick black exhaust over the Treasure; over my herringbone tweed; over his monologue about Victoria Ocampo, whom he dubbed Queen Victoria for her imperial ways, or Ernesto Sábato, dubbed the Dostoyevsky of Santos Lugares for his bouts of melancholia; over an example of the word music of Dunbar, Coleridge, or the Bard himself, whose 'multitudinous seas incarnadine', capped with 'making the green one red', never failed to rouse and thrill Borges - potholes, pitfalls, grime, soot, lethal traffic, and sputtering buses be damned.
Once, fourteen years later and forty miles away across the river in Uruguay, in the town of Colonia, where I was helping make a BBC film about Borges, I stumbled across a half-open gateway that gave a glimpse of a picturesque garden with a big fig tree ripening in the middle of it. I couldn't resist. In I strolled, utterly captivated. Immediately a man dashed out of a house, a stern look on his face, to halt me in my tracks.
'Lo felicito,' I said in my most winning Spanish, trying to disarm him. 'I congratulate you; your garden is a jewel.'
He drew up to me, tall, handsome, almost sneering, an obvious porteño. Then the belligerence drained from his look.
'Yo te conozco a vos,' he said straight out, launching into the familiar. 'I saw you walking down Calle Florida in 1969 or 1970 with Borges on your arm.'
There are jottings in a series of diaries, the old War Resisters League peace calendars I was partial to at the time, in which I chronicled those first teeming weeks in Buenos Aires after I arrived there in the middle of November 1968. Borges was tireless in showing me the hospitality in his country that he had thanked me for showing him in mine when we had parted in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seven months before.
He and Elsa met my plane at Ezeiza on the night I got there and whisked me straight to the modest hotel she had found for me in the Avenida de Mayo, a short walk from their flat. The next day, after lunch with them, Borges could barely wait to show me the National Library and a few spots nearby on the old south side of the city that he both worshipped and had turned into myth. A house from the previous century; a grilled archway; a long street of low houses; a dusty park. 'After all, these places mean a great deal to me; they're my past.' It was touching the way he apologized for the absence of grandeur or glamour he thought that I, as a Bostonian, had a right to expect. But that was politeness. Beneath the courtesy, you were aware of his intense personal pride.
We began work at the library the next morning, a Saturday, when the library was closed, for that had been the pact. I would not come as a tourist; I would only come if we could continue what we had begun at Harvard during the months we had known each other there. The diary for 1968 records that we busied ourselves on his poem 'Heraclitus'.
That same day he introduced me to a student of his, María Kodama, whom he was to marry sixteen and a half years later, only weeks before his death. And that night, my second full evening in Argentina, he took me to dine at the home of Adolfo Bioy Casares, where I was presented to some of Borges's closest friends. This was an event I had been looking forward to for months; from the warmth of the reception I received from Bioy and his wife, Silvina Ocampo, Borges had talked to them about me. Bioy and Silvina were both writers - he of novels and stories, she of stories and poems (she was also an accomplished artist who had studied with De Chirico) - and together they and Borges had collaborated on a variety of literary projects. Manuel Peyrou, the novelist, was also there, and towards the end of the meal Teddy Paz, one of the younger literati, ambled in. That evening, that dinner, was truly auspicious, but not just for me because it marked the start of four enduring new friendships. Bioy got his car out and drove us home at one a.m. By then something had happened to make it one of the most important evenings in Borges's life.
During those final weeks of his stay in Cambridge, where he had been delivering the 1967-68 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures and we had been preparing an English edition of his selected poems, we had read together and chosen and made literal drafts of dozen upon dozen of Borges's sonnets, a form he increasingly favoured, since he could easily write them in his head. I knew that. But it did not keep me from wearying of those same fourteen hendecasyllabic lines, the inevitability of those seven pairs of rhymes. The very constriction, in fact, was giving me claustrophobia. I told him so - not that it would alter the shape of our project in any way. I told him simply because I saw no one else come forward, even once, and tell him the truth. Every poem, tale, or essay he had ever written was hailed a masterpiece; each of his utterances, on whatever subject, seemed to have cast a spell over academics the length and breadth of America. To me, he confessed his fears, his inadequacies. He felt he would never write again; so did America. Borges's isolation was cruel, crippling, and complete. He was high up on a pedestal, a monument.
He listened and explained, by rote, that sonnets were all he could now manage. He was not vehement, nor was I. I simply reminded him by their titles of some fine poems written during his blindness that were not sonnets, and no more was said. But within a month or two of his return to Buenos Aires, Elsa began posting me at regular intervals a series of poems that were new and fresh - and not a sonnet among them. By the time I reached Buenos Aires, I was in possession of seventeen uncollected poems.
'Are these all recent poems, or is this work you found in some bottom drawer?' I asked him on the morning we tackled 'Heraclitus'.
'Why?' he said in a panic. 'Don't you like them?'
'Ah, that's a relief,' Borges said. 'You see, I was doing what you told me to do back in Cambridge.'
'Yes, and it means you have half a new book here.'
'No, no!' he protested, flying into a rage. 'I won't publish another book. I haven't published a new book in eight years and I won't be judged by this stuff.'
He was beside himself in a way I had never seen before. It was a hot potato, and I let it drop.
But over dinner the next night at Bioy's he blurted out aggressively, 'Di Giovanni has a crazy idea. He wants me to publish a new book of poems.' It was the manner he used, I was to learn, when he found himself on unsure ground but wanted to give the opposite impression.
'But, Georgie,' Bioy immediately chimed in, chuckling his infectious little chuckle. 'That seems to me a splendid idea.'
Silvina agreed; Peyrou agreed. I had no need to add a word.
One day the next week, there was an unexpected phone call from Borges, with a hint of mystery in his voice, saying he had an errand to run that morning and would I meet him at the library a bit later on. When around midday we eventually got together again, he was jubilant. 'I've been to see Frías,' he said. Carlos Frías was his editor at Emecé. 'I told him, 'Frías, I want to publish a new book of poems.'' Again the aggressive tone.
'Let me guess his decision,' I said, playing the straight man. 'He accepted.'
Borges was stunned and momentarily deflated. 'Yes. How did you know?'
That did it. His mind was made up. He was writing a new book and he wanted everyone to know he was writing a new book. 'Thirty-four poems, eh? You think that's about right, do you? That's the figure I gave Frías. Now you're sure we have seventeen. Let's go over that list of yours once again.'
We went over the list, which he learned by heart, ticking each title off on his fingers. What this meant, I told him, was that from then on we would work together only in the afternoons. He must devote his mornings to dictating new work. Borges offered no demur.
That was a skirmish. The real battle loomed ahead - the bits of evidence are there in the diary jottings - but I would not be aware of this for another six months. The entry for 4 December 1968 tells that in the evening we went out to Palermo, the neighbourhood of Buenos Aires where Borges had grown up, and we walked around the streets before going around the corner to eat empanadas at the home of Elsa's cousin Olga.
'Don't expect anything now,' Borges had prefaced the journey in his characteristic way.
It was a year and a day since we had first met. We stopped at an old almacén, where two men played with a pack of greasy cards at a plain wooden table. The place was ill-lit and nearly empty. Borges asked for a couple of cañas quemadas, an old-fashioned rum-like liqueur. Afterwards, outside, he confessed, 'I asked for a small one because a big one would have defeated me.' He told me he hadn't been out this way for thirty years. Then, like an eager schoolboy, he showed me a narrow, cobbled alleyway, pointing out that it was untypical for running in a diagonal instead of forming the side of a square. And on the spot he began recounting the 'plot of a story that has the ghost of Juan Muraña as a protagonist.' (An entry in a pocket notebook tells me this.) But of course he at once lamented the fact that, though he might still compose poems, he would never set down this story, since there was no way he could ever manage to write prose again. I gave him a sympathetic ear.
He and Elsa were invited to Israel for a few weeks early in the new year, and he came back full of wry little stories about the Holy Land. The Israelis, one notebook jotting tells me, were 'a bunch of Russians or Germans in disguise, playing at being characters out of the Old Testament - Noahs.' But he was elated. He was working, which in Borges's terms meant justifying his existence. And, what was more, harder than ever before in his life. (This was Bioy's observation; he had close to forty years' experience of Borges's habits.) Mornings were spent working on new poems for his book, dictating them to a secretary. In February, our afternoons were given over to a translation and rewriting of the long series of miniature essays that made up The Book of Imaginary Beings. By then I had burned my bridges and decided to stay on in Argentina longer than the five months I had initially planned. We finished the Imaginary Beings on 20 May 1969; he was so delighted with the result that any future translation of the book, he insisted, must be based on our English version. He also insisted that we now celebrate the end of the job by writing some new pieces for the book directly in English. We concocted four, working into them all manner of silly things, like the long Dutch name of one of my friends, a family surname, and my Buenos Aires street and flat number. It was all in good fun and the kind of thing Borges took delight in. Three days later, we wrapped the book up with a new foreword; three days after that, the typescript was winging its way to New York.
'Norteamérica,' Borges told the pillarbox, giving it an affectionate pat. 'I always tell the box where the letter goes. Otherwise, how would it know?'
The jotting in the peace calendar for this year tells that on 11 June Borges and I had worked on pages 17-19 of his 1951 short story 'Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in His Labyrinth', and that that evening we took a taxi out to his publishers in the two thousand block of Alsina to turn in the last poem of his new book Elogio de la sombra - In Praise of Darkness. An emendation added later in brackets records that 'more material was turned in after this date.' This was his fifth book of poems, he was to write in his foreword to the volume later that month, and to 'the mirrors, mazes, and swords which my resigned reader already foresees, two new themes have been added: old age and ethics.' As it turned out, there was something else in the book too - a grain of sand that would make a pearl. This was a story, not a prose poem, no more than three or four pages long about a man who hides out in a cellar for nine years.
Borges's lament about not being able to write down short stories that he was for ever working out in his head did not end after our Palermo excursion. Over the next months, they became a more and more frequent topic of conversation on our walks to and from the library. At some point - but this was much later on - I began keeping track of them; by then the list I drew up numbered eight. That autumn (it was the southern hemisphere) I no longer just lent a silent ear but began a subtle campaign of egging him on, shoring up his confidence, and proving to him that his writing days were far from over. I had two arrows in my quiver. One was the five-page story 'The Intruder' that he had dictated to his ancient mother three years earlier; the other was the recent 'Pedro Salvadores', the man in the cellar.
'Sure you can,' I'd point out. 'After all, the difference in length between 'The Intruder' and any of your other stories is a bare page or two.'
This was a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but he never opposed the argument. On the contrary, my persuasiveness made him open up, and he began using me as a sounding board for yet another tale whose plot he now wove aloud to me. And he'd ask my opinion of specific elements - should he add another incident? Were the main characters different enough?
I never tried to supply answers but would raise more questions. 'What are the alternatives?' I kept wanting him to tell me.
He'd ponder, come up with an idea, and we'd kick it around. I knew he was girding himself and working up to something; and I was determined to feed his mood whilst not letting him off the hook.
Then, at his doorstep: 'No, I fear it's too late in the day; I don't think I could manage it.'
'Tommyrot,' I'd say. His Edwardian slang, as I called it, was one of our pet jokes. 'Why not try? It's a good story. It's only a matter of writing 'Pedro Salvadores' twice. Eight pages. You can do it.'
And on and on it went for several weeks. One day, in the midst of this, Manuel Peyrou rang from La Prensa, where he worked as an editor, to tell Borges that the paper was celebrating its centenary later in the year and was inviting every Argentine writer of note to contribute to a succession of special Sunday supplements. Here was another turning point. Not long after this, Borges took a poem around to them. But the next day, rather than feeling good about it, he was actually glum.
'I don't think a poem's what they had in mind,' he said.
'What do you mean?'
'I think they'd like a story.'
'Of course they'd like a story. We'd all like a story. Why not write them one?'
I never for a moment believed La Prensa was unhappy with his poem; certainly Peyrou knew that Borges had more or less given up writing stories since 1953. This was Borges having a pang of conscience. La Prensa had offered him the same fee whether they got a poem or a story out of him, and he felt he had cheated them. Whatever the truth of the matter, the mysterious strands were coming together fast now.
It became an open secret at the library that Borges was dictating a full-length short story; he knew I knew, but superstitiously he refused to breathe a word of it to me. He didn't have to, as the team of secretaries gave me daily reports. It went through two or three drafts and took him two or three weeks to write. He finally came clean when he'd finished, but he made no offer to show me the result. I bided my time.
A few days later I lied and told him I was short of money. Reaching for the billfold he kept in his inside breast pocket, he asked how much I needed. No, I laughed, what I had in mind was the new story, which I wanted to translate and sell to the New Yorker, where our work had been appearing. This took place on a Monday. All right, he said, but not that day. I would have to wait until Friday.
There was no earthly reason for his not handing me the story then and there, except that as the remote possibility did exist that Friday might never come round he could actually trick himself into believing he would escape having to stand judgement. It was complicated; it was capricious; it was Borges.
But that Friday did come round - according to my diary it was 16 May - and the delivery could be put off no longer. After our afternoon's ration of Imaginary Beings and just before we knocked off, he put the typescript in my hands, saying, 'Don't read it until Monday; we'll talk about it then.' I suppose it was one last desperate try; maybe he thought he'd have better luck and Monday would never happen.
The story was 'The Meeting', a marvellous tale set back in 1910 about two well-off young men who quarrel over cards and fight a duel with knives in which one of them dies. At the same time, on the fantastic side, the story is about the secret life of the weapons the men had chosen. I found it remarkably polished, and the draft contained only a couple of minor flaws. One was that in the dark, in a house without electric light, two characters begin studying a cabinet that houses a collection of old knives.
'That's easy,' Borges said as we worked out the translation. 'We'll have one of them light a lamp.' And on the spot, in English, he dictated a line to correct the lapse. My diary entries record that on 3 June I worked very late typing up 'The Meeting' for the New Yorker, and that at the library the next evening Borges and I translated the bits of new material into Spanish and inserted them into a set of galley proofs that we then delivered to La Prensa, where Peyrou gave each of us a copy of his latest novel El hijo rechazado.
Within three weeks we heard from Robert Henderson at the New Yorker that they were taking 'The Meeting', and the news had a dramatic effect on Borges. In fact, nothing could have done more just then to send his confidence soaring. In July, on the seventeenth and eighteenth, I read page proofs of Elogio de la sombra to him, then read through them a second time alone. I corrected fresh proofs on the twenty-eighth. The book was published to great acclaim in August, on Borges's seventieth birthday. Three days earlier, on the evening of the twenty-second, Emecé gave the book an extravagant send-off on a stage in the Galería Van Riel, where one Dr E. Molina Mascías (whoever he was) spoke at some length, and the 'primera actriz' (whatever that means) María Rosa Gallo and the 'primeros actores' (ditto) Enrique Fava and Luis Medina Castro read a large number of the poems. The place was packed out and a bit of a circus. On the copy of the book he gave me the day before, Borges had written, 'Al colaborador, al amigo, al promesso sposo', for in a few days' time I was to be married. On the Sunday, his birthday, Elsa threw a little party at home with a cake iced in blue and white in the shape and colours of the book itself. You could even read the title on it. It was not at all Borges's style, but he was nonetheless radiant. The next day was the wedding, with Elsa and Borges as the official witnesses at the registry office, and with her sister Alicia Ibarra and cousin Olga and Teddy Paz as extras. Poor Elsa, she was obliged to throw a second party in two days - this one for the promessi sposi. Silvina Ocampo and Manuel Puig were there; so was Elogio de la sombra - not the book but the cake, or, rather, what was left of it. Plus the wedding cake. By then, though, quite sensibly, Borges had had enough and did not attend. Instead, he went to work at the library.
After that, it all became a whirlwind. In October, two days before 'El encuentro' appeared in La Prensa, Borges finished another new story, the one called 'Rosendo's Tale' in English; the day we completed the translation of it we delivered the original to La Nación. Now the work found its way into my hands as soon as he finished it. In November came 'The Unworthy Friend', which we took with us to translate in the United States while Borges was lecturing at Oklahoma and where we gave readings and talks at a number of other universities. 'Juan Muraña', the story he had told me about the year before on the very spot where it was set, was finished in mid-January. There was no stopping him now. 'The Duel' came next, but before he put the finishing touches to it he began dictating 'The End of the Duel'. He long since knew he was doing the impossible - writing a new book of stories. On 3 March he finished 'Guayaquil' and on the fifth began 'Doctor Brodie's Report'. The day he finished 'Brodie' he began 'The Gospel According to Mark', completing the first draft of it in under a week. The only hiccup came when he had reached the eight mark. By then he was so anxious to see the collection in print that he ran out of patience. Not of stories, thank goodness, but of patience. He had another three in mind but he simply couldn't wait. As the completed stories were very short, a book of them would have come to no more than seventy pages, and I considered that a mistake. He had been invoking Kipling and the Plain Tales from the Hills as a kind of model for his brevity; I pointed out, however, that Plain Tales ran to over three hundred pages and contained forty stories. It was no use; he was going to see Frías to tell him he wanted to publish a book of eight stories. And off he went.
I picked up the phone, got Frías, and explained the situation. 'Say no to him,' I told the publisher. 'Tell him he's got to write at least three more. They're there in his head but he's just being lazy.'
Frías saw that I was right. Borges came back and told me that Emecé wanted another three stories. To his credit, he didn't sulk over the news for even a second. Sulking, like self-pity, was never one of Borges's traits. Instead, he immediately set to work writing the three required stories, probably counting his blessings that he had three more stories to tell. I never told him about my intervention. We set about re-reading and ordering the book-length typescript in mid-April, a week later he turned it in, and El informe de Brodie was published early in August. By any standard, it was a remarkable achievement; by his own, it was nothing short of a miracle. After nine years without writing a book, he had now, within twelve months, written two.
Like Turner, a painter he admired, Borges in his old age also set out to fashion something new, freer, more personal. In many ways he succeeded; undeniably, the prose of his late work is less cluttered and more responsible. He felt that at last he had found his voice. Six more volumes of poetry were to follow In Praise of Darkness; seventeen more short stories followed Doctor Brodie's Report.
'I no longer regard happiness as unattainable,' he said bravely on reaching seventy-one.
That year, there were no celebrations when the book came out, and certainly there was no cake. Somewhat sadly, that had all changed.
There are among my papers two spiral-bound notebooks with ruled pages, workbooks I called them, in which I took down from his dictation on sixty-four recto leaves the story of Borges's life. As far as I am aware, this autobiography is the single most extensive piece of writing Borges ever committed to paper. Like much else that we did, it too seems to have been born of a series of accidents or obstacles - unforeseen and unforeseeable events that somehow or other, uncannily, we kept turning to advantage.
With The Book of Imaginary Beings in print and a number of the recent stories and poems beginning to appear in American magazines, Borges and I itched for a chance to present in our own versions a selection of his older stories, the ones on which his fame rested. Of course, we would have preferred being allowed to translate the seventeen stories of his best book, El Aleph, written in the very rich period between 1945 and 1953, but a competing publisher, who claimed rights to about half these tales, prevented us from doing so. Our own publisher, however, the understanding and very accommodating Jack Macrae, was not averse to obliging us. So by begging, borrowing, and nearly stealing - that is, given the chance, we would have stolen - Borges and I were able to map out the volume that eventually appeared in the autumn of 1970 as The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969.
The exercise in autobiography had twofold roots. The first of them was in the vexing problem just described, when Borges was denied the right to determine the form and fate of his own work. As our compromise volume took shape, I grew more and more convinced that it needed something more than just our spanking-new translations if we were to avoid hoodwinking the public with yet another anthology of Borges's work.
The second part of these roots and of the story is a happier affair and even funny. At the University of Oklahoma, several months earlier, I had been able to prevail upon Borges - not without great difficulty - to conclude his set of six lectures on Argentine literature by talking about himself. But on the afternoon of that final lecture he was in a blue funk. He had never before spoken about his own work publicly - it would never have occurred to him to indulge in such a pointless, immodest activity - and it was late in the day, and why on earth, and he simply was not going to be able to go through with it, etc. I saw I had a full-scale panic on my hands. By some strange chemistry, however, his panics always managed to turn the blood in my veins to ice water. It was a partnership, after all, and one of us had to be steady at all times. After our customary afternoon naps - his sleepless and unrefreshing, he claimed - I could see how pent up he was, so I suggested a walk. Our hotel stood about three-quarters of a mile from the campus on what seemed to be the edge of Norman, Oklahoma, where it occupied the corner of a perfectly square block. Arm in arm, Borges and I slowly circumnavigated that block. Once.
'Just remember your Dickens,' I told him. Twice.
'David Copperfield,' I told him, ' “I was born on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night.” ' And three times.
'Nothing fancy, now. You're telling a story, that's all there is to it.'
Every once in a while, Borges's lips began to move. 'I was born in Buenos Aires, in 1899,' he mumbled.
'That's the hang of it,' I said.
He was unconvinced. I couldn't tell him, but so was I.
Of course, he did marvellously, his audience loved it, and our Oklahoma sponsors, Lowell Dunham and Ivar Ivask, were duly pleased. Three months later in Buenos Aires, recalling the little triumph, I had a brainstorm and asked them at Norman to provide us with a transcript of the talk. I wrote to Macrae to tell him that we'd hit on an idea to beef up the book: we would add to it Borges's story of his own life, written directly in English. The lecture, I knew, would come to around twenty pages; I figured that with a few days' work we'd be able to flesh it out to thirty. So carried away was I that somewhere along the line I promised Jack we'd provide the book with a kind of appendix as well, also to be written in English, in the form of commentaries on each of the book's twenty stories. I knew that readers were having difficulty with Borges; worse, I knew that the universities kept him swathed in unnecessary mystery. At the same time, since his stories were really all about himself, his various guises, and dimensions of his thought, what better setting for them by way of introduction than the story of his life?
The pages from Oklahoma reached us some time in April 1970. By then, we had most of the stories translated and seemed to be on target. But reading the transcript of the lecture, my heart dropped down into my shoes. The talk started out like David Copperfield, all right, but it soon went jumping all over the place without order or logic. Sick with worry, I explained the predicament to Borges, for some reason or other fearing a negative response on his part. Instead, undaunted, and paraphrasing one of his favourite authors - English and nineteenth-century, of course - he said, 'Fling it aside and be free! We'll start again from scratch.'
We did. On 21 April, the day after the typescript of El informe de Brodie went off to Emecé, we pitched in. That first day I took down five pages. I was prepared this time. I made us outline the material beforehand, breaking his life down into manageable chunks, chapters, of which we ended up with five. I made him stick to that outline. 'No, no, don't jump ahead to your mother; let's get it all down about your father and his family first and then we'll tackle her.' It went like that. The next day, I took down five more pages; the day after that, six. At this rate, it was going to come out longer than hoped for, which was all to the good. And better than anything, it looked like being a piece of cake.
On the fourth day, there was a flood of visitors to see Borges at the library and he had a lecture to give at seven o'clock. 'No work done,' says the diary entry. The following week started with permission coming from Grove Press to allow us to make new translations of two vital stories, so we immediately tackled them, since it would permit Macrae to send a good portion of the typescript to the printer while Borges and I worked on. But alas! it was not to be so simple. What with the two translations to get out, a steady stream of visitors from abroad plaguing me, and Borges giving lectures on what seemed every other night, we got not one jot further on the story of his life until 16 May. That day we were down to three and a half pages, and it was not much good.
The fact of the matter was that Borges's mind was on something else. It was at this point that he said to me, 'I've committed what seems to me now an unaccountable mistake, a huge mistake. A quite unexplainable and mysterious mistake.'
He was, of course, referring to his rocky marriage to Elsa, and he was in a pit of despair. It was significant that 16 May was a Saturday. We hadn't worked together at weekends for a very long time, yet here we were once more at the National Library. And it was not because of our deadline with Macrae - it was because Borges could no longer bear life at home. The marriage was not three years old. My diary records that on two days that week Borges had been too distraught for us even to attempt any work. What he needed was to talk about his private life, a thing that was so completely unlike him it only drove home to me the depths of his misery. Most of what he told me I already knew. He poured it out; I listened.
That Saturday was another turning point, for in the afternoon I invited a friend of ours, a lawyer from Córdoba who was in town that week, to tea at the Molino, the big old-fashioned confitería by the Congress that he was fond of. Two days later, he and I and Borges went to consult a friend of mine, a local lawyer. Between these two legal minds a bleak picture was painted. For starters, there was no divorce as such under Argentine law - only a form of legal separation that everyone referred to as divorce and that was as effective as any divorce but that did not allow for remarriage.
The next six weeks were an agony. As far as I could, I carried on with the autobiography by myself, typing up whatever dictation we had completed, doing the necessary background research, and checking facts and dates. One Saturday we actually managed to revise half the first chapter. But the next was devoted to drawing up a list of Borges's marital grievances for the Córdoba lawyer. It was not until 28 May that the opening chapter was finished; not until 9 June that we had rewritten the second. We had begun working Sundays now too. But the trouble was that in addition to the delicate, surreptitious work on the legal front - endless meetings with a team of lawyers, countless errands and researching on their behalf - at one and the same time we had too many other matters clamouring for our attention. There were the proofsheets of El informe de Brodie to read. That stole three or so days' time, and on the heels of that four more days were lost when we had to produce, in English, a thousand-word introduction to an encyclopaedia article for Grolier, the New York publisher, which was at least a year overdue. Macrae, getting understandably nervous, wanted to publish the stories without any of the new material, but I lied through my teeth and wrote to him that all was coming along fine. It was. What I failed to say was fine - but at a snail's pace.
Meanwhile, I sent the first chapter of the autobiography to Henderson at the New Yorker, asking whether he thought they might be able to use it. He replied at once to say that if the rest were as good, yes. The entire week of 15 June is blank in my diary with only an explanatory scribble, 'no work on auto. essay this week. Spent most of time preparing the divorce.' The next month started out with blank pages as well.
D-Day was 7 July 1970. Only it was not an invasion but a getaway. That chill, grey winter's morning - as part of our elaborately hatched plan - I lay in wait for Borges in the doorway of the National Library, and the moment he arrived I leapt into his taxi and off we sped for the intown airport. Borges, a trembling leaf and utterly exhausted after a sleepless night, confessed that his greatest fear had been that he might blurt the whole thing out to Elsa at any moment. Hugo Santiago, the film-maker, who was in on the plot, and my wife were there at the flight counter with a pair of single tickets to Córdoba for Borges and me, where the lawyer had booked us into a hotel only we two knew the name of. Like good conspirators, we allowed no one knowledge of the whole plan. That way, no lies need be told, nor could anything be given away. Doña Leonor, Borges's ninety-four-year-old mother, who was punctilious in her rectitude, feared that Elsa would be quick to ring her for information, and while Leonor wanted to be able to say in truth that she did not know her son's whereabouts, still she was anxious to be able to reach him if necessary. That was easy. I gave her a telephone number on a slip of paper in a sealed envelope and had her watch me secrete it in a drawer of her desk.
Bad weather delayed our flight, and a jittery Borges thought the game was up. Santiago and I did our best to put him at ease, laughing at our own feeble attempts at gallows humour, but it was nervous laughter and both of us, I know, were quaking in our boots. Eventually, by twelve o'clock, our plane took off.
We holed up for a whole week, first in Córdoba, then in Coronel Pringles, where, after a daylong drive across the pampa, we barely arrived in time for a lecture Borges was to deliver on the subject of the Indian raids and the conquest of the desert - meaning the conquest of the Indians - of the previous century. Borges put on a brave face, stubbornly insisting that he was fit to travel these enormous distances, fit to engage in public speaking, but he was on the edge of nervous collapse. The next day his spirits picked up when he could show me the town of Coronel Suárez, some seventy-five kilometres away, named after his great-grandfather. We drove there in caravan with the mayor and other town officials of Pringles, to be met by their counterparts in Suárez, where a splendid midday banquet was laid on for us all. I sat next to the priest, a jolly fellow who, when I told him my religion was nada, nothing, made a rather good pun, retorting, 'Nada, nada y nunca se ahoga' - swim, swim, and never drown. Borges, who hated puns, pronounced this one first-rate.
Eventually, we got to our destination, Pardo, where we stayed in the old dusky-rose house belonging to Bioy Casares, the one that figures in the opening of Borges's story 'The South'. Eventually, we got back to the autobiography too. In fact, by sheer coincidence, it was at Pardo that we reached the point in his life when Borges met Bioy, and we wrote those pages of the story before crackling eucalyptus fires laid on by Bioy's steward. Eventually, we finished the autobiography, not there, nor back in Buenos Aires even, but in the town of Tres Arroyos, again in the far south of the province. Borges had been invited to lecture on the poet Almafuerte. It was 29 July. In a room in the Parque Hotel, Borges lay stretched out on a single bed while I sat on the edge of the other, a cleared bedside table between us as my desk, taking down the last words of his dictation. They were not the fine words that come at the end of the finished essay but emendations and additions to the conclusion of the previous paragraph, in which he speaks of longing to write, under a pen name, a merciless tirade against himself. 'Ah, the unvarnished truths I harbour!'
The next week, back home, galley proofs of The Aleph and Other Stories arrived; the week after, the New Yorker's cable saying they were taking the autobiography as a profile. That same day, 12 August, Borges finished the final draft of his long story 'El Congreso', and together we finished the last two commentaries and our foreword to the book for Macrae. In my diary, there is no mention that the next day I posted the material off, but I must have. Instead, my mind was already on something else. The abstemious entry reads only, 'Errands for Brazil trip.' For it was just then, when he needed it, that the highly remunerative Matarazzo prize had been awarded to Borges for his life's work.
'Here in Argentina,' Borges had told me on my very first morning in Buenos Aires, 'friendship is perhaps more important than love.'