How Borges made ends meet

Nothing is less material than money. . . . Money is abstract, I repeated, money is future time. It can be an evening in the suburbs, it can be the music of Brahms, it can be maps, it can be chess, it can be coffee, it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold. Money is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the island of Pharos.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir”

I fell in love with Jorge Luis Borges when I was a freshman in college. That year, full of hope and confusion, I left my hometown for the manicured quads of Brown University, desperately seeking culture—art, beauty, and meaning beyond the empty narrative of wealth building that consumes our world. It is easy to look back and see why Borges spoke to me. The Argentine fabulist’s short stories were like beautiful mind-altering crystals, each one an Escheresque maze that toyed with our realities—time, space, honor, death—as mere constructs, nothing more. With the beautiful prose of a poet-translator-scholar, he could even make money seem like mere fantasy. It was precisely the narrative someone like me might want.

Yet, money is real. We live and die by the coin. Money tells us how many children we can raise and what kind of future they can afford, how many of our 78.7 years must be sold off in servitude, and what politics we will have the luxury of voicing. As a college freshman, I still knew none of this, and I had the luxury of not thinking about money. These days, it seems all but inescapable.

I am still full of hope and confusion, but at 35, practically nothing concerns me more than the coin, a metonymic symbol representing my helplessness. The coin represents this desperate need to support myself and my writing when, in the very near future, I start a family. My mind has changed; all my journal entries turn into to-do lists and career strategizing. Money, planning, and money. I think of little else.

It was money that originally led me to Borges—the leisure bought by college tuition. Ironically, it is money that now brings me back to him. At the doorstep to middle age, I find myself wondering: How did this literary master finance his writing? “I take no interest whatsoever . . . in money making,” he once said, “[it is] alien to me.” In truth, Borges is one of my artistic heroes because he was so benevolently and self-effacingly un-capitalist; naturally gentle and almost monastic in his devotion to literature, he was the quintessential model of the purely literary mind.

Recently, I discovered a new story of Borges. Buried deep in an early paperback edition of The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges authored an “Autobiographical Essay” of his (then) 71 years—originally appearing as a 1970 New Yorker profile. This translation of the book is now out of print, but in its yellowed pages, the revealing 50-page essay touches on money often. As any life does.

At first glance, Borges’ financial life does not seem at all imitable. Stacking all the financial events of Borges’ timeline together presents an overwhelming picture of privilege: a supportive family, superior education, no children to support, and no wife until his late sixties. Yet, in Borges’ charmed financial life, there also exists an unexpected paradox.

This was to be expected, if you’re familiar with Borges. The writer’s cryptic detective tales have charmed and perplexed everyone from Susan Sontag to Karl Rove, and in the end, very little about Borges is straightforward. The creation of one of his first short stories, “Pierre Menard,” was the result of a very O. Henry-esque near-fatal accident one Christmas Eve. Likewise, the coin for Borges was both curse and catalyst to his fiction.

The role of money plays a two-sided role in Borges’ artistic life. On one side of the coin’s face, Borges was blessed with the most privileged, ideal life for a burgeoning literary genius. Educated in Europe, raised by his father to become a serious writer, Borges devoted his entire life to literature. He did not take a full-time job for nearly 40 years. But on the coin’s reverse side, we see that young Georgie Borges did not actually write his great fictions until after his family lost their money. For anyone who has struggled to make writing pay, Borges’ financial story is a perplexing—yet utterly hopeful—case to consider. The Patron Years 1899–1937

Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, to what he called a middle class family. Yet, this seems disingenuous; to be born into a family like this would be any artist’s dream. The Borges family tree was teeming with intellectuals and respected leaders. Though he said his family lived amongst “shabby, genteel” people, they were certainly upwardly mobile. One relative “presided” over Congress, others had published books and earned PhDs, and still others were famous military heroes—a Colonel, a Commander-in-Chief. His paternal grandmother, a Brit, had made the long voyage from England and had married one of these powerful men.

Young Georgie Borges grew up, he said, in a rough part of town, but these slums he barely saw, living mainly indoors. Frail, nearsighted, and bookish, Georgie had no childhood friends to speak of. Instead, he and his sister invented imaginary friends called Quilos and the Windmill. He filled his days with the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Quixote, and the stories told by his family. “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library,” he wrote. “I can still picture it.”

Growing up in this insular home, it is easy to see how Borges became the beatific elder pictured on his book jackets. He may have been born that way. His grandmother, a great reader of H.G. Wells, apologized to her family on her deathbed for taking so long to die. His father was so modest—he told Georgie that he would have liked to be Wells’ invisible man. Betraying his own naïveté and trust, Borges wrote of his father, he was “very intelligent and, like all intelligent men, very kind.” That there are intelligent men on this earth who are not at all kind, Borges was too noble-minded to admit.

Several financial conditions were met that allowed Borges to love literature. First, his father was a lawyer and teacher with the extra money to furnish a large library. Georgie’s father’s reading interests included Shelley, Keats, metaphysics, psychology, the East, and the paradoxes of Zeno. Borges’ mother was also well-educated, and Borges admits it was she, in fact, who would go on to produce translations of Melville, Woolf, and Faulkner that bore his name. Often, it seems that writers need a certain degree of bullheadishness to pursue writing, but although Borges may have been spoiled, he was such a meek young man that he himself did not even choose the path of a writer.

Though he had his children home-schooled, Senior Borges said that it was children who educate their parents. An anarchist, he once told his son to look long and hard at soldiers, flags, and churches, because one day, they would all disappear. Like his father, Borges would become blind after the age of 40, and would destroy some of his own books. One book Senior Borges burned was a drama about a man’s disappointment in his son, and one wonders if this is autobiographical, and if so, whether it pertains to his own father or young Georgie.

Borges’ mother was a good Catholic woman who always thought the best of people, and Borges would live with her—and be tended to by her—for the rest of his life. Though Borges does not mention Leonor often, it is easy to feel her in every paragraph of his autobiography, tending to his needs, typing his essays, traveling to Texas with him for a visiting professorship, reading to him when he is delirious from illness, handling all the worldly concerns he will be free to ignore. “It was she,” he wrote, “though I never gave a thought to it at the time, who quietly and effectively fostered my literary career.”

The family summered south of the city on a grand property, a villa where he spent lazy holidays—with several houses, a windmill, and iron fences. He was amazed when the gauchos took him out on horseback to the pampas, as though he had entered the thrilling adventures of Martín Fierro. One summer there, Borges’ mother gave a doll to a farmhand’s daughter where they were staying. A year later, when she called on him, she found the girl’s father nailed to the wall. To him, it was as precious as a religious icon, clearly too fine a thing for the little girl to ever hold. He thanked Senora Borges profusely, “What a delight the doll has been to her!” In contrast, Borges began writing Quixotesque stories when he was six. When he was eight or nine, he published a translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” in El País newspaper. He started school around that time, where he was mercilessly bullied for his round glasses, stiff collar, and tie. When he was 15, Borges’ family moved to Geneva so his father could get treatment from a famous eye doctor. Their Argentine currency stretched longer in Europe, he said, and so they stayed, traveling to Verona and Venice on vacation. They sent young Georgie to study Latin, French, and algebra at the College of Geneva, a day school founded in the 16th century by John Calvin, for whom Calvinism was named. He had to take all his subjects in French, and luckily, his teachers and fellow students took pity on him for his struggles with the language. Here, he made his first friends, two boys of Polish-Jewish descent, with whom he enjoyed losing at trucocards. Often, it seems that writers need a certain degree of bullheadishness to pursue writing, but although Borges may have been spoiled, he was such a meek young man that he himself did not even choose the path of a writer. Instead, Borges’ vocation was picked out for him by his parents. By now, the elder Borges could barely read the contracts he was preparing, and his work on his novel slowed. “It was tacitly understood,” Borges said, “that I had to fulfill the literary destiny that circumstances had denied my father. . . . I was expected to be a writer.” While the First World War raged in France, Borges dutifully studied German and read Expressionist poetry, Walt Whitman, and Dante. In his spare time, he learned German in order to readSartor Resartus in the original. Fulfilling his destiny, young Georgie began to write poetry.

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