Friday Column: When Is It Okay to Read About an Author’s Private Life?

I recently learned that, as a middle-aged man, the blind Borges would have young boys read books to him in his apartment in Buenos Aires. This is, apparently, how the man imbibed most of his literature after the blindness set in.

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I learned this odd fact which reading the short memoir With Borges. Written by the somewhat well-known chronicler of reading, Alberto Manguel, who was actually one of the young boys who read to Borges, the book is a hodgepodge of anecdotes about the man and some of his friends.

I feel sort of bad for having enjoyed With Borges as much as I did. It’s not that much more than a peek into the private life of one of the strangest literary figures of the 20th century, and I tend to think that readers should have nothing to do with the private lives of authors.

It’s no exaggeration to say I like to keep authors at arm’s length. I have a healthy suspicion of the cult of celebrity (really, what half-intelligent American can feel otherwise, when we ask our celebrities to behave with such a lack of intelligence and dignity?), especially as applied to authors, one of the most un-celebrity-like groups of individuals I can think of. Moreover, though I wouldn’t go so far as to exclude all biographical information about an author from an interpretation of her works, I try to rely on as little of that info as possible. So when I read Manguel’s small tribute to a literary hero, I did so with a guilty face.

But now that I think about the book again, and about its singular subject, I’m beginning to think that I wasn’t quite so wrong in my enjoyment of With Borges.

It’s hard not to find Borges amusing . . . he was just so odd. Manguel recounts that he once promised a young boy that if he was good, Borges would then let him imagine a bear. Who else could you so easily picture saying that in complete sincerity? Another time, he attempted to console the Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo, who was devastated by the death of her dog, with some metaphysical posterings about how her dog was really just a reflection of the Platonic idea of the dog, which encompassed all the infinite possible dogs, etc, etc. . . . As Manguel tells it, Borges really thought this was going to be helpful.

Let’s pause on Ocampo for a second and her husband (Borges’s best friend) Adolfo Bioy Casares. One of With Borges’s merits is that it momentarily stops to fixate on these two individuals, and thus it has perhaps inspired some American readers to seek out the works of these authors. I’ve read both (NYRB publishes two novels from Bioy Casares in English, but I think Ocampo is only available in Spanish), and I’m disappointed that they haven’t caught on in the U.S. For a reading public that seems to adore Borges, these authors are no-brainers, as they’re the closest things to Borges himself that I’ve encountered. And, of course, since they three of them knew each other and operated in the same social and literary milieu, it’s not hard to see that reading them along with Borges deepens your understanding of that strange period of Latin American fiction.

Everyone knows that Borges never published a novel, but if he did it very well might have resembled the numerous, short novels of Bioy Casares. They capture the same feeling of the mystical brought down to the level of the prosaic that Borges did so well, and they utilize detective-style plots that are absolutely absorbing while managing to rise above mere gimmickry. They’re like little fables with realistic characters and modern situations. For her own part, Ocampo reads something like an extremely cynical Haruki Murakami. Her stories thrive on loneliness and isolation, and her narrators have the feel of Murakami’s people caught up in things beyond their understanding or power.

But to return to Manguel and Borges. At one point Manguel does what we would never had forgiven him for not doing; namely, he takes a look around Borges’s apartment and tells us what’s on the bookshelves. As I read Manguel’s description of was on the great man’s shelf, I begin to see why I was so interested in knowing about Borges the person and why it wasn’t all that frivolous.

(The contents of the shelves? You’ll have to read the book to find out, though I’ll mention here that among the obvious ones—Stevenson, Chesterton, Henry James, Kipling, and Wells—Manguel mentions Twain, Gibbon, Spengler, a beloved rare edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and Eca de Quieros.)

I found Borges’s shelves such a rare attraction because Borges wasn’t just one of the strangest, greatest writers of the 20th century, he was also one of its strangest, greatest readers. This is the man who classified himself first and foremost as a "reader"; his excessively particular, idiosyncratic tastes in books is impossible to disentangle from his equally particular style as an author.

Finding out about Borges the reader, then, was something of an odd inspiration. Seeing how seriously Borges took books, and finding out the details of how he collected and read them, I could only feel that my own reading was horribly substandard by comparison. His life incarnated reading in a way few have, and delving into it wasn’t so much voyeurism as a learning experience.

I remember well an anecdote about Nabokov, about how he used to test his students on Anna Karenina by asking them about the wallpaper in the room when Kitty is giving birth. This wasn’t some idle taunt against lazy undergrads—Nabokov really thought this was important—and the anecdote brought home to me just how closely the man read. He didn’t leave a single thing out, and the next time I was reading, you can bet I was paying attention to the wallpaper.

Knowing about Borges the man—that is, Borges the reader—gives me a similar appreciation for the fine art of reading, and inspires me to make my own as good. This isn’t necessarily something you’ll find in all literary biography—few biographers write about reading as well as Manguel does, and many subjects don’t exemplify the reader like Borges did—but I think Manguel’s With Borges is one that can claim this distinction. Perhaps some day I’ll take on Bioy Casares’s own gargantuan biography of his best friend and see if it too lives up to this standard.


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Have you read his “Reading Diary”?

No, but I actually have a copy with me. As I understand, he discusses Bioy Casares and other Argentines.

Other people who read to Borges don’t have recollections as fond as those of Manguel; I met someone who still resented Borges’s overbearing guidance on how to pronounce foreign words and remembered having to slog through Old English texts that he didn’t even understand, for the great man’s benefit. I think Manguel mentions it, but of course, the person who logged the most time reading to Borges was his own mother, Leonor Acevedo Suarez (1876-1975), who was his first-string reader and personal secretary once he lost his eyesight. Thanks Scott, I enjoyed the column, though I don’t agree with the Nabokovian theory of reading, favoring general absorption more than detail-sniffing.

I have similiar ill feelings toward the cult of authorship and biography in general, but also find Borges’ private life too interesting to pass up. He was certainly a strange, but rather fascinating, man indeed. That dog story is hilarious and is not surprising coming from Borges at all.
Another author from Borges’ circle of friends who I am surprised has not caught on in America is Norah Lange. As far as I know, very little of her work has been translated to English.

Marcelo,
I agree that Manguel’s take on Borges is very one-sided. With Borges was definitely meant to be a fond look at a man Manguel obviously admires, and at times I thought he was straining to put Borges into a positive light.
I do love getting caught up in details, though.

There’s at least one English translation of Silvina Ocampo: “Leopoldina’s Dream,” a selection of short stories published by Penguin in the late 80s. It’s out of print, but you can find cheap used copies from the usual online booksellers.
I am equally baffled by the paucity of in-print translations of Ocampo and Bioy Casares — not to mention the Bustos Domecq stories coauthored by Borges.

There is a typo. It`s Eça de Queiroz.

You know, Scott, I’ve always remembered that Manguel anecdote about imagining a bear from this post.
I’m embroiled in a lawsuit and was planning to use that anecdote about Borges in my testimony as a metaphor for what the opposition is doing. (I’ll let you know if I actually get a chance to use that quote in my trial in late April).
Hope you are well. BTW, sorry I haven’t commented in a while (and actually I’m a few months behind on CR), but last September I read about 2 months of CR in the middle of the night on my PDA in a bus going through Kukes, Albania into Kosovo. (I have a program for reading RSS feeds offline).
I really love the Quarterly Conversation, especially the Bolano (sigh! it will probably take another decade before I get around to him).

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