Borges Birthday Memories

It was a nice surprise to be reminded by Google’s doodle today that Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24th, 112 years ago.

In college I think I read more Borges than anything else. Typical for a young woman of 20-something I loved lines of his poetry, in translation, such as “I am this groping intensity that is a soul.” I remember sharing that line with a fellow Borges lover, and both of us nodding and saying ‘Yes, yes!” Now I chuckle and squirm to remember!

My taste in poetry may have changed, but my taste for Borges’ stories is undiminished. I especially love “Death and the Compass,” and “The Garden of the Forking Paths” — “El Jardin de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan.” I enjoyed repeating that title over and over to myself back then, trying to sound as if I spoke fluent Spanish.

Strong enough was my love of Borges that it enabled me to overcome my extreme shyness with professors at college to seek out permission from a visiting Agentinian professor to take his Borges course, conducted entirely in Spanish. I wish I could remember his name; he couldn’t have been more gracious. Spoken Argentine Spanish is slow and lilting and beckons a novice in.

After college my first job was at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street. In April 1980, the city was hit by a transit strike and Borges was scheduled to speak at the PEN Center on lower Fifth Avenue. I remember tearing down the avenue on foot, with so many other workers headed home (it was the first public display of masses of women changing into running sneakers after leaving the office!), and getting to my seat in time to watch Alastair Reid interview Borges, who at age 80 had for many years been entirely blind. His devoted assistant Maria Kodama was with him.

Borges was his ever gracious self, to the extent that Reid said to him at one point, “You use courtesy like a mallet!” Years later, I made good use of that concept when it came to handling difficult library patrons! (Try it!)

Again, Borges overcame my shyness. No sooner did the conversation end, but I barrelled across the floor to him. I had brought one of his books with me, The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, coauthored with his longtime friend and fellow Arentine writer, Adolfo Bioy-Casares, perhaps an odd choice but it is still one of my favorites for it contains short “essays” written by the fictional Bustos Domecq through which Borges and Bioy-Casares puncture various conceits and pretensions. Much fun!

I shake my head now that I had the chutzpah to go up to Borges, amidst his minders, and ask him to sign my book! He had a pen and he did so, on the endpaper, in a tiny scrawl.

Many years have passed, and other authors seem to preoccupy me now, but I still have all my Borges books and feel so glad to have encountered him along several paths years ago!

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.