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Borges - A Life.


ficcionesJorge Luis Borges' work is one of the greatest discoveries I have made in literature. He wrote poetry, literary criticism, and philosophical essays, but his best-known works are his short stories. These are a strange mix of mythology, metaphysics, detective stories and the fantastic. And yet Borges' Ficciones are never too strange. I've read and re-read The Aleph and Other Stories, Labyrinths so many times, but Borges' stories still surprise me as they did the first time. I couldn't think of another writer whose knowledge of literature was so extensive. He seems to have read everything available in the history of global literature, either the classics, or obscure works by writers who'd arguably have fallen into oblivion without Borges' mention of them. The most astounding fact about Borges is that he was blind for a great part of his life. And yet, he was one of the most prolific writers the world has ever known.

borges a life Years ago I read a biography on Borges (De Literator als Filosoof by Robert Lemm, a Dutch translator of Borges' poetry. He called it 'an inner biography'. Lemm argued one could only understand Borges by tracing his life, as it took place, almost exclusively within literature. Initially I couldn't agree more that a biography on Borges should essentially be a book about books. Later I changed my mind, because there must be more to tell about a man who reinvented literature. And I wondered: how does a man who goes blind keep up the literary life of reading and writing? Who was there to read to him, and to help write down the stories that crystallized in his mind? So I picked up a new biography on Jorge Luis Borges, Borges: a life by Edwin Williamson. The man's life turned out to be as enigmatic as the stories he wrote.

Williamson gives us an idea of how Borges' works took shape. Borges read stories: these influenced his inner life, and the experience of his surroundings that included his family and the political situation in Argentina, but which, according to Williamson, mainly consisted of women, whom he describes extensively. The residue of it all fed his story-telling talent and 'ficciones'.

In 1938 Borges injures himself, leading to blood poisoning and coma. When Borges recovers he believes his intellect has suffered damage, and therefore gives up writing criticism. He switches to short fantastic stories, the first being Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. His second story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is one of the best things I've ever read. After 1955 his blindness sets in, but his work starts to receive international attention and is translated into many languages. His mother (who died age 99) and several women and girlfriends read to him. Borges is rewarded with prizes and honorary doctorates all over the world. Williamson argues that it was Borges' complicated relation to women that was the decisive influence on his work; I still think it was books.

Published in the Newsletter of: www.abc.nl -- The American Book Center


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The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain; María Rosa Menocal.

Moorish civilization was famous for its libraries that contained anything available, reaching from theological commentaries to astronomy, rhetoric, medicine and philosophy. Here the complete works of Plato and Aristotle survived. Most of these texts reached the rest of Europe only centuries later when they were at last translated. In cities like Cordoba, a huge translation industry came to be, and most of what we know from the Greek and Roman civilizations derives from it. But more, imaginative fiction and our notion of modern love were born here, just as the beginnings of the modern Latin languages. The Arabic love-poetry and its aesthetic tradition influenced the troubadours of the Province and Oc. Dante would never have written his Divina Comedia —in a modern Italian!— after studying the translations of the Arabic commentaries on Plato and Aristotle, and the ‘book of the ladder’, in which the Prophet Muhammad makes a nightly ascent into the nine circles of heaven and his descent to hell.

Source: Newsletter ABC

© 2002 Ingrid van der Voort

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