With Borges



Commentary on Alberto Manguel's book


Writing based on a text by Alberto Manguel (1948) causes me a certain feeling of ambiguity and discomfort. I would like to clarify from the outset that the quality and erudition of his works, the themes of his research and the intellectual influences that this Argentine writer, translator, essayist and editor, born in Buenos Aires, studied and produced – he who lived – are not at stake ( lives) and worked (works) in several countries around the world and on different continents. I always read your books with pleasure and learn a lot from them.

Alberto Manguel agreed to direct the National Library of the Argentine Republic under President Mauricio Macri, who governed the country from December/2015 to December/2019. As we know, Mauricio Macri is a right-wing politician and, in the second round of the 2023 Argentine elections, he supported Javier Milei, including appointing some of his main technical staff to the new ruler, who are occupying relevant positions in the administration that began recently.

Alberto Manguel succeeded Horacio González (1944-2021), who headed it for a decade (2005-2015), as director of the National Library; When Horacio González left office, with the Macrista victory, he received a moving tribute from employees, intellectuals and users. On the occasion of his death, on June 22, 2021, such expressions of affection were repeated in the same place.


With Borges, originally published in 2004, was only published in Brazil in 2018.

Alberto Manguel writes that from 1964 to 1968, “I was fortunate to be among the many who read for Jorge Luis Borges. After high school, I worked at Pygmalion, an Anglo-German bookstore in Buenos Aires, of which Borges was a regular customer” (p. 12). In the late afternoon, when Jorge Luis Borges left the National Library, where he was director, he passed by the bookstore. “One day, after choosing some titles, he invited me to visit him and read to him at night, in case I had nothing else to do, as his mother, already in her nineties, got tired easily. Jorge Luis Borges could invite anyone: students, journalists who were going to interview him, other writers. There is a vast group of people who read aloud to him (…) He was sixteen years old. I accepted, and three or four times a week I visited Jorge Luis Borges in the small apartment he shared with his mother and Fany, the maid” (p. 12-13).

The apartment of Jorge Luis Borges, now blind, was a “place out of time”, filled with books and words. Or, as can be seen in the small volume, “a purely verbal universe”, leading young Alberto to become increasingly interested in books and their reading – and, consequently, in literature. Alberto Manguel will, little by little, introduce us to Jorge Luis Borges in detail, in his literary preferences, tics, affections and dislikes, travels, narratives, ways of working...

The curiosities and peculiarities follow one another: the apartment is stuffy, reasonably dark, creating a feeling of “happy isolation”; his blindness is discussed – “in a famous poem it appears to him as a demonstration of the 'irony of God', who had given him 'books and the night'” (p. 15), in addition to placing it under the historical aspect, remembering renowned blind poets (Homer and Milton) and with some proximity, “as he was the third director of the National Library to be affected by blindness, after José Mármol and Paul Groussac” (p. 14-15).

For Jorge Luis Borges, blindness and old age were different ways of isolating himself. “Blindness forced him to stay inside the solitary cell in which he composed his last works, constructing sentences in his head until they were ready to be dictated to whoever was available” (p. 16).

The writer asked people to write down the words he had just composed and memorized. Then, he asks you to read what was written down. He requests four or five readings, “listening to the words, visibly turning them over in his head. Then he adds another sentence, and another. The poem or paragraph (…) takes shape on paper, just as it happened in his imagination. It is strange to think that the newborn composition appears for the first time in a handwriting that is not the author's (...) Borges takes the piece of paper, folds it, puts it in his wallet or inside a book” (p. 16-17 ).

Doña Leonor, the mother, and Beppo, the big white cat, were “two ghostly presences” in that apartment. He called Doña Leonor Mother, and she always used “Georgie,” the English nickname her Northumberland grandmother had given her (p. 18). It was known from an early age that Jorge Luis Borges would be a writer, more precisely from 1909, when Evaristo Carriego (1883-1912), a poet who lived in the neighborhood and a friend of Jorge's parents – Evaristo was the subject of one of the young writer's first books –, he composed some verses in honor of the ten-year-old boy who loved to read (p. 18-19).

The relationship between mother and son was fierce and predictably protective. Once in an interview on a television program, Doña Leonor explained that she helped her blind husband in the past and now she did the same for her son. She declared: “I was my husband's hand, now I am my son's hand” (p. 19-20).

The Argentine writer's world was entirely verbal, “with music, color and strength rarely entering it” (p. 20). The few exceptions were the works of his friend Xul Solar (1887-1963), his sister Norah, as well as Dürer, Piranesi, Blake, Rembrandt and Turner, “but these were literary loves, not iconographic” (p. 20) . He sang some older tangos and milongas, “but he hated Astor Piazzolla” (p. 21).

Alberto Manguel talks about the Borgean library, the books that accompanied him since he was a teenager and the way he got involved with them. “For Borges, the core of reality was in books: in reading books, writing books, talking about books” (p. 29). He loved epic poetry, “which brought tears to his eyes”, as well as the German language, detective novels, was not indifferent to melodramas and “cried at westerns and gangster films” (p. 35). He loved talking in cafes and to Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952), who “wrote and read little, but thought a lot and talked brilliantly” (p. 43).

His friendship with Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999) and Victoria Ocampo (1890-1979) is highlighted, the two nightmares that haunt him are explored (the mirrors and the labyrinth), and Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993) is discussed. ), in addition to highlighting that Borges shook hands with Videla and Pinochet, “acts for which he later apologized, when he signed a petition on behalf of the disappeared” (p. 61).

Controversy, too, has always been his relationship with Peronism. Jorge Luis Borges said that after Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) came to power in 1946, “anyone who wanted an official job was required to belong to the Peronist Party. Jorge Luis Borges refused and was transferred from his position as assistant librarian at a small municipal branch to that of poultry inspector at a local market. According to others, the transfer was less harmful, but equally absurd: he would have been sent to Escola Apiária Municipal. In any case, Jorge Luis Borges resigned” (p. 62).

He and his mother had a hard time, as after his father's death in 1938, they depended solely on Jorge Luis's salary as a librarian to survive. With his dismissal, he was forced to overcome his shyness and give lectures and conferences. He memorized the entire text, “sentence by sentence, paragraph after paragraph, repeating it until every hesitation, every apparent search for the right word, every quip was fully ingrained in his mind. I consider my lectures the revenge of the timid, he says, laughing” (p. 62).

In the final pages you can still find observations about Jorge Luis Borges' prejudices, some of which are childish and even racist; There are also considerations involving the literary world, in which he ended up reducing his opinions to questions of sympathy or whim, explaining that it was possible to construct a perfectly acceptable history of literature only with authors rejected by him (p. 62-63).

There is also a beautiful paragraph in which the young Alberto Manguel, on New Year's Eve 1967, visits him and finds him working, after having a glass of cider in Bioy and Silvina's apartment. He composes a poem. He faithfully followed his friend Xul Solar's warning: what a person does on New Year's Eve reflects their activities in the coming months. “Every New Year’s Eve, a text would begin so that the following year would give it more writing” (p. 64).

Jorge Luis Borges spoke of the cities he considered his: Geneva, Montevideo, Nara, Austin, Buenos Aires. However, he added: “I don’t want to die in a language I don’t understand” (p. 65). He died on June 14, 1986, in Geneva, “the city in which he had discovered Heine and Virgil, Kipling and De Quincey, and where he first read Baudelaire, which he adored at the time (he memorized The Flowers of Evil) and now he abhorred it” (p. 66).

“The last book read to him, by a hospital nurse who spoke German, was Heinrich von Ofterdingen, by Novalis, which he had read for the first time during his adolescence in Geneva” (p. 66).

at the end of With Borges, Alberto Manguel, then 55 or 56 years old, assumes that his narrative “is not memories; they are memories of memories of memories, and the events that inspired them have disappeared, leaving only a few images, a few words, and I cannot even be sure that they themselves happened as I remember” (p.66).


Na Albornoz Milonga Jorge Luis Borges wrote that

is forgotten
is memory

In addition to good literature, Borges provided me with a practical lesson that I still use today. In the early 1990s I finished writing my doctoral thesis. He was not satisfied with the result, but at the same time, he was not in a position to reformulate it; I wanted to improve some chapters, eliminate certain redundancies, streamline it here and there. Anyway, it was not possible to change the original version.

Little by little I understood that this feeling of partiality, which is perhaps experienced by the majority of researchers and writers, was summarized by Jorge Luis Borges in an interview given to the writer Jorge Cruz and published in the old “Caderno de Sábado” of the extinct Jornal da Tarde (10.08.1988/XNUMX/XNUMX): “I would say that all my books, and this could be said by any writer who knows, are drafts of a single book that I may never reach.”

“Why do you write?” asks Jorge Cruz.

“Well, one day I asked Alfonso Reys, why do we publish? And he said to me: I also ask myself the question. Basically, we publish so as not to spend our lives correcting drafts.”

Alfonso Reyes wrote a more polished “version” about it: “That’s the bad thing about not publishing books: that you spend your life rewriting them” (Gongorine questions, P. 60). This passage was used by Borges in his book Q&A. In the “Prologue” of the same, the old wizard added mischievously: “I don’t know if the excuse of an epigraph will protect me”.

*Afranio Catani is a retired senior professor at the Faculty of Education at USP. He is currently a visiting professor at the Faculty of Education at UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus..


Alberto Manguel. With Borges. Translation: Priscila Catão. Belo Horizonte: Âyiné, 2022, 68 pages. [https://amzn.to/3UeX8Cg]

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