Elizabeth Hyde Stevens | Longreads | June 2016 | 31 minutes (7,830 words)
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.
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 had nailed it 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 truco cards.
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, inspired by Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus to seek out the essence of the language. Fulfilling his destiny, young Georgie began to write poetry.
When Borges entered his twenties, the family moved to Madrid, where he joined a literary coterie in one of the coffee houses. He was never expected to work or bring in an income. Instead, he became a disciple to a man named Rafael Cansinos-Asséns, who invented the “ultraist” literary movement. Like Borges’ father, Cansinos had a vast library that took over his whole house, but he was too poor for shelves. He lived for literature alone, never fame or money, and this impressed Borges, who lived with his parents at the time. Every Saturday, he met up with Cansinos and dozens of his disciples at midnight at the Café Colonial to talk literature—the verbs, metaphor, meter, and of poetic traditions in Judaism, Christianity, and various artistic movements—until dawn.
Borges paints himself as rather self-serious in these years, overly ornate and imitative in his writing, and personally “priggish and rather dogmatic,” yet among his contemporaries, he was likely rather reserved and unassuming. When the Borges family returned to Buenos Aires, Georgie continued to treat reading and writing as his only responsibility. On Saturday nights, he would have long, philosophical conversations with an essayist named Macedonio Fernández at the Perla café. Fernández, who had corresponded with William James, would wonder aloud if truth was communicable, if we were all living in a dream world, and so gave Borges a demonstration of what he would later call “pure thinking.” In Buenos Aires, Borges also became associated with two fracturing literary sets—the sophisticated Grupo Florida and the more working-class Grupo de Boedo—and “a sham literary feud was cooked up” which would become legend. He became friends with the Mexican poet Alfonso Reyes and Victoria Ocampo, the founder of Sur magazine.
Borges’ father generously advised him to write prodigiously, but only when inspired to, and not rush to publish, for “there was always time enough for that.” The time eventually came when he was 23, when Jorge Luis Borges published his first book of poetry. His father gave him 300 pesos to print the book. His younger sister Norah created a woodcut for the cover. Borges gave the copies away, secretly planting them in coat pockets, living for literature alone, like the great literary men, De Quincey or Coleridge. “They were not on sale,” he said of both his books and his heroes.
As a young man, Borges wrote seven books of essays and verse and started three magazines. None of it paid, yet he was happy because he and his friends were renewing prose and poetry. One of the magazines was an installation, a “mural magazine” pasted up on buildings around the city at night. Another, Proa, was a six-page magazine for a new generation of literature, which cost Borges and his conspirators 50 pesos each for the printing fees. In less than a year, it totally collapsed. At age 30, his work became briefly profitable when he won a grant of 3,000 pesos for a year’s worth of funds to write, but he obstinately chose to profile an obscure local poet as the subject of his book, and it was not well-received.
Borges’ family supported Georgie all this time, giving him full financial support and significant encouragement. His father wouldn’t even intercede to critique his son’s writing, believing a writer could only learn “through trial and error.” His mother would contribute significantly to his writing career for well into her nineties. “She handled all my secretarial work,” he said, “answering letters, reading to me, taking down my dictation, and also travelling with me.” One can imagine her early pampering to match if not exceed those later years.
Up until his mid-thirties, Borges undoubtedly enjoyed the platonic ideal of a writerly life, surviving on the beneficence of patrons—his mother and father. And while Borges knew he was indebted to his family for his existence, to call him grateful would not be accurate. Ever since he was a boy, birthdays would fill Borges with shame, as presents were piled in front of him. “I did not deserve any particular love,” he’d thought, for he himself was passive and had done nothing to inspire it. This unworthiness persisted for the first third of his life. There are precious few, if any, other writers who have been the recipient of more conducive circumstances to literary greatness.
It didn’t last.
The Day Job Years 1937–1946
In the 1930s, with Borges senior unable to work and the Great Depression slowing the Argentine economy, young Georgie was suddenly forced to grow up. He does not mention these financial difficulties in his autobiography, choosing to focus instead on his imaginative literary endeavors, yet when the financial landscape shifted, he no doubt found himself in the position of the man of the house, duty-bound to provide for his mother, sister, and blind, ailing father.
V.S. Naipaul called it a time of “great crisis” for Borges: “his late thirties and early forties, when—the family money lost—he was doing all kinds of journalism.” For a literary author like Borges, journalism was soulless commercial work, but now, in his time of need, Borges was forced to take jobs for how well they paid regardless of their crassness or meaninglessness—book reviews, movie reviews, brief articles for a woman’s magazine. “I needed the money,” he said of a translation job.
During this financial instability, Borges befriended a young writer with a wealthy family who he went on to mentor in the literary arts. Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Ocampo’s brother-in-law, was only 17, but his family wanted him to be a great writer. Curiously—somehow part of his first act of tutelage—Borges and Bioy-Casares locked themselves in a room for weeks, writing a promotional pamphlet for yogurt. According to one advertising firm, the pamphlet, distributed at Martona dairies, displayed a charming brand of storytelling and was successful as an ad.
Bioy-Casares’ uncle, the owner of Martona yogurt, was paying Georgie and Adolfo to write straightforward advertising copy, but instead the two burgeoning literary geniuses treated the pamphlet as a distinct “literary event,” filling it with absurd jokes. They amused themselves with their facetious claims about “the elixir of long life,” which prevented poisoning and putrefaction. In hindsight, the yogurt pamphlet would indeed become the subject of serious literary scholarship—an essay by Cristina Parodi, which I’ve translated to English—but even this critical analysis notes the work’s true origins: “It was a well paid job,” and Borges was experiencing “economic needs.” For all the so-called writing Borges lowered himself to do, it still wasn’t enough. With his father growing sicker, Borges needed a steadier income.
“Along about 1937,” he wrote, at the ripe age of 38, “I took my first regular full-time job. I had previously worked at small editing tasks. . . . These had all been small-paying jobs, and I was long past the age when I should have begun contributing to our household upkeep.” It was a very minor position, he wrote, a municipal job. Borges’ solemn task was to re-catalogue library books into a brand new system—that no one used.
In Borges’ first experience with work-a-day living, we can imagine a reliving of his childhood fears, when his meek, bespectacled sympathies were mercilessly bullied at school. He may have been a local literary celebrity, but inside the library, it didn’t matter. He was nothing like the manly hombres with whom he was trying to coexist:
I stuck out the library for about nine years. They were nine years of solid unhappiness. At work, the other men were interested in nothing but horse racing, soccer matches, and smutty stories. Once, a woman, one of the readers was raped on her way to the ladies’ room. Everybody said such things were bound to happen, since the men’s and ladies’ rooms were adjoining.
After work, he said, “as I walked the ten blocks to the tramline, my eyes would be filled with tears.”
Though emotionally taxing, this job was physically undemanding. The other workers made it a point to never exceed an hour’s work daily—and forced him to do the same. So, after an hour, Borges would steal away to the basement to read and write for his remaining five hours at the library. As far as literary day jobs go, this could have been ideal, if Borges were not such a sensitive soul—if he, essentially, were not Borges. He did not earn very much (more than 200 pesos a month), but it was a regular and necessary paycheck. With his patrons no longer capable of patronage, he needed this “menial and dismal experience,” as he called it, to pay the rent.
These crisis years—Borges’ day job years—would crescendo in an event that nearly killed him. In 1938, he took a day off from work, he said, “to see my father die.” He did not elaborate on this profound death, other than to say it was a relief of the suffering his father had long endured. But not long afterwards, on Christmas Eve, he ran upstairs and accidentally split his head on an open window casement. The wound became poisoned, and he spent the next week in a delirium—utterly sleepless with feverish hallucinations. He couldn’t speak and “hovered between life and death,” until his mother brought him back to sanity reading aloud from a book he’d ordered. On that miraculous day, she looked up from reading C.S. Lewis, noticing he had begun to cry. In perfect speech, he told her, “I’m crying because I understand.”
After his bout of septicemia, Borges was afraid his mental integrity had been compromised, and he might never write poetry or essays again. According to his autobiography, this fear was the strange genesis of Borges’ first real story.
In 1939, to avoid the embarrassment of failure, Borges decided to try a work of fiction. Since he’d never really attempted true fiction, there could be no disappointment. “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” was born of the identity crisis of Borges’ delirium. He next wrote “The Library of Babel,” which he “meant as a nightmare version or magnification” of his unhappy workplace. It would become his most beloved story, cementing the image of Borges as the worldly, encyclopedic librarian whose intellect was both inhumanly wise and nimbly playful. Yet as otherworldly as the story may be, many of its details (35 books per shelf, five shelves per side, 20 shelves per floor) were straight from Borges’ unbearable day job.
Borges endured nine years in bureaucratic drudgery while he published his short stories in the book Garden of Forking Paths and its expanded version Fictions. Financially and personally, these nine years were the darkest period of Borges’ biography. Never had he experienced a more profound loss of a family member or a greater concession of his personal freedom. But as we would come to expect from a Borgesian story, a tale needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The Marketable Years 1946–1986
When Borges left the municipal library, his good luck and financial fortune seemed to snowball, and personally and professionally, he started to come out of his shell. But as we can imagine, this was in no way due to his personal choice. Shortly before he left the library, a fortune teller told him he was going to travel, speak, and make vast sums of money. When he told his mother, she laughed heartily and he joined in, knowing this was so preposterously outside of his character.
But while Borges had been publishing his fiction—written in that hated library—he was becoming increasingly known in Argentina, just as the cruel Juan Perón became its dictator. Borges knew many anti-dictatorship writers in the Argentine Society of Writers (SADE), and having had close Jewish friends in Geneva and Madrid (he would later read everything he could find on the Kabbalah and visit Israel), he objected both to Perón’s Nazi sympathies and fascism in general. Of course, this would have its consequences.
In 1946, Perón’s government fired any dissenters on the public payroll, including Borges. To emasculate him further, he was not fired but rather promoted—to the most un-literary post of Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the Public Market. When he asked why, he was told, “what did you expect . . . you were on the side of the Allies.” Argentines, Borges wrote, believed in an intellectual, if not a moral conscience, and so—to them—his lack of self-interest was a very basic transgression of their shared ethics.
When news of Borges’ unjust persecution reached his friends, the SADE held a public dinner for him, and Borges even wrote a bold speech:
Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders . . . unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking. Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer.
Yet Borges was too shy to read these words aloud, so a friend read them for him. In an entirely passive capacity, Borges became an outspoken voice of his people.
In dire need of a job, Borges’ friends pulled strings to secure him teaching positions at two institutions in English and American literature. He was so terrified to speak in public that he became sicker and sicker as his “Doomsday” neared. Yet, after all his worrying and hours spent rehearsing with his mother, Borges was surprised to find he utterly loved teaching. “[A]t forty-seven,” he wrote, “I found a new and exciting life opening up for me. . . . Not only did I end up making far more money than at the library but I enjoyed the work and felt that it justified me.”
In 1950, SADE elected him their president. He was tailed by one of Perón’s detectives. Later, his mother was put under house arrest and his sister and a nephew jailed for a month. Thankfully, that was the worst of his persecution, and on one fine dawn in 1955, after hearing a coup d’état had overthrown Perón, Borges writes, “nearly the whole population came out into the streets.” They cheered so very exuberantly, they barely noticed the rain soaking them to the bone.
Free of Perón, Borges’ literary friends at Sur and SADE petitioned the new government to make Borges director of the National Library. He wasn’t paid a salary for the first three months, but when the political dust settled, it was likely a well-paid post. At that time, Borges was also the recipient of a prestigious professorship at the University of Buenos Aires. Without even sending a C.V.—as more ambitious applicants had—he sent them a single sentence: “Quite unwittingly, I have been qualifying myself for this position throughout my life.” Ironically, his unfortunate notoriety with Perón may have helped him later secure these two coveted scholarly positions.
Sadly, when Borges was given the gift of thousands of books, he said, he was also given darkness. Borges’ eyesight had been steadily declining since boyhood, but in his fifties, he became effectively blind—unable to read or write. He needed someone to read to him and take dictation. He had to be driven and led by the hand. Though he saw images in dreams, he completely lost the color red, and even his dream world deteriorated into a palette of blues and grays. The world went dark for Borges, except for the images that repeatedly populated his memories—images of street corners, coins, libraries, mirrors, and tigers.
Though difficult, Borges’ helplessness seems to have put him in more direct intimacy with others. It certainly returned him to a childhood-like state of being cared for. He would still bury himself in books and language, immersing himself in Old English and “the pleasure of studying, not the vanity of mastering.” Yet, in Borges’ later years, when he was so tied to the help of others, we see a more outwardly directed, social Borges. When one of his courses ended, he invited his students to join him at the National Library, to study Anglo-Saxon poetry with him. In a communal moment of joy, “We fell in love with a sentence,” he said. “We got drunk on these words and rushed down Peru Street shouting them at the top of our voices.”
He published a few short stories, “The Zahir” and “The Theologians,” but poetry and short essays made up the bulk of his work. He now wrote poetry in classic meter, rather than free verse, because—as he composed in his mind—he found rhyme easier to remember. He wrote the poetic essay “Borges and I” in this time, and other fragments that became The Maker, which he himself considered his finest work. Critics have not seemed to share this belief, as today these pieces often serve as appendixes to his short story collections, like literary B-sides.
Without immediate political necessity or the urging of his friends, Borges did not continue his activism, instead retreating into a general stance of individualism and skepticism. He distrusted all great men and great ideas, and endorsed no ideology. In his later years, blindness would give Borges a concrete excuse for not following politics. “I don’t read newspapers,” he would say.
Though Borges says he never chased fame, his books opened many doors, leading to what he called The Crowded Years. He was translated into French by two French benefactors and as he put it, the books just “mushroomed overnight.” This fascination of French intellectuals led to his receiving the Formentor Prize (along with Samuel Beckett) in 1961. He was invited to lecture at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was shocked to find “such commonplace things as weeds, mud, puddles, dirt roads, flies, and stray dogs.” He was given the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry to lecture in Harvard’s most hallowed Gothic halls on his favorite subject, “This Craft of Verse.”
Friends seemed to multiply in Cambridge, he wrote, and he met the man who would translate his works into English. For nearly three years, Borges and Norman Thomas di Giovanni labored to produce 10 or 12 books in English, a language Borges demurely said he was “unworthy to handle.” This led to a Penguin contract, publication in the New Yorker, and worldwide fame. And in return, Borges gave his friend di Giovanni a generous fifty-fifty royalties deal, since he considered the books new, original collaborations.
Another collaboration was equally as intimate. After the yogurt pamphlet, Borges had continued to work with his friend Bioy-Casares, whose friendship he considered one of the chief events of his life. Publishing under the pen name Honorio Bustos Domecq, Bioy-Casares and Borges would lose themselves in “a joint abandoning of the ego, of vanity, and maybe of common politeness.” He added, “A third man took over, and later to our dismay, became utterly unlike ourselves, with . . . his own very elaborate style of writing.” Creative fulfillment in Borges’ later years took the form of real-world relationships, and it gave him great happiness.
Borges noted that he was “quite a wanderer” in these years, seeing all the unforgettable cities of the world—San Francisco, New York, Edinburgh, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. Then, at the age of 68, Borges finally found the woman he would marry. People had speculated whether he was a virgin, since none of his previous loves seemed to result in marriage. And in fact, one thinks of him as perpetually lovesick, perhaps because El Aleph and “El Zahir” both open with his literary stand-in “Borges” wandering the streets after the death of a beautiful woman he loved. He confided to an interviewer that she was a person who “really existed and I was very much hopelessly in love with.”
In 1967, Borges married Elsa Millán, a friend who had been recently widowed, and love indeed seems to have changed him. He wrote at the end of his autobiographical essay, “I no longer regard happiness as unattainable; once, long ago, I did. Now I know that it may occur at any moment but that it should never be sought after. . . . What I’m out for now is peace, the enjoyment of thinking and of friendship, and though it may be too ambitious, a sense of loving and of being loved.”
It is unclear why their relationship did not last, but after three years, Borges confessed to di Giovanni, “I’ve committed a quite inexplainable and mysterious mistake.” From the relationship described in di Giovanni’s book, Georgie and Elsa, it is easy to imagine how Borges and Millán might not have been soulmates. While he tired of people asking him to speak about his own accomplishments, Elsa loved the facades of false eyelashes, furs, and perfumes. As di Giovanni tells it, she once embarrassed Borges at a cocktail party by sneaking into one of the Rockefeller’s bathrooms to take snapshots.
After the separation, Borges returned to the care of his mother, then 94. “She has always been a companion to me,” he wrote, “especially in later years when I went blind—and an understanding and forgiving friend.” Leonor would live to be 99. After that, Borges’ secretarial work—and the whole of his literary estate—was handled by his beautiful literary assistant, María Kodama. Though she was nearly 40 years younger than Borges, she was clearly a more suitable caretaker to Borges than Elsa. At the age of 86, knowing his health was failing, he married Kodama. Weeks later, he succumbed to liver cancer and died in Geneva at age 86, in a house with no name or number on the door.
Taken in sum, these last years—marketable years—seem to find Borges happier, fulfilled, and finally joining the human race. And unlike his early privilege, which left him feeling anxious and undeserving, his later financial privilege results in a generous approach to relationships. He gave time and love to his students. He gave di Giovanni half of his translated book sales. He gave Elsa all the furs she desired. He gave Bioy-Casares his whole ego in collaborative writing. And he essentially gave Kodama his whole estate. If you’ve ever read Borges, you can remember echoes of this generosity of spirit in his authorial voice, when he speaks to the reader as though she were his most trusted friend.
It could be true that Georgie’s trust was taken advantage of. After Borges died, di Giovanni alleged Kodama and her publisher cut him out of their profits by letting his books fall out of print, replacing them with new translations by Andrew Hurley. Di Giovanni, the translator spurned, wrote a tell-all book about his first marriage, painting him as weak and exploitable by Elsa, allegedly too impotent to consummate his marriage and occasionally incontinent. For financial reasons, it seems, Borges’ autobiographical essay—which gives us the intimate picture of Borges I’ve used here—is one of the works not kept in print, since it was co-authored by Borges and di Giovanni.
But mercifully, these worldly financial squabbles have not spoiled Borges’ almost mystical legacy. Most photos of him are from his later years—comfortable, scholarly years spent writing poetry and giving lectures. Listening to “This Craft of Verse,” his recorded lectures at Harvard, you can hear his frail halting voice become full with joy, extolling the lovely metaphors of the Vikings (“the whale-road”) and the poetry of Homer (“the wine-dark sea”) to a hall full of adoring literary minds. One photograph shows him being led by the elbow, holding a cane, head crooked to one side, seemingly contemplating infinity.
Truly, when we aspire to become artists and writers, it is this later Borges that we all hope to become. In these privileged years, Borges became that rare and enviable artist whose work is valued appropriately for the effort, time, and funds it takes to produce. He travels the world met by goodwill and gratitude, and his time is entirely given over to literature. Studying Borges’ financial life, it’s easy to become jealous and despairing. Yet, we may have the wrong idea about privilege.
There are three main ways, Lewis Hyde wrote, that artists support themselves: they have benefactors, they work day jobs, or they sell their work on the open market. In Borges’ life, we can see these three methods separated into distinct eras: the patron years (1899–1937), the day job years (1937–1946), and the marketable years (1946–1986). Few of us can ever hope to attain the kind of patronage and support Borges received in the first era. Even fewer can hope to receive the wealth and fame of the final era. Most of us will be stuck in the day jobs of Borges’ second era.
And that may actually be a good thing.
The Paradox of Borges and the Coin
Admittedly, Borges enjoyed great privilege. He did not need to work until his late thirties. His drudgery was neither taxing nor long-lasting. His later years were spent as a sought-after scholarly superstar, when despite his total absence of ambition, great fortune seemed to gravitate toward him. When we look to the conditions necessary to write—education, a room of one’s own, and time—they are all bought by money, and they are luxuries few can afford for very long. In most respects, Borges’ story reaffirms what we already know about who can and cannot pursue literary greatness. It is possible that never before has history produced a human being with more favorable conditions to leave a literary legacy.
Yet, one inconsistency remains.
If wealth were indeed the great predictor of artistic genius, one would think that the most fertile time in Borges’ literary career would have been the first—the early years when he was financially supported—or else the later years when he achieved worldwide fame and was perhaps more coddled and insulated from financial reality. It was neither.
Paradoxically, nearly all of Borges’ wondrous fictions—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “The Library of Babel,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “Funes the Memorious,” “The Form of the Sword,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Secret Miracle”—came out of the period when he was indentured to the state job, when he was least on top of his money.
That brief span of nine years—when Borges was forced to ride the tram to a job he despised, when his family had no money save his modest paycheck, when his time was not his to spend—in fact produced Ficciones and El Aleph, his most lasting and beloved works. Clearly, he called upon his early education to write them, and he would not have written such lush, erudite stories if it were not for his early devotion to the classics and the penniless art of poetry; but if those years of patronage were so ideal, why didn’t they produce writing Borges himself was proud of?
Throughout his autobiographical essay, Borges hurls invectives at his early work: watery third-rate grandiose, preposterous, a riot of sham local color. He wanted to suppress most of these volumes, but his first short story he called an achievement. Ficciones and El Aleph, which he called his two major books, certainly drew from Borges’ extended childhood of literary privilege, but those patronage years alone could produce nothing of major literary value. For Borges, the catalyst of literary greatness was the problem of money.
It was the tyranny of money that gave Borges the irrepressible need to escape into fiction.
The Labyrinth’s Secret Treasure
Reality was Borges’ great nemesis, the arch-villain of all of his stories, but—also—the impetus to write them. In some sense, all of Borges’ stories break reality. They carry it forward to its logical conclusion until it shatters, becomes incoherent, and finally untenable. “The Secret Miracle” and El Aleph break time and space, respectively. In “Borges and I,” he deconstructs any stable notion of his own identity.
It was rare that Borges could bring himself to finish reading a novel, the literary genre most firmly based in realism. Russian novels, he once wrote, were tedious in their elevation of pointless realism, and likewise Proust, he said, merely offers us more of “the insipidity and the emptiness of each day.” He likewise did not understand the worship of “the uncaring” Shakespeare, who had written “everything and nothing.” Instead, he said he preferred adventure tales, detective stories, and the orderly short story with its beginning, middle, and end. Why, he wondered, are we obsessed with creating a map the size of the world? Borges saw no value in realism, seeking to reproduce the world as it is. Reality for Borges was dizzying, maddening.
At 36, he wrote, “The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it.” Though this was in a work of fiction, it would later appear in other stories and poems, when “paternity” would be replaced by “copulation” (age 41) and then, in a longer formulation, “begetting” (age 61). Our world, he wrote there, was not only “incompetent,” as he had said at 36, but now it was “vain” and “uncertain” in the Spanish poem, and then “hollow” and “unstable” in the English version.
Borges’ hatred of reality extended to both mirrors and dreams. “I,” he wrote in a 1960 poem, “have felt the horrors of mirrors.” Dreams, he writes, “make clear to man he is a reflection and a mere vanity.” An insomniac “terrified” by dreams, he told the Columbia journal at age 81 that he had the same nightmare every other night:
I find myself, let’s say, always at work in a street corner in Buenos Aires or in a room, quite an ordinary room, and then I attempt another street corner and another room and they are the same. That goes on and on. Then I say to myself, well, this is the nightmare of the labyrinth. I merely have to wait, and I wake up in due time. But sometimes I dream I wake up and find myself in the same street corner, in the same room, or in the same marshland, ringed in by the same fog or looking into the same mirror—and then I know that I am not really awake. I go on dreaming until I wake, but the nightmare feeling lasts for two minutes, perhaps, until I feel that I am going mad. Then, suddenly, all that vanishes . . .
For Borges, the tedious realism in Russian novels gave him the same nausea he felt from mirrors and nightmares, a fear and horror that all existence is meaningless repetition “that goes on and on”—useless begetting, dumb animalistic copulation, absurdly vigorous paternity, constant struggles for wealth, conquest, and reproduction, the unstoppable need for one better, one more. In short, the world as we know it.
Borges’ fear of reality drove him to write the kind of fiction he wrote—fabulist fiction with a satisfying end—attempting to escape the labyrinth of reality. His fellow Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato wrote, “From Borges’s fear of the bitter reality of existence spring two simultaneous and complementary attitudes: to play games in an invented world, and to adhere to a Platonic theory, an intellectual theory par excellence.”
And if Borges wanted to escape mankind, he most keenly wanted to begin with himself. His self-effacement and disappointment in himself are apparent throughout his autobiography. As he admitted in an essay on the negation of time: “The world, unfortunately, is real, and I, unfortunately, am Borges.” He would have preferred to be a single word, rather than a man:
[After death,] I would prefer another destiny. I would like to leave no image of me. I would like my name to be forgotten, and to leave, perhaps, a few verses or a fable—a fable to be told by others and to become a part of tradition. I would prefer to be nameless and forgotten when I am dead. But if I could add a word to the Spanish language, or a fable to the memory of mankind—that should be sufficient reward for me.
The most constant theme in Borges’ life was his shyness and passivity, and that is perhaps why he loved literature so deeply and fully, because it let him forget himself.
It is tempting to wonder what literary masterpieces Borges would have produced had he not become blind. In blindness, his short works became even shorter, as they relied more on dictation and his memory’s mnemonic devices. But I am not sure it was blindness that changed Borges. Lewis Hyde wrote that the marketable years for an artist are the most difficult for him to separate his muse from his market, often resulting in less inspired, compromised works. But, again, I am not sure it was fame that turned Borges away from fiction.
Ultimately, it was neither blindness nor fame that pulled Borges away from his crystalline fictional worlds. It was happiness. With his increasing worldly happiness—the happiness of financial freedom, political freedom, friendship, shared humanity, and loving—came the death of his need for literary worlds. With the current world finally a place where Borges could use his voice to commune with others and attain love, there was no longer any need to create a labyrinth on the page, as there was no longer any real-life labyrinth to escape.
In his later years, Borges had the peace of having fulfilled the literary destiny his father had laid out for him. “I suppose my best work is over,” he wrote. “This gives me a certain quiet satisfaction and ease.”
The True Author of Borges’ Work
When I picture Borges, I see him in his seventies, the aging man of letters—who made even Saxon warriors sound like gentle poets by their fine metaphors in his Harvard Norton lectures. Occasionally, I picture him as a quiet boy with spectacles for whom the most exciting event of his childhood was his father’s library. But they are both fictions Borges crafted to delight his readers.
The true author of Borges’ fictions was the third man: the broken, middle-aged Borges, the pencil-pusher who toiled away in the basement of a municipal building. He was a working stiff trying to support his family—just like anyone else—trapped in a labyrinth, feeling that his life was somehow a mistake. He is inseparable from the financial struggle he tried so hard not to write about.
In a strange way, it’s uplifting. A magi’s gift, like the delirium that initiated his first short story.
You see, in Borges’ financial life story, I was looking for a way to strategically set up my ledgers, schedule my expenses, and secure the ideal conditions for a writer. But the truth is that, for Borges, having generous patrons or becoming a literary superstar did not produce great fiction. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” exists because Borges felt stuck, stuck in an unmanageable financial situation—just as I do—and through a moment of great crisis, he was able to find the strength, in those fleeting moments when he wrote fiction, to forget reality.
In “The Theologians,” Borges said, “There are those who seek the love of a woman in order to forget her, to not think about her.” Likewise, my recent obsession over money is paradoxically fueled by the desire to forget it. If I can get enough money, I tell myself, I will be free from money. But financial stability is a mythological continent set on shifting tectonic plates. There will always be financial fear. That might be a good thing.
In “The Zahir,” the character Borges is plagued by an obsession with a 20-cent coin. In the end, he never really breaks free of its spell. But for a month or so, he is able to distract himself by writing a fantastic tale, a new reality.
“The composition of this trifle,” he wrote, “allowed me to forget the existence of the coin.”
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is the author of Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson. She teaches writing at Boston University and the Harvard Extension School, and her work has appeared on the websites of Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s, Salon, Fast Company, The Awl, Roger Ebert, The Millions, Electric Literature, Explosion-Proof, The Faster Times, and the Trout Family Almanac. She is working on her first novel.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Matthew Giles