Cambridge, Mass. — Some say he is the best writer of fiction alive. He is broad-faced, cheeks furrowed by time, with white wisps of hair and the saintly, mischievous look of a man who enjoys being a legend.
As he shuffles down the aisle of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lecture hall so stuffed that the audience is leaking onto the state, he smiles, turning his gaze to applause like a cat stretching in the sun. They loved him at Columbia, he was adored in Indiana, and now Boston waits breathlessly. He is pleased.
For Jorge Luis Borges is a man whose work invites devotion. His stories and poems are unadorned and clear as water, with a romantic tang. Like his native Buenos Aires, they are a mix of European tradition and the "mustang dawn" of the pampas; and like Buenos Aires they have a power and mystery that transcend provincial boundaries.
He settles at the podium and beams. He throws small quips like darts and beams more brightly, conscious of his perfect timing. Like all writers, the considered word is his profession, and this verbal performance seems as considered as a polished peom. It is rehearsed but irresistable, and at times his halting, quiet speech stills the room as only a whisper can.
"I am over 80. I am blind. I am very often lonely. I must go on writing. My fate is to think of all things, all exterior events, as being given me for the purpose of producing beauty out of them; to go on being happy, being sad, being perplexed, and then trying to make poetry out of those experiences. I find my salvation to be writing. What else can I do?"
Over the years he has done little else. Born in Argentina on August 24, 1899 , ("Alas!" he says, and wags his ears) he was from an early age primed by his family for a writing career. He was meant to fulfill the ambitions of his father, a lawyer and frustrated novelist with a taste for purple prose and English books.
"The chief event in my life was my father's library. The books were primarily English -- Keats, Shelley, Poe, The Rubaiyat. Prose first came to me through the English language. One of my most vivid memories is may father reciting Anglo-saxon epics. In fact, you could hardly stop him from reciting them."
As a child, Borges developed a passion for reading. Frail, introverted, he spent most of his time in the library, devouring both Spanish and English books. Both sides of his family glittered with illustrious soldiers -- his paternal grandfather was Ricardo Lopez Borges, at one time commander-in-chief of Argentina's northern and western frontiers -- and the contrast with his bookish life sparked an admiration for men of action that became one of his primary themes. At six he wrote his first story, which dealt vaguely with a suit of armor, and at nine his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde's "Happy Prince" was published in a Buenos Aires newspaper
When he was 15, Borges's father retired from his law practice and took the family on a grand tour of Europe. Sent to Swiss schools for his secondary education, Borges spent much of his adolescence traveling through foreign lands. By 1919 they had settled in Spain, and his unformed imagination fell for the "Ultraists", a literary youth gang fond of labored metaphors and cafe-hopping
When this is mentioned, Borges rolls his eyes. He judges this period of his life more harshly than most critics do. "Until a few years ago, I would go around Buenos Aires buying up copies of my early work, if the price were not too steep. Then I would burn them."
In the '30s, back home in Buenos Aires, he began to publish poems and articles, gradually gaining some prominence in Argentinian literary circles. Then, in 1935, he published "A Universal History of Infamy," a collection of fantastical pieces he now marks as the beginning of his career. And after 38 years of living at home, he obtained his first real job -- an appointment as first assistant in a branch library. The work was less than strenuous, and he found time to read five hours a day and complete "Ficciones," still his most celebrated anthology of stories.
He stayed at the library until Peron, or as Borges prefers to call him, "The Unspeakable," came to power. Then he was "promoted" to a position of chicken inspector for the public markets. Uninterested in poultry quality control, he returned to full-time writing, completing "The Aleph and Other Stories." By the time Peron fell, Borges had become one of his country's grand old men of letters , and appointed director of the National Library.
But he was still virtually unknown outside Argentina. Not until 1961, when he tied with Samuel Beckett for The prestigious International Publisher's Prize, did he attract international attention. Invited to lecture in the United States , he became a star of the intellectual rubber-chicken circuit, and by 1967 his reputation was golden enough to garner him the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard.
A writer's writer, Borges is a man whose influence sneaks into other author's works when they're not looking. colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of the famous novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude", says Borges "teaches you how to tune up your instrument for saying things." Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's premier novelist, puts it more bluntly: "Without Borges's prose, there simply would not be a modern spanish-american fiction owes much to Borges as well. "When two publishers in 1962 brough out overlapping collections of the Argentine Writer Jorge Luis Borges," wrote critic Morris Dickstein in a 1970 review, "it was an important event for [North] American readers, but few could have an ticipated the impact it would have on our fiction." A major segment of English-language writing has been labeled "Borgesian" -- including works by such authors as Donald Barthelme, John Barth, william Gass, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Today, though his writing is sometimes criticized as arcane and overly intellectual, Borges's place in the front ranks of world literature is assured. "The impact of Borges's work has touched all who have read it," says Margery Resnick, director of modern languages at MIT. "His international reputation is a fact. Some describe him as the greates living writer of fiction, though such facile superlatives are at odds with the tone and content of his writing."
His list of awards is now thick as a dictionary. Yet he has never won the Nobel Prize, an oversight prompting one critic to call for the Swedish Academy to wake up and redeem itself. And he has never written anything longer than a short story.
"The reason I don't write a novel is I can't write a novel. And I can write short stories. And that is that."
Borges sniffs at a questioner who equates mere length with quality. "I try to think less in terms of a sentence, a phrase, than a whole. I try to give little trouble to the reader. I avoid words that send them to the dictionary and metaphors that are not common metaphors."
He beams some more, like a grandfather, patting his beloved readers on the head.
"I think of writing as I think of dictation. whenever I write I sit back and try to be as passive as I can. I try not to meddle. v.m hen I start I know the beginning and I know the end. But I have to invent myself the way from the start to the finish."
Invention is an apt word. His most famous stories are deceptive, with simple language the crystal over a structure as complicated as the workings of a watch. In "The South," one of his own favorite tales, a man recovering from illness goes south, to the pampas, to rest. Or maybe he doesn't go, but stays where he is. Or maybe he doesn't recover at all. The only thing sure is, a mentally or physically, he sheds the civilized skin of Buenos Aires for the plains, where men believe in courage for courage's sake and life is defined by the distant harizon and knife blades.
"I think of the world as a riddle. I was born in Argentina, in 1899, and here I am in America in 1980, ringed in by friends. All this is unbelievable!" Borges sweeps his hands towards the audience. "The world is so mysterious and so rich Nothing is forbidden. It depends on us to do it -- or at least to attempt it."
In the last decade, unable to read, unable to handle a pen, unable to see, Borges has written two books of poems, "In Praise of Darkness" and "The Gold of the Tigers," praised by Margery Resnick as "the beautiful, vibrant work of a man whose power has not diminished with age."
At The end of his talk, the crowd floods across the stage, eager to shake his hand and get a closer glimpse of his furrowed face. In the midst of the swirl Borges sits calmly, an island, reminiscent of his own lines: From south and east and west and northm roads coming together have led mem to may secret center.m
Later Borges leans on the arm of a friend as he waits for a car. It has been a long evening. A bystander reaches out and touches his arm.
"Borges," he asks, "why do you write?"
Borges turns. "I have to," he says. "I have to."