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Jorge Luis Borges | Biography

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Early Life and Beginning Career

Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His prominent Argentine family included some English ancestors, and Borges actually learned English before Spanish. As a child he read avidly in his father's extensive English library, his favorites including American humorist Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the novels of English writer H.G. Wells, Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1615), and The Thousand and One Nights (1704). Later in his life Borges wrote of his father's library: "In fact, I sometimes think I have never strayed outside that library."

In 1914 Borges's father took the family to live in Geneva, Switzerland, for several years. There Borges learned German and French and graduated from the Collège de Genève. Borges moved with his family to the Spanish island of Majorca in 1919 and then spent a year in mainland Spain where he became part of the avant-garde Ultraist literary movement, which emphasized poetry with complicated metrical patterns, free verse, and bold imagery.

Early Publications

Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, and two years later his first book, the collection of poems Fervor of Buenos Aires, was published. Active in the literary world, he founded literary journals, published essays and more poems, and established an Argentine branch of the Ultraist movement, from which he later distanced himself.

Borges's first collection of stories, A Universal History of Infamy published in 1935, straddles a line between fiction and biography. The stories recount the lives of roguish or outrageous historical figures, such as an impostor masquerading as an heir ("The Implausible Imposter, Tom Castro") or the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, who almost single-handedly began the transatlantic slave trade in the Americas ("The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morell").

Borges took a high-ranking job as a librarian in Buenos Aires and then suffered two crushing blows in 1938: his father died, and Borges accidentally struck his head on a casement window and sustained a severe injury. The wound led to septicemia, or blood poisoning, leaving him delirious and unable to speak. But when Borges recovered, he experienced a surge of creativity and in the following years published some of his best stories. These appear in Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–1969 (1970).

International Acclaim and Later Years

In 1946 Juan Perón was elected president of Argentina. Perón was staunchly anti–United States and anti-Britain. Because Borges had expressed support for the Allies in World War II (1939–45), the Perón government transferred Borges to a degrading job as the public market inspector of poultry and rabbits, a job from which Borges resigned. Without his job Borges got by on lecturing, editing, and writing. In 1952 he published a collection of his essays, Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952. When Perón was ousted in 1955 Borges took an honorary post at the National Library of Argentina and became a professor of English and American literature at the University of Buenos Aires.

Beginning in the 1920s Borges suffered progressively worsening eyesight, the result of a hereditary condition. By the late 1950s he was completely blind. He continued to write, however, dictating short works. He published two books that blurred the distinction between prose and poetry: Dreamtigers (1960) and The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967). He also published the story collections Doctor Brodie's Report (1970) and The Book of Sand (1975).

Borges began to receive international attention during the 1960s, particularly in the United States and Europe. In 1961 he shared the international literary Formentor Prize with the better-known Irish writer Samuel Beckett, the reflected glory bringing Borges's work to greater notice. He died on June 14, 1986, in Geneva.

Borges's Legacy and Influence

The 1960s saw publication of several essays praising Borges and attempting to bring his work to a wider readership. Writing in The New York Review of Books in 1964, American critic Paul de Man called "[Borges's] neglect somewhat unfair," though after such faint praise he went on to clarify that "Borges is a complex writer, particularly difficult to place." In 1967 American poet John Ashbery wrote in The New York Times Book Review Borges was "the greatest living Spanish-language writer." In Latin America Borges's fantastical stories paved the way for the novels of the Latin American boom, a group including Mexican Carlos Fuentes's The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), Argentinean Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch (1963); and Colombian Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Borges's emphasis on dreams, fantastic occurrences, and complex narrative structures greatly influenced the Magic Realism movement. Magic realism is a type of literature that includes fantastical or magical elements in otherwise realistic settings. It flourished particularly in Latin America in the late 20th century and includes the novelists Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, Brazilian Jorge Amado, and Chilean Isabel Allende. Some critics even count Borges among the magical realists. In any case his stories show the contrast between realistic or conventional story settings and fantastical elements. In the United States Borges's use of parody and detective fiction influenced such postmodern novelists as Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, and E.L. Doctorow. Borges continues to be read and admired the world over for his lucid prose and dazzling narrative structures.

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