Just finished Edwin Williamson’s massive bio, Borges: A LIfe (Viking, 2004), which charts the master’s production story by story against his surprisingly stormy love life, which saw him engaged (or nearly so) several times during his adult life, and then finally married twice, the first time disastrously and the second time to a longtime student and assistant who was several decades his junior (and who Williamson interviewed for the biography). Williamson also makes large claims for the controlling power of Borges’s mother (with whom he lived in a small apartment for most of his adult life until she died in her 90s in 1975) and the failed example of his father, who never succeeded as a novelist.
Most of the reviews took Williamson to task for his over-analytic readings of Borges’s work, but more than anything what struck me was a line from Pierre Menard about the author’s habit of sometimes writing exactly the opposite of what he believed. Maybe Borges never really wanted to marry? Williamson takes on faith that Borges idolized each of the women with whom he was connected romantically, and that he imagined each as the “new Beatrice” who would make possible his final literary triumph. But it’s hard to imagine a more triumphant literary career than Borges’s — and it’s worth remembering that Dante never married his Beatrice. Might it be just as possible that Borges’s first loyalty was to his work and his imagination, and that the various women and visions of a new domestic life never managed to crowd that out? His mother was a kind of literary secretary for him for much of his adult life, and then his second wife filled that voidfor his final decade.)
I think of Picasso’s remark that everything he did in life, including his various marriages and affairs, was a rehearsal for what happened when he stood in front of the canvas with a brush in his hand. Borges, too, has always seemed to me an absolute artist, uncompromising and dedicated. I certainly can imagine why so many women would not, finally, have wanted to marry him.
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