The first thing to note about With Borges is its singularity. The only man who could have written such a book about Jorge Luis Borges has now.
The literary critic and essayist Alberto Manguel not only knows the work of Borges better than anyone else, he was also a close friend and ally of Borges. With Borges brims over with warm details of Borges the writer and Borges the man, but it is also it is also written in a circling, allusive, aphoristic style that shows Borges’s own influence on Manguel.
Manguel’s friendship with Borges began in a very unusual way. As a boy Manguel used to work after school in an Anglo-German bookstore called Pygmalion in Buenos Aires, and Borges was an occasional visitor there. By this time Borges, in his late fifties, had become prey to the blindness that ran in his family, and, as someone who lived almost exclusively for books, he was in need of someone to read to him. Manguel didn’t know much about him, but he was a bibliophile as well, and when asked if he would read to Borges in the evenings he consented.
For a few years, till the time Manguel left Argentina in 1968, the two would go over the books in Borges’s library in the evenings—Dante, Chesterton, and Kipling were among Borges’s favourite writers. Manguel would read, Borges would listen closely (he knew many of his favourite works by heart), and then make some observations of “wonderful perspicacity and wit, not only sharing with me his passion for these great writers but also showing me how they worked by taking paragraphs apart with the amorous intensity of a clockmaker”. This is not the only occasion in With Borges when the reader feels more than a little envious of Manguel.
Books meant the world to Borges, and not just in the simple sense that he was greatly in love with books and literature. Rather, as Manguel explains, books were Borges’s primary reality:
For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogue begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past. ‘In time,’ he said to me, ‘every poem becomes an elegy.’ He had no patience with faddish literary theories and blamed French literature in particular for concentrating not on books but on school and coteries….He was a haphazard reader who felt content, at times, with plot summaries and articles in encylopaedias, and who confessed that, even though he had never finished Finnegan’s Wake, he happily lectured on Joyce’s linguistic monument. His library (which like that of every other reader was also his autobiography) reflected his belief in chance and the rules of anarchy.
“His library, which like that of every other reader was also his autobiography”—in utterances like this we see Manguel’s own penchant for provocative Borgesian formulations. Elsewhere Manguel says:
There are writers who attempt to put the world in a book. There are others, rarer, for whom the world is a book, a book that they attempt to read for themselves and for others. Borges was one of these writers. He believed, against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and be believed that happiness could be found in books, even though he was unable to explain why this is so. ‘I don’t know exactly why I believe that a book brings us the prospect of happiness,’ he said. ‘But I am truly grateful for that modest miracle.’
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Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer and literary critic based in Mumbai, India. His first novel, Arzee the Dwarf, appears in India in May. He also writes about books for the Observer and the Sunday Telegraph.