Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Borges Remembered by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The Borges I knew and worked with - the one still fresh in my memory these twenty years since his death, the one I search for in his myriad biographies and cannot find - the everyday Borges, existed in a rarefied atmosphere. Protected and spoiled by his family, he never had to seek a job until he was close to forty. He always lived at home, and even at seventy-one, when he walked out on a disastrous marriage, he went back to his mother. Borges's inner life was lived in books, in philosophical quandaries, in thinking. He adored women but had no sexual success with them. Nor was he a practical man. Once, in Salt Lake City, as we sat side by side in barber chairs having our hair cut, an attendant approached and asked if I wanted my shoes shined. I nodded a yes for myself and for Borges, who suddenly flared. He didn't want anyone polishing his shoes, claiming that he never did them at home. No, I pointed out to him, his maid Fani always polished them for him.

Borges courted controversy, often heedlessly, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. Whatever made him accept a medal from Pinochet I will never fathom. It cost him the Nobel Prize. He was little interested in politics or world affairs yet would make ill-informed statements on issues he knew nothing about. Once, at Harvard, in an interview with a young journalist, he praised the war in Vietnam, which at the moment all of America was repudiating; another time he emerged from a meeting with Jorge Videla, one of the architects of Argentina's dirty war, and pronounced that the new government a military takeover was in the hands of gentlemen. But to give him his due, Borges had also been a staunch anti-Nazi and defender of the Jews when in Buenos Aires such a stand was unfashionable. His blindness isolated him, and he sometimes used this as an excuse. At home he was surrounded and swayed by members of his own class, the old oligarchy, reactionary dinosaurs who lived in an imaginary past. Borges once refused to accede to Neruda's request for a meeting, despite his mother's and my pleas to the contrary. Neruda, as a Communist, was a leper. It was not that Borges had no sympathy for the downtrodden and dispossessed. He simply did not know they existed.

But one could not help admiring him for his modest existence, for the fact that outside of a few books he had no interest in material things. He would eat a little boiled rice, sometimes with an egg on it. On winter evenings, returning from work, he liked a cup of steaming chocolate. Shamefaced about having accepted membership in the stodgy Argentine Academy of Letters, he fell back on a claim that they served the best hot chocolate in town. He was shy about his false teeth, which he used to rinse after a meal, telling me not to look. We often stood side by side at urinals, and he would ask me to read aloud any dirty graffiti that adorned the walls. The more graphic they were, the more he enjoyed them, for he was no prude. He rarely listened to music, finding it too emotional. He seldom showed feelings and, despite his many adversities, never wallowed in self-pity, proclaiming we had a duty to happiness. For him there were no sacred cows; he made fun of everything and everybody. He chided me with the sobriquet Napoléon whenever I tried to hurry him to appointments. To brush off importuning individuals, he would agree to things he had no intention of doing - writing an article for an encyclopaedia, say, or meeting a top political figure. He admired the ethics, the civic-mindedness, of the Anglo-Saxon, but he himself often lapsed into the South American usage he claimed to despise. Nor was he above telling what he considered white lies in order to explain away actions that later came to embarrass him.

We remained friends and he confided in me to the end, yet stories still circulate about our having fallen out, about his having thrown me out of his house. Alas, being close to Borges came with a price, in my case laying me open to the smouldering envy of petty academics and erstwhile friends, gossipmongers who never knew the real man but to whom, on his pedestal, Borges was a god.

First appeared in Departures, October 2006, under the title 'Borges and Me'.

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