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Slipping Off the Pedestal

Jorge Luis Borges Flanked by His Mother and His Wife Elsa

Jorge Luis Borges Flanked by His Mother and His Wife Elsa

It was bound to happen sooner or later: After worshiping the man for over forty years, I am finally beginning to have my doubts about Jorge Luis Borges the man. But not, by any means, of Borges the poet and writer of short stories and essays. I still think he deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature on merit alone, but I begin to understand why he cheesed off the liberal-minded Nobel Prize Selection Committee.

Perhaps my favorite translator of Borges is Norman Thomas di Giovanni, whose book Georgie and Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife, The Untold Story has just recently been published. Di Giovanni worked closely with Borges during the 1960s, shortly after he married Elsa Astete Millán, and through the divorce. What Di Giovanni discovered was that Borges was fatally naive when it came to women, politics, and social life. In fact, he was incredibly feckless in many ways. Di Giovanni writes:

[I]n later years, he travelled to Chile to receive a medal from the hands of Augusto Pinochet. This was one of the worst decisions of his life. But, he maintained, in his digging-his-heels-in mode that no one was going to tell him what he could or could not do. I imagine that it would never have occurred to Borges to question and be horrified by Pinochet’s well-oiled programme of eliminating Communists and other left-wingers. Borges was so universally condemned for his action that I think he came to realize his colossal mistake. But to justify it and himself, when I mentioned his folly to him, he said, ‘But I thought the medal was a gift of the Chilean people.’

Equally, if not more disastrous, was Borges’s marriage to Elsa. Years earlier, he had mooned over her; but, typically, someone else married her. (“Georgie” was not prime marriage material, as he lived with his mother well into his old age.) Then, one day, he met her again and—discovering that she was now widowed—took up with her again. By now, Borges was a famous literary figure; and, Elsa, being a social climber, thought that she was now about to enter the high life.

Her behavior during visits to the United States was execrable. She would steal silverware and other “souvenirs” from Borges’s friends and associates. During a visit to the Rockefellers, she insisted in photographing every room and asking about all the furnishings. It got to the point that people stopped inviting Borges lest Elsa come along. When she accidentally left a nutria coat in Cambridge after one trip, she made the return of the coat into an international incident involving U.S. and Argentinian ambassadorial and consular staffs.

Not that Borges was an ideal husband. He was an elderly blind man who happened to be impotent (which Elsa had known earlier) and incredibly old fashioned, a sort of Anglo-Argentinian who was neither all one thing or all the other. Finally, with di Giovanni’s help, Borges divorced her. He later re-married, with Maria Kodama, who now controls his esate.

Di Giovanni’s book is mandatory reading to supplement all the hagiographical biographies of the author who never quite get at the man’s character.