Jose Luis Borges
To the Editor:
The article by Joseph Epstein, “Señor Borges’s Portico” [April], is a legitimate personal comment on the Argentine writer’s life and work. It is clear that Mr. Epstein is not enchanted by the art and intellectual talent of Jorge Luis Borges, but he humbly recognizes in him “one of the most charming ornaments of the literature of our century.”
I would like, nevertheless, to call attention to certain facts. During his lifetime (1899-1986), Borges was married twice, not once: first, under Argentine law, to Elsa Astete Millán in 1967; and for the second time, under Uruguayan law since Argentina does not recognize divorce, to his lifelong companion and student, María Kodama, a few months before his death.
Also, although Mr. Epstein refers to and quotes from Emir Rodríguez Monegal in his article, it seems that he does not yet know about Monegal’s death, in November 1985. Monegal was professor of contemporary Latin American literature at Yale and a close friend of Borges (his name appears in at least one of the Argentine writer’s short stories). He was also the author of a highly regarded biography of Borges.
But my intention here is mainly to develop one of Mr. Epstein’s points: as mentioned in the article, Borges was accused in 1934 by a fascist magazine in Argentina of being Jewish. He then proclaimed in a published reply (Megáfono, April 1934) his desire to belong to the people of Israel, although he had searched for a Jewish ancestor and was unable to locate one. But Borges’s identification with the Jewish heritage does not stop here: in 1919, in Spain, he befriended Rafael Cansinos-Asséns, an Andalusian Jew who one year later published two books, Las bellezas del Talmud and España y los judios españoles (both appeared in 1920). Cansinos-Asséns was the founder of Ultraism (a movement that tried to introduce the European avant-garde, i.e., the cultural revolutions made by Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism, into Spain) and Borges always recognized him as one of his own tutors. One should also mention, among his other Jewish friends, Gershom Scholem, whom Borges names in his poem “El Golem.”
Jewish references and symbols appear in many of Borges’s stories: “The Secret Miracle,” for example, is a tribute to Kafka; “Death and the Compass” is a detective story where the three victims are hasidic Jews and the solution to the plot comes from Spinoza’s philosophy. Ideas on the kabbalah and mystical union appear in “The Approach to al-Mu’tasím,” and an explicit Jewish theodicy can be found in “Emma Zunz.”
No doubt, whenever Borge portrayed Jewish characters in his fiction, they were always heroes of the supernatural, champions on a theological and philosophical scale. He never portrayed common people worried about mundane problems. He loved the ideal image of the Jew: the cosmopolitan, the philosopher, the kabbalist, the polyglot, but never the simple man.
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
New York City
To the Editor:
I am surprised that Joseph Epstein, in his excellent article on Jorge Luis Borges, did not mention the fact that Borges is probably the best writer in this century not to have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Nobel Prize committee has made itself look ridiculous more often than not in recent decades, awarding the prize to trivial writers, even nonentities, apparently for reasons more political than literary. This was quite evident on the three occasions in the last twenty years when it came to be Latin America’s “turn” to have a Nobel. Instead of the politically conservative Borges, the committee chose Miguel Angel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez—all of whom are of the far Left and, of course, virulently anti-American. Compared to Borges, they are second-raters. If Borges had been a committed man of the Left, he would have received the Nobel long ago.
J. Edgar Williams
Carrboro, North Carolina
Joseph Epstein writes:
I wish to thank Ilan Stavans for pointing out that Borges was married in the last months of his life and that Emir Rodriguez Monegal died in 1985. I was ignorant of both facts when I wrote my essay.