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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Borges: A Life

(The Man in the Mirror of the Book)

James Woodall

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To purchase Borges: A Life

Title: Borges: A Life
Author: James Woodall
Genre: Biography
Written: 1996
Length: 300 pages
Availability: Borges: A Life - US
The Man in the Mirror of the Book - UK
Borges: A Life - Canada
Jorge Luis Borges - Deutschland
  • Original, UK title: The Man in the Mirror of the Book
  • US title: Borges: A Life. God forbid that American audiences should be faced with a title that shows even a hint of imagination or creativity. Banality, so much safer, is always first choice !

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, concise introduction to Borges' life and work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Contemporary Rev. . 9/1997 Nicholas Wong
The Economist C 20/7/1996 .
Literary Review C 7/1996 Allan Massie
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 31/8/1997 R. Gonzalez Echevarria
The Spectator B 29/6/1996 David Sexton
TLS . 2/8/1996 John King
Wilson Quarterly B Summer/1997 Richard Barnes

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though most think it is fairly decent. But some nitpicking from each critic.

  From the Reviews:
  • "James Woodall's sleuth-scrupulous biography is itself a Borgesian text in that the recording eye is ever aware of the things Borges himself might have been sensitive to." - Nicholas Wong, Contemporary Review

  • "It is clear that Borges is not an easy biographical subject. The task has become harder in recent years, as his widow and relations have exercised tyrannical control over his estate. Nonetheless, James Woodall makes quite a mess of it. He was frustrated in several avenues of his research, and seems to have sulked as a result, refusing to explore other paths that might have been useful: above all, Borges's own writings." - The Economist

  • "James Woodall's Borges: A Life is the best general biography now available on this influential figure. (...), Woodall has culled the best from previous biographies without dwelling on their flaws. He has given us a mostly accurate portrait of the man and a sophisticated overview of the work. One of the virtues of his book is that it does not try to be Borgesian." - Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Woodall's biography (...) is admirably straightforward and unassuming, except on political matters." - David Sexton, The Spectator

  • "Woodall investigates diligently, writes lucidly, and has no particular ax to grind. (...) The main limitation of this serviceable biography is its failure to comprehend the value of Borges's mature poetry. (...) Woodall's comprehension is limited also by his scant acquaintance with the literary traditions in which Borges wrote." - Richard Barnes, The Wilson Quarterly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       James Woodall's biography offers a quick, concise overview of Borges' life and work. This is not meant to be a comprehensive or scholarly work. The analysis is broad without venturing too much in depth. But Borges' life and most of the salient events, influences, and acquaintances are covered.
       In his epilogue Woodall states that Borges' widow, María Kodama announced in October 1995 that "fourteen biographers were at work on Borges." Woodall's biography, which first appeared in 1996, remains one of the few available. (The one most anticipated, by Jean-Pierre Bernès, still seems a ways off). It is certainly satisfactory as an introduction, especially given the lack of other biographical works available.
       Woodall conscientiously researched his subject. Hampered by the lack of access to some of Borges' work (controlled by collectors, as well as Borges' widow and sole heir) he nevertheless manages to chronicle the life of the great author well. Borges' literary creations are also tied in, though less emphatically than in most studies of Borges (which perforce concentrate on the works rather than the man).
       Borges' interesting and somewhat sad life are worth knowing. From a comfortable childhood spent in Argentina and Europe, to his early literary career (widely published, but only acknowledged in limited circles), to his lowly librarian jobs, to the international breakthrough and the lecture circuit of his later years, Borges lived an unusual life. More personal aspects -- his father's early blindness, and with it the spectre of blindness that Borges knew would overtake him as well, his relationship with his mother who took care of him until late in his life, his unsuccessful relationships with women, his successful professional relationships with Adolfo Bioy Casares and (for a while) Norman Thomas di Giovanni -- are also well-covered by Woodall.
       Woodall pays particular attention to Borges' intimate life, from his apparently disturbing initiation by a prostitute to later sexual failures and successes. Some of this might strike one as too speculative (and/or indiscrete), but Woodall does tie it together with Borges' writing as well.
       Some of the episodes -- from Borges' youth, for example, or the description of the way in which Borges left his wife (ignoble behaviour of the lowest order) -- are not well known and add to the picture of the man.
       A spirited, fast-paced biography, it offers all the essentials of Borges' life -- the books, the women, the politics, the legend. As such it is a good introduction.
       Of particular interest is also the epilogue on Borges' Afterlife, a valuable discussion of the difficulties that can (and inevitably do) arise after an author's death. Three appendices (on Borges travels, awards, and films based on his work) are also of interest, and the limited bibliography is of some value.
       A major flaw we found in the edition reviewed (Basic Books first US edition) was that the index citations were frequently off by a page (e.g. a reference to Góngora is indexed as appearing on page 68 when, in fact, it appears on page 67). This is, of course unacceptable, and fairly annoying.
       On the whole, however, the book offers a good survey of Borges' life and work and can be recommended.

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Reviews: Jorge Luis Borges: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       James Woodall was born in 1960 and has written on theatre, music, and literature for a number of publications.

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