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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Borges: A Life

Edwin Williamson

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To purchase Borges: A Life

Title: Borges: A Life
Author: Edwin Williamson
Genre: Biography
Written: 2004
Length: 495 pages
Availability: Borges: A Life - US
Borges: A Life - UK
Borges: A Life - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine, readable overview of Borges' life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 9/2004 Christopher Hitchens
Boston Globe A 1/8/2004 Julio Ortega
The Economist . 9/9/2004 .
The Guardian . 1/1/2005 Adam Feinstein
Harper's . 9/2004 Guy Davenport
The Independent . 30/11/2004 Michael Jacobs
Independent on Sunday . 19/12/2004 Robert Hanks
London Rev. of Books . 11/5/2006 Colm Toibín
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/11/2004 David Foster Wallace
Salon . 27/8/2004 Allen Barra
San Francisco Chronicle . 8/8/2004 Bob Blaisdell
The Spectator . 13/11/2004 Edgardo Cozarinsky
Sunday Times . 17/10/2004 Ian Thompson
The Telegraph . 10/10/2004 Theo Tait
The Telegraph . 10/10/2004 Christopher Tayler
TLS . 4/2/2005 Brian Dillon
Wall St. Journal . 5/8/2004 Lauren Weiner
The Washington Post . 8/8/2004 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus

  From the Reviews:
  • "Edwin Williamson's biography passes what I consider to be a small but by no means paltry test. It is absolutely solid wherever it can be checked against this reviewer's knowledge. In particular it brought back to me with extraordinary vividness the vertiginous shifts in feeling that I experienced during those two Borgesian days of languorous conversation, attentive reading, and sheer alarm. Moreover, the book shows with great care and fairness what had brought Borges to this pass." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Borges is a wonderful biography with a point. To fulfill Borges's rebirth it calls on the forces of love. The story is about Borges's wounded search for love, traumatic sexual life, distracted fiances, agonizing brief marriage, and late happiness. Even if such private stories arise from humiliation and speculation, and it is not possible to document all versions, we follow Borges's pains with the sympathy and tact of this unsentimental biography. On occasions, it is difficult to share Williamson's biographical reading of the stories, but his vast store of testimonies, recollections, and correspondence, and his piecing together of material, seem to reveal the probable face of the Argentine master." - Julio Ortega, Boston Globe

  • "Mr Williamson's work begs some questions. He is remarkably incurious about some aspects of his subject's life. He tells us nothing, for example, of Borges's estrangement from Adolfo Bioy Casares, a fellow-writer and lifelong friend. Though Mr Williamson has succeeded in his quest to show "a fuller, more human, more richly faceted Borges than the anemic bibliophile of legend", an elusive quality remains about his subject." - The Economist

  • "Williamson captures the troubled bond between Borges and his mother wonderfully. (...) Making admirable use of previously unavailable sources, Williamson practises his own potent alchemy to shed startling new light on Borges's work." - Adam Feinstein, The Guardian

  • "I was only halfway through Williamson's meticulous biography when I felt that the Borges I admired was steadily being replaced by a minor, neurotic, hand-wringing Argentine dilettante" - Guy Davenport, Harper's

  • "Other scholars, who have seen Kodama's interest in the elderly Borges in a less charitable light, will doubtless scorn Williamson for this and other over-tidy theories. None the less, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could write a better biography of this most elusive 20th-century icon." - Michael Jacobs, The Independent

  • "Williamson's virtues, however, have to be set against his clumsy attempts at psychological interpretation. (...) I learned much from this book; but now I think I'll be sticking to the stories." - Robert Hanks, Independent on Sunday

  • "Borges: A Life, which is strongest in its treatments of Argentine history and politics, it is at its very worst when Williamson is discussing specific pieces in light of Borges's personal life. Unfortunately, he discusses just about every thing Borges ever wrote." - David Foster Wallace, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Williamson, a professor at Oxford, may not mean his biographical interpretation of Borges to be reductive and simplistic, but it is. (...) Williamson ignores Borges' own explanations, and will hardly allow Borges or his friends and family to speak for themselves. (...) Instead of Borges' memories and descriptions, instead of the great revealer revealing himself, the psychoanalyzing Williamson shrink-wraps the lovely, ever-fascinating great man" - Bob Blaisdell, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Borges: A Life works with two major metaphors as instruments to cut their way through an overgrowth of unreliable information. (...) Far from diminishing the stature of the man of letters, this biography conveys a certain sense of ultimate victory." - Edgardo Cozarinsky, The Spectator

  • "In page after page, Williamson teases out the many literary influences behind Borgesís ficciones, and shows how the authorís boyish delight in adventure was notably influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson." - Ian Thompson, Sunday Times

  • "(T)horough and mostly intelligent (.....) But this biography certainly has its faults. (...) Williamson manages to subsume nearly everything into his one grand plan: the theory is trotted out ad nauseam, often accompanied with a minute and tendentious exegesis of the less interesting stories. This begins to seem not only misguided, but also slightly mad, like an elaborate Borgesian joke." - Theo Tait, The Telegraph

  • "Edwin Williamson's massive new biography, Borges: A Life, is particularly good at unscrambling the complicated Argentine history that led this otherwise irreproachably anti-totalitarian writer to lend his support to military dictatorships. As an account of Borges's life, the book is balanced and exhaustively researched, clearly superseding the two main previous English-language biographies by Emir Rodriguez Monegal (1978) and James Woodall (1996). When it comes to Borges's writing, on the other hand, Williamson quickly loses his sense of perspective." - Christopher Tayler, The Telegraph

  • "At its best, it marshals its material towards a properly complex vision of a writer whose works, so often conceived as hermeneutically resistant to historical readings, are in fact an intricate web of political and aesthetic engagements. At its worst, it corrals the same evidence into such a cramped view of its subject's psychosexual torment that Williamson risks consigning the entirety of Borges's literary Xanadu to the basement furnace of his youthful transgressions." - Brian Dillon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Edwin Williamson's new life of the great writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is thoroughly engrossing, and fans of the Argentine's ficciones will want to read it without delay. But like socialist literature of the 1930s, this biography wants to fit unruly human life into a theoretical mold." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

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:

       In his Borges Edwin Williamson leads the reader nicely through Jorge Luis Borges' life. After a bit of family (and national) history, he sticks closely to his subject, and from birth to death offers a good overview of what this life was like. (Unlike James Woodall in his Borges, Williamson only gives brief mention to the mess surrounding Borges' estate and the affect this has had on the publication of his work, a significant matter probably deserving a volume of its own.)
       Williamson is especially strong -- or at least focussed -- on the women in Borges' life, making much of his failed (and rare successful) love affairs and the effect these had on his life and writing. From a botched introduction to the pleasures of sex (dad sent him to a bordello, with less than hoped for results) to a mother with a very clear idea of what (and who) was proper for her son (and with whom he lived almost all his life), Borges' romantic life seems until close to the end to have been an incredible mess. Rejection by several women he was close to seems to have weighed heavily on him (as Williamson shows fairly convincingly), and when he finally did get married it was to a person obviously ill-suited to him. Finally, he seems to have found happiness with the much younger María Kodama (whom he eventually also married). Williamson does give a decent impression of the ebb and flow of these relationships, but mostly remains decorously distant and vague: one is still left uncertain exactly what the nature of these relationships was (especially the sexual aspect, which Borges appears to have had some issues with), and how Borges understood them.
       Williamson also does well in describing Borges' political stances and opinions, as well as the situation in Argentina in general. (He usefully reminds readers that through the 1930s Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and is among the rare countries ever to have gone from that to being an economic basket-case.) Borges' hatred of Peron, and the resulting doubts about democracy (taking the form of populism in Argentina, where Peronist popularity made it difficult for even elected governments to follow reasonable policies) are well conveyed, though some of Borges' ill-advised (and ill-timed) public actions and statements (including his defence of Franco Spain after the hated dictator had finally died) probably warrant closer examination and shouldn't be as readily excused as Williamson does.
       From the childhood bullying he suffered to the peculiar years in Geneva to the fact that Borges never even finished school, he led an odd early life. The complicated family dynamics are explained but one isn't left with a particularly good sense of them: eventually estranged from his sister, she remains a largely shadowy figure. Mom is omnipresent, and while her meddling and influence are described, the mother-son relationship and all its consequences aren't entirely satisfactorily conveyed.
       Williamson does describe the Argentine literary scene, and Borges' early efforts to help direct it, well. Important figures like the Ocampos and their roles are well-related -- though , for example, Borges' close friendship (and frequent collaboration) with Adolfo Bioy Casares doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. (Perhaps Williamson believes that's been covered adequately in Bioy Casares' own memoirs; unfortunately, these are not available in English translation.)
       Borges' evolution as a writer is well-documented. Williamson harps especially on the role of the women in Borges' life (and the failure of these relationships) in forming the writer and the stories. A close reading of the (putative) inspiration and genesis of several of the stories, such as "The Aleph" and The Congress (the one text Williamson seems to regard as most pivotal), are of particular interest, and while Williamson's speculations occasionally seem something of a stretch, the focus on the overlap of man and work is welcome. Williamson does cover much of Borges' output, but it is ultimately barely more than a superficial survey: as with so much else about Borges, there's a lot more to be said.
       The later years are covered more rapidly, and parts read almost like a travel-itinerary -- Borges went there and there and there -- with a few anecdotes thrown in to liven things up. Williamson does present all this well enough to hold the reader's interest, but there's not much that's particularly insightful, and an enormous number of questions remain.
       Working within the constraints of a five hundred-page biography, Williamson does manage to cover most of the events of significance in Borges' life, discuss (or at least mention) much of his writing, and give a decent sense of what kind of a life he lived. Unfortunately, there's not a great deal that is new, and Borges-fans keen to know more about the master likely would have preferred a much more in-depth work.
       One thing the book does do -- though Williamson is too polite to mention it -- is constantly remind readers how ill-served English-speakers are with regards to Borges, as vast amounts of especially his non-fiction and poetry are still not available in translation.
       A good and very accessible introductory work on Borges, but nowhere near the biography that is needed.

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

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About the Author:

       Edwin Williamson is an expert on Cervantes and teaches at Oxford.

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© 2004-2021 the complete review

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