Biography of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina's Greatest Writer:

Jorge Luís Borges was an Argentine writer who specialized in short stories, poems and essays. Although he never wrote a novel, he is considered one of the most important writers of his generation, not only in his native Argentina but around the world. Often imitated but never duplicated, his innovative style and stunning concepts made him a “writer’s writer,” a favorite inspiration for storytellers everywhere.

Early Life:

Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luís Borges was born in Buenos Aires on August 24, 1899, to middle-class parents from a family with a distinguished military background. His paternal grandmother was English, and young Jorge mastered English at an early age. They lived in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, which at the time was a bit rough. The family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1914 and remained there for the duration of the First World War. Jorge graduated from high school in 1918, and picked up German and French while he was in Europe.

Ultra and Ultraism:

The family traveled around Spain after the war, visiting several cities before moving back to Buenos Aires in Argentina. During his time in Europe, Borges was exposed to several groundbreaking writers and literary movements. While in Madrid, Borges participated in the founding of Ultraism, a literary movement that sought a new sort of poetry, free from form and maudlin imagery.

Together with a handful of other young writers, he published the literary journal Ultra. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, and brought his avant-garde ideas with him.

Early Work in Argentina:

Back in Buenos Aires, Borges wasted no time in establishing new literary journals. He helped found the journal Proa, and published several poems with the journal Martín Fierro, named after the famous Argentine Epic Poem.

In 1923 he published his first book of poems, Fervor de Buenos Aires. He followed this with other volumes, including Luna de Enfrente in 1925 and the award-winning Cuaderno de San Martín in 1929. Borges would later grow to disdain his early works, essentially disowning them as too heavy on local color. He even went so far as to buy copies of old journals and books in order to burn them.

Short Stories by Jorge Luis Borges:

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Borges began writing short fiction, the genre which would make him famous. During the 1930’s, he published several stories in the various literary journals in Buenos Aires. He released his first collection of stories, The Garden of Forking Paths, in 1941 and followed it up shortly thereafter with Artifices. The two were combined into Ficciones in 1944. In 1949 he published El Aleph, his second major collection of short stories. These two collections represent Borges’ most important work, containing several dazzling stories that took Latin American literature in a new direction.

Under the Perón Regime:

Although he was a literary radical, Borges was a bit of a conservative in his private and political life, and he suffered under the liberal Juan Perón dictatorship, although he was not jailed like some high profile dissidents.

His reputation was growing, and by 1950 he was in demand as a lecturer. He was particularly sought after as a speaker on English and American Literature. The Perón regime kept an eye on him, sending a police informer to many of his lectures. His family was harassed as well. All in all, he managed to keep a low enough profile during the Perón years to avoid any trouble with the government.

International Fame:

By the 1960’s, readers around the world had discovered Borges, whose works were translated into several different languages. In 1961 he was invited to the United States and spent several months giving lectures in different venues. He returned to Europe in 1963 and saw some old childhood friends. In Argentina, he was awarded his dream job: director of the National Library. Unfortunately, his eyesight was failing, and he had to have others read books aloud to him.

He continued to write and publish poems, short stories and essays. He also collaborated on projects with his close friend, the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Jorge Luis Borges in the 1970’s and 1980’s:

Borges continued to publish books well into the 1970’s. He stepped down as director of the National Library when Perón returned to power in 1973. He initially supported the military junta that seized power in 1976, but soon grew disenchanted with them and by 1980 he was openly speaking out against the disappearances. His international stature and fame assured that he would not be a target like so many of his countrymen. Some felt than he did not do enough with his influence to stop the atrocities of the Dirty War. In 1985 he moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he died in 1986.

Personal Life:

In 1967 Borges married Elsa Astete Millán, an old friend, but it did not last. He spent most of his adult life living with his mother, who died in 1975 at the age of 99. In 1986 he married his longtime assistant Maria Kodama. She was in her early 40’s and had earned a doctorate in literature, and the two had traveled together extensively in previous years. The marriage lasted only a couple of months before Borges passed away. He had no children.

His Literature:

Borges wrote volumes of stories, essays and poems, although it is the short stories that brought him the most international fame. He is considered a groundbreaking writer, paving the way for the innovative Latin American literary "boom" of the mid-to-late twentieth century.

Major literary figures such as Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar admit that Borges was a great source of inspiration for them. He was also a great source forinteresting quotes.

Those unfamiliar with Borges' works may find them a little difficult at first, as his language tends to be dense. His stories are easy to find in English, either in books or on the internet. Here is a short reading list of some of his more accessible stories:

Death and the Compass: A brilliant detective matches wits with a cunning criminal in one of Argentina's best-loved detective stories.

After an accident, a young man finds that his memory is perfect, down to the last detail.

The Secret Miracle: A Jewish playwright sentenced to death by the Nazis asks for and receives a miracle...or does he?

The Dead Man: Argentine gauchos mete out their particular brand of justice to one of their own.

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Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)." ThoughtCo, Sep. 5, 2015, Minster, Christopher. (2015, September 5). Biography of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 26, 2018).