With Borges by Alberto Manguel
This is a lovely essay, but it barely constitutes a book. Weighing in at 77 pages, but noting it begins on page 11, and that we have a few pages of notes at the end of the piece, there are only actually 63 pages of - generously spaced - text here. You'd be quite right to expect an essay like this introducing a Penguin Modern Classic or such like; you may well balk at paying for it as a standalone volume. Notwithstanding those niggles, this an entertaining, insightful, concise paper that, in its brevity, gives a generous overview of Argentina's most important literary son Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986).
In 1964, when Alberto Manguel was sixteen, and working in a Anglo-German book shop (the famous Pygmalion store in Buenos Aires run by Miss Lili Lebach), he was approached by Borges, then director of the National Library, and asked whether he would be interested in a part-time job reading aloud to him. Manguel readily agreed and became one of the many people who performed this service for the aging writer, reading to him for four years, until 1968.
Borges had known he would turn blind from an early age and finally lost his site in 1957. He was a voracious reader of a wide range of books and Manguel lists some of the titles that were housed in the modest flat Borges shared with his mother, Doña Leonor (who called him Georgie, which was his Northumbrian grandmother's nickname for him), Fanny, their maid, and Beppo, the big white cat. Borges, it transpires, loved Stevenson, Chesterton, Henry James and Kipling, and he loved the Arabian Nights, the Bible, epics like Njals Saga, Homer and Virgil: "epic poetry brought tears to his eyes." He disliked "faddish" literary theory blaming French literature "for concentrating not on books but on schools and coteries."
Despite the economy of Manguel's examination, he does find time to give us sketches of both Adolfo Bioy Cesares, Borges' friend and collaborator (Borges once called Bioy, 15 years his junior, his "secret master"), and his wife, the writer and painter Silvina Ocampo. Manguel's writing, here, is clear and unfussy. For such a short piece the reader does get a nice sense of Borges the man: generous, uninterested in fame, a prodigious memory, a lover of the German language he had learned in his beloved Geneva (the city in which he died), a fan of detective novels and a dreamer, but no saint: Manguel recalls his petty, ignorant racism which Manguel found appalling and unworthy of the great man, and his occassional cruelties.
With Borges can be read in about an hour. And it is an interesting hour, well-spent. For the full biographical treatment Edwin Williamson's recent Borges: A Life is to be recommended; but for a quick, quirky, personal and punchy introduction to the man Manguel's memoir is unbeatable.