Few artists have built grand structures on such uncertain foundations as Jorge Luis Borges. Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message. To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world. Of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges seems to have been the least convinced by himself—by the imposing public illusion of his own fame. The thing Borges was most skeptical about was the idea of a writer, a man, named Borges.
In his memorable prose piece “Borges and I,” he addresses a deeply felt distinction between himself and “the other one, the one called Borges.” “I like hourglasses,” he writes, “maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.” He recognizes almost nothing of himself in the eminent literary personage with whom he shares a name, a face, and certain other superficial qualities. “I do not know which of us has written this page,” he concludes.
This haunting, teasing fragment is reproduced in its entirety in “Borges at Eighty: Conversations,” a collection of interviews from his 1980 trip to the U.S., which has been published in a new edition by New Directions. It’s an instructively ironic context for the piece to turn up in—a transcript of a public event at Indiana University in which a number of Borges’s poems and prose pieces were read aloud in English, followed by a short extemporaneous commentary by the author. More.