In 1968 Gabriel García Márquez famously acknowledged that, despite loathing Jorge Luis Borges’s political views, he read him every night. He was alluding then to Borges’s outspoken opposition to the Cuban revolution, and perhaps also to his condemnation of Juan Perón at a time when some Argentines sought to redeem the authoritarian populist as an emancipator of the working class. Borges’s politics, however, were far from reaching their nadir in the late 1960s. In 1976 he greeted General Videla’s coup with public expressions of support, and accepted honours from the Chilean dictatorship, including a private dinner with Pinochet. In a matter of months, Borges had lent his considerable prestige to two of the most infamous regimes in Latin America. He continued in the same vein, openly taunting his enemies on the left and centre by disparaging political and literary figures from Che Guevara to Federico García Lorca. As Edwin Williamson underscores in his sedulously researched biography of the Argentine fabulist, Borges’s political declarations ‘would cause irreparable damage to his reputation at home and abroad’.

While some critics’ enthusiasm for Borges’s fictions has led them to downplay the writer’s hardline statements of the 1970s as those of a naive ivory-tower provocateur, Williamson demonstrates that Borges was far from aloof or disinterested when making political pronouncements. On the contrary, he was as engaged with historical events in Argentina during the dictatorship as he had been throughout most of his long life. Williamson’s account, therefore, is not apologetic; it offers a balanced description of Borges’s pro-dictatorship stance while placing his political views in a longer-term perspective. Several book-length accounts of Borges’s life already exist, and numerous biographical summaries have been published in various languages since the 1960s—including the writer’s own ‘Autobiographical Essay’, written for the 1970 English edition of The Aleph. Before Borges’s death in 1986, Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Donald Yates produced useful reconstructions of his literary life. Many of the biographies that have appeared since then, however, are little more than self-serving anecdotes by Borges’s acquaintances, although the work of Alejandro Vaccaro, Marcos-Ricardo Barnatán and Nicolás Helft has brought to light many rare letters, manuscripts and journalistic pieces.

Williamson has gone over the available materials with a fine-toothed comb, and has also unearthed a sizeable number of documents himself. Much of the ground he covers is familiar, since the most salient facts about Borges’s public life are well known—his travels; his leading role in several Buenos Aires literary journals, including the influential Sur; his collaborations with Adolfo Bioy Casares and others; his work at the National Library; the congenital disease that caused his blindness; his attachment to his mother, with whom he lived until her death, by which time he was well into his seventies. Williamson resolves contradictions and corrects mistakes in previous biographies, and takes advantage of information that has surfaced recently. More tendentiously, his account attempts to reconstruct Borges’s personal and political life in terms of the light it sheds on his literary production.

To Williamson’s credit, he avoids a common pitfall in the vast critical reception of Borges’s œuvre: the search for metaphysical insights that can challenge or surpass the writings of philosophers. Borges was an ironist who wrote in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct a coherent philosophical view; he enjoyed rehearsing ideas in his fictions for which he had little sympathy; and he often introduced wilful contradictions or gaps into his philosophical reflections. In the hands of many readers, therefore, his stories and essays amount to a Rorschach test engaging whatever metaphysical inclinations they might already have. Some have read Borges to confirm a particular philosophical position, and others to criticize him from the perspective of another one. Some see Borges as the precursor to a certain theoretical view, and others as the steward of perennial wisdom. For these interpreters, no contextual information can decisively affect their assessment of Borges’s work, and the writer’s historical moment is no more than a side-show for the appreciation of his œuvre. Williamson, by contrast, grounds his biography squarely in its Argentine context—following a line of research pioneered by Beatriz Sarlo in Borges: A Writer on the Edge (1993)—in order to reconstruct Borges’s political trajectory and trace the vicissitudes of his writings.

History, then, sets the stage for Borges’s personal and literary development. That said, Williamson is as interested in his subject’s private life as he is in his historical moment, and it is in the most intimate and painful aspects of the former that Williamson locates the underpinnings of his penchant for philosophical scepticism and even solipsism. The picture that emerges is that of a man who, until late in life, was unable fully to engage with the world due to unresolved problems involving his parents and his romances, and who sublimated or encrypted his personal travails and aspirations in fiction. Williamson argues that Borges’s creative writing was determined by an overarching pattern: love grounded him, failure in love made him a solipsist. Williamson’s Borges sees the world through the prism of his sentimental life. His failures or successes and his inability to break with his parents’ expectations served, according to this account, as subtexts for much of his œuvre. The case is on occasion overstated and at times reductive, yet few could claim to have researched the details of Borges’s life so thoroughly. On these grounds, Williamson suggests that Borges’s judgements on political, artistic and personal matters should be taken with some caution, and even with a measure of pathos: his pronouncements were invariably nuanced by the accidents of his personal life.

Borges’s development as a writer, as this biography makes clear, was inextricably linked to the social sector into which he was born in 1899—the Argentine urban middle class. He was neither an aristocrat, committed to the rule of criollo land-owners and export-oligarchs, nor a member of the working class, which bore the brunt of the economic upheavals and political repression of twentieth-century Argentina. Borges’s mother proudly claimed descent from officers who fought in the wars of liberation from Spain; during the civil turmoil that followed independence, her ancestors sided with the liberals against the dictatorial regime of Juan Manuel Rosas. Borges’s paternal grandparents came from similar stock, but his grandmother was English. His father—a functionary at the Buenos Aires law courts with failed literary aspirations—was less invested than his wife in his Argentine ancestry, and more interested in his foreign roots. His non-conformism was expressed still more strongly in his anarchist sympathies: he once told his young son to ‘take a look at soldiers, uniforms, barracks, flags, churches, priests and butchers’ shops since all these things were about to disappear’. According to Williamson, Borges was haunted by his mother’s obsession with the heroes of the past and by his father’s unfulfilled ambitions. Indeed, before his death in 1938, Borges’s father asked him to rewrite his own novel El Caudillo—a request Williamson sees as feeding into Borges’s brilliant meditation on originality and repetition, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, in which an obscure French author rewrites Cervantes’s masterpiece word for word, repeating rather than merely copying the original.

When Borges’s father decided to take his family from Buenos Aires to Europe—to Geneva from 1914 to 1919, and Spain from 1919 to 1921—the young Borges (or Georgie, as he was then known) embraced socialist and revolutionary ideas, describing himself as a ‘maximalist’ and advocating the total overthrow of capitalism. This went hand in hand with his discovery of German expressionism, a movement that broke away from the naturalistic representation of reality while condemning the militarism of bourgeois society. Among Borges’s earliest publications were ‘Russia’, ‘Soviet Epic’ and ‘Red Guard’, a series of Bolshevik poems which, in an idiom fashioned after Whitman as much as the audacious metaphors of German expressionism, hailed the advent of the Russian revolution. The same radicalism underpinned a collective project Borges discussed with friends in 1921, at weekly gatherings in Buenos Aires hosted by the philosophical anarchist, Macedonio Fernández, for a quasi-Dadaist novel set in Argentina. The plot involved a revolutionary conspiracy to induce a collective nervous breakdown in the citizens of Buenos Aires, so as to make Macedonio president of the republic and ‘open the way to bolshevism’: ‘barrel organs wouldn’t ever finish a melody, cutting it short halfway through; the whole city would be filled with useless objects, like barometers; the handrails on trams would be loosened, etc.’