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A Life

A-BorgesLifeContradictions defined the life of one of the 20th century’s most important Latin American writers, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Few others could have written Labyrinths, a complex work inspired by fantasy and reality. And even fewer—given a divided inner and outer life—could have pioneered avant-garde literary art. Williamson, who applies a psychoanalytic treatment to the Argentinean’s life, depicts Borges as an indecisive man searching for spiritual solace in all of his endeavors. And Borges supplies plenty of fodder for Williamson’s approach—the author still lived, and was dominated by, his mother when he was in his 60s and could not maintain a healthy relationship with another woman until the last part of his life. Amid his difficult childhood, military legacy, disparate political convictions, and tumultuous love affairs, Borges found salvation in literature. But, he never fully understood himself and his role in his labyrinthine world—until nearly too late.
Viking. 574 pages. $34.95. ISBN: 0670885797

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[Williamson] proves to be an honest biographer because his objective is not the final, elusive truth but the plotting of a character. … That this extraordinary life and moving book could have a final chapter on happiness and fulfillment is due to the presence of Mara Kodama, Borges’s student, secretary, companion, wife, and literary executor, who, having the last word, brings us a Borges fully alive." Julio Ortega

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Edwin Williamson, after a nine-year exploration of Borgesean territory, has produced in Borges: A Life, the best guide to the intertwined life and writings of the most important Spanish-language author of the 20th century." Alfred Mac Adam

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"[Williamson’s] style can be a bit bland, and he is needlessly repetitive. But those weaknesses aside, he does an estimable job of mapping the labyrinth of Borges’ injured psyche." Ariel Gonzalez

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Williamson’s chosen angle also ignores much of the quotidian detail that can make biographies so deeply pleasurable; I wanted to hear more about Borges’s preferences in food and drink, his taste in clothes and music. … If one accepts the focus of the book, and accepts that it’s not a critical biography, no admirer of Borges will want to miss it." Gregory Miller

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"[I]n the end, Williamson’s biography, for all its readability and extensive research, simply feels too programmatic, at times almost Freudian, while also underplaying the importance of books and scholarship to Borges’s existence …. In the end, I wish this biography had told me more about the gestation of these classic stories than about their author’s imagined psychology." Michael Dirda

San Francisco Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[Williamson] may not mean his biographical interpretation of Borges to be reductive and simplistic, but it is. … 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

Critical Summary

About a dozen Borges biographies exist; does Williamson’s work add anything new? The author, an Oxford professor, adopts a psychoanalytic approach to Borges’s life—but this unique approach raises serious questions. Some critics praise Williamson’s deep insight into Borges’s private life; as the San Diego Union-Tribune points out, Borges in Love would more aptly have described the work. Other reviewers criticize Williamson’s Freudian lens, which produces abundant speculation and simplistic analysis. And while Williamson pieced together a life from an impressive array of sources, he could have been more selective and focused more on Borges’s major works. Borges will not be the definitive biography. Still, it’s an unsentimental, sympathetic, and readable portrait of the man who transformed Latin American literature.

Supplemental Reading

Labyrinths Selected Stories and Other Writings | Jorge Luis Borges (1964): Includes the stories "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "The Library of Babel," and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."

Borges A Life | James Woodall (1996): Upon its release, Roberto González Echevarría wrote in The New York Times Book Review that this was the best biography on Borges to date, partially because "[Woodall] is not a scholar of Latin American literature: he has been able to tap the Borges industry without being caught up in the effort to turn his subject into a monument."