Labyrinths of the heart

THE MAN IN THE MIRROR OF THE BOOK: A life of Jorge Luis Borges by James Woodall Hodder & Stoughton pounds 20
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In an interview with the Paris Review in 1982, gleefully hamming it up as the Little Englander, Philip Larkin asked: "Who's Jorge Luis Borges?" Larkin's fellow poet-librarian, with a stammer and difficulties with girls, would almost certainly have treasured this remark. "I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me," he wrote in Borges y Yo. Relishing the fame that came, as it often does, when the work was over - a dizzy itinerary of international awards ceremonies, speeches and cultural jaunts - Borges had a Larkinesque sense of irony about his late triumph.

James Woodall, in an unstuffy and readable Life, has boldly entered the biographical ring with 14 others worldwide, all of whom are homing in on the centenary of Borges's birth in 1999. The author's much younger widow, Maria Kodama, whom he married months before he died, now controls the estate. Kodama has let it be known that she doesn't think much of the prospect of any of these Lives - including Woodall's own. Although he is frank about the limits of his biography as a comprehensive critical account, Woodall's comments on the works are intelligent and convincing. And his book is refreshed by some useful but not obsessive legwork in Buenos Aires, which has yielded both interviews with people who knew Borges (including Kodama) and some valuable local colour.

Borges was born in Buenos Aires in 1899 to prosperous Anglophile parents who could afford to have him educated in Geneva. The nursery was dominated by his English grandmother, Fanny Haslam, daughter of a Northumbrian Methodist minister, and by an English governess called Miss Tink. So strong was the family's Anglophilia that one of the greatest 20th-century writers in the Spanish tongue first read Cervantes in English translation. English was spoken in the home, and Borges - who was always called "Georgia" - constructed an early pantheon of English writers: Chesterton, Stevenson and Kipling. Revealing choices for a writer whose influence on post-modernist writing has been immense but who disliked modernism's neglect of the craft of narrative.

Borges began his literary career as a poet, heavily influenced by Whitman, and in Europe discovered the excitement of moving in Bohemian artistic circles such as Ultraism: "He came amongst us like a new Grimm, full of discreet, smiling serenity," a contemporary noted.

After years living at home with his mother and writing for avant-garde literary magazines, Borges was forced to take a job at the age of 37 in a dismal municipal library. So unaware of his literary career were his colleagues that one of them pointed out to him the coincidence of his dates with a Jorge Luis Borges who was a writer. And if work was a problem, so was sex - ever since his womanising father arranged for him to visit a brothel to make a man of him. Borges seems to have failed the challenge - although, as with other important turns in his life, the evidence is scant.

Another crucial event took place on Christmas Eve 1938, when he collided with a window: the subsequent septicaemia made him dangerously ill. While recuperating, he wrote the first of the stories that would later make him famous, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote". Borges had found Borges, and these masterful, riddling short fictions with their spare, tightly controlled forms, their intimations of infinity and their metaphysical playfulness, remain the core of his achievement.

But it was only in the 1960s, when Borges shared the Formentor prize with Beckett, that he was translated into French and then other languages. He never looked back. One characteristic of the years of fame, however, was what Woodall calls Borges's "political gaffes". In 1938 Borges quickly got the measure of Nazism and condemned it, together with the fervid quasi- fascist mood of Argentina in the late 1930s. He was also a lifelong opponent of Pern, for which he was rewarded in 1946 by the mocking offer of an inspectorship of poultry in the city market.

When Pern fell Borges was made Director of the National Library, which was effectively run by his deputy; the Director himself was now blind from the hereditary condition that had affected both his English grandmother and his father. He thus entered the National Library to be handed, as he put it, "at one time 800,000 books and darkness". He busied himself dictating poems to his secretaries. Larkin never quite went that far.

Borges accepted a gong from Pinochet and was friendly towards General Videla, but he was not a fascist. "I come from a sad country," he once wrote. He was a sceptical, Swiftian, Tory anarchist who during his fame in the 1960s often misjudged the political mood of the times.

Late in life, Borges, who as Woodall says was "strangely incapable of reading the human heart", made some fumbling attempts to escape his nonagenarian mother's clutches. After a disastrous marriage, he failed. He married Maria Kodama in the last year of his life. It was a marriage, says Woodall, that "has to have been asexual".

"I have not been happy," Borges once wrote. He died, in Geneva, in June 1986. As the biographies proliferate, we can be grateful for what "the other one, the one called Borges" managed to produce out of so much personal dysfunction. Truncated as the canon remains for English readers, it is incomparable.