Authors: Jorge Luis Borges
JORGE LUIS BORGES: THE LAST INTERVIEW
Copyright © 2013 by Melville House Publishing
“Original Mythology” © 1968 by Richard Burgin. First published in
Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges
. The interview was conducted in English.
“Borges and I” © 1980 by
. Reprinted by permission.
The interview was conducted in English.
“The Last Interview” was originally broadcast on La Isla FM Radio, 1985.
© 1985, 2013 by María Kodama and Gloria López Lecube, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC and Gloria López Lecube. Translation from the Spanish of the “Last Interview” © 2013 by Kit Maude.
Melville House Publishing
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A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.
One of the many pleasures the stars (in which I don’t believe) have granted me is in literary and metaphysical dialogue. Since both these designations run the risk of seeming a bit pretentious, I should clarify that dialogue for me is not a form of polemics, of monologue or magisterial dogmatism, but of shared investigation. I can’t refer to dialogue without thinking of my father, of Rafael Cansinos-Asséns, of Macedonio Fernández, and of many others I can’t begin to mention—since the most notable names on any list will always turn out to be those omitted. In spite of my impersonal concept of dialogue, my questioners tell me (and my memory confirms) that I tend to become a bit of a missionary and to preach, not without a certain monotony, the virtues of Old English and Old Norse, of Schopenhauer and Berkeley, of Emerson and Frost. The readers of this volume will realize that. It is enough for me to say that if I am rich in anything, it is in perplexities rather than in certainties. A colleague declares from his chair that philosophy is clear and precise understanding; I would define it as that organization of the essential perplexities of man.
I have many pleasant memories of the United States, especially of Texas and New England. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I spent many hours in leisurely conversation with Richard Burgin. It seemed to me he had no particular axe to
grind; there was no imposition in his questioning or even a demand for a reply. There was nothing didactic either. There was a sense of timelessness.
Rereading these pages, I think I have expressed myself, in fact confessed myself, better than in those I have written in solitude with excess care and vigilance. The exchange of thoughts is a condition necessary for all love, all friendship and all real dialogue. Two men who can speak together can enrich and broaden themselves indefinitely. What comes forth from me does not surprise me as much as what I receive from the other.
I know there are people in the world who have the curious desire to know me better. For some seventy years, without too much effort, I have been working towards the same end. Walt Whitman has already said it:
“I think I know little or nothing of my real life.”
Richard Burgin has helped me to know myself.
—Jorge Luis Borges
On the day I found out that Jorge Luis Borges was coming to America, to Cambridge, I ran from Harvard Square to my room in Central Square, over a mile away, in no more than five minutes. The rest of that summer of 1967 seemed only a preparation for his arrival. Everywhere I went I spoke of Borges.
When it was time for school again and I returned to Brandeis for my last year as an undergraduate, I met a very pretty girl from Brazil named Flo Bildner who seemed even more enthusiastic about Borges than I was. Whenever we’d run into each other, we’d talk for three or four hours at a stretch about Borges. After one such conversation, we decided we had to meet him.
I remember the schemes we proposed, elaborate, involuted, outrageous schemes, more complicated than a Russian novel. Finally we rejected all of them. There was only one thing to do; Flo had his telephone number, she should call him up and say we wanted to see him. Strangely, miraculously, the plan worked.
It was November 21, it was grey outside and raining slightly, it was two days before Thanksgiving. Our meeting was set for 6:30, so Flo and I split up in the afternoon, each to go out and buy him a present. Of course, there is something futile about buying a gift for Borges. He simply has no need
or desire for any symbol of gratitude for his company. He always makes you feel that it is he who is the grateful one, and that your company is the only gift he needs. In any event, after wandering up and down the long streets of Boston, going through department stores, book stores, and record stores, I finally bought him a record of Bach’s Fourth and Fifth Brandenburg concertos on which my father played violin. Back in Cambridge, I met Flo holding her gift, four long-stemmed yellow roses.
The distance from Harvard Square to Borges’s apartment on Concord Avenue was only some four or five blocks, yet to us it seemed almost as great an odyssey as the voyage of Ulysses. I think I have forgotten nothing or almost nothing of that evening. I remember the calm in the air after the rain; Flo’s eyes as wide and green as tropical limes; the mirrors in the Continental Hotel, where we stopped to perfect our appearance; the thousands of wet leaves on the footpaths. I remember stopping at the wrong address, ringing the doorbell, then apologizing hastily when a young woman answered who had never heard of Borges. I remember how we turned away and ran almost a block laughing—a dreamlike kind of laughter of dizziness, anxiety and an intoxicating kind of happiness.
Then through the glass of a door we saw him, holding a cane and being helped to a lift by a man with crutches. We ran into the building, introduced ourselves, and helped both of them into the lift. The other man, in his early thirties perhaps and a physicist from MIT, was helping Borges in his study of Persian literature. Borges was dressed in a conservative but elegant grey suit with a pale blue necktie. The small apartment
he shared with his wife seemed peculiarly empty. There were some ten or fifteen books on his bookshelf, a twelve-inch TV in the living room and a few magazines on a table. He seemed nervous or ill at ease at first, particularly when we gave him our presents. His wife was out with some friends, so Flo happily assumed the role of woman of the house. She went to the kitchen to fill a vase with water for the roses.
“Don’t worry where you sit,” he said to me. “I can’t see anything.” I went to sit down on a couch, but Borges was up again in a start. “Do you want anything to drink? Wine, Scotch, or water?” I declined, but Flo decided to fix everybody a drink. Borges was back in front of me again. “Did you come just to chat or did you have something special to ask me?” If I had known a day or a week before that he would ask this question I wouldn’t have known what to say. Now the words came out of their own accord.
“I’m going to write a book about you and I thought I might ask you some questions.”
And so we began to talk. Within fifteen minutes we were talking about Faulkner, Whitman, Melville, Kafka, Henry James, Dostoevsky and Schopenhauer. Every five minutes or so he would interrupt the flow of his conversation by saying, “Am I boring you? Am I disappointing you?” Then he said something that moved me very deeply. “I am nearly seventy and I could disguise myself as a young man, but then I would not be myself and you would see through it.”
He is, perhaps above all other things, honest—so honest that your first reaction is to doubt him. But as I was to find out, he means everything he says, and when he is joking,
somehow he makes sure you know it. Towards the end of our conversation he made some remarks about time. “After two or three chapters of
you know he will never be judged, you see through the method. It’s the same thing in
, which is more or less unreadable. I imitated Kafka once, but next time I hope to imitate a better writer. Sometimes great writers are not recognized. Who knows, there may be a young man or an old man writing now who
great. I should say a writer should have another lifetime to see if he’s appreciated.” Later he would say to me: “… I have uttered the wish that if I am born again I will have no personal memories of my other life. I mean to say, I don’t want to go on being Jorge Luis Borges, I want to forget all about him.”
That first conversation ended when he said, with the sincerity of a child, “You may win your heart’s desire, but in the end you’re cheated of it by death.” Then he told us he was expected somewhere. He saw Flo and me and the professor to the door and said he hoped I’d call and see him again about the book. He even offered to phone me. “I don’t see why it has to end with one meeting,” he said.
Three nights later I was back in the same apartment, this time with a tape recorder. Borges began to reminisce about the Argentine poet Lugones. “Lugones was a very fine craftsman, eh? He was the most important literary man of his country. He boasted of being the most faithful husband in South America, then he fell in love with a mistress and his mistress fell in love with his friend.” I mentioned that he had dedicated his book
(translated with the title
) to Lugones.
“I think that’s the best thing I’ve done, eh? I mean the idea that I’m speaking to Lugones and then suddenly the reader is made aware that Lugones is dead, that the library is not my library but Lugones’s library. And then, after I have created and destroyed that, then I rebuild it again by saying that, after all, I suppose my time will come and then in a sense we’ll be contemporaries, no? I think it’s quite good, eh? Besides, I think it’s good because one feels that it is written with emotion, at least I hope so. I mean you don’t think of it as an exercise, no?”
I answered by saying that I understood and admired his idea, but that in my book I wanted a clear picture of Borges and did not want to confuse him with anyone. I added that as he says in “The Aleph,” “Our minds are porous with forgetfulness,” and I was already becoming conscious of falsifying through my memory all that he had said to me. Then I asked him if I could tape record our conversations. “Yes, you can if you want to, only don’t make me too conscious of it, eh?”
For the next six months I worked on this book, taping our conversations whenever possible, and as we progressed a pattern began to appear, certain themes and motifs kept recurring. Of course, the book involved more than merely conducting the interviews. I reread Borges, I attended his class on Argentine Literature at Harvard when I could and his series of six Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Sanders Theatre. The lectures were well attended and very well received. Borges had created genuine excitement in the Cambridge intellectual community. I know this meant a great deal to him. “The kind of cheering I got and what I felt behind it is new to me; I’ve
lectured in Europe and South America, but nothing like this has ever happened to me. To have a new experience when you are seventy is quite a thing.”
In the middle of December, around the time of her birthday, Flo, who had seen Borges several times on her own, decided to have a dinner party for him and his wife, to be held in my sister’s Cambridge apartment. Borges came with his wife and his personal secretary, John Murchison, a Harvard graduate student. Except for the guests of honor, everyone at the party was under twenty-five. This made no difference to Borges, who has always had a marvelous rapport with the young. Later a hippie unexpectedly dropped in on us, but no one, least of all Borges, was upset. “I wonder what the root word of the hippie is?” he said. His wife thought the young man’s appearance was fascinating. Flo had fixed a delicious, authentic Brazilian dinner, complete with the guitar music of Villa-Lobos in the background, and Borges thoroughly enjoyed it. On the way back to his apartment he told me he thought Cambridge was “a very lovable city.”