Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, has written a new book about Borges. Manguel met the great writer when he was a teenager working as a clerk in a bookstore in Buenos Aires. Fifty-eight years old at the time, Borges was blind — he asked Manguel to come to his apartment and read to him:
Borges was strange, even bizarre, in his reading habits. His grandmother had been English, and he loved Anglo-Saxon poems so much that he learned to read Old English in order to enjoy them. He also embraced Virgil and Homer, and a host of difficult writers from the Renaissance to the 20th century.
At the same time, he was a huge fan of detective and science-fiction novels. He worshipped what are still considered middlebrow authors like Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson (Manguel’s novella, Stevenson under the Palm Trees (Thomas Allen, 2003), is a kind of tribute to Borges’s obsession with the author of Treasure Island).
Borges also memorized tango lyrics and “atrocious verses by long-dead poets.” At the same time, he casually disliked and cast aside many of the “great” writers. “You could do a history of literature with the novels he didn’t like,” observes Manguel. Borges’s hit list included Jane Austen, Cervantes, Edith Wharton and Garcia Lorca.
He lived so much in books that he could inadvertently be cruel to flesh-and-blood writers. Manguel recalls a bad Buenos Aires novelist who had written a detective story in honour of Borges and insisted on reading it to him. Borges found the story tedious, and when the detective lists all the weapons he has single-handedly taken from a criminal gang (“a dagger, two revolvers . . .”), Borges began to intone “. . . three rifles, one bazooka, a small Russian cannon” and worked up to an assortment of highly improbable concealed weapons (“. . . an arbalest, five poleaxes, one battering ram . . .”) until the humiliated writer fled.