Oral History Item Type Metadata
There was a lot of excitement about the fact that Borges was coming. I think by 1982, a lot of people had read at least some of his fiction. And there were strong enthusiasms not just among students who had maybe read him in Spanish but students who had read him in translation. I had been teaching in a course since the ‘70s, which evolved from the title "Experimental Prose" where we read things that were kind of on that border between poetry and prose. That was what interested me about prose then and so I started including some of his work in that.
When students discover Borges it's usually a fairly monumental thing. They're kind of astonished by his ability to take fairly simple ideas and turn them into infinite possibilities, that they're kind of thunderstruck, I think, when they first discover him. And that's always fun to see.
So there was certainly a ready audience here. And there were also people who came from farther away, I remember some folks from Akron, for example, and Cleveland. So I was asked if I would be willing to act as a kind of emcee for the event at First Church where he would not give a lecture or reading, but really just do Q&A; that's at least what I recall. And I said I'd be honored to do that; so that was set up. I thought a little bit about how to introduce him, what would maybe please him, and it occurred to me that First Church, for a long time, was the place for any kind of meeting of community. So I asked an older colleague of mine, Andrew Bongiorno, who'd long been retired, who were some of the people who had spoken at First Church over the years.
Well, anyway, I just said in introducing him, “in this place where Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and” - you know, I had three or four other names – “were, we're very honored, very glad to welcome Borges.” Because you know, he wasn't a person of great ego. He was a very modest individual. That came across both publicly and privately. But I knew that being in a place where there was some tradition, where there had been some luminaries in the past would please him. In the event itself, he spoke so softly, even though I think he was [amplified], people had a hard time hearing. So I remember I often had to restate what he said a little bit louder for the audience to hear. But because he spoke so softly and because people were straining to hear, there was a tremendous hush in the place.
I can't tell you anything that he said that was profound or memorable, as I say, a very modest individual, and very open, very willing to try to answer questions, but not to be, not to play the role of a great man or the great philosopher or the fountain of wisdom or anything like that. So it may have been a somewhat disappointing event for some people, I mean they may have expected some kind of profound revelation and I don't remember that there was one. But I think it was very good for people to see what this man was actually like, the man behind the word. And to see that he was modest, elderly, soft-spoken, affable...I think most people went away satisfied that they'd just gotten to see the guy.
I think whenever he got in the vicinity of somebody with a PhD in English, he knew that that person would've had to study Old English or Anglo-Saxon, either one, and would know something about it. And that was one of his current interests or passions. Not so much, say Beowulf, but just that language and it's relation to English. And of course, if you've gotten a PhD in English, that means you've learned that language and you've learned it mainly to read Beowulf. When you've done that, you go on with the rest of your life; you don't necessarily have a strong interest in it. So I didn't have very much to offer him on the subject of Old English or Anglo-Saxon. But I was glad to chat with him about it.
And the other memory I have is at, it must've been at lunch, that he was conversing and eating and because he was blind, his fork would go down to his plate and often come up empty. And that didn't seem to upset him or frustrate him; sometimes he'd get food, sometimes he wouldn't. But he'd go right on talking and eating. I remember that I was sitting next to him and sort of watching him eat. And you don't know whether to help out and say, "the food's over here..." I finally decided he had his own system, and also María Kodama was very close by and I figured if he needed any particular help or any particular assistance, she was there to provide that.
And in some ways, that was just kind of characteristic of the way he handled himself. He just was not any kind of prima donna, or diva, he just was this modest individual who, when he met you, wanted to know who you were and what you were like and what you were interested in. And he was very easy to talk to, or very easy to be around.
On Borges and his milongas:
I think it was subsequent to [his visit] that I got interested in the translation project with Ana. And we did milongas. She took some of the first results to him and he indicated that the rhyme and meter were very important, and they should be fore-grounded. So it was not so much the literal sense of the milongas as the flavor of their formality. So I did some more versions that were rhymed and metered and he liked those. This all sort of happened in his last months, I think Ana was there in Switzerland when he died. And she'd come to show him our latest versions of his milongas. So, it was fun to work with her on those, and it was fun to hear back from her that he was pleased with them. I had a very high regard for the man, and still do.
I think I've always been more interested in his fiction than in his poetry. He was a good poet, but he was an unsurpassed writer of short stories, I think, of a particular kind. I've really enjoyed reading those and rereading them and teaching them over the years. But I didn't have a question like "what did you really mean in this or that story?" Because his pieces are so self-contained, so self-explanatory when you really take the time to ponder them that you really don't need him to come along and say, "this is what I meant" or "this is the secret that unlocks the story." It is certainly true that there are mysteries and clues, and so forth hidden in some of those stories, and it takes a while sometimes to get them, but I don't think I had the feeling that if I could just get him to answer one or two questions, that I would then understand fiction better. So as I say, he didn't particularly want to talk about himself or his life, or his work, he said "let's talk about Anglo Saxon" [laughs].