The Comfort of My Mother and The War
by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
I think of reading a book as no less an experience than traveling or falling in love.
Jorge Luis Borges was born in the center of old Buenos Aires in late August of 1899. The particular date of was of no importance to young Jorge, who despised his own birthday. He did not like gifts when he had done nothing to receive them.
Jorge was constantly in ill health. He could not see or speak clearly.
He loved tigers and there was one at the Palermo Zoo. If he could persuade his mother to take him there, he would plant himself obtrusively in front of the tiger cage, refusing to leave. His mother feared what would happen if she tried to drag him away.
His mother gradually began to use the threat of removing his books at a sort of blackmail. His father possessed an elaborate library of over a thousand volumes. (Clearly he did not anticipate the e-book.) The senior Jorge Borges had tried his hand at poetry, penning a sonnet or two before he set his vocation temporarily aside in favor of practicing law. His father took charge of young Jorge's education in a few crucial ways, using an orange to explain Plato's theory of forms.
He did not enter school until he was eleven, wearing huge glasses and a jacket and tie his mother purchased specifically for the big day.
By 1913, he had moved on to secondary school. He did decently well in some subjects, barely passing French, drawing and geometry. His first story appeared in the school's literary magazine. In it, a tiger kills a black panther, but then is himself killed by a man's arrow. He titled it "The King of the Jungle." His byline simply read "Nemo."
1914. Dr. Borges moved his family to Geneva, where he planned to get an eye operation. He and his wife agreed to send their children away to school in England so they could tour the continent as a way of revitalizing their marriage. A German ship, the Sierra Nevada, set course for Bremen, and this family was on it:
Because of the chaos that surrounded the Great War, an English education rapidly became impossible. The only subject that Jorge was able to excel at, given his lack of French, was Latin. Language became his only strength; he taught himself German to read Schopenhauer in the original.
His father's attempt to reunite with his wife was a failure. The man sampled the prostitutes of Geneva at his leisure. Dr. Borges' now-teenage son began to write for the first time, crafting sonnets in French and English, largely patterned after Wordsworth. He embraced the German expressionists as soon as he discovered they existed. In due time, all of these literary possibilities were supplanted by Walt Whitman.
He made his first Jewish friend, a boy named Simon. He taught his first clique how to play the Argentine card game truco. The first woman he fell in love with was a Czech named Adrienne. He could barely bring himself to speak in front of her and she was completely uninterested in eighteen year old Jorge.
His other romantic forays were thwarted by his shyness and the general uncleanliness of Geneva's women.
His first girlfriend was named Emilie, and he was entranced by her green eyes and red hair. He was possessed by a ginger. By the next year, he spoke of her as an object, writing his friend to ask if he had sampled Emilie's wares.
When his father found that Jorge had never consummated his relationship with Emilie or any other woman, he gave the boy the address of a brothel. On his way to the landmark Jorge was consumed by the idea that if his father knew the place, he might well have been with the same woman. Jorge was unable to rouse an erection, so his father took him to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with a weak liver.
His father gave him a long manuscript. "What's this?" Jorge asked him. "My novel," his father said.
His family traveled a bit around Europe before a sojourn to Majorca. He later described Berlin as one of the ugliest cities in the world.
Although the family returned to Geneva, Jorge never completed his high school education. His relations with women were reduced to a platonic friendship with a whore he called Luz. He wrote to his friend in March of 1921, "I tell you, I really loved that Luz. She was so playful with me and behaved with such ingenous indecency. She was like a cathedral and also like a bitch."
The family returned to Buenos Aires later that year. Some of his childhood haunts remained familiar to him, but most now were opaque and foreign to his eyes. He wrote to his Spanish buddy, "Don't abandon me in this exile of mine, who is overrun by arrivistes, by corrupt youths lacking any mental capacity and decorative young ladies."
He fell in love with a girl, and the feeling was mutual. Her name was Concepcion Guerrero, and she was the daughter of Spanish immigrants from Granada. Her father taught elementary school, and the family lived in the poverty stricken orillas. He could not bring himself to apprise his mother of the relationship. "God knows how it all will end," he wrote.
Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about decisions she's regretted.