Por Roberto González Echevarría
"As a critic and as a scholar, Emir Rodríguez Monegal
has always viewed literary production in Hispanic America within
the wider context of Western literature. This perspective has often
led to controversy, for jealously guarded provincial reputations
rarely stand the test of more ecumenical readings, and nationalism,
the continent's weakness, does not take well to an Uruguayan judging
the literary merits of a Venezuelan, a Mexican or a Cuban. But this
is only one of the polemical grounds where the work of Rodríguez
Monegal has taken shape. Provincialism and chauvinism are not self-generated
manifestations of a culture, but the symptoms of social and economic
underdevelopment. While Rodríguez Monegal's work has been
a struggle against these elements, intellectuals of diverse persuasions
and writers of the latest engagé tendency have attacked
him for his defense of literature. In a continent where even scholarship
dealing with the classics can touch off very contemporary polemics,
the work of Rodríguez Monegal has always been in the fray.
His writings on the literature of Hispanic America are not only
a commentary, but a part of that literature, even when they take
the shape of a scholarly edition of Rodó or an erudite disquisition
on Andrés Bello. Perhaps the peculiar conditions of Hispanic
America serve to accentuate a fact often forgotten in academic circles
in the United States that scholarly writing is never
neutral. In the interview that follows, echoes of those skirmishes
may still be heard.
But of all his activities as professor, critic and cultural promoter,
Rodríguez Monegal will perhaps be best remembered for his
association with Borges. One of the first critics to discover the
importance of the Argentine master, Rodríguez Monegal defended
Borges when it became fashionable to regard his work as merely escapist,
and he was also among the first to find that Borges not only offered
an exhilarating practice of literature but also a theory. Borges
has paid his critic homage by making him a minor character an
allusion in one of his stories ("The Other Death,"
in The Aleph), thereby assimilating his commentator into
his fictional world. And so, appropriately (and adding to that perhaps
excessive game of intertextuality), Rodríguez Monegal is
now at work on a biography of Borges, almost as if Borges had created
one more of his fictional selves to produce another version of his
already fictionalized life. The interview that follows will no doubt
nourish such suspicions, for the ironic confessions of Rodríguez
Monegal resemble a Borges story more than the account of a conventional
critic and professor. Rodríguez Monegal's travels through
libraries, his birth in a remote town in Uruguay (that "imagined
land", as Wallace Stevens called it), his early fascination
with books, the Oriental touch in his novelistic name, will make
the reader wonder if he is not faced here with one more of Borges'
strategic inventions. But the reader may rest assured that Rodríguez
Monegal is real, and alive and well, if not in Argentina or Uruguay,
at least at Yale University, where he is professor of Hispanic American
literature and Chairman of the Spanish Department.
Roberto González Echevarría:
I don't want this to sound like "Comment peut-on être
persan?" but how does one become a literary critic in Uruguay?
That is, how did you become a critic?
Emir Rodríguez Monegal: Well, I would say that I
became a critic without knowing it, by accident. I was born to a
family from the provinces, who lived in Melo, a town close to the
Brazilian border. At home, everyone liked to read and some even
wrote. My grandfather Monegal was a bookseller and owner of the
local newspaper. Next to the room where I was born was the bookshop,
and one room further on the newspaper offices and the printing shop.
So, it could be said that I was born smelling printer's ink and
chewing paper. For me, reading was always such a normal activity
that it was difficult to realize that not everyone spent the entire
day reading. It was even longer before I understood that to speak
about books, one of the most common activities of my youth, was
also a profession. My parents moved to Montevideo when I was two,
and there we also remained surrounded by books. My uncle Pepe returned
from Spain with stories about poets and literary magazines, and
he brought a volume of The Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides
and the three small volumes of the Spanish translation of Eckermann's
Conversations with Goethe. I was about ten or twelve years
old then, and like a diligent ostrich I devoured them. I also read
the books of one of my aunts, who was very romantic. My mother preferred
the writings that were strictly non-fictional and of a social nature.
It was on a trip to Rio de Janeiro around 1934 (my father is of
Spanish origin but was born in Brazil) that I discovered both the
new Brazilian novelists (Amado, Lins do Rego, Graciliano Ramos)
and the contemporary European novel. I read Huxley and Silone at
the same time as O Moleque Ricardo and Jubiaba.
when did you begin to study literature seriously?
ERM: When I entered secondary school I realized that I had
read more than any of my classmates and more than some of my professors.
This gave me the idea of devoting myself to teaching literature.
Literary criticism as a profession practically did not exist at
that time in Uruguay. Only the people my age were really interested
in criticism. I had a couple of journalist friends who wrote movie
or theater reviews for magazines, and they began to urge me: "But
why don't you write down what you're always talking about?"
I thought that they meant to shut me up once and for all, but actually
they wanted to stimulate me. I wrote two things then for a magazine
that was devoted to the cinema and the theater but had a book section.
The first was a long article on Welles' Citizen Kane, which
had just premiered in Montevideo and which I had gone to see three
times on successive nights. I spoke about Proust and memory, of
Dos Passos and simultaneity, and I think that I even inserted something
on Borges, because I had already read a brilliant item on his in
Sur about the movie. The other was a review of The Garden
of Forking Paths, the first book of fantastic stories by Borges.
But it wasn't published. In 1941 it was difficult for anyone in
Montevideo to believe (as I did) that this was the most important
book of fiction of the century. The weekly Marcha already
existed in Montevideo since 1939, and for a while the literary review
section was in the hands of the generation which was then thirty
years old or more. Around 1942 and 1943, we younger ones came in.
I began to contribute a few notes, very brief and compact because
I had great difficulty in writing and also because Borges was my
Then you followed Borges from the start?
ERM: Yes, I had discovered Borges in the same manner, casually.
The romantic aunt with the great imagination subscribed to the Argentine
weekly El Hogar (The Home), a magazine for women and the
family. Naturally, I always browsed through it, and one day, suddenly,
I found a page called "Foreign Books and Authors," signed
by someone called Jorge Luis Borges. It must have been around 1936;
I was about fifteen years old. Of course I didn't know who Borges
was. But since he wrote about authors that stimulated my curiosity,
writers that were beginning to be translated into Spanish, some
by Borges himself, I immediately became addicted to him. He spoke
of Kafka, of Joyce, and of Faulkner. I began to collect his articles.
Soon after, while rummaging through bookstores, I discovered that
Borges not only wrote the book section of El Hogar, but was
the author of volumes of criticism, like Inquisitions (1925),
which I found at a second-hand bookdealer, and that he also wrote
stories. In the same store I found The Universal History of Infamy
(1935) in an uncut, virginal copy. They had been unable to sell
it. And I also discovered the Argentine magazine Sur, which
had been founded by Victoria Ocampo in 1931 and to which Borges
had frequently contributed. In discovering Borges, I already had
the best possible model for criticism. The first articles that I
wrote for Marcha were plagiarisms of his format and something
of his style. Soon, though, I realized that he was inimitable.
you came to edit the literary section of Marcha, no?
ERM: I contributed to Marcha for years without ever
going to the copyroom or meeting the editor, a formidable man by
the name of Carlos Quijano. I had such little professionalism then
that I didn't have a typewriter and submitted my articles in longhand.
Until one day in 1945, when I accepted the editor-ship of the literary
section of Marcha, and then I decided to go to the printer
and correct the proofs myself. When I entered the room, the smell
of the ink and the heat of the presses seemed to me more delicious
than Paradise. I got hooked again: the smell of my early childhood
seized me. From that moment on I religiously went to the printer's
every Thursday until the end of 1957.
What critical methodology was in vogue among the critics of your
age at that time?
ERM: The people of my age belonged to the group that I later
baptized "the generation of '45" in a study that is now
included, in expanded form, in a book called La literatura uruguaya
del medio siglo (1966). It was a hypercritical generation, precisely
because there had been no up-to-date criticism in the previous generation.
We had to look back to the nineteenth century (to Bauzá,
Zorrilla de San Martín) or to the beginnings of the twentieth
(to Rodó and Zum Felde) for our models. Up to 1947 there
was no Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the University, and
we had to seek inspiration in foreign critics or in the small numbers
of teachers in secondary education who were interested in criticism.
Fortunately, in Argentina, on the other side of the River Plate,
people like the Dominican Pedro Henríquez Ureña, the
great master of Hispanic historical criticism, were active; and
the Spaniard Amado Alonso, translator of Ferdinand de Saussure and
Vossler and a specialist in Romance stylistics, had settled in Buenos
Aires. Also, Francisco Romero, the Argentine professor of philosophy,
who introduced very good contemporary texts in impeccable translations.
We also read Alfonso Reyes, the Mexican humanist, and the hallucinatory
Martínez Estrada, who already in the thirties made spectral
analyses of the Pampa and of monstrous Buenos Aires in a Spenglerian
vein. But above all, we read the new literature. We were attracted
to everything that was being done in Europe and in the United States
since the beginning of the century: the Surrealists, Joyce, Kafka,
Proust, Céline, Eliot, Pound. We read French well, but English
with difficulty and with the aid of translations. We had also discovered
some key Hispanic American writers, who enabled us to put for-eign
ones in perspective. In poetry, there was Huidobro, Vallejo, and
above all the Neruda of Residence on Earth (1935). This was
the trio that opened our eyes and allowed us to view Spanish poetry,
so cele-brated in this century, in a broad and polemical context.
As far as we were concerned, those poets did not oppose Borges,
but instead complemented him. They were the avant garde, modernity,
the ones who brought to poetry the same type of revolution that
Borges brought to prose fiction and to criticism. We read with a
sense of militancy. In addition, we had a local teacher, Juan Carlos
Onetti, who had been the first secretary to the editor of Marcha
and who was then living and writing novels in Buenos Aires. We also
discovered, although somewhat later, one Octavio Paz amidst the
pages of an excellent mexican magazine called El Hijo Pródigo.
But Paz's best books did not appear until the fifties.
philosophical influences did you receive during your formative years?
ERM: In the last two years of secondary school we studied
philosophy with professors who had been trained in Germany or who
had studied German texts. When the liberation of France and the
down-fall of Germany unleashed French existentialism, we were already
prepared for the assault. In the first place, because in Spain the
Revista de Occidente, founded by Ortega y Gasset in 1923
and suspended because of the Civil War in 1936, had been translating
and commenting on German philosophers for a period of thirteen years.
Ortega had talked about and had translated or had others translate
Dilthey, Husserl, Spengler, Scheler, Heidegger. Also, in Spain,
a translation of the complete works of Freud had appeared. In Argentina,
Victoria Ocampo had had Jung translated, and Romero's work had paralleled
Ortega's; in Mexico, after Franco's victory, the Fondo de Cultura
Económica continued the work of translating and commenting
with the same staff from the Revista de Occidente.
What specific teachings did you glean from Borges' criticism?
ERM: The subject is immense, mainly because Borges did not
limit himself to bringing together certain ideas in some of his
texts, but instead filled his poetry, his essays and his stories
with all manner of intuitions and perspectives. For instance, the
best example of his poetics of reading can be found in the story,
"Pierre Ménard, Author of Don Quijote." I think
what was most important to us was his conception of fiction as fiction.
In times when those on the left spoke only of realistic literature
and of literary commitment to politics, Borges insisted on writing
fiction and demonstrated in his work that realism was a literary
convention which had been developed since the beginning of the sixteenth
century and artificially codified in the nineteenth. That the psychological
novel was based on arbitrariness and not on profound analysis. That
the message of a book does not lie in what it explicitly says, but
in how it says it. That the future of the novel depends on the fantastic.
That the detective novel is today's most important genre. I am exaggerating
his opinions, but in substance, that is how he felt. There are old
pieces by Borges that directed me to a new poetics of the narrative:
"La fruición literaria" (1927); "El arte narrativo
y la magia" (1932); "Elementos de preceptiva" (1933).
The second one was translated into French and published in Tel
Quel in the '60's and started a whole series of critical reactions.
But it is, above all, in the prologue of The Invention of Morel
(1940), the extraordinary novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, where
Borges comes into opposition with critics like Ortega y Gasset,
who in The Dehumanization of Art and Ideas of the Novel had
denied the possibility of the continued composition of works with
interesting and original plots and declared himself in favor of
the psychological novel. Taking advantage of the excesses and psychological
arbitrariness of Dostoevski and Proust and praising the imagination
of James and Kafka, Borges defends a type of fiction in which causality
is magic and the writing itself predicts its own development. Very
few studied this text, which remains buried in Bioy's book, since
Borges did not bother to include it in Other Inquisitions. But
in Montevideo, around 1940, we were already applying what Borges
had said in those essays as well as in his brilliant fiction. For
this reason, when French existentialism burst forth, our reaction
was twofold: a feeling of déjà vu because of
what this movement contained of German existentialism, very familiar
to us; and a conviction that in literary criticism, existentialism
meant a reaction to the sociological readings of the nineteenth
century. (Borges, on the other hand, proposed a textual reading
which anticipated the best of structuralism.)
Does that mean that your group was in conflict with those who followed
existentialism or engagée literature?
ERM: Yes and no. To tell the truth, we were also interested
in existentialism. We borrowed its philo-sophical side (for example,
the Sartre of L'Imaginaire rather than the solemn trivialities
of Quest-ce que la littérature?); and as for political
compromise, we practiced it in a personal sphere, carefully avoiding
all complicity with the state, attacking official culture, and living
modestly on our professors' salaries. With a group of people who
thought as I did, I founded the magazine Número in
1949 to round out in more academic fashion the task of critical
diffusion accomplished by Marcha. But, because of the atmosphere
prevailing in Montevideo at that time, we were regarded as existentialists
in the French vein in spite of it all. We dated back to before Sartre
or Beauvoir, though; and we were closer to Céline, Faulkner,
and Onetti than to Camus; Heidegger and Husserl interested us more
than Merleau-Ponty. In French literature, the old Surrealism, as
well as some relatively new writers like Raymond Queneau, caught
our fancy more than the huge, indigestible novels produced at the
Café des Deux Magots. That doesn't mean that we did
not approve of some canonical existentialist texts. For example.
I was very interested in Sartre's Baudelaire because it improved
on the literal psychoanalysis of Marie Bonaparte's almost demented
study of Poe. It is clear that Sartre wanted Baudelaire to fit into
the straitjacket of his existentialism, and the poet escaped him;
but his book directed me to a type of analysis that rounded out
what I had already seen in Freud and Jung. Saint Genêt
also interested me very much; it was one of the few books I bought
during a first brief visit to Paris in 1951. It bored me, certainly,
and I had to read it piecemeal, but it did confirm a suspicion awakened
by his Baudelaire: a new type of literary biography was possible.
But since Sartre is a kind of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
in literature, the approv-al of a book, or part of a book, does
not extend to the entire work. In sum, certain things about French
existentialism interested us, but we couldn't totally endorse it,
as did so many in Latin America and above all in mimetic Buenos
was that reflected in the group's political attitude?
ERM: We always stayed on the left, with a posture that was
both anti-imperialistic and socialist. To contribute to Marcha
meant being automatically excluded from all official enterprises,
which in a country as small as Uruguay left one out in the cold.
One could repeat what a famous Mexican once said: "To be out
of the state budget is to be in error." We always made that
error, and it cost us dearly. On the other hand, what distinguished
us from the local Communists of the French existentialists was our
refusal to read literature exclusively in sociological or political
terms. I insist on the word exclusively, because we did not
refuse to read literature as a document of an era. In Número
we published in 1949 what I think was the first translation of Lukács
into Spanish: a segment of his book on Goethe. But when we
did social criticism, we were aware that we were not reading the
works as literary texts.
What was your first book?
ERM: An annotated edition of the Diary of a Journey to
Paris by Horacio Quiroga, a trip taken precisely in 1900, and
a collection of essays on the principal Uruguayan thinker of that
time, José Enrique Rodó en el Novecientos (1950).
Both books were the result of my work in the "Instituto de
Investigaciones y Archivos Literarios", which had its seat
in the National Library, where I spent two years organizing the
papers of Horacio Quiroga and reclassifying those of Herrera y Reissig.
I used the time to read as much as I could from those archives,
and also devoted a special issue of Número to Uruguayan
literature of 1900, that is to say, the Modernist period.
Was it the work on Rodó that led you to writing literature
ERM: Yes. I have always had a passion for history and especially
for biography. As a youngster I read all of those ironic biographies
by Strachey and by André Maurois, also Zweig's pseudoanalytical
ones and the heavily novelistic ones by Emil Ludwig. Then in 1949,
I won a scholarship from the British Council for a year's study
in Cambridge. One of the most important writers of the past century,
the Venezuelan Andrés Bello, lived for nearly twenty years
in the Romantic England of 1810 to 1829. I was very interested in
Bello; he seemed to be the first Hispano-American to realize that
Hispanic American culture was not derived exclusively from the Spanish.
Neither did he think of it as an offshoot of French culture (as
many during the Romantic and Modernist times believed and still
do), but as a culture in which the Spanish, the French, the English
and the classical are interwoven with the native strains. Reading
his work, so forgotten then, I asked myself: how did that man come
to conceive such a synthesis? At what moment in his life? The obvious
answer was: in England. Because the England of that time was the
first modern nation, a nation which with the Industrial Revolution
had taken an incredible leap into the future, and Bello was the
first Hispanic traveler to have experienced that modernity. When
I was offered a scholarship to complete the project on Bello, I
asked to go to Cambridge, where F. R. Leavis was then teaching.
I had read some of his books and knew that he was very dedicated
to the study of the English novel of the nineteenth and twentieth
What happened with Leavis?
ERM: Well, that is the best part. Leavis was at the height
of his reputation as a critic and as a professor. His influence
in the United States was already quite great. In England, and especially
in Cambridge, he had much opposition. Perhaps his arrogant and insolent
attitudes contributed to that polemic. He was extremely aggressive
with everyone and fought a war to the death against the Establishment,
that is (according to him), the TLS, the BBC and last but
not least the British Council. I was saved from being included among
his enemies because I came from the far South, and also because
I had been recommended by one of his disciples, Dr. Derek Traversi,
a specialist on Shakespeare. Before arriving at Cambridge, I had
read his latest book, The Great Tradition, an extravagant
and polemical study on the English novel. What interested me most
about Leavis was his courage to define what was really important
in a specific literature. The dogmatism with which he wrote and
judged was in part compensated by that critical audacity. When I
was able to see him in person, I discovered that he had other virtues.
He was an extraordinary professor: despotic, arbitrary, but with
the fascination that a great actor holds. The critical imagination
he put into his classes was outstanding, and he seemed to me an
unattainable model. Any lecture of his was a spectacle. I took various
courses from him: one about literary analysis, another on English
poetry, and a third on Lawrence as a novelist. In this course, I
recall, he became incensed against Eliot (Mr. Eliot, as he always
said) because of his attacks on Lawrence. For Leavis not only had
a feeling of literary solidarity with Lawrence, but also one of
class, and he thought that sophisticated critics (like Eliot and
Bertrand Russell) hadn't understood Lawrence even if they pretended
to sympathize with him. The social and moral context of literature
was very important to Leavis. He was a proletarian puritan. Although
much less systematic than Lukács or Goldmann, he had studied
English reality closely and knew his Marx. Leavis' excesses do not
even need to be mentioned, but I will tell you an anecdote. At the
end of a very moralistic class on Lawrence, I once conquered my
shyness and dared detain Leavis at the door for a moment to ask
him: "And what about Proust?" Before answering (he was
small, his sparse disheveled hair flying in all directions), he
fulminated me with his big, desperate eyes, and then he said one
word: "Unhealthy!" I remained silent because (in spite
of Borges) I adored Proust. When I finally reacted, Leavis had already
disappeared in the black whirlwind of his academic robe. But if
Leavis' personality was so extraordinary, no less extraordinary
were the many leads in criticism that his classes gave me. He put
me in touch with the work of Arnold and of Richards, and also with
And the study on Bello?
ERM: That, too, passed through various stages. Upon arriving
back in Montevideo in 1951, I was delayed in organizing all the
index cards. Then I realized that it would be necessary to spend
some time in Chile, where Bello had gone after leaving England,
and where he had completed, in thirty-five years of intense work,
his encyclopedic oeuvre. So I obtained a scholarship to visit
Chile for a few months in 1954, and with the material gathered there
I sketched a literary biography. Since it was of no interest to
me to speak about Bello's many non-literary activities, I decided
that the biography would be a study of his intellectual evolution
as a critic and as a poet, a biography in which there would be a
dialogue of texts, involving not only each of Bello's works, but
also those of his contemporaries. Bello's readings seemed to me
as important as his own books. I believe I was the first to study
in detail the catalogs of the libraries to which Bello had access,
from the British Museum and Miranda's splendid private library in
London to the libraries of Santiago, Chile, and in particular those
of his wealthy friends. My distant model was Boswell's classic biography
of Johnson. But since I didn't have the opportunity to converse
with Bello, as Boswell did with his subject, I had to make the texts
speak. The book was ready in 1956, but I continued revising it and
took another trip to England (1957-60) to gather more material.
The book was published in 1968 with the title El otro Andrés
What method are you following in the case of Borges?
ERM: Before I answer, let me tell you that between the biographies
of Bello and Borges, I wrote two more. The one of Horacio Quiroga
was relatively simple. Quiroga, like Poe, had such a tragic life
that the main task was to avoid melodrama and instill a certain
critical sense in the reading of his symbolically autobiographical
texts. The second biography I attempted was completely different.
I had promised to write a book on Pablo Neruda's poetry, and while
preparing it, I discovered that I first had to reconstruct his life,
since Neruda's poetry is unabashedly autobiographical. Contrary
to Rodó, Bello and Quiroga, whose private correspondence
I was able to use but whom I had never known personally, Pablo Neruda
was not only a friend of mine, (I knew him since 1952), but had
also jealously guarded his intimate papers. Included among these
was an extraordinary collection of letters, written while he lived
in the Orient, that I had read in its entirety but which was technical
out of my reach: I could only cite those passages which had been
included in a previous biography. The biographical part of the book
would have turned out very dry had it not occurred to me to apply
to this work the concept of persona which Ezra Pound had
explained so brilliantly and which Hugh Kenner comments on in his
first book on the poet. My thesis was that Neruda had created a
persona, not just a work. The violent hostility which the
child finds within the family leads the writer to publish under
a pseudonym, and that pseudonym, Pablo Neruda, which conceals Ricardo
Neftalí Elicer Reyes, is his first creation: the persona.
Going on from there, in the second part of my book I study the metamorphoses
of the poet's self-constructed persona: his obsession to
tell his life in both verse and prose, his jealous care to rewrite
entire passages of his life clash with the effort of diligent enemies
to correct Neruda. And so it is that the biographical part of El
viajero inmóvil (1966) is like a dialogue of the different
versions of Neruda's biography, versions which end harmoniously
in the baroque synthesis that is the persona, Pablo Neruda.
In the end I felt that I did not write the life of a concrete man
but a biography of an imaginary persona who signs real poetry.
It is a kind of meta-life.
ERM: Yes, I think so, although I would not use such language.
The decision to write the biography of Neruda's persona,
or personae, helped in my next work. In Borges' case I found
myself with an even more difficult situation. In the first place,
I have known Borges personally since 1945; I know all of his family
and especially Leonorcita, his mother. Secondly, there is no accessible
private correspondence, or what there is is so fragmentary that
it is of little use. Thirdly, there is much intimate material, but
it cannot be used without disturbing many people. Also, Borges has
not been as directly autobiographical as Neruda, so that one cannot
cite his work to illustrate his life without first making all manner
of transpositions. An example: as a youth he dedicates a love poem
to a certain young lady whose real name he hides with initials;
years later in republishing the poem he changes the initials. On
the other hand, there is no official biography of Borges (the one
by Alicia Jurado is the best known but is of little interest). In
an autobiography originally published in The New Yorker in
English (Borges has not yet authorized the Spanish version) many
episodes of his life are told, but in such a way that their importance
is systematically reduced to triviality or their veracity deliberately
undermined. In interviews Borges also offers much biographical material,
but in a discontinuous and undramatized manner or in the form of
tantalizing allusions. Therefore, a life of Borges along the same
lines as Neruda's was impossible. On the other hand, Borges had
already anticipated that impossibility by maintaining that he never
had a life and that his readings are more important than his work.
He has gone even further: he has insisted that it is impossible
for one person to write the life of another. And he has said this
at the start of his biography of Evaristo Carriego (1930), an Argentine
poet. This ironically structured book is a practical demonstration
of the impossibility of any biography. In a prologue that I wrote
for the French translation of the book, I insisted that before Borges,
Carriego was a real person, author of known books, but that now
he is only another Borges character.
Then, how have you solved the problem?
ERM: By grabbing the bull by the horns. In his life, Borges
(like Edmond Teste) has tried to "kill the puppet": to
eliminate the real man who breathes, walks and sleeps, in order
to leave only the intratextual one: the one that exists in his words.
Because of this, it was necessary to avoid the temptation to novelize
his life, and it was necessary to fend off the temptation of an
academic biography in which each of Borges' books would serve as
the pillar of a chapter: a biography of the "Life and Works"
variety. Something else had to be found. I tried various ways throughout
the years because I have been preparing myself to write this book
since 1949, at least. I even wrote a long piece in 1955 in which
I deliberately mixed life and work, but always from the point of
view of literary evolution. That same year I wrote a melodramatically
entitled book in which I used Borges as the focal point for a study
on the relationship between the young Argentine literary generation
and its masters (El juicio de los parricidas [The Judgment of
the Parricides]). The texts of Borges and his contemporaries
and those of their young critics were set in counterpoint with a
reality that was undergoing an acute political, moral and cultural
crisis. But the formula for that book was not viable for a fullblown
study. If only five years of Argentine cultural life had taken me
two hundred pages, how many volumes would I have needed to tell
of the "life and times" of Borges? I'd rather not think
of it. So I discarded the idea and continued searching. Until one
day I hit upon a solution: instead of Borges' life, Borges'
biography had to be written. I only knew a few things about
his life, and half of them were not publishable. On the other hand,
I knew much more about Borges's biography, and everything
had already been published and was publishable. That is, I knew
what he and others had told of his life; I knew the texts
of his life: that's what I called the biography. What had
to be done was to systematize and correlate these texts in such
a way as to be both intertextual and intratextual those
two terms that are so well-liked by our friend Severo Sarduy. It
was necessary to reveal through the readings and the confrontation
of texts the explicit or implicit system which constitutes the texts
of Borges' life. The first idea came while organizing in 1969 the
material for the small book that I published with Seuil, Borgès
par lui-même (1970). But since the collection adhered
to a compact format, I had to limit myself to a presentation of
Borges' texts that was more critical than biographical. Two years
ago, when faced with the task of the complete biography of Borges
that Dutton had asked me to do, I realized that I had to start not
with the parents or grandparents, but with a basic fact of the writer
that Borges would become: Borges learned to read English before
Spanish. That is the first phrase of the book, and with that,
I weave my text with the text of Borges' biography: interviews,
his autobiography, Borges' own literary texts which establish a
sort of dialogue among themselves, notes, prologues, epilogues,
rectifications, omissions, spurious quotations, all the intra and
intertextual material which constitutes the sole and general text
of Borges' work, quoted once and again in each chapter of my biography,
to construct a textual labyrinth in the center of which is the word
Borges. Which is to say that I was able to write Borges' biography
only from the moment when I realized that what interested me was
not his life but the writing of his biography. I make clear that
in this sense the stress should be on graphy.
What would you say to the academic critics who claim that what you
do in your role as cultural promoter is "tub-thumping"?
ERM: First of all, let me say that as a critic I have written
and published books as complicated as, if not more complicated than,
those of the majority of my colleagues in this Hispano-American
field, and that my scholarly books stand as monuments to academic
boredom and as fodder for moths. Now, as to the job of cultural
promoter, that is something else. It seems to me perfectly legitimate
that an academic critic who respects himself and is protected by
centuries of universities, museums, bibliographical indices and
scholarly publications should have the right to disregard my work
as cultural promoter. Such a person, surely, would not be interested
in anything published after 1895, and perhaps even that date is
somewhat recent. To write about new and even very new writers is
always to run a very great risk.
Now that you have been at Yale for several years, what is your opinion
of the Anglo-American criticism that studies Hispano-American literature
in the universities of this country?
ERM: It is very conservative as a general rule. They are
still talking of Modernismo, of the vanguard of the twenties,
of "magical realism" and other such aberrations. Although
they occasionally quote something from Paz or Borges and have their
students read García Márquez and even Manuel Puig,
the foundations of their criticism date back to Amado Alonso in
the best of cases and to Menéndez Pelayo in the worst. Only
the younger critics have begun to study the new European currents,
and I don't refer exclusively to French Structuralism, but also
to Russian Formalism and to Italian. English, and the more recent
North American criticism. This is not only noticeable in academic
circles, but also in journalistic reviews of the translations of
Hispano-American authors. Books by Paz and Cortázar are systematically
misread by gentlemen of very good will and profound ignorance. The
case of Borges is the most singular. There have been some fine journalistic
studies of his works in this country, such as the one by John Updike
in The New Yorker or, in a more academic vein, Paul De Man's in
The New York Review of Books. But not long ago, The New
York Times Book Review published a review of a work by Garcia
Márquez in which the critic, in passing, compared Borges
to Washington Irving (I will not say his name because he is a very
charming person). I was dumbfounded. Had that critic seriously read
Irving and Borges? Recently, Updike attacked Cabrera Infante in
an illiterate review for The New Yorker in which he demonstrated
that he had failed to understand the very plot of Three Trapped
Tigers. The worst of it is that he said banalities which he
would not have dared pronounce about a book by Robbe-Grillet or
Carlo Emilio Gadda or even Heinrich Böll. And I am sure that
Cabrera Infante is just as important a writer as any of these three.
It is an enormous problem. The critics of Hispanic Amer-ican litterature
in translation are either literature professors like us, who naturally
are suspected of being partial, or excellent critics of other literatures
who, when they write about ours, feel that they are slumming a bit.
Those very same critics would not dare improvise on Kafka or Pasternak
the bathtub solos that they dedicate to Cortázar or Guimarães
Rosa. But, at any rate, one can already feel a certain change. There
are critics (like Ronald Christ and Anna Balakian) who write without
condescension and with solid documentation about our literature.
Soon there will be more, I hope."
(Translated by Isabel C. Gómez)