When Borges was Director of the National Library

María Esther Vázquez

tbr6-borgesI don’t believe I am wrong in asserting that the eighteen years Jorge Luis Borges directed the National Library in Buenos Aires (1955–1973) were the happiest of his life, even though blindness caught up with him during this time. At that point, he who imagined paradise “in the form of a library” experienced the paradox of having nearly a million books and not being able to read any of them. He could perceive shapes, shadows, and the color yellow but little by little was stranded in a gray fog.

The origins of the library building seem to be lifted from a dream by Borges. In 1885, Argentine President Julio Argentino Roca appointed Paul Groussac,[1] a French intellectual and naturalized Argentinian, as director of the National Library. In those years, the building that would become the library was being built as the headquarters of the National Lottery. Then the man who, in his own words, “lacked the gift of smiling” went without an appointment to the central seat of government to bring to Roca’s attention the shameful fact that the National Lottery—a form of immoral gambling—would have a sumptuous building, while the National Library was installed in a miserable site. Confronted with this justifiably irate fury, the president gave the building on 534 Mexico Street in the city of Buenos Aires to the National Library.

In 1901, essential renovations were done under Groussac’s supervision. However, he was frustrated that the original purpose of the building remained visible in the marble stairs, under the roof, in the adornment of the corners and the spheres of the domes, visible signs of the chance that presides over gambling; there were bronze wheels in the most unpredictable places and blindfolded, winged nymphs, wrapped in scant veils, standing on the tip of only one foot.

The deepest suggestiveness of the building for Borges was that in itself it constituted a labyrinth. Three years later after he assumed directorship of the library, Borges dictated the “Poem of the Gifts,” which he would dedicate to me years later. The poem begins:

Nadie rebaje a lágrima o reproche
Esta declaración de la maestría
De Dios, que con magnífica ironía
Me dio a la vez los libros y la noche
(No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God, who with such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness at one touch.)

In the same poem, he describes himself in phrases that are not simple metaphors:

Yo fatigo sin rumbo los confines
De esta alta y honda biblioteca ciega.
(Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines
High and profound, of this blind library.)

Lento en mi sombra, la penumbra hueca
Exploro con mi báculo indeciso
(In shadow, with a tentative stick, I try
The hollow twilight, slow and imprecise.)

Al errar por las lentas galerías
(Wandering through the gradual galleries)

Borges, taking the arm of any visitor (if it was an occasional visitor, all the better because he would leave very impressed, as happened to Emir Rodriguez Monegal) would climb to the top floor, up steep stairs to a low, narrow opening leading to a very small patio and a tin door. Next came more concrete stairs that ended in a dark hall. Borges advised his guests to be careful because ahead, they would find narrow, wooden steps. He and his guest next reached a very long hall with a low ceiling and openings on two sides; the one on the left, flanked by fixed windows, ended in a closed door. I seem to remember that this hall went around the dome, but for security reasons it had been closed. On the wider right side, a small door, which one had to bend down to enter, opened into a tiny, square space, where a circular hole in the floor ended eight or ten meters down in a marble stairway.

Borges would lean out fearlessly over the hole, testing the edge with his cane. One day, José Edmundo Clemente, the institution’s vice director and a great librarian who managed the library with complete efficiency, surrounded the hole with an iron railing to prevent a catastrophic accident. From that place remains a picture of Borges; Franco Maria Ricci, the Italian publisher, and I peering into the depths of that void.

Groussac lived with his family on the library’s first floor for 44 years until his death in 1929, when he was completely blind. Groussac’s successor, Gustavo Martinez Zubiría, also lived there, but Borges preferred to use the rooms for the library. He reserved some rooms, such as Groussac’s office, for the use of the building’s management.

Borges was a great admirer and reader of Groussac, who organized Saturday afternoon music events in the large reading salon. They were followed by conferences and readings with excellent writers, some little known, whose works he later published in La Biblioteca, the important literary magazine he edited. Borges, following the example of his predecessor whom he considered a master, also organized Saturday events at the library. He offered free admission and invited the most important intellectuals of the time, both Argentineans and foreigners, to give lectures and talks. He continued to publish the magazine La Biblioteca and secured an excellent time slot on the National Radio for talks about books and writers.

Additionally, Borges established the Department of Cultural Extension, offering free courses for employees and workers from 8 to 10 in the evening. These courses were arranged through the generosity of the friends of Borges, who also participated, talking about diverse writers and literary works. His sister, Norah Borges, discussed drawing and painting, while José Edmundo Clemente lectured on philosophical ideas. The most varied disciplines were presented, and I vaguely also remember French and English classes. Everything was very much homemade. The students were neighbors of the library, and at the end of the course, they received a certificate of completion signed by Borges.

Of all these approaches to culture, the most significant were the Saturday conferences, which sometimes drew so many people that every space was occupied. The young and not-so young sat on the floors of the hallway and the entry lobby, where audio equipment was set up to allow those outside to participate.

In front of the large, central reading lounge was a stage with a large table, behind which usually were employees who attended to readers’ requests. On Saturdays, though, the table became more dignified. It was covered by a plush, purple cloth, and the chairs were replaced with three regal armchairs. The one in the center was reserved for the main speaker who sat facing a slightly obsolete microphone that gave out a plaintive whistle from time to time. At either end of the table sat Borges and Clemente.

After the initial introduction, the talk began. Borges, with his head straight and lost in a grey fog, would jingle the change in his jacket pocket. During a pause in the talk as the speaker took a drink of water, the audience could perfectly hear the tinkling of metal. Only when Borges heard the applause would he realize that the talk was over, and then, he would applaud enthusiastically while affectionately patting the speaker.

Julián Marías[2] attracted enthusiastic multitudes eager to listen to him talk about Ortega y Gasset. Another popular speaker was Soledad Ortega, the philosopher’s daughter. However, the most enthusiastic response was received by Miguel Alfredo Olivera who pretended to be Charles Dickens. In truth, Olivera had almost exactly the same physical traits as Dickens in his youthful portraits: a luxuriant moustache, which Olivera made larger with hair salon products; a curly, square beard whose length covered his collar; hair brushed over his wide forehead and covering the top of his ears; thick eyebrows; a serious face; large, expressive eyes; and well-delineated lips. Olivera also dressed like Dickens in beige and brown checkered vests with pockets, in which he hooked his thumbs while talking and walking on the stage. Olivera had a powerful baritone voice that didn’t need a microphone. The excellent acoustics of the room that Groussac had designed for his concerts helped. In the library, Olivera reenacted the talks that Dickens had given to the public one century earlier as he read excerpts from his novels. Olivera, a Dickens reenactor, had so much success evoking the writer that he did it often. Fifty years after the writer’s death, people still read Dickens, and his attraction remained vital.

In each of the 18 years that Borges was in charge of the library, he celebrated his birthday on August 24. In the southern hemisphere, it is winter then, and winter was much harder then than today, but only on the occasion of Borges’s birthday was the chimney lit because wood was always expensive, and the budget tight. On the evening of Borges’s birthday, his mother and friends came to the library: Adolfo Bioy Casares, Manuel Peyrou (Borges admired the plots of his Noir novels), the too-British Patricio Gannon, and the already mentioned Olivera. Then came the friendly ladies with their elegant dresses: Wally Zenner, the exotic beauty Bettina Edelberg, Susana Bombal, and Luisa Mercedes Levinson,[3] with her large, purple hats, matching shawls, and generous eccentricity. From time to time, she brought her very young daughter, Luisa Valenzuela.

Champagne was served in glasses not exactly made of Baccarat crystal and purchased the previous afternoon. Borges toasted each and every guest, then drank his champagne in a gulp and, with a princely gesture that he perfected through the years, threw his glass against the big, lighted chimney. His friends did the same, celebrating him with long applause.

Many years after Borges left the Library and the part of his soul that would always remain there, I asked him if it came back in his dreams, and he answered, “I dream often about the library, and inexplicably, as it happens in dreams, the library is infinite and belongs to me.”

NOTES

  1. Paul Groussac (Toulouse, 1848—Buenos, Aires 1929) was a writer, historian, journalist, rigorous literary critic, and outstanding librarian. He held an important position among the intellectuals of the time. He became blind during the last years of his life when he was still the director of the National Library. Thus, in the “Poem of Gifts,” Borges compares their destinies.  // back
  2. A philosopher, he was the father of the Spanish novelist Javier Marías.  // back
  3. These women were all writers. Susana Bombal inspired Borges to write a poem entitled with her name (translator’s note).  // back

MARÍA ESTHER VÁZQUEZ, Argentine writer and journalist, has published five books of short stories; two of poetry; the biographies Victoria Ocampo: El mundo como destino and Borges, Espendor y derrota (Premio Comillas, Editorial Tusquets); and El mundo de Manuel Mujica Lainez, a book of interviews and memoirs. In collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges, with whom she worked for two decades, she wrote Literaturas germánicas medievales and Introducción a la literatura inglesa. She is a recipient of the Konex Prize and the Rosalia de Castro given by the PEN in Santiago de Compostela, and has twice received the Primer Premio Municipal de la ciudad de Buenos Aires. Her work has been translated into French, Italian and Turkish. Currently, she is president of La Fundación Victoria Ocampo.