The Borges Center: Insight into an Author’s Magical Mind

Issue Date: 
February 10, 2014

The influential Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), like most writers, believed that good writing starts with good reading. In his meticulous handwriting, he annotated the works of Oscar Wilde and G.K. Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, Søren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Borges, however, had a few small problems because of his wondrous reading habit. One was space. The other was money. His apartment in Buenos Aires held about 1,500 books—not enough for the prolific reader. His solution, says Daniel Balderston—Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Languages at Pitt—was to acquire moneyed and generous friends who were willing to give him open access to their libraries. Borges’ appetite for reading—and the work he was inspired to produce—is in great part what drives room 1309 in the Cathedral of Learning.

“This is The Borges Center,” Balderston says as he points to a Mac monitor on the desk where his assistant, graduate student Sebastián Urli, is hard at work. It’s not so much the computer Balderston is talking about, but a Web site,—a magnificent place of seemingly unlimited information about the life, work, and influence of Borges. The site boasted nearly 4,000 visitors in January alone. Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and London are popular cities for hits, though a map shows a presence across most of the world.

Balderston is director of Pitt’s Borges Center, which is supported by the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Some of the center’s online life is much what you’d expect: a biography and bibliography of Borges, information about the corresponding journal (of which Balderston is editor), lengthy lists of criticisms on and reviews of Borges’s works, as well examples of Borges-inspired art, including the audio of de Martín Matalon’s “La Rosa Profunda,” a beautiful sixteen-part musical score.

The pièce de résistance of the Web site, though, is the Finder’s Guide, a virtual-experience of the interconnectivity of Borges’s magnificent mind and reading habits. All 12,000 people, places, and texts referenced by Borges are indexed here with complete citations. A visitor will find it all: British Modernist Virginia Woolf, exiled Spanish theater actress Margarita Xirgu, “Fafnismal,” an early Norwegian poem. One could lose an entire snowy day just exploring for the sake of exploring and not even notice.

“A lot of people have said they wish they had something similar for the writer they are working on,” says Balderston.

The index started with Balderston’s 1986 The Literary Universe of Jorge Luis Borges, a two-year exercise in connecting the world inside Borges’ head. “I was obsessed,” he says of the undertaking required of the project.

Borges died a few months before Balderston’s publication appeared and, in the years since, the index has been updated as new editions of Borges’s work have been released and undiscovered or lost writings are found.

The original Borges Center began in 1994 in Denmark, where it was founded by Ivan Almeida and Cristina Parodi. They started Variaciones Borges, a journal of philosophy, semiotics, and literature, which is published twice a year in Spanish, English, and French. When Almeida and Parodi retired in 2005, Balderston took the helm and moved the Center to the University of Iowa, where he was then a professor. The Center came with Balderston when he joined the Pitt faculty three years later.

In addition to the continuing publication of Variaciones Borges and newly publishing some forthcoming scholarly texts, the Center also hosts lectures and larger events, such as the bilingual, two-day “Symposium of the Reception of Borges” in 2012.

There is no central clearing house for Borges’s manuscripts, papers, and personal library. Most of his work is in private collections and sells for thousands of dollars, even for just a one-page fragment. The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Virginia, and the New York Public Library—among others—give space to Borges collections.

Balderston became hooked on Borges during his last quarter as an undergraduate at Berkeley in 1974 and went on to write his dissertation on Borges while at Princeton. He has since written nine books, cowritten two others, and authored near-countless articles. Balderston’s book-packed walls look more like a comforting library than the stacked messes of some faculty offices. In an awkwardly shaped corner, Balderston has created a cozy reading nook, and it’s easy to imagine him lost in all of his books, his brain tucking away quotes and citations, much like Borges himself.