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Edwin Williamson

Author of The Penguin History of Latin America

6 Works 804 Members 11 Reviews

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Edwin Williamson is the King Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Exeter College.

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Top shelf biography. I could have done with a little bit less of the Argentine politics; I understand that it is very linked with Borges and his writing, but... still, so well researched and a really comfortable pace. Great job.
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BooksForDinner | 5 other reviews | Apr 19, 2022 |
From first contact to the early 2000s. Mostly about the larger nations, mostly about economics and politics, and mostly about the 19th and 20th centuries. Countries like Uruguay, Honduras and Guatemala receive only passing mention. There are two chapters on literature and the arts which are a nice break from the almost interminable material on import substituting industrialization. Definitely concerned with the perspective of the powerful, consequently the indigenous are sidelined. Probably best seen as a stepping stone to more focused histories.… (more)
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encephalical | 4 other reviews | Dec 15, 2018 |
A heavily researched but still unsatisfying biography of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. When he was “discovered” in the 1970s, Borges went from pathetically obscure to darling of college sophomores in the blink of an eye (“Hey, this guy Borges thinks we might just be the dreams of somebody else! How cool is that!”) I confess being as infatuated as my juvenile compatriots, but Borges’ quirky writing still has a hold.


Edwin Williamson’s biography seems to lack pacing. There’s a lot of detailed material on Borges life up to his 30s or so; a sickly and myopic childhood; a family move from Buenos Aries to Geneva, where Borges’ father seems to have forced Borges into a traumatic encounter with a prostitute to “make a man of him”; another family move to Majorca where Borges seems to have established some sort of relationship with another prostitute; and return to Buenos Aries to engage in endless rounds of sterile argument among Argentine intellectuals over which literary theory was correct (without anybody actually writing any literature). After that, Borges settles down to life with his mother (he shared an apartment with her until she died at age 99) and a low paying job as assistant librarian in a suburb. Perhaps he had fewer literary contacts and thus Williamson had fewer sources; the book coasts along until the 1970s, when the now elderly (born 1899) Borges is suddenly “discovered” by the international literary world. He won a series of literature prizes and served as a visiting professor at several American universities. There was a falling-out with literary friends over his apparent support of the Chilean military junta, and he eventually retired to Geneva where he died in 1986.


Williamson’s treatment is less of a life of Borges and more of an attempt to psychoanalyze him. He focuses a lot on the women in Borges’ life. Admittedly there are some strange things going on. The younger Borges would never be mistake for a Latin matinee idol; he was ultra-myopic and wore glasses with perfectly round frames and “Coke bottle” lenses. He had a tendency to fall head over heels for unobtainable women; the novelist Norah Lange; her sister Haydée; and various society ladies. Williamson contends the Norah Lange affair was especially traumatic; she was never serious about him while he was heartbreakingly serious about her. Lange was of Scandinavian ancestry and a flaming redhead; Williamson claims references to redheaded women in Borges stories were all flashbacks to her. Perhaps; but perhaps they’re just redheaded women in a story; the main story (The Aleph) Williamson cites as evidence was written many years after the affair with Norah Lange was over. In another sad affair, Borges had a brief relationship with Elsa Astete in 1930; then, 14 years later and after she was long married he wrote her a few passionate love letters; then, 23 years after that and at the urging of his mother, he married the now widowed Elsa. The marriage lasted three years – Elsa didn’t fit in with Borges friends and academic career. He had a fling with the much younger Estella Canto in 1944; and again in 1949; and again in 1955; Canto noted that Borges was so heavily dependent on his mother that whenever he and Canto went out he excused himself every half hour to call home. Borges’ last romantic interest was Maria Kodama, who he met when he was a professor and she a student; he was 37 years older. He became quite infatuated and she became his “secretary”; eventually they married in a pagan ceremony in Iceland (divorce from Elsa being illegal in Argentina at the time, but apparently Odin didn’t care) and again in a church service in Geneva shortly before his death. Well, that’s all interesting, and I suppose Williamson makes his case that Borges was a little conflicted about women; but I wonder if the degree of influence on his literary work was a great as Williamson makes it. Williamson has similar takes on other recurring themes in Borges work - knife fights, bravery, books, and tigers – but it seems to me that the effort Williamson makes in tracing these links might have been better used in tracking down more ordinary information. For example, we never learn how the Borges family supported itself during their travels to Europe. Borges senior was a lawyer, but he obviously wasn’t taking a lot of cases in Switzerland. There’s some hint that the family owned some property that they rented out but no real analysis of finances; they were certainly impoverished after Borges’ father died. Similarly, we never learn what was wrong with Borges eyes. Williamson mentions that Borges was severely myopic, and that he had “several” cataract operations even while young (Iwas initially a little puzzled how you can have more than one cataract operation per eye, but since having cataract surgery myself I’ve learned that before the advent of intraocular replacement lenses sometimes things didn’t go well) and finally that Borges suffered a detached retina after a fall, but there’s no great detail in what was going on. It’s also never clear exactly how much formal education Borges had. As near as I can tell, he attended a “college” in Geneva, but Williamson doesn’t say what that means – is this like a four-year college, or a high school, or what? And, of course, there are no maps. The book gives a lot of geographic detail – where the literary friends met, the addresses of the apartments where Borges lived, the paths of the long walks Borges liked to take – and a simple street map of Buenos Aires would make this a lot simpler.


Williamson’s use of Borges’s stories to illustrate supposed facets of his life is repetitive to the point of annoyance. Williamson, as mentioned, describes the story The Aleph with the contention that Borges intended it to symbolized the end of his relationship with Norah Lange. Then, a few dozen pages later, Williamson describes the plot of The Aleph again to illustrate some other aspect of Borges’ life. Then he does it again. And again. Borges’ literary output was not that large, but still it seems like Williamson is doing an excessive amount of recycling. One of the things that attracted me to Borges was his use of mathematics – infinite series, recursivity, and set theory – but other than a mention that Borges was fascinated by Zeno’s paradox Williamson never acknowledges this.


Another potential problem is Williamson may have fallen afoul of Borges notorious sense of dry humor. Many of Borges works are cast as reviews of imaginary books or biographies of imaginary authors. Borges is known to have concocted some literary hoaxes; translations of non-existent Arabian Nights stories, for example. I wonder if some of Borges works are deliberate attempts to confuse his trail – especially since his output increased as he got more popular. Williamson claims that Borges’ story The Approach to al-Mu’tasim is a fragment of a never completed autobiographical novel; it may be that Borges told somebody that but reading the story will make you wonder how the hypothetic novel was going to derive from it. It could be that was Borges intention.


There are a lot of interesting details about Borges here, and he was an interesting guy; it’s just not clear that the details give as much insight into Borges’ life as Williamson argues for. A little let psychology and a little more data would have been helpful.
… (more)
 
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setnahkt | 5 other reviews | Dec 5, 2017 |
I absolutely agree with Brendan. Amazing how little SA history one learned years ago in US schools
 
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carterchristian1 | 4 other reviews | Feb 16, 2014 |

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