So I was looking into the serviceable Osvaldo Ferrari/Jorge Luis Borges book for another post for The Argentine Literature of Doom, when I came across a conversation about a most unusual subject: Borges’ mom, Señora Leonor Acevedo Suárez. I didn’t remember this conversation at all, and I’ve read the book twice. But, oh!, it’s brimming with stuff. Borges talks about his mom, translations, foreign languages versus Spanish, or Castellan as he prefers to call it, fake memories, terrorism and equestrian statues. This one has everything!
As always, it begins with Ferrari, Boswell to Borge’s Johnson, picking a theme. This time he chooses Borges’ mom, “A figure that seems crucial in your literary life,” he claims. Borges quite readily agrees, no angst at all with him. “Yes, I owe a lot to my mother… to her indulgence, and then she helped me in my literary oeuvre. She advised me not to write a book about Evaristo Carriego, she suggested to me two themes that would have been far superior: she suggested to me a book on Lugones and another, perhaps more interesting, on Pedro Palacios-Almafurte. And I told her, with feeble conviction, that Carriego had been our neighbor in Palermo, and she told me, quite right: “Well, nowadays everybody is somebody’s neighbor,” of course, unless you live in a desert oasis, no? I don’t know, I wrote that book… I had become enthused, more or less, with Palermo’s apocryphal mythology. I finished second in a municipal award, which was nothing to sneer at, since it was three thousand pesos. They gave the third place to Gigena Sánchez, the first I don’t remember who won it. Anyway, those prizes allowed – I gave some money to my family – allowed me, let us say, one year of leisure. And I wasted that year writing that book, for which I’m quite regretful, as of almost everything I’ve written, titled Evaristo Carriego, which was published by Manuel Gleiser, from Villa Crespo.”
OK, let’s have a pause here to break this super-long reply, and to remark that his memory is amazing; circa 1984 he still remembered events from 1930 so crisply. The Wiki entry on Carriego is lovely, by the way; we learn that he “was an Argentine poet, best known for the biography written about him by Jorge Luis Borges.” Anyway, moving on:
“That book is illustrated with photos by Horacio Cóppola of old Palermo houses. It took me about a year or so to write it, which led me to certain researches and to meet Nicolás Paredes, who had been a caudillo in Palermo in Carriego’s time, and who showed me, or told me, so many things – not all of them apocryphal – about the neighborhood’s lowly past. Besides that, he taught me… I didn’t know how to play card tricks (laughs), he introduced me to popular payador Luis García [a wandering singer], and I hope to write something one day about Paredes, a character by far more interesting than Evaristo Carriego. However, Carriego discovered the literary possibilities of the outskirts. Well, I wrote that book, in spite of my mother’s opposition, or better yet, resignation. And then my mother helped me a lot, she read me long texts aloud, and when she was voiceless, when she was losing her eyesight, she continued to read for me, and I was not always dutifully patient with her… And… she invented the ending for one of my most famous tales: “The Intruder.” I owe it to her. Well, my mother barely knew English, but when my father passed away, in 1938, she couldn’t read because she read a page and forgot it, as if she had read a blank page. So she imposed upon herself a task that would force her to pay attention, that task was translating. She translated a William Saroyan book; it was called The Human Comedy, she showed it to my brother-in-law, Guillermo de Torre, and he published it.”
Here Borges starts digressing, but Ferrari steers him back to her translations. “But we can also remember other translations made by your mother, which were exceptional, like the translation of D.H. Lawrence’s tales.” And Borges replies: “Yes, the tale that gives the book its title, ‘The Woman Who Rode Away,’ and she translated it very well, I think. And then, why not confess that she translated, and I later proofread without hardly changing anything, the novel The Wild Palms, by Faulkner. And she also translated other books from French, from English, and these were excellent translations.” “Yes,” says Ferrari, “but perhaps you didn’t have the same affection she did for D. H. Lawrence; I never heard you talk about Lawrence.” Borges, as always, is quite candid about his likes and dislikes: “… No, she liked D. H. Lawrence, and I, alas, was rather unlucky with him. Well, when my father passed away, she got to translating; and then she thought that one way of getting close to him, or pretending to get close to him, was improving her knowledge of English.” And he adds: “Yes, and she liked it so much that in the end she couldn’t read in Castellan anymore, and she was one of the few people here who read in English… there was a time when every society lady read in English; and since they read a lot, and read good authors, that made them skillful at English. Castellan was for her a bit like, I don’t know, like Guarani must be for a lady in Corrientes or in Paraguay, no? A rather homely language. So I met many ladies here who were quite skillful at English, and fatally trivial in Castellan. Of course the English they read was a literary English, and, on the other hand, the Castellan they knew was a homely language, no more.”
Ferrari, focusing on the question of English, flatters him, “Borges, I always imagined that being skillful at English was one of your never revealed secrets.” But Borges replies, “… No, Goethe used to say that French writers shouldn’t be excessively admired because, he added, ‘The Language versifies for them.’ He thought French was a skillful language. But I think the fact of one having a good page in French or English doesn’t allow any judgments on them: as languages they’ve been so overwrought that they practically function on their own. On the other hand, if a person achieves a good page in Castellan, he had to overcome many adversities, many strained rhymes, many ‘entos’ – which group together with ‘entes’ – many words without hyphen, so that, in order to write a good page in Castellan you have to have, at least, literary gifts. And not so with French and English, these are languages that have so overwrought that they practically function on their own.”
After this hilarious, concise put-down of three languages Ferrari returns to his mother, why I don’t know, this was quite obviously the climax of the conversation. But no, it gets better.
Ferrari mentions that his mother, like Borges, was famous for having a prodigious memory. “Yes, “ agrees Borges, “she told me so many things,” about Buenos Aires in the past, “and in such a vivid way that I now think these are my personal memories, but in fact are memories of things she told me. I suppose that happens once in a while to everyone; especially if it’s about very ancient things: confusing what’s heard with what’s perceived.” And he adds: “I have personal memories that can’t have been registered by me, for chronological reasons.” Borges really was a character in a Borges short-story! He was a Naturalist all along. “Well, my sister sometimes remembered things and my mother told her: ‘It’s impossible, you hadn’t been born yet.’ And my sister replied: ‘Very well, but I was around already.’ By this she drew close to the theory according to which children chose their parents; that’s what Buddha presupposes, who up in the sky chooses a particular region in India, which belongs to a particular caste, or to particular parents.”
Ferrari chips in that “memory is hereditary,” which Borges agrees with of course. “An admirable aspect in my mother was, I think, the fact that she didn’t have a single enemy, everybody liked her; she had every sort of female friends: she entertained in the same way an important lady and a black old woman, great-granddaughter of slaves on her family’s side and who used to pay her visits. When this black woman died, my mother went to the chapel where they were carrying out the wake and one of the black women got atop a stool and announced that the black woman who had died had been my mother’s wet nurse. And there she was, in a circle of black folks, acting quite naturally. I don’t believe she ever had a single enemy; well, she was in jail, honorably in jail, at the start of the dictatorship. And once she was praying and the lady from Corrientes, who ever since has been our house maid, [the text is not clear here;], asked her what she was doing, and she replied: ‘I’m praying for Perón,’ who had passed away; ‘I’m praying for him because he really needs someone to pray for him.’ She absolutely held no grudge.” You really need to read the two volumes from start to finish to appreciate how Borges couldn’t forget and forgive Perón.
Ferrari brings up her courage. “Yes,” says Borges, “I remember someone phone her once and a quite rude and terrorizing voice told her, ‘I’m going to kill you and your son.’ ‘Why, sir?’ asked my mother with a rather unexpected courtesy. ‘Because I’m a Peronista.’ ‘Very well,’ she said, ‘as for my son, he goes out every day at ten. You only have to wait outside to kill him. As for me, I’m… (I don’t remember how old she was, eighty something); I advise you not to waste any time talking on the phone because if you don’t hurry I may pass away first.’ Then he hung up.” And there were no more phone calls, suggesting perhaps that the secret ingredient in Gandhi’s ahimsa is ridicule.
Next Borges mentions some of the illustrious officers in his family, which prompts this bit about people wanting him to sign a public petition to rise a statue in honour of his ancestor General Soler. “And the last thing our unfortunate country needed was more equestrian statues. There were so many equestrian statues you could barely walk around with all these statues; naturally I didn’t sign it. Besides that, they’re all ghastly, why foment that hunger for statues? But I was told there’s a Don Quixote statue that beats all the others in ugliness.” Now, if someone knows which statue he means, please let me know.
Borges isn’t crazy about his military ancestors; he seems prouder of his mother’s religiosity. She “was sincerely religious,” he says. “As was my English grandmother because she was Anglican, but of a Methodist tradition; that is, her ancestors moved all around England with their wives and Bibles. And my grandmother lived almost four years in Junín. She married Colonel Francisco Borges, whom we just mentioned [I cut out his quoting a poem about this figure], and she was quite happy – she said so to my mother – for she had her husband, her son, the Bible and Dickens; and that was enough for her. She had no one to talk with – she was amongst soldiers – and, besides that, it was a prairie with nomadic Indians; farther out there were the Coliqueo huts, belonging to friendly Indians, and in Pincén too, filled with spear-yielding Indians, warring Indians.” I was just thinking that Borges, like Gabriel García Márquez, can boast of having had important military man in his family history.
There’s a final note about Borges’ mom that fills me with joy. Ferrari mentions her “familiarity” with literature. “Yes,” says Borges, “her love for books was remarkable, and so was her literary intuition; she read, around the centennial, the novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, by Eça de Queiroz. [the Centennial was held in 1945, but it must have occurred before 1938 since Borges’ dad was still alive, as we can see below; anyway, I’m amazed echoes of the event reached Argentina.] Queiroz was unknown at the time, at least here [no, almost everywhere actually]; because he died in the century’s final year. And she told my father, ‘It’s the best novel I ever read in my life.’”
And there you go; now we all know a bit better Señora Borges, and above all that she had a magnificent taste in books.