“Di Giovanni’s impulse to belittle Borges at every turn is presumably vengeance…”

Borges and di Giovanni in New York, April 8, 1968

Borges and di Giovanni in New York, April 8, 1968

Ian Thomson writes:

“Di Giovanni’s book is the most explicit record one is likely to read of a writer’s domestic unhappiness. While Elsa is portrayed as a constraining spouse and an entrapment, Borges is a sexually timorous and mother-bound man. He was ‘impotent’, actually, but Elsa felt the need for sex. In the voice of a hurt child Borges complained to di Giovanni of his wife’s cutting retorts and attempts to eavesdrop on the phone calls he made to his nona-genarian mother Leonor.

Borges was despondent when he spoke to di Giovanni, and much of what he had to say about his hideous peroxide wife was tainted, surely, by the warped outlook caused by his unseeing immersion in literature and hermit-like existence. Elsa is pointedly denied her side of the story; she is, simply, a ‘bitch’ (and, it seems certain, no longer alive).

After 36 months of marriage — some of them surely not too bad — Borges wanted out. Things had come to a head in the autumn of 1967 when Elsa accompanied him on a Harvard lecture tour. Clearly out of her depth, she embarrassed the Borges retinue by excitedly photographing the contents of a Rockefeller home during a cocktail party. (She even got a fellow guest to sit on the lavatory, preparatory to snapping one of the bathrooms.) ‘The name Rockefeller had her entranced,’ di Giovanni explains.

The plot to free Borges from his death-by-marriage involved a deal of subterfuge and Machiavellian manoeuvrings on the part of di Giovanni. Borges gratefully divorced Elsa in 1970. In his desire to bask in Borges’s reflected glory, curiously, di Giovanni demeans the writer. As well as being  a ‘sexual failure’, Borges was periodically incontinent (with, on one occasion, ‘urine gushing down his legs inside his trousers’).

Why we need this prying inquiry is unclear. The writing is scarcely distinguished (‘Borges opened up like a sun-kissed blossom’). Di Giovanni’s impulse to belittle Borges at every turn is presumably vengeance for his high-handed treatment (as he sees it) by the writer’s estate. Jorge Luis Borges, a strange and lonely prospector in the universe of words, can survive the sour- grapes scrutiny.”

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