Jay Parini, an esteemed literary biographer and accomplished novelist, calls his entertaining new book, Borges and Me, “a kind of novelistic memoir”—an apt description of a narrative that recounts decades-old memories with their “contours enhanced and distorted in the usual way by time and retelling.”
A hapless road trip with eccentric, iconic Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges anchors Jay Parini’s novelistic coming-of-age memoir.
At the center of the memoir is a series of comic episodes from a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In 1971, when he was a graduate student in Scotland, 23-year-old Parini was conscripted to look after the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, then in his 70s and blind. What transpired was a misbegotten road trip to the Highlands, with young Parini guiding the aging genius as they drove to Inverness on a dubious mission.
The journey was rife with mishaps. During a restless night spent in a widow’s dowdy bed-and-breakfast, Parini had to guide the incontinent Borges on numerous trips through the old woman’s bedroom to use her shared toilet; a capsized boat cast the pair into Loch Ness; a scary tumble landed Borges in the hospital. As Parini chronicles their misadventures with the hilarity of hindsight, he palpably re-creates his youthful anxiety and Borges’ own sometimes infuriating sanguinity.
Parini had only a vague notion of who Borges was and virtually no familiarity with his fantastical writings when he was coerced into taking care of the septuagenarian. The young American had come to St. Andrews primarily to escape the draft during the Vietnam War; during his stay, ominous letters from the draft board, forwarded from home, piled up unopened in his desk drawer, ignored but making their presence felt like Edgar Allan Poe’s tell-tale heart.
Indeed, Borges and Me, for all its charming anecdotes of the week spent with the iconic writer, is at its core Parini’s own coming-of-age memoir, as well as an acute reminiscence of a confusing time in America. The younger version of Parini wears his insecurities on his sleeve, awkwardly navigating the world of women (with persistent hopes of losing his virginity) while scrambling for a viable doctoral topic in the face of indifference from his academic adviser. His plans to study the work of the lesser-known and then still-living Scottish poet George Mackay Brown culminate in a face-to-face meeting with Brown, regrettably sans Borges.
Despite his frequent exasperation with the enigmatic Latin American author, Parini ultimately forms a special bond with Borges. (Many of the locals they encounter assume they are father and son.) Borges and Me, its title an homage to the Argentine’s own exploration of identity, Borges and I, provides a loving portrait of this singular writer, adding nuance to the legacy of the legendary fabulist’s life and work.