jay parini

uncomfortable for both of us. Moreover there was only a single loo, which was just off the bedroom of Morag, a morose widow with a thin nose. One

Two Men in a Morris Minor

Soon I’ll publish Borges and Me, a book that has been in the works, in some form or another, for nearly fifty years. A kind of novelised memoir, it’s an account of a journey I took through the Highlands of Scotland in 1971 with Jorge Luis Borges, whose work, at the time, I didn’t know and who was by then totally blind and somewhat fragile.

had to knock on her door to use it, and she resented every knock. This was unfortunate, as Borges required frequent visits to what he called ‘the little room’. I recall the last visit he made, when I sat for quite a time on Morag’s bed waiting for him to come out. ‘Is your old man dead in there?’ she asked. When the loo flushed, Borges called through the door, at last, ‘It is finished.’ Morag nodded, saying, ‘The last words of our saviour.’

You may well ask: how did this come about? I spent seven years in Scotland as both an undergraduate and a postgraduate student. During this time Alastair Reid was a close friend and mentor. He was a poet who translated the works of Borges and Pablo Neruda, among others. Borges had come from Argentina to visit Alastair, who invited me to dinner the first night he was there. From the outset, Borges puzzled me: he paid very little attention to anyone but himself and talked incessantly about literature and ideas, quoting poetry in several languages. He asked me what I was studying, and I said, ‘English literature’. He brightened, telling me to read ‘only the great ones’. Not Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Chaucer, ‘but Chesterton, Stevenson and, of course, Tichborne’.

We made various brief stops along the way. Borges seemed to know Scotland and Scottish history well. He was keen to see Scone Palace; while we were there, an old woman shouted at us in a peculiar way. ‘The Weird Sisters,’ Borges said. Once we were in Inverness, the meeting with Mr Singleton came to nothing, as the phone number that Borges gave me was not, I discovered, a Scottish number but one for New Zealand. ‘I will not ask you to drive me there,’ Borges said when I told him.

Borges and Me is a kind of ‘true’ road novel, with soundings in a Borgesian vein that are meant to echo some of his own stories. As we drove into the Highlands, I had the sense of driving into a fantasy world that only Borges could summon. Needless to say, I wasn’t carrying a tape recorder, so in writing the book I had to make up most of the dialogue, though I did have some notes in my journal, which acted as straw for the fire. Over several days Borges offered a running commentary on literature and philosophy, lecturing me on everything from Plato and Anglo-Saxon metrics to Elizabethan drama, Cervantes, Kafka and Spinoza. He insisted on naming my car Rocinante, after the ‘lazy horse’ of Don Quixote, calling himself ‘Don Borges’. He referred to me as either Sancho or Giuseppe, after my namesake, the 18th-century Italian poet Giuseppe Parini. He quoted from A Thousand and One Nights and when I asked, in my naivety, ‘Who wrote that?’ Borges replied, with his usual whim of iron, ‘I did. I wrote all the classics, and it has annoyed my contemporaries.’

I’d never heard of Chidiock Tichborne at that point. I was impressed by Borges’s dramatic rendering of ‘Elegy’, Tichborne’s most famous poem, written in the Tower of London in the late 16th century before his execution. Borges nearly wept as he repeated the poem’s refrain, ‘And now I live, and now my life is done.’

I had a car, a recently acquired 1957 Morris Minor with a floor so rusty you could almost see the road below, and Alastair asked me if I would serve as chauffeur during Borges’s visit. Borges told me he wanted to see the Highlands; when I noted, gauchely, that he was blind, he said, ‘Oh, no! Don’t tell me that you’re blind as well?’ He proposed that I act as his eyes. He had quite an itinerary in mind, with the goal of eventually getting to Inverness. He was hoping to meet a man there named Mr Singleton, who was interested in Anglo-Saxon riddles. Borges assured me that he had Mr Singleton’s phone number. I suggested calling ahead but he resisted. ‘It will surprise him! I will call when we get there. It’s always the best way.’

Before setting off for the Highlands, we made a brief trip with Alastair through Lower Largo (home of Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe) and Dunfermline, the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie. Borges wished to see the library there, the first of around fifteen hundred that the steel tycoon had founded, the librarian told us. ‘One would have been enough,’ Borges said.

Borges and I then made our way north through Perthshire, stopping (I was having car trouble) at a godforsaken bed and breakfast in a village for the night. It was called Morag B&B, after its owner. There was only one bed available, alas – rather

I wrote most of the scenes in little pieces over the years, and last year I began to stitch them into a continuous narrative. I cast the first draft as a novel, calling myself Luke. But it felt too close to a memoir to merit that description: the characters were real, though

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subject to the enhancements of memory and the recasting that happens with endless retelling. Shifting the story into the mode of novelised memoir, I tugged it closer and closer to what I could recall.

This brief encounter with Borges shifted my life in subtle directions. I’ve lived now for half a century in his stories and essays, in his poems and improbable fictions, in the memory of our conversations. And I will only ever feel gratitude for the gift of having experienced the man himself in person.

march 2021 | Literary Review 1