The Tombstone of Jorge Luis Borges

The great Argentinean writer, Borges, was buried in Geneva. On his tombstone are inscriptions in Old English and Old Norse and a single enigmatic line in Spanish. What is going on here?

Borges spent his youth in Geneva. His parents, ignorant of world affairs, travelled there in 1914 and then were unable to leave because of the First World War. Borges learned Latin during his stay and took a stab at Old English, though he said he did not really learn the language well at that time. In 1921 the family returned to Argentina.

Borges was close to his parents. His father gave him books that were much enjoyed including a translation of Icelandic sagas by William Morris. Borges learned to read Old Norse and Old English and developed a love of this literature that is cited often in his work. “There is a flavor that our time (perhaps surfeited by the clumsy imitations of professional patriots) does not usually perceive without some suspicion: the fundamental flavor of the heroic.” (from “The Modesty of History”) 

And, Borges was fascinated by the ancient public poets — Homer, the Beowulf scop, the unnamed bards of ancient Ireland. Several of his stories, such as “The Mirror and the Mask” and “Undr“, tell of these singers and their quest for the proper, wondrous word. I think that “the heroic” in Borges’ telling belongs to the singers as well as the sword-wielding subjects of their songs. These anonymous poets are often described by Borges from accounts that he has discovered in imaginary books. All literature, imaginary or extant on paper, is a whole, something that already exists in Platonic reality, and the poet’s task is to uncover some part of that already existing art.

Borges went blind — not all at once, but as a continuing affliction that came and went and slowly wore down his vision. Perhaps he recognized the similarity of this inexorable doom to the struggles recorded in many heroic poems. As he lost his vision, Borges became more dependant on his own stored word-hoard, much of it from Dark Age Europe.

He gave lectures on Icelandic saga and Anglo-Saxon poetry and other heroic themes. Maria Kodama first heard Borges speak when she was twelve or so. In her teens she attended some of his lectures. In 1975 she became his secretary, guide, and companion for the remainder of his life.

Borges and Maria Kodama

When Borges discovered that he had cancer, it had already spread to his liver. He knew this was a death sentence. He married Maria — although he had been separated from his first wife since 1970, Argentine law did not then allow divorce and re-marriage, so Jorge and Maria were married in another country. Then they travelled to Geneva. Borges said that he regretted writing harshly of the city in his youth and now remembered how good his childhood there had been. He had been “mysteriously happy” in Geneva, he said. A few months later, he was dead.

Maria said later that she didn’t recall who came up with the design for the stone, perhaps much of it was left to the sculptor, Eduardo Longato. The shape is vaguely that of a rune-stone. Each side contains a pictorial element and some writing.

the Lindisfarne gravestone

The face of the stone depicts a scene of warriors in armor that echoes the Lindisfarne gravestone, which probably depicts memories of a raid by Vikings in 793. “Jorge Luis Borges” curves over the top of the stone. Underneath the words “…and ne forhtedon na”, then the dates, “1899 1986″ with a small Celtic cross shaped like that at Gosforth.

the Gosforth cross

“And ne forhtedon na” is Old English for “Be not afraid” and is a quote from the poem “The Battle of Maldon” which Borges translated and often discussed. In 991 a Viking force landed near Maldon on England’s southeast coast. They were met by a local force led by Ealdorman Byrtnoth. The Vikings landed when the tide was full; there was a narrow causeway between them and the English force could cut them down easilly if they advanced. The Viking chief, possibly Olaf Trygvasson, later crowned King of Norway, challenged Byrtnoth to wait until the tide ebbed so that the forces could meet equally. Byrtnoth, through his “ofermode” (pride? arrogance? high-thinking? lofty manner?) agreed. The poem is missing some lines at the beginning and the end. At line 17 of the fragment we have, Byrtnoth instructs his young warriors, telling them where to stand and hold their positions. “Hold your shields firmly in hand,” he says, “And be not afraid.” Of course they are doomed and the fact that we already know that lends a special signifigance to every utterance.  It probably delighted Borges that the resonant words came from a vanished text, burned up in a library fire in 1731. We only have a copy and scholars debate how accurate it is.

The reverse of the stone depicts a Viking ship, possibly derived from a Gotland runestone. In Norse thought, ships were associated with death, that last great voyage into the unknown. Above the ship is a line from the Old Norse Volsunga Saga: “Hann tekr sverthtt Gram ok leggri methal their abert”. Sigurd, who is disguised as Brynhild’s husband, lies down beside her: “He took the sword Gram and laid the naked metal between them.”

runestone depicting a ship

Underneath the ship are the words: “De Ulrica a Javier Otárola”. Ulrikka and Javier are characters in Borges’ story “Ulrikka” which is pefaced by the earlier lines from Volsunga Saga. The story is about the romance between a young Norwegian woman and an older man in York. There is some mention of the Viking background of the city. The two walk together in the evening and she tells him not to touch her then, but that later, in her room, he may possess her. This story had special meaning to Maria and she and Borges used Ulrikka and Javier as secret names for one another.

After Borges’ death, Maria had a lot of bad press in Argentina and she may have deserved some of it. There was an effort to have Borges’ body moved back to Buenos Aires which Maria disdained as an effort to gain control of his estate. After all, in Argentina she was not legally married to Borges. She spoke of herself not as Borges’ widow, but his “love”, which also drew some criticism.

Argentineans and others sometimes make pilgrimages to Borges’ grave. Last year, a much lesser writer was photographed pissing on the site. He said the water making was an artistic act. Clearly, he had no sense of the heroic at all.

Notes:

Battle of Maldon in Old English with translation, glossary, and so forth.
Collected Fictions by Borges. Includes “Ulrikka”,”The Mirror and the Mask”, and “Undr“.
“The Modesty of History” is included in Other Inquisitions: 1937-1952, translated by Ruth Simms.
Volsunga Saga, Morris translation as Borges first read it.
Borges scholar Martin Hadis has apparently written a book or article on this topic. I have not read it.

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9 comments on “The Tombstone of Jorge Luis Borges

  1. This is a wonderful post! When I was in Buenos Aires (where he is idolized) I stayed in an apartment on Calle Jorge Luis Borges.

  2. . says:

    “took a stab at English, though he said he did not really learn the language well at that time”
    Borges was from English descent, AFAIR from his paternal grandmother. Again AFAIR they used to speak English at home, specially with his nanny.

  3. . says:

    Funny thing. Where did you read (about) that statement?
    AFAIR his first tale was written in English at age 7.
    Time for me to re-read JLB for the nth time!

    • mikulpepper says:

      I read age nine somewhere — a translation of Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”. In a Selden Rodman interview Borges says that he was quite old before he understood that poetry could be written in any language other than English. Clearly, Borges was good at English and the comment was made as a joke that I probably should not have repeated in this context. I’ll look for the reference; it’s slipped from my immediate grasp.

    • mikulpepper says:

      I think I have it. An article that meant to say “Old English” and said “English” instead. Borges often said that he took to Old English late. In the Paris Review interview he said 1955 and other times said after he had gone blind. This is untrue, of course. Borges had translated OE works in his youth but perhaps it reflects his changed views on OE literature. Or perhaps it is the other Borges speaking, the one who stayed in Argentina during World War I. Anyway, I changed the reference. (You know, if I had written “French” it would have been somewhat true but not salient to the piece.)

  4. . says:

    Had you written French would have baffled me a little bit, since Borges attended the Lycée Jean Calvin in Geneva.
    In a short account by former student Vlady Kociancich I read that JLB didn’t knew a word of Anglo-Saxon until 1958, when she and other students of his Literature class began studying it one Fall Sunday at the National Library.
    They used The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Primeros pasos en inglés antiguo [First steps in Old English].

    • mikulpepper says:

      Borges studied French in Geneva but the (possibly untrue) story is that he didn’t do very well. His sister is supposed to have been a superior French scholar and some sources have Borges barely graduating because of his poor French. But I don’t really take any of these stories as truth; they are inside jokes, family apocrypha, and self-deprecating myth. Borges gives several conflicting dates for his beginning to study Old English. Borges wrote “The Modesty of History” in 1952. I believe that there are references to Old English in some of his essays from the 1940s.

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