MSU acquires massive Jorge Luis Borges collection

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Michigan State University Library made a huge leap in its collection of Latin American-focused literature with the acquisition of papers, ephemera and audio recordings from Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges was an Argentine short-story author, poet and essayist and is considered to be one of the most important magical realism writers. His career stretched more than 65 years, and despite losing his sight at 55, he made a significant mark in literature — especially with his interconnected short stories marked by dreams, fictional writers, labyrinths and mirrors.

His most important works are “Ficciones” and “El Aleph,” which were published in the late-’40s. After the onset of blindness and having never learned braille, Borges focused on lecturing and poetry, where he could commit the work to memory while writing.

In the ’60s, his work was discovered after it was translated into English. At that time, former MSU Professor Donald Yates became the translator of the first collection of Borges’ fiction to appear in English. Yates and Borges would become lifelong friends and in 1976, Yates was instrumental in bringing Borges to MSU as a visiting professor. Borges died in 1986 and Yates in 2017.

During that time, Yates amassed a collection of material relating to Borges. Today, that material fills more than 19 boxes and includes everything from rare manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and ephemera, which become the basis for the Donald Yates Spanish American Literature Collection at MSU. 

“It is one of the most significant collections of Borges’ work in the world,” said Leslie McRoberts, head of Murray & Hong Special Collections at MSU. “Everyone should read his work. He blends intense landscapes and interconnected lives, where time and space are infinite and we all exist simultaneously.”

Interestingly, one of his short stories, “Garden of Forking Paths,” which was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948, helped him garner recognition from the Mystery Writers of America. In 1976, the group awarded him the Special Edgar Allan Poe Award. Borges’ writing especially lent itself to the mystery and science fiction genres. One of his short stories was first published in the Fantastic Universe, which is a science fiction magazine.

Some critics believe Borges’ was an originator of the hypertext novel, due to his focus on marrying complex labyrinths of time and reality, which often had no beginning or ending.

Borges personal life and his political beliefs often led to his loss of favor among the ruling class in his home of Argentina. His home country went through numerous political upheavals, some of which led to his being relegated to dishonor.

He was virulently anti-fascist and an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler — not always a good thing in Nazi-friendly Argentina — and was openly critical of the Nazi’s use of children’s books to fuel anti-Semitism and the rewriting of history. During Argentina’s rule by President Juan Peron, a spoils system led to Borges being removed from a library post and assigned to inspect rabbits and chickens. When the military overthrow of Peron occurred in 1955, Borges became the director of the National Library of Argentina. He later would become an outspoken critic of the country’s military junta.

Later, Borges would be seen as a genius of mixing fantasy with folk heroes and historical figures. In “The Library of Babel,” he created a fictional library that contains every book that is 410 pages long. Borges had the uncanny ability to write across genres while still using his literary technique of altered reality.

Borges also contributed greatly to the body of work on Argentine folklore — writing about gauchos, outlaws, dance and literature. His mind was fertile and he created a bestiary for his work “Book of Imaginary Beings.”

Borges’ deeply philosophical approach to writing resulted in the creation of the philosophical term “Borgesian Conundrum,” which basically argues whether a writer writes a story or the story writes him.

“MSU now has an epic collection of his work, which will be available to scholars for research,” McRoberts said. “The collection will help scholars answer the question: What was he thinking?” 

McRoberts said the Borges’ collection, like the work of many other authors in MSU Special Collections, including the papers of Lev Raphael and Richard Ford, will help scholars and readers further understand the experience of writing.

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