There’s surely a book to be written (not by me) about Jorge Luis Borges and walking. As a young man he explored the streets of Buenos Aires on foot and if the picture above is anything to go by, he cut quite a dapper figure. He’s up there with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Victoria Ocampo on la Rambla de Mar del Plata. in 1935.
Borges was extremely quotable on the subject of walking, thus:
“I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away he doesn't expect to arrive.”
“I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.”
“Which one of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?”
In a book titled Georgie & Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife – The Untold Story, Norman di Giovanni, writes about walking with Borges in the streets of Buenos Aires.
“We would begin our stroll down the Avenida Belgrano, a wide, busy, modern thoroughfare, trying to speak over the roar and fumes of the traffic. The ubiquitous snub-nosed buses crawled along in step with us, throbbing and belching their murderous black exhaust in our faces. Borges never seemed to notice. He was too busy discussing the word music of Dunbar, Coleridge, or the Bard himself.”
Sometimes they went through the back streets
“The only trouble with making our way on these back streets was the narrowness of the pavements; the two of us could not comfortably walk abreast, which meant that with Borges clinging to my arm I had to proceed half a step ahead of him in a crabwise manner … It was in the course of these daily walks that Borges gossiped to me about all and sundry – and it was not always benign.”
Borges was blind by then, which was why he clung to di Giovanni’s arm. Sources seem to differ on when he completely lost his sight, but it seems to have been around age 55. From then on he needed somebody to help him walk. And he never learned braille, so he also needed somebody to read to him. I’m not sure whether walking or reading would have been the greater loss, but Borges never seems to have had much trouble finding people to help him with either.
The Elsa in that book title was Borges’ first wife, Elsa Astete Millán, and Di Giovanni didn’t think much of her, nor did Borges by the end, but there are certainly pictures of them walking together and Borges doesn’t look completely miserable. The marriage lasted about three years.
Borges’s second wife, María Kodama, 40 years younger than him, didn’t think much of di Giovanni. When she took control of the Borges estate in 1985 she ensured that the di Giovanni translations went out of print, representing both a professional and a financial loss for di Giovanni. One can only imagine what it would be like for an old blind man with a wife four decades younger, but there are quite a few photographs of the two of them walking together and they don’t look completely miserable either.
Certainly Borges cut a much less dashing figure as he got older. That dead stare and those unaligned eyes give him a lost and uncertain look. And I’ve been thinking lately he’d have looked much snappier if he’d worn some stylish shades. I’ve never seen a photograph of him wearing a pair, and obviously in the ordinary sense he didn’t need them, but it would certainly have made him look more the boulevardier.
There is however a curious reference to dark glasses in his 1943 short story "The Secret Miracle,"
“Toward dawn, he dreamed that he was in hiding, in one of the naves of the Clementine Library. What are you looking for? a librarian wearing dark glasses asked him. I'm looking for God, Hladik replied. God, the librarian said, is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes in the Clementine. My parents and my parents' parents searched for that letter; I myself have gone blind searching for it.”