Review by Alan Taylor
Of all Scottish towns, St Andrews is surely the most resistant to change. A native of it in, say, the 16th century could have popped back 400 years later and found their way around without difficulty. Nor was this exclusive to the cobbled streets and crumbling buildings. Its venerable university was likewise thirled to the status quo. I have a friend who, as a literature professor there in the 1980s, was credited – on account of his specialisation in the poetry of Ezra Pound – with bringing the 20th century to the East Neuk.
Impressionable Jay Parini arrived from Pennsylvania a decade earlier. As he breezily relates, he was in flight from his possessive Italian mother and the Vietnam draft board. Where could be more different from Saigon than St Andrews? On a previous visit to Scotland he had discovered in an Edinburgh bookshop the poems of George Mackay Brown and proposed writing a thesis on him.
At the back of his mind, Parini thought he might one day apply Mackay Brown’s approach to writing about Stromness to his home town of Scranton. Incredibly, given St Andrews University’s antipathy to all things living, his application was accepted. “At least you’ll be safe in Scotland,” conceded his mother, “though Scotch girls have a bad reputation, and the men apparently wear skirts.” As I say, not a lot has changed.
Not the least of the charms of Borges and Me is Parini’s evocation of his alma mater and its environs. He was captivated by the West Sands, along which he would run before the popularity of Chariots of Fire jammed it with joggers. He feasted on bread bought from Fisher & Donaldson – still also extant – and occupied a “dismal” flat for £7 a week from a dour landlady upon whom the sun rarely shone. Such is the stuff of fond memory.
One day he bumped into a tutor who reminded him of Maggie Smith’s Jean Brodie and who told him he must meet the poet and translator Alastair Reid, which he duly did in the bar of the Cross Keys Hotel. It was a meeting that was to prove formative. Reid, as those of us who were privileged to know him well, was charismatic, witty, itchy-footed, sui generis, a hypnotic conversationalist and peerless listener. As he recalled in his New Yorker essay, Digging Up Scotland, he had rented a cottage on the outskirts of St Andrews, where he was living with his son, Jasper. Soon, Parini became part of the ménage and was invited to show Alastair his poems. “How do you know when a poem is finished?” was one of the many questions with which Parini bombarded his mentor. “It’s never finished, only abandoned,” Reid replied. “Publication is a form of disposal. You flush it down the johnny.”
Among the several South and Latin American writers Reid befriended and translated was the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. Being an admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, Borges had long wanted to visit Scotland. In 1970, he did. He was 70 and had been blind for 15 years. When Alastair had to go to London on a family matter, he asked Parini to look after him. “Borges likes porridge for breakfast,” he was informed, “with milk and three scoops of sugar. Fruit if possible. Raisins will do. Good for his guts. Likes bacon, too. Lots of bacon, very crisp.” “I’ll warn the local pigs,” said Parini.
With long days looming, Borges suggested a trip to the Highlands. Playing Boswell to Borges’s Johnson or, perhaps more pertinently, Sancho Panza to Don Quixote, Parini chauffeured them first south to Lower Largo, birthplace of Alexander Selkirk. “Rats tried to eat him,” said Borges, “so he forged an alliance with feral cats.” They then visited Dunfermline and its Carnegie library, one of more than 2,500, a guide told them, funded by the philanthropist. “This is too many,” quipped the author of The Total Library. “One would have been enough.”
Thereafter they headed north, stopping frequently for Borges to empty his bladder against the wheel of the Morris Minor. Scone Palace did not meet with his approval, even though he couldn’t see it. On the pair pushed into the Cairngorms and found a B&B where bacon could be had, albeit for 50 pence extra. They had to share a room and a bed. They ate fish and chips in a local pub, downed several pints of beer, and returned to a house in darkness. There was only one toilet, accessible via the landlady’s bedroom, through which in the middle of the night Parini had to steer his aged companion.
In Inverness, Borges fell ill. “My head is not perfect. I feel like Admiral Nelson at the end.” Caringly, Parini abandoned him in Fort Augustus and, accompanied by Ailith, a hotelier’s daughter, he travelled to Orkney to meet Mackay Brown. In a bar, they jousted with the publican, and discussed Catholicism, loves lost and poetry. “A poem is the next best thing to silence,” offered Mackay Brown before supping up and leaving Parini and his “strong-limbed and blond” companion to enjoy each other’s company.
Borges and Me is like a series of anecdotes which have been embroidered, enlarged and refined down the decades. Dialogue is reproduced as in a two-hander, which some readers may find suspect. In an afterword, Parini explains he tried to turn the material into a novel, which didn’t fly. What we have now, he adds, “is a bit of a palimpsest, a text written over another text” with “reconstructed” conversations. Meanwhile, what were in fact two journeys have been melded into one.
None of which detracts from what is a gem of book. Whether you’re au fait with Borges and his work, or with Alastair Reid and his, this is a wonderful tribute to both. So many memoirs tend towards the sour. Borges and Me is as sweet and flavoursome and moreish as Reid’s hash brownies. By the way, Parini, novelist, biographer, poet, never did complete his thesis on Mackay Brown, choosing instead to focus on the quite dead Theodore Roethke.