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Vermont Author Jay Parini Takes Readers for a Ride in 'Borges and Me'


Published August 12, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Oliver Parini
  • Jay Parini

Jay Parini, a longtime professor of English and creative writing at Middlebury College, is the author of more than 20 books, including poetry, fiction, biography and criticism. Next week, Parini, 72, will publish his first memoir, Borges and Me: An Encounter.

The book is centered on a 1971 road trip that Parini took with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges through the Scottish Highlands. At the time, Parini was a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of St. Andrews. Borges, 50 years his senior, was one of the great literary figures of the 20th century. He was blind, talkative, vital — and up for adventure.

Parini and Borges met through a mutual friend, Scottish poet and Borges translator Alastair Reid. Reid had to leave town one day unexpectedly and asked Parini to stay with Borges at his house. When Parini dutifully arrived, Borges suggested the two hit the road.

Driving through Scotland in Parini's 1957 Morris Minor, the traveling duo drank beer at pubs, went boating in Loch Ness, visited a library and a battlefield, and talked about books and women. Throughout, Parini was called on to describe the passing scene to his blind companion.

"As we climbed into the hills, I could feel the tug of the sky, and the heathery rolling valleys and spiky peaks in the distance moved me," Parini writes. "Now I wanted, more than ever, to write about this, to find the equivalence in language for what broke around me, here and always."

Borges and Me is a fascinating recounting of Parini's long-ago trip and a tribute to a time whose totems, the author reminds us, include hash brownies and draft board letters.

Parini talked with Seven Days by telephone about fact, fiction and how that road trip influenced his life.

SEVEN DAYS: Your trip with Borges was an eventful week. It was also rich in discussion of literature — Walt Whitman, Dante, Cervantes, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, a mention of Robert Frost. When were you able to assimilate the experience and make sense of it as it would fit into your life over the next half century?

JAY PARINI: I think Borges introduced me to the notion that a person could read literature — poetry and fiction and philosophy and history, from a wide range of cultures — and make it part of your life. The way he incorporated all of [his] reading into his life made an impression on me. I kind of determined to live that way myself.

He came at me like a blast. Growing up in Scranton [Pa.], I had never encountered anything like this. It was like a meteor suddenly swooping out of the sky and landing on me. I was 22 going on 15, if you know what I mean. It was really wild.

I started telling those stories [of the trip] almost immediately. I've been telling these stories for 50 years, and the truth is, I wasn't sure how or if I would ever write them. It seemed almost too much to think about. And I wasn't sure I could properly do justice to it. It seemed more like a sequence of anecdotes that I could tell at dinner parties.

SD: How did you decide the material should be a memoir as opposed to a novel, which was your original choice for the book?

JP: I was chatting about it with my editor at Doubleday, and I sent him a little piece of it as I was writing it. I was calling the main character "Luke," not Jay. And he said to me, "How much of this is fiction, not fact?" And I said, "Well, it's all fact. But I just don't want to have the spotlight shined on me." And he said, "That's what happens when you write a memoir."

He said: "Be bold. Write as yourself. You're a good storyteller. Just write as though you're talking at your dinner table." And that's what I tried to do.

SD: There's discussion in the book of the invention, by writers, of literary voice or character. Borges cites Whitman, who he says "created ... an ideal projection, not of himself but someone like him, a character every reader could find in his heart and admire." You considered whether your work would involve "an invented Jay Parini" or you would attempt to put forth the "truest version" of yourself. What choice did you make and why?

JP: It wasn't possible to get at anything resembling the self that I feel inside me without using all of the smoke and mirrors of fiction. So I had to use all of the techniques that a novelist uses to evoke character, even to evoke myself.

I had to create a voice for myself at 22. We change over the decades. It's not a question of remembering what I was like at 22. It's not just that. It's also a question of inventing and creating a facsimile of that that was satisfying and feels true. I was the last 22-year-old virgin in the Age of Aquarius, and I enjoyed saying that.

The book begins in 1986, [when] I'm already a professor at Middlebury. I'm already beginning my research and making notes about The Last Station [Parini's 1990 novel about Leo Tolstoy]. I wanted to signal from the beginning that I think of myself as a writer who's had an ongoing career.

[Borges] so impressed me with his travels. He had just come from Israel. He said, "Go on the road as a young man, while you have your eyes. See everything you can. Listen to all the voices you possibly can." I've spent the last 50 years reading and traveling and listening and writing in many genres, [with] poetry always the main thing.

Borges was a great lover of encyclopedias. I took that to heart. I edited the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature.

I've written or edited 50 books. So I've written a lot of stuff. Volume doesn't mean anything, really. My habitual work has yielded quite a lot of stuff, some of it good, some of it not so good. We're all uneven. Borges wasn't uneven, but I'm very uneven.

SD: In the afterword, you write that you returned to writing this book after a filmmaker suggested it would make a good movie. Who would you like to see play "Giuseppe," as Borges called you, and who Borges?

JP: I was sitting in a small village in southern Italy [in 2017] with the English filmmaker Ross Clarke and the producer Andy Paterson. Ross pulled from his briefcase Labyrinths by Borges. And I said, "Oh, do you like Borges?" And he said, "I love Borges. He's my favorite writer." And I said, "Let me tell you a little story."

And at that lunch I told him about my crazy car trip with Borges 50 years earlier. And they were both looking rather dumbfounded as they heard my stories. Ross turned to Andy and said, "That's our next film." And I said, "Let me see if I can shape it for you." I was thinking I'd write a 40-page, 50-page [account] remembering my journey. And it just exploded.

We're about to begin casting. Freya Mavor, she's wonderful; she's going to play Bella [Parini's love interest]. We're certainly going to be showing it to Timothée Chalamet [for the role of Parini]. And for Borges we have various people in mind; one of them is Benicio del Toro.

SD: You're the age Borges was when you guys took your trip in Scotland. Can you imagine the reverse of this adventure occurring today: You and a graduate student you don't know (prior to the trip) bopping around heather and gorse?

JP: It sounds to me too improbable. Borges had to be blind to require my presence. I suspect the stories he told, he told everybody: his endless, ongoing commentary on Don Quixote and Robert Louis Stevenson and [Rudyard] Kipling. These were all stories he no doubt had running in his head like a tape that he would just keep saying.

This only happened because there was a strange coincidence. The stars lined up in a very unique alignment: me with my innocence and my American [sensibility], and Borges with his wild handicap, the blindness, and his polymathic mind and the circumstances of Scotland.

I think the hero of my book is not me, and it's not Borges. It's Scotland. I spent seven years in Scotland, and I love that country. I retraced that route again and again and again.

SD: Borges and Me is great title, a clever one. How did you think of it?

JP: My favorite story of Borges is called "Borges y Yo" ["Borges and I"]. So I thought, Let's just slightly shift to American grammar and make it more colloquial. I'm playing off his title. I felt lucky: There, I got it!

SD: You quote Borges in the book: "Nobody can teach you anything. This is the first truth. We teach ourselves." You've taught in the English department at Middlebury College for about 40 years. What do you think of his contention?

JP: I think that it's 100 percent true. If people are going to know anything, they have to teach themselves. The teacher — like me, I've been teaching now for 47 years — I've led a lot of horses to water.

That's my job: Endlessly taking [students] by the reins, leading them down the slope to the pond or the river. "Here's the water. I know you're thirsty even if you don't know it. Drink." That's the work of teaching.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Borges and Me: An Encounter by Jay Parini, Doubleday, 320 pages. $27.95.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Strange as Fiction | Jay Parini takes readers on a true ride in Borges and Me"