Jay Parini’s “Borges and Me”: Beyond Just a Memoir

By John Vaaler

COURTESY PHOTO

Professor of English Literature Jay Parini’s new memoir, “Borges and Me,” is a smart, soulful coming-of-age story that recounts a 1970 road trip through the Scottish Highlands that Parini took with aging Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. 

I recently chatted with Parini over Zoom about “Borges and Me.” During our conversation, we discussed how Parini went through reconstructing his 50-year-old memories, the long-term effects of mentors on their students, an upcoming film adaptation of “Borges and Me” — and even Donald Trump. 

John Vaaler: “Borges and Me” is about a road trip you took with the Argentinian surrealist writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1970. Writing this memoir after that trip, in what ways did you go about revisiting these episodes, and was there a process that helped you weave memories with approximations?

Jay Parini: Well, I go to Scotland pretty much every other year, so I was in the Highlands only about two years ago. And I actually revisited — I redrove — much of that route. And I’ve done that many times over the last 50 years. Think about that: it’s been 50 years since I took that original trip, so a lot of it is faded from memory, which is why I, after 50 years, really think of it as a novelized memoir, as I say at the end. [“Borges and Me”] is a kind of autofiction. So, I’m inventing scenes, I’m making up the dialogue.

JV: You were talking about autofictions and how a fair amount of your memoir is recreation, but an even bigger amount is a novelization of past events.

JP: Memoir is a very tricky genre. I think I’m being pretty experimental with the genre here. So I’m foreshadowing things and really creating characters, although all the characters are real people.

JV: In what ways did Borges’s work influence your memoir about you and Borges?

JP: I feel like in many ways I’m reinventing Borges and rewriting him, although the style is not Borgesian, but I’m using so many of the Borges tropes and themes.

In many ways, I tried to make this tour of three or four days a tour through the major stories of Borges. So, when they stop at the [Carnegie] library, I’m kind of referencing the “Library of Babel,” one of Borges’ main stories. When Borges falls, hits his head and goes into the hospital, he himself alludes to an accident that had happened to him in 1938, which led to the writing of his famous story “Funes The Memorious.” I keep referencing the great essay “Pierre Manard, Author of the Quixote,” because I believe I got from Borges the idea that we’re all just rewriting literature. So I’m rewriting Borges’ story by writing my story. 

JV: I was frequently moved when reading your memoir, but it’s also really quite funny. Are there any comic writers that you especially revere?

JP: I was modeling myself on Evelyn Waugh. I mean, Evelyn Waugh is a very funny writer – sharp. The dialogue is understated but sharp.

JV: Your memoir begins when you’re a graduate student fleeing possible deployment to the Vietnam War. “Borges and Me” has arrived in bookstores in 2020 during a Trump presidency, a watershed moment in how Americans address systemic racism and a global pandemic that’s ended thousands of lives. Does the anxiety of 2020 remind you of the anxiety you sometimes express in your memoir?

JP: I was stunned by the fact that the time we’re living in now is very like the late sixties. ​Very l​ike the late sixties. There’s riots in the streets, there’s looting, there’s a president who’s out of control, people are feeling very uncertain and afraid. The economic fissures are really being horribly widened by the president. I don’t think I could have ever predicted we would be living under a truly mad president, but we are. “Truly certifiable,” as the British would say.

JV: At the end of “Borges and Me,” you talk about one inspiration for this book: an English film director told you that your experience with Borges would make a fantastic movie. What are some details you can tell The Campus about a film adaptation of your book? Are you currently involved with the project?

JP: I can say this whole book came about when I was sitting in a café in a little village — a seaside village in southern Italy — working on a film with Kevin Spacey about the life of Gore Vidal, which I wrote with the director Michael Hoffman.

During [the] filming project, there are a lot of visitors to the set. Ross Clarke, who’s done two or three films, was visiting the set because he’s the friend of the producer, Andy Patterson, and the director, Michael Hoffman. I was sitting at a table with Ross and Andy, and Ross happened to pull out a copy of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. I said, “Do you like Borges?” And he said, “I love Borges, he’s my favorite author!” And I told him that I once chauffeured Borges around the Highlands of Scotland 50 years ago or so. I told him a few of the stories, and Ross said to Andy, “That’s our next movie!”

So I wrote this, and Ross and I started adapting this as a script, and we’re just finishing it up now. We expect to go to actors very, very soon. Andy Patterson, who did “Girl With Pearl Earring” (2003) and “The Railway Man” (2013) and many other films — “Beyond the Sea” (2004) and so forth, [is] producing.

JV: Are you writing any fiction or biography right now?

JP: You know, I’m the third of the way through a novel right now, but I’m putting it on hold. I’m never going to do [another] “biography” biography.

JV: Are those too exhausting?

JP: Yeah, they’re exhausting and I don’t want to spend thousands of hours in libraries interviewing people. They’re very hard to write. [“Borges and Me”] is a very light-hearted book, but with serious themes.