Fifty years ago, restless Lafayette graduate Jay Parini, faced with the choice of ensconcing himself back in the bosom of his mother in Scranton, Pennsylvania or being drafted into the Vietnam War, decided to escape both fates by moving to study Scottish Literature at St Andrews University. His mother did not approve, saying: “Scotch girls have a reputation and the men apparently wear skirts.” But young Parini, still an anxious virgin but keen to rid himself of that nagging condition, was willing to risk the threat Scottish girls might pose to his delicate person and step out into the world.
Parini is well known now as a breezy, successful college professor, poet, novelist and literary biographer. But the picture he paints of his adolescent self in a new memoir, Borges and Me, hiding his scared, shrivelled penis from a frowning army doctor and beset, according to his mother, with allergies (“Your uncle knows a doctor who will certify that you can hardly breathe”) is more akin to a young Woody Allen. And it is this trepidatious tip-toeing fellow who, via a series of unlikely circumstances (including the unexpected allure of his 1957 Morris Minor) finds himself accompanying the legendary Argentinian poet, Jorge Luis Borges, through the Scottish Highlands, vividly describing the landmarks the frail, blind 71-year-old Borges can’t see, but knows so much about.
Often caper-ish and laugh-out-loud funny (Parini is happy to play donkey to Borges’ Robert Louis Stevenson) this little jewel also brims with affection and gratitude, both for the company of one of the world’s most celebrated myth-makers and for the heavenly lit landscape they cough and splutter through. Just as Borges, “the sorcerer, the fraud, the genius” audaciously blurred the line between reality and imagination before the practice became commonplace, Parini has composed a “novelistic memoir” based on often-told stories and half-remembered conversations. This freedom from the rigorous requirements of reportage is very much in the spirit of his travelling partner, who fills their shared hours (sometimes to an aggravating degree) with romantic reveries, stolen lines of poetry, philosophical meanderings and charismatic/egotistical performances showcasing his vast expanse of literary and historic knowledge.
There is much to love about this book (though there are also passages about Parini’s youthful flights of fantasy which strike one as expendable filler). But most striking of all is the poignant image of a little old man peering out at a receding world, as excited by new experiences as he is mournful about how few he has left. He stands, a little drunk, on the precipice of a deep dune on the most famous golf course in the world and takes a deep breath: “I longed for the presence of the North Sea as a boy. And now here I am, too blind to see it, but I know it by its presence. Smell the salt!”
Borges and Me: An Encounterby Jay Parini is out now (Canongate, £14.99)