Skip to content

The Hazel Twig and the Olive Tree By Richard Lambert

The Hazel Twig and the Olive Tree:
a lost story of Jorge Luis Borges1
Irving Samuelson, University of Texas, Austin

In January 1935, Jorge Luis Borges lost his job as literary editor of the Saturday supplement of Buenos Aires’ mass-market daily newspaper, Crítica. One month after his departure, the supplement published a piece by a certain Herbert Lock, retelling the story of the adulterous lovers Tristan and Isolde. It has hitherto been believed that copies of this story had not survived. In fact, until now, Borges’ editorship and Lock’s Tristan story had been considered unconnected, despite the compelling arguments this author made in a 1993 article, that showed that Herbert Lock and Jorge Luis Borges were one and the same.2 But now further evidence, refuting the glib malignities of earlier critics, namely a bill of sale from a bookshop in Jerusalem, and an interview with a member of the 1930s Argentine avant garde, have added weight to my earlier arguments and definitively show that a hitherto lost story of Jorge Luis Borges has come to light.


The supplement Revista Multicolor, which Borges co-edited with Ulyses Petit de Murat between June 1933 and January 1935, came out in Buenos Aires on a Saturday, a day of the week imprinted upon Borges’ memory, for it was on a Saturday in November 1926 in the Orangery Restaurant of Palermo Park that Borges lost his fiancé Norah Lange to another man.

This was a break so significant that it was the moment to which Borges would allude in that lost, now rediscovered, story of 1935; and it was also the moment which was to dominate the next 70 years of his life. Even once he had made the rediscovery of romantic love in old age, which allowed him finally to step from the shadow of family (he shared a flat with his mother until her death in 1975), to be with the young Maria Kodama, he still lingered over that first loss of Norah Lange.3 So much so that it received the most oblique and final of textual references in his gravestone inscription, a line from a late, intimately autobiographical story, Ulricca, in which the memory of a lost love is finally redeemed. And thus he closed the circle on that first loss, and revealed too, how far for him the textual and biographical were merged.

1 This paper was rejected by Modern Fiction Studies. The anonymous referee, to whom I would dedicate this article were it not that he has chosen to remain nameless and that any dedication, where Borges is concerned, is owed to absence, concluded his report with characteristic cruelty: ‘notwithstanding the author’s shrill protests, this story never existed.’
2 I. Samuelson, ‘A Lost Story of Jorge Luis Borges’, Hispanic Review, 44 (1993), 234-47
3 The household was strange: even as an old man Borges informed his mother of all his movements and each night before going to bed, would receive two sweets from the family maid like a little boy.

The impact, then, of that meeting of Norah and Oliverio Girond, that preposterous, cruel couple (at parties Norah would stand on tables and declaim her poetry, while Oliverio once drove a funeral carriage through Buenos Aires taunting his defeated rival with a papier maché caricature of him) was long-lasting. A photograph records that Saturday when the literary elite of the city gathered in the restaurant in Palermo Park: Borges stands unaware that, though he arrived at the lunch with his girlfriend, he was to depart alone.

Other losses followed the loss of Norah: Borges stopped writing poetry and did not publish a poem for 14 years; as the 1920s gave way to the ’30s, he lost his place as the leader of the avant garde. The nadir was the publication of a collection of essays, A History of Eternity, in 1935, which sold 38 copies.

His psychological health may be gleaned from the first pieces he wrote when he became editor of Revista Multicolor: gaudy stories concerning the suicide of failed men. Perhaps like his friend Murano, who had shot himself in a toilet cubicle in the basement of the Jockey Club (where Oliverio held court in his Tuesday-evening tertulias), Borges considered suicide.4

Yet it was in this period that he began to publish his first fiction, initially a series of pseudo-biographies which drew upon named sources, and then one of his first original stories, Men of the Outskirts, a fantasy of revenge for the loss of a woman, a revenge perpetrated not by the defeated rival but by the narrator – a stand-in, perhaps, for the author.

So, a retelling of the story of King Mark and Tristan, another tale of love-rivals, this time for the heart of Isolde, would have resonated for Borges. Certainly he knew the Tristan story.5 And certainly it is the case that, a month after he left the magazine (a new boss at Crítica found the supplement too literary), a version of the Tristan story by one Herbert Lock appeared.

4 In his essay on suicide, ‘Biathanatos’ in The Total Library: Non-fiction 1922-1986, ed. E. Weinberger, trans. E. Allen, S.J. Levine and E. Weinberger (Harmondsworth, 2000), 333-6, Borges identifies with the suicide Philipp Batz.
5 Borges, Obras completas en colaboración (Buenos Aires, 1979), 908.

Until now, the story itself was thought not to have survived. While the newspaper is on microfiche in both regional libraries and Argentina’s National Library, infuriatingly there are no copies of the supplement for February 1935, and Crítica itself has long since shut, its offices on Avenida de Mayo boarded up since the Sixties.

Nevertheless, the story’s absence is not evidence that it never existed. As I argued – convincingly – in my 1993 essay, a letter to Crítica in late February 1935 regarding “a tale” in the previous week’s supplement “about those infamous lovers Tristan and Yseult”, proves that a story on that subject was published by the paper. Its author? “Mr Herbert Lock”, or “The Englishman”.

Now, Herbert was a name Borges used three times in his fiction: Herbert Quain appears in A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain, one of whose literary works concerns a spurned lover and his rival; Herbert Ashe is the English friend of Jorge Borges senior in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius; and, many years later, in a story from his 1975 collection, The Book of Sand, there appears one Herbert Locke.

This Herbert Locke is the failed academic rival for the position of Chair at a conference held, ironically enough, at my own institution, the University of Texas in Austin. The English name (and word) “lock(e)” had resonance for Borges: Borges was “locked” in the world of his past; and John Locke is discussed in Funes, his Memory. The use of this name by Borges in that 1975 story would strongly suggest that the anglophile Borges, who grew up bilingual, learning English on the knee of his Midlands grandmother, wrote the Tristan story and used an English-sounding pseudonym that would later be the name of a character in one of his tales.

Surely this should have sufficient evidence for those obstinate critics who responded to my first article? Apparently not. This, despite the fact that Borges was given to the use of the pseudonym. He created not only fictional doubles but also a series of authorial doubles. He used a pseudonym at least three times while working for Crítica, publishing under the names Alex Ander, José Tuntar and Francisco Bustos; later he and Bioy Cesares wrote detective novels under the names H Bustos Domecq and B Suárez Lynnch. It is not impossible to imagine that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fictions, essays and reviews, strew the journals of South America under the names of his numerous others.

And it is here we must examine more closely the techniques employed by this “Herbert Lock”, as described by the author of the letter, Beatriz Bibiloni Blanco. She refers in passing to that particularly Borgesian method of construction, one which she calls, “the Englishman’s mixed-up lists”. Borges adopted the method from his favourite poet, Walt Whitman; like him, he used it to generate a mystical sense of union with the world.

In her letter to Revista Multicolor, Beatriz also criticises Lock’s decision to compress the epic poem into a handful of pages. That compression is another Borgesian method, one he used to reshape the biographies that became the stories of A History of Iniquity, selecting emblematic moments that reveal the narrative “turns” or “twists” which dramatise a life.

Piecing together from Beatriz’s letter the version of Tristan and Isolde which Lock-Borges chose to tell, it seems his version was created from two distinct Tristan tales: Gotffried von Strassburg’s account of King Mark’s discovery of the adulterous lovers in the orchard of his Cornish castle, when King Mark climbs an olive tree to spy upon them; and the 12-century lai by Marie de France, in which Isolde, on a royal hunt, spies a hazel twig on the forest path, signalling Tristan’s presence: Isolde leaves the hunt, the adulterous lovers meet, and when they part, Isolde takes the hazel twig with her as a token.

All of which is compelling evidence that Borges was Lock and wrote a story in the style of one of his tales of iniquity, in early 1935, concerning lost love.

These were the arguments of my 1993 article, arguments which did not convince di Giovanni or Weinberger. It was a colleague at Austin, however, Milton Lieb, who met my arguments most vociferously:

Notwithstanding Samuelson’s somewhat clamorous arguments (but clamorous for what?), I’m not convinced. The fictions Borges collected in A Universal History of Iniquity were bastardised biographies of murderers and confidence tricksters: not fictional medieval lovers. To argue from Borges’ biography shows a confusion of life and text last prevailing in university campuses about 70 years ago, and somewhat embarrassing to read in a journal. A key text in Samuelson’s argument, the inscription on Borges’ tombstone, was written, not by the master himself, but by his literary secretary, Maria Kodama. So weak are the arguments, so certain the tone, I am inclined to think Samuelson a hoaxer, if not a fool. At least, he is on a fool’s quest, for a thing that does not exist.6

This is a man with whom, before his appointment to a professorship at Columbia, I regularly shared a friendly lunch in the campus canteen here at Austin, to whose house I have been invited to for dinner, and in whose garden I have sat on warm evenings chatting amiably in the company of his wife in the shadows of the jacarandas. Did he imagine me such a weak parodist? And what meanings could possibly be contained within such a hoax, and who would they mean anything to?

But Milton Lieb was correct in two respects: that this is a quest, and that I am after a real object. The quest is minor, not epic: for a colour supplement from Argentina in 1935; but as Borges himself pointed out, the physical object contains a magical power.

Inquiries to the offices of the Municipal Library Service of Buenos Aires on Calle Tronador, produced nothing; neither did letters to other libraries. Once I believed I had found a copy. That was in 1997. Shouting down a muffled line to make myself heard by a librarian in Córdoba whose voice echoed strangely in the receiver, I understood they held a copy. I endured what seemed an infinite wait for the librarian to return from the shelves before she came back on the line: she had issues of Revista Multicolor from April, March… but not February.

The Borges Center, then in Aarhus, did not have any copy beyond January (why should they, they collected only Borges-authored items, and I sought a piece by Lock). An appeal printed in the editor’s column on the books page of La Nación, prompted one, irrelevant response.7 Vacations, and a sabbatical, spent searching the second-hand bookstores of Buenos Aires, brought only a certain emptiness.

It seems not inappropriate, in this revised version of my essay submitted originally to Modern Fiction Review, soon to be accepted by a more prestigious journal, I am certain, to name the more personal consequences of my search, not because I want to write autobiographically, but because it will illuminate certain aspects of Borges’ work.8

6 M.Lieb, ‘A Lost Story of Jorge Luis Borges: A retort’, Hispanic Review, 45 (1994), 111-13.
7 A letter from Helena Matarasso, who remembered the story because it echoed certain episodes from her own life; she thanked me for reminding her of a time that was happy and wished me luck in my search.
8 Borges claimed that all literature was ultimately autobiographical: ‘A Profession of Literary Faith’, The Total Library, 23-7, at 24.

It was neither di Giovanni nor Weinberger’s responses to my original 1993 article, but Milton Lieb’s, which led to a subtle shift in my colleagues’ attitudes towards me. Reputation is vaporous, made of gossip and silences; to detect its shifts is simple; to measure it accurately requires instruments as subtle as those of meteorologists. Staff meetings, hallway conversations, encounters at pigeon-holes; each suggested an adjustment in how I was perceived. And it seemed that this shift had followed the publication in Hispanic Review of Milton’s review, although I could not be sure. I was not invited again to his house; did not sit again in the garden with his wife Hannah. But it was the following autumn that I understood how far beyond the streets of Austin that my damaged reputation had travelled: a series of reviews damned my latest book.

The search for the lost Borges story took on greater personal significance then; the story was the source of my difficulty; it was also my potential salvation. I considered the life of Borges more deeply; I felt a certain sympathy with him for the years following Norah’s marriage to Oliverio and the loss of his job as an editor at Crítica, years when he took the tram to a dreary local library in a poor barrio at the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where he worked as a lowly cataloguer, returning each night with tears in his eyes, those nights when he wrote the desolate black comedies that became The Garden of Forking Paths. Perhaps I identified too greatly with Borges. I think one night I believed I was Borges.

And I realised then, how deeply that desire for revelation is in Borges’ stories, and how the quest for wholeness, unity, coloured everything he wrote. How it is sometimes the occasional source of a profound sense of one-ness, and at others a sham, an iniquitous, flawed quest producing, sometimes, evil. Thus the vanity of the sect of Tlön, which wanted to replicate the world as they dreamed it; thus the vanity too, of the secret society of the Congress, whose quest ends in failure. To these can be added the quest undertaken by the protagonist of the novel The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim described in the story The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, the search for perfection by the author Jaromir Hladek, the uncovering of a mystery by the detective Lönnrot, the revelation of a false mystic in Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Mer, and those late hallucinations of quest and failure: Blue Tigers, The Rose of Paracelsus, and Shakespeare’s Memory. But, for the character Jaromir Hladek in the story The Secrete Miracle, who completes his play The Enemies (a play again concerning two rivals – this time for the love Julia de Wiedenau – and whose identities become confused), there is the glimmer of satisfaction at the very moment of death; and in one of the final stories, Ulricca, the narrator finds temporary solace when time and space dissolve in the lovers’ unity. And in The Aleph a mystical, bittersweet unity is briefly achieved (by a narrator named Borges) which, although it includes a vision of everything that exists in the universe, must necessarily offer also a glimpse of his own, earlier loss.

In Borges’ stories, this unity stands opposed to the infinite, to the mirror, to the series. It is the cessation of striving, a mystic, occasionally erotic, union.9

And it was in the midst of this quest, for wholeness, for unity, that by chance, two years ago, at a conference at the Hebrew University at Jerusalem, at which I was presenting a paper on Borges’ debt to the Kabbalah, that I mentioned my quest for a lost story, which so many of my colleagues have considered apocryphal, and that had led me to be dubbed a fool by Milton Lieb.10 (And I am sure, too, Milton, that you are the anonymous referee of the original of this article – that glib tic of yours, “notwithstanding”, is a giveaway.) In one of the coffee breaks, I was approached by an old man. He said that he had been in Oliverio’s tertulia in the 1930s. In fact, he had met Borges several times. He told me something then that I did not know – Borges’ tendency to squeeze the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb as if he had a headache. The man recalled he did it whenever Oliverio spoke. It was then that I mentioned that the lost story was a version of Tristan. And then, I remember this very clearly, the man interrupted me. “How strange,” he said, “But I have just read Borges’ version of that story.” It was all I could do not to grab him. “Where is it?” I asked.

9 Borges, ‘Narrative Art and Magic’ in The Total Library, 75-82, at 81-2.
10 On the influence of Judaism on Borges, see J. Alazraki, Borges and the Kabbalah and Other Essays on his Fiction and Poetry (Cambridge, 1988); E. Fishburn, ‘Reflections on the Jewish Imaginary in the Fictions of Borges’, Variaciones Borges 5 (1998), 145-56.

He remembered the story very well from its original publication, he said, and in fact had had a conversation with Borges about it, because he had begun as a Germanist and knew the Tristan story, and had found Borges’ version intriguing. He said that Borges admitted to him that he had written Lock’s Tristan. The old man said he had not thought of the story in 60 years, and then had encountered it again while browsing a bookshop in the old quarter of the city the previous day. How surprising and strange it was, he said, that the very next day that I should speak of it. “But where did you see it?” I asked again. “In a bookshop in the old city,” he replied. Again I wanted to grab him. He had actually held, the day before, a yellowed copy of Revista Multicolor from February 1935. “Do you remember any of it?” I asked. He looked away for the longest time: “On the day that the lovers met secretly, King Mark hid himself in an olive tree.”

The old part of the city is a mixture of architectures, of different traditions joined, so that buildings are neither one thing or another: thick Romanesque walls and delicate Islamic fretwork, concrete filling damaged surfaces, stone crumbling to reveal metal – the city has been written over so many times, it is like a palimpsest. The lanes and alleyways are narrow, deep, and turn at strange angles, so that soon you lose your bearings and you are not sure if you face the sunrise or sunset.

I found the passageway the old man had described. It led to a single, closed door. I expected to step into the bookshop; instead, the door opened onto a roomy, Spanish-style courtyard, much too large for the crowded district which surrounded it, and where a shaft of sunlight illuminated a jacaranda tree. Off this great courtyard were several open doors. Through one, in deep shadow and darkness, someone moved.

I found that room full of books and shadows. Several large tables were covered, with paperbacks, leatherbound volumes, old magazines and picture books. Opened tea crates, their pale sides printed with smudged names – Ceylon, Java – contained further books. And in the remaining space towers of books rose, forming a kind of forest through which I moved carefully, fearful that if I knocked against one it would topple. I reached an open area. Here stood a small table. I called out. A man came forward from beside me. He had the smell of old, damp books and sweat.

He informed me that the Revista Multicolor had just been sold and that if I had arrived five minutes earlier, I would have found it. I found it impossible to believe. I argued with him. He seemed deliberately to misunderstand me. Then, I am sorry to say, I threatened him. There was a silence and then I caught myself – raving. I fell silent, ashamed. He took from the table, first, his account book, and handed it to me. It had the day’s date and then, Item: February 1935, Revista Multicolor, Argentina, and then these words: story by JL Borges (Lock). Then he handed me the receipt book, which contained the same information, and I read again those words: Borges (Lock).

I left then. I lost my way in the old city, and did not find my way out for many hours. I reached my hotel late at night. The moon was large and crescent. At that moment, after being so close to the Revista Multicolor, I think perhaps I began to lose my sense of reality. I do not know for certain what happened next. I was unsure if I woke or slept. A blueness infused things. Shadows reminded me of past times. I was sitting in a garden. The breeze moved in the jacarandas. A woman sat beside me. I was unsure if she was Norah Lange or Hannah, Milton Lieb’s wife. I turned to her. She put her hand to her head, holding it as if she would place a band in her hair. She turned to me and spoke. I do not recall what she said, only the timbre of her voice, low and musical, and the wind through the trees above her. I do not know if it was day or night, dusk or dawn, if we were at the Boating Lake at Palermo, in an orchard in Cornwall, or the shadows of her garden in Texas. I understood the unity of person and event, and simultaneously, their distinction; for a moment I held all this, dazzled, full; I was these things; I knew all; therefore knew also that this experience would end, that I would laugh or cry, that reality would become dream, dream become reality.

There are passages of time I recall clearly; other periods are dark smudges. But I know that time passed. A colleague visited me in my garden. This was in Austin. He asked why I had pierced the torn pages of books, why I had hung each page on a loop of string from the branches of the trees. Another memory: heavy rain, and the pages spinning, and in the morning the lawn scattered with white, like magnolia blossom. Sometimes, from my room, out there in the garden I saw a woman, her back turned to me, so that I saw only the narrow slope of her shoulders, and the length of her bare neck – her hair tied up.


This phase of my life passed; the world became clearer, colder. I returned to work. I understood these objects, events, as metaphor. As you must understand them, Milton. I remembered then with a clarity that has visited me a handful of times in my life, that period before you came to Austin, when Hannah and I were still together. A memory from those times: one morning, a simple morning, sitting by the river with Hannah in easy silence, the water dancing with sunlight.

Here, Milton, is the revised version of my essay on Borges for your consideration. You will understand that the words do not belong to me. They are someone else’s.