The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-1969
by Jorge Luis Borges, translated and edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Dutton, 286 pp., $7.95
The success of Borges is happy and astonishing. I do not think it is hard to explain. He is a gift to the professors; he plays with ancient coin. More seriously, he has turned his back on the self-dramatizations and wordy hypochondria of the Zeitgeist. He is not swollen with contemporary “problems.” His fictions are not polluted by the smog of high-minded journalism. Instead he remains in his corner, a prompter changing the cues, and daring us to reflect upon our lives. In a period that swamps the “great writer” and “great novel,” he opts for the more exacting minor role without falling into the minor writer’s trap: the perfectly faceted thing.
His essays and stories are experiments, especially in approach. He is outside his subjects yet succeeds, at a certain point, in smuggling himself in, almost posing as a man trying to be an artist and doubtful of whether life permits that. He is interested in the part of our lives which is a collection of metaphysical and intellectual fictions. To avoid archness or whimsicality is difficult for a writer of this kind; he is on the edge of the hoax and the footnote, which can be tedious, especially in the hands of a scholar. (This can be argued against him.)
But, in the main, his imagination is piercing, and his best coups unnerve. He is very much a bookish Don Quixote who has been down in Montesino’s cave: the imagination is not to be meddled with; it has its tragic dignity. In “The Circular Ruins,” the narrator dreams that he makes a man who can walk on fire; in the end “he understood he too was an appearance, that someone else was dreaming him.” His genius lies in insight. The story is an allegory of life creating itself. The famous “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” with its account of a planet created out of the continuing memories and scholarly disputes of generations, is a key to Borges’s strange mind. It is exasperating that an ill-mannered clinging to copyright has kept this story out of the present volume. Whatever editors and publishers may feel, a writer is not a product like soap.
It is impossible to avoid spattering a review of The Aleph and Other Stories with literary names. Kafka above all, Poe, Baudelaire, Cervantes have occurred, rightly, to most critics. I have two of my own: Calderon of La Vida es Sueño and—when one turns to his manner of address—Mérimée. The latter may sound unlikely—I shall go into that later on. This general name-dropping, usually a sign of critical bewilderment, is justified by Borges’s own words: “I have always come to life after coming to books.”
He has written some plain and modest autobiographical pages that tell us a great deal about his mind. To begin with, in his native Buenos Aires he is odd in having been brought up on English models rather than French; toward the Spaniards, outside of Don …