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 Quixote (English translation being preferred) and Quevedo, he is condescending. An English grandmother, an Anglophile father who was himself a writer and who brought his son up on books like Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Kipling, and Wells, and the poems of Tennyson, Swinburne, and Browning, stand out in an Argentine family who in the past were violently involved as soldiers in the savage South American wars.
The boy was too frail and, like his father, too near-sighted to follow a military career. Father and son, both slowly going blind, went to Europe for cure and education, mainly in Geneva and Germany and Madrid. Unlike most South Americans they detested Paris, and thought Madrid trivial. I would guess that the idealism of those English poets and most of all the erudition and abruptness of Browning’s dramatic narratives left the important English touch, though Borges’s poetry is not marked by them.
Back in Buenos Aires where he could hardly leave the house, his mind packed with print and particularly with a bent for stories of violence among his gauchos, bandits, and even gangsters, Borges looked like a Europeanized cosmopolitan. And fifty years ago the cosmopolitan was at its high moment. For all this, Borges is not an intellectual expatriate. He is not deeply Europeanized. Two qualities make him thoroughly of the American continent: loneliness and the idea of the quest. These have hardened the soft outline of what is called the European sadness.
Borges has also spoken of how, after the age of thirty, he has lived physically in a growing twilight, in which the distinctions between seen reality, conjecture, and reading are blurred. He has lived increasingly in memory. He has become a pedant of his own uncertainties. At first he was given to highly imaged prose which had something in common with Tlön, his imaginary language; but gradually his manner has become laconic, plain and hard. Things and facts have to carry extra meaning, and are even given a will (“A stone wants to be a stone”). He has kept to short stories because he wants the intensity and discipline of form; they begin drily and bluntly, then proceed to trap us in a mosaic, and at last burst into short flashes of vision, and in that vision we are to see an instant contain the whole of a life, even the history of the universe. “Aleph,” the title story of the present collection, is a master example of his power of suggestion.
It begins casually with news of the death of a vain, socialite woman. The narrator has passionately loved this empty lady and in a few lines moves to a devastating statement about memory:
On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me for I realized that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series.
The story moves on to an absurd literary comedy. We lose Beatriz Viterbo and meet a pompous middle-aged poet who was presumably her lover and who is writing a long poem containing all the clichés of verse that has got too big for its boots. Relations between the two men are scornful; gradually it appears that the platitudinous old bore is malevolent. He persuades his critic to allow himself to be locked alone in the cellar of his house, for there he will discover the poet’s unparalleled justification: he owns an Aleph, a stone that is the microcosm of the alchemist and Kabbalists, “our true proverbial friend, the multum in parvo.” The writer sees the marvel.
Borges has himself said that composing the catalogue that follows was one of the most difficult tasks in his life as a writer. But the result is a triumph. Here is a portion of it:
…I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny—Philemon Holland’s—and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the color of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshiped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo….
A short learned discussion in the history of the idea of the Aleph follows and the story ends briefly with Beatriz Viterbo.
Does this Aleph exist in the heart of a stone? Did I see it there in the cellar when I saw all things, and have I now forgotten it? Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz.
Borges manages to be in and out of his stories with perfect tact. In one or two, like the superb “Intruder” or “The Dead Man,” and in the gaucho stories, he is outside, brutally direct. Yet being outside does not prevent him at the key moment from uncovering his real interest, which is to show:
Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment—the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is.
The situations have a singeing irony, but not for irony’s sake; they contain uneasy psychological perceptions. In “The Dead Man,” a young tough is allowed, to his own surprise, to get the better of his gang leader, even to rise to the height of supplanting him and getting his woman. The gang obey the newcomer and love him—but why? Because he is the winner? Because they are cowards? Or reckless? No, because they have understood that all the time he is as good as dead. He must be loved for his moment. The leader will choose when to kill him, and does so. The gaucho stories, mainly of meaningless violence, duels without provocation, are to show that the gaucho
…without realizing it, forged a religion—the hard and blind religion of courage—and that this faith (like all others) has its ethic, its mythology, and its martyrs…they rediscovered in their own way the age-old cult of the gods of iron…no mere form of vanity but rather an awareness that God may be found in any man.
These remarks come from one of his essaylike passages, for he often makes little distinction between the essay and the tale. And this brings me to my comparison with Mérimée. There are one or two personal similarities—though great differences too—the Anglophile touch, the background of erudition, the linguistic, historical, and archaeological and mystical interest. Mérimée was very much “in life” but a wound to sensibility gave him coolness and detachment. He was caught in the impossible situation of reconciling civilization with the primitive, reality with the unbelievable.
In just two of his tales, “Lokis” and “Vénus d’Ille,” he is concerned with the unconscious. It is true that the cold and formal Mérimée toys with his metaphysical anxieties and usually has no deeper interest in human nature than its customs. This was partly defensive. He was irreligious and would have been incapable of seeing man in the act of creating God or himself, as Borges has. But there is a common love of hoaxing pedantry and the common approach of the misleading, yet documented essay to the tale in hand. Both writers are elaborate pretenders: the terrible story of “Lokis” affects to arise out of a serious study of the Lithuanian language! Both writers know that to describe the violent or the fantastic, one must begin by playing down and even by appearing brief and perfunctory. And, though with very different intentions, both writers have the art of enhancing the effects of the unbearable, the sinister, and the ineluctable, by presenting it in the elaborate terms of “the record.”
The difference is that for Mérimée the record is closed and final: Colomba is the last word on the vendetta versus civilization; for Borges, the record is open and continuous, memory feeding on memory, life is a corridor of reflecting mirrors. We are all shadows of a dream. For Mérimée truth lay in documentation; in Borges, we find the balance between life and literature redressed. It has been easy to forget, in our time, that literature has roots in literature, perhaps its most nourishing ones. How flat Don Quixote would have been as topical realism.
January 28, 1971