The musician David Byrne was asked in the New York Times which subjects would he like to see more authors write about.
I liked his answer.
“I’ll turn it around — most writers should avoid writing about writers as their main characters. I know, I know, ‘write what you know.’”
Some critics (especially the Guardian’s) wish that Martin Amis had heeded this advice before publishing his latest novel, “Inside Story,” which is propped up on his friendships with fellow literary giants, including Saul Bellow, Peter Larkin, and Christopher Hutchins.
Maybe not propped up so much as back-filled.
Well, to make a non-story short, the Times asked Amis “What writers are especially good on literary friendships and rivalry?” Amis went off, as he has always been wont to do, but he did observe that literary envy “is in my view hugely promising” while writing about writing is “automatically introspective and parochial” — in a word, boring.
He may have something there.
Amis bolsters his observations with a great recommendation.
“Jorge Luis Borges, as is his way, says most of what needs to be said in a dazzling and very witty 10-pager — ‘The Aleph.’
Anything that is both dazzling and only 10 pages long captures my attention immediately in these short-attention-span days.
“The Aleph” is thick with literary envy and snark. Borges assigns the low behavior to himself and aims it at the insufferably self-important first cousin of Beatriz Viterbo, a woman he has loved from a respectful distance but who has now passed away.
The cousin’s life’s work is an epic poem titled “The Earth.” The pretentiousness of the topic and the author’s unassailable faith in its perfection gall Borges to no end.
The cousin, Carlos Argentino, shares with Borges the source of his inspirations — the Aleph, which is a mystical sphere visible on the 19th step of the stairs descending into a dank and narrow little basement beneath his family home. Everything in the world — and I mean everything — is visible or apparent in this tiny sphere.
Weird. I know.
So now I finally get around to the point of this whole essay. Borge’s description of what his fictional self saw in the Aleph is intoxicating, hallucinogenic, euphoric, stunning, disorienting … well, here, read it for yourself:
“On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); 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 colour 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 worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe.”
Borges concludes: “I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.”
Borges shows little gratitude for the gift he has been given and soon enough learns that karma is a bitch.
Me, I want to peer into the Aleph just once.
And then I’ll be happy. I promise.