A few lines about Borges’ story “The Aleph” & using details to reveal character in fiction…


From Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. by Joe Fassler (Penguin 2017)

Excerpt from “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges…

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.

From Michael Chabon’s Essay “To Infinity and Beyond”…

I love the last dazzling item on the list: I saw your face. Borges wrote the story in 1939 or 1940, and the line would have had power then. You, the reader, become an object in the universe depicted here. But reading in 2016, it’s as if he’s reaching out to you across time. You feel so implicated. They have such power, those four simple words coming right at the end, the culmination of everything else that’s been said.

Of course, Borges doesn’t reveal everything here, a complete universe in all its chaos and complexity. How could he? Instead, the passage is an incredible mixture of cosmic things, things the narrator has never seen and places he has never been, layered very poignantly and strategically with quite personal things; details that reinforce the romantic, emotional predicament of a man who was hopelessly, wordlessly in love with a woman who did not love him in return. That unrequited love he’s been carrying with him for all these years emerges through the details. That’s one of the fundamental things you have to do as a fiction writer: learn to produce the right details from a sea of choices—not just the ones that are plausible, but the things that convey a sense of who a character is. As a writer, you, too, have essentially infinite details to choose from, and in a way this passage both postulates and demonstrates the technique by which you have to choose.

One response to “A few lines about Borges’ story “The Aleph” & using details to reveal character in fiction…

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