Before I begin, I generally have my first sentence more or less ready.
And I always know what the last sentence, or the last verse, should be.
Then I go on discovering the thing as I am working on it.
Yesterday, as I walked through Edinburgh, I listened to a recording of the late Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges describing the process of his writing. I decided that the first sentence of this post should be the first one above. But with no idea of what the last would be. That would be what I would discover.
A short story writer, essayist, reviewer and poet, Borges — though he is not, I understand, widely read — has had huge influence on my tastes. Some argue that his ’30s and ’40s work marked the beginning of magic realism. Even though his longest work is a 17-page essay, and the meat of his oeuvre comfortably fits in two reasonably-sized books. Yet, given that his stories are marked by footnoted references to imagined scholarly writings discussing books that don’t exist, it seems appropriate that my volume of his Collected Stories languishes in the garage, and most of this post is remembered impressions and thoughts spurred into life by Radio 4’s recent Great Life on Borges.
Borges was chosen as the subject of the show by Marcus du Sautoy, the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. In discussion with Borges’ biographer Jason Wilson and Matthew Parris, du Sautoy concludes that Borges — a self-taught man incubated in his father’s library — had a great breadth and depth of scientific and mathematical reading, and that his stories say:
“I don’t get the maths or the technical side,” but this is [Borges’] way of exploring different sorts of infinity; higher dimensional shapes.
Around a century later, this remark struck me with some force. As well as a picture of my stroke, I’m keen to get a tattoo of three italicized exclamation marks inside an infinity symbol. Sort of a synthesis of the heart on my right shoulder representing my feelings for Mrs Stroke Bloke and the Time Lord seal on my left for endless possibilities. So the idea of multiple infinities is appealing.
What Borges didn’t entirely figure out, it seems, was his own humanity. I remember reading his stories, and being very aware of his impishness, and his desire to describe (share?) the things that amused or fascinated him. Certain other facets of the man didn’t reveal themselves to me at the time of reading. Borges’ friend, Victoria Campo, said:
Jorge Luis Borges did not deserve the talent he had.
Jason Wilson takes this as referring to that fact that Borges did nothing but readˆ: “He could be spiteful, dismissive, would forget his girlfriends — because he was so much in his mind.” Late in life, entirely blind, Borges spoke in an interview of how he could remember the illustrations in Mark Twain’s books, but not his parent’s faces. There’s a story in there. Perhaps it’s like The Library Of Babel, the Borges story which has prowled the endless hexagonal galleries of my mind these past 20 infinite years. The story in which the methodical task of writing distracts a librarian in an endless library “from the present state of men.”
Of his blindness, which stalked him for years before taking his sight entirely, Borges wrote:
When I think of what I’ve lost, I ask, ‘Who knows themselves better than the blind?’ — for every thought becomes a tool.
The chronology isn’t entirely clear to me, but I believe it was around this time that Borges returned to writing primarily poetry, including the poem that closes this week’s post, The Moon.
by Jorge Luis Borges
There is such solitude in that gold.
The moon of these nights is not the moon
The First Adam saw. Long centuries
Of human vigil have filled her with
An old lament. See. She is your mirror.
Matthew Parris believes that Borges, a master of literary conceit and brevity, is most at home in poetry, including this piece making the point that “[w]e will never see the same moon twice, because so much has happened to us in-between.” Parris sounds wistful as he makes this remark, maybe mindful of the impossible gap between the young avant gardiste being arrested in Buenos Aires and the old librarian who married upon his mother’s death because he needed someone to dress him. So much solitude. So much lamentation. So many missed opportunities.