Saturday, August 20, 2011

"The Aleph" and other bits

At least twice in the past month, I've seen references to Borges' "The Aleph," which I have in my giant Borges fiction paperback. "The Aleph" of the title is not—at least for the purposes of the story—the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, spoken by God (in Kabbalistic theology) into the void to birth the universe, though certain Borges has that in mind. This Aleph is a point in space which, when viewed, reveals all other points in space and time. In Borges' story, this allows a mediocre poet to write an epic poem which spans the globe. A version of Borges himself narrates the story, explaining how his devotion to the poet's late cousin leads him to deeper involvement with the family and to his somewhat traumatic introduction to the Aleph—though he later won't admit to the poet that he's seen this wonder. Though the narrator says little about the dead Beatriz, the name suggests that she serves the same purpose as Dante's Beatrice: a figure that leads the narrator toward some ultimate knowledge. Rather than encountering God, Borges discovers an impersonal substitute, a point of omnipresence if not omnipotence or omniscience. Borges also remarks, as a frame to the story, that he is forgetting Beatriz. What can we know? How can we hold onto it? How much must we know in order to write about something? And even if we could re-view every moment, would that supplant memory and imagination?

Memory is also the subject of the essay ("On liars") I'm reading from Montaigne's Essays (ed./trans., J.M. Cohen). Montaigne begins by announcing that his memory is so poor, he should gain fame due to the profound weakness of this quality in himself. He also suggests that people should be forgiving toward him: he doesn't mean to be so unreliable—it's his memory that the problem, not his intentions, and what can he do about an innately bad memory?

Memory seems to be a theme that runs through my "Old Man" stories as well. It's come up in "Unearthed," and I suspect will be a unifying theme for all of the tales once I'm finished with the series. I wrote more yesterday; my characters are finally underground, which is some kind of achievement. Little do they know what they're heading toward . . .

I'm about halfway through Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and am tempted to stop. Grandiose title and cover aside, the story, at this point, seems unserious, and the characterization is below the level of a comic book. At the Asimov's forum, I posted my concerns; it was suggested that I have patience and proceed. The book's not painful to read, but I do have the sense of having my time wasted.

For school, I'm continuing to make notes in Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel, both of which I'll teach early on in my AP classes.


Calvin said...

Although it's been years, I remember being a bit underwhelmed by Gully Foyle as well, especially the climax, where he leaps through time and space and crap like that, which I found rather nonsensical pseudo-magic. I liked better "The Demolished Man," with its psychological unpeeling of how one might commit premeditated murder in a society with telepathic cops.

Have you read Algis Budry's Who? or Rogue Moon, written just a couple of years after The Stars My Destination? I found them, well, interesting because in some ways they were the exact opposite of The Stars My Destination, trying to be tight, introspective character studies jammed into an SFnal setting. Much more like The Demolished Man. Not perfect, by any means, but I think they presaged the New Wave that arose shortly thereafter.

William Preston said...


Well, I'm not sure I'll finish it, but I picked it up again. It's certainly easy to read. It just feels adolescent. I'd have picked up Demolished Man if someone at the forum hadn't praised Stars so highly.

I haven't read any Budrys. As I've likely mentioned, I'm ill-read on the "classics" of SF.