Writing With Infinite Pity

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon discusses what he learned about empathy from Borges’s “The Aleph.”

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

In his introduction to The Wes Anderson Collection, the writer Michael Chabon suggests that novels are like scale models: They’re small, self-contained dioramas that manage to convey something much larger than they are. Works of fiction, of course, can’t really contain the entire world (or even an entire country, or city, or single human life) any more than the Queens Museum’s 1:1200-scale Manhattan panorama can show us everything about New York. Still, it’s the artist’s job to convince us otherwise, to make us feel as though, within a finite span of pages, we’ve somehow seen the whole damn thing.

That is the explicit project of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” a story that attempts to sketch the universe in a single, luminous paragraph. When the narrator glimpses infinity in a Buenos Aires basement, his challenge is to try to report back on what he’s seen. In a conversation for this series, Chabon explained how Borges conjures a sense of cosmic scope by, paradoxically, bringing a warm-blooded human being to life in all his vividness and specificity. It’s a master class on character and description, on how to select the best details from a vast array of conceivable choices.

Chabon’s new novel, Moonglow, is the latest romance in contemporary literature’s ongoing affair with auto-fiction: The author has cast himself in a novel about his life. As a narrator named Michael Chabon recounts the story of his grandparents, two greatest-generation Jewish lives indelibly shaped by World War II, he sticks to the facts whenever possible. But he freely admits that, when real life gets in the way of the truth, he’s going to make stuff up.

Chabon is the author of seven other novels (include the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), two story collections, and two books of essays. He spoke to me by phone.

Michael Chabon: “The Aleph” is about a weird house, and a weird family with a secret, and the innocent but involved narrator who is inexorably drawn towards the horrible thing hidden in the basement. It follows the classic pattern of one of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror stories, which are themselves modeled after certain stories by Edgar Allan Poe—though this is more of a wonder story than a horror story. “The Aleph” is like what a Lovecraft story would be if Lovecraft were a truly great writer, one of the greatest of all time. I’m a lifelong lover of H. P. Lovecraft, but he’s no Borges.

In Lovecraft, the universe is a vast malign entity separated from our humdrum existence—what we’d call “reality”—by the thinnest of membranes. Very persuasively, with all the obsessive fervor of a great writer, he conveys that cosmic, carnivorous destruction is always out there looking for a way in, always feeling for the spots where that membrane is thinnest. But he doesn’t take that next step—making you believe that this experience is being undergone by a fully developed, conscious individual human being with a long past of heartache and sorrow and romantic entanglement. In “The Aleph,” Borges manages to do what Lovecraft can’t: he fully integrates an encounter with the infinite into the consciousness of what feels like a living, breathing, human being with stale breath and lint in his pockets.

As “The Aleph” begins, we learn the narrator is in love with a woman who has just died. We witness his heartbreak in the incredible first sentence, one that would definitely be in contention if I had to choose a favorite opening line:

On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving 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.

When I first read that sentence, it sounded amazing to me. I loved its language and its pacing, though I had never actually experienced the phenomenon it’s trying to capture: the sense, after somebody you love has died, of how things plod on in such a banal way. In this one sentence, Borges captures the complete indifference of the universe to the people you love. It’s definitely one that, over the years, I’ve tried to model various of my own first sentences after.

The narrator begins paying regular calls on Beatriz Viterbo’s family, every year on the anniversary of her death. As a consequence, he develops a complicated and not entirely amicable relationship with her cousin, a man named Carlos Argentino Daneri, who lives in the family home. The narrator is a literary man, and Daneri also has literary aspirations. Eventually Daneri lets on that he's working on this epic poem—one that is going to, according to him, describe everything in the world, almost like a catalog of the universe. One day, Daneri invites the narrator over to see something, a secret he’s been concealing in the house for his whole life. A “discovery,” he calls it.

He brings the narrator down into the cellar of his house, and gives him a cloth—a kind of folded sack to kneel on, to protect his knees—and tells him to look up at a certain spot, a kind of window he can look into if his head is at just the right level. There’s a deliberate invocation of that moment in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” where the narrator briefly wonders if Carlos has lost his mind, and has brought him down into the basement to kill him.

But when he opens his eyes, suddenly, he sees the Aleph.

An Aleph (which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) turns out to be a point from which you can see every point in the universe, from every possible point of view. Borges uses the word “universe,” but what’s revealed here is not a Carl Sagan thing, with billions of stars—it’s a more local version of the universe, what we would probably call “the world.” Yet it's still infinite, nonetheless. The narrator admits he lacks the words to describe what he saw:

In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive. Nonetheless, I'll try to recollect what I can.

I love the way he sets this up. Because this is impossible, right? There’s no way to convey the experience of seeing the entire world from every possible point of view, all at the same time, without any of those views overlapping. You can’t do it in the space of a paragraph, or the space of a story, or of a novel, or of an entire book, or an entire library of books. So the way he handles it is by acknowledging the impossibility at the beginning—which is a really useful strategy for a writer, something I definitely learned from studying the story. Before you’ve even seen anything, Borges discreetly lowers your expectations.

Then, having lowered your expectations, he presents you with this long, miraculous paragraph, one of the most stunning passages I’ve ever read. It starts this way:

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…

It’s just a list, this paragraph; the listiness of it is far from being concealed. Borges goes right ahead repeating those two words, “I saw”—I saw this, I saw that, on and on. But somehow that repetition gives the passage this incredible incantatory power, managing to convey a kind of infinitude. It casts this magical spell, and it convinces you.

After a long catalog—including the insects and animals and gardens and snows of the world, a translation of Pliny, a Scottish woman with cancer in her breast—the paragraph ends this way:

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.

I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.

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.

For me, almost everything in literature almost always comes down to the question of point of view. Whose story is this, and who's telling the story of that person? Ultimately, it just boils down to word choice, the words you choose to persuade the reader that this is the point of view of a particular human being. In my own work, it comes down to finding the right voice for the story that I'm trying to tell. Trying to hit on that right narrator, on that right voice, on that correct point of view—whether it’s a limited point of view, or an omniscient point of view, or a first-person or third-person one. Once I have a sense of that, then it’s about what kind of tone to adopt, and the narrator’s relationship to the material. If it is a first-person narrator, is it retrospective, looking back with the gathered wisdom of all the time that has passed since the events that are under discussion occurred? Or is it someone who's in the thick of it, narrating?

Sometimes those questions all get settled instantly. In my second novel, Wonder Boys, the first sentence came to me as I was writing it, just as it was eventually published. It's a first-person sentence: "The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn." That gave me a series of questions to answer: who's August Van Zorn and who's this narrator, and why is Van Zorn the first writer he ever knew? The seed of the novel—who would tell the story and what it would be about—was in that first sentence, and it just arrived. I just had to tease it all out, and that was how I wrote the book. That book actually did write itself fairly quickly.

Much more often, I struggle for a while to find the right point of view, the right place to stand and peer into the Aleph of the novel. Your eye lights on things that seem relevant somehow, and you grab hold of them, hoping that the details assemble themselves into what feels like a coherent narrator. Once you've found the voice, then you have to keep at it through the whole piece. That seamless uniformity of tone is probably the most satisfying experience you can have in reading, and it all comes down to those word-by-word choices.

In the Borges story, the narrator’s reaction to the Aleph—“I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity”—is not how I feel on a daily basis when I’m writing. But it serves as a reminder of what I ought to be feeling while I work, as I’m describing the behavior of human beings and of the world. I ought to be full of infinite wonder and infinite pity when I sit down at my desk, look into an Aleph, and see things, report them, and try to set them down. Wonder, because it’s the appropriate response to that which is new. You have a responsibility, when you’re looking into the personal Aleph of your work, to always try to see things afresh. You are seeing through the eyes of fictional characters who are not you, and they will see things in ways you have never seen them before.

Infinite pity, I think, is the proper attitude to have towards your characters. Not pity in the way we mostly tend to understand it—which is the condescension of a superior looking down at an inferior and feeling sorry for them. That’s not the kind of pity Borges was talking about, and that’s not what’s required in this process. It’s a much more self-implicating pity, where you see and understand the tragic and routine flaws people have, the ways in which your characters fall short of the marks they set for themselves—just as you fall short of the marks you set for yourself.

There are some fantastic writers out there who are relatively pitiless, whose work demolishes not only the foibles of its characters but the foibles of all of humanity in a merciless, remorseless way. Some of those writers are important and wonderful. But I think the greatest writers are like, say, Tolstoy, who's celebrated for that quality of extending, if not forgiveness, then profound understanding and sympathy to even his most weak, vacillating, or blinkered characters. Not only saying, Aren't we all this way? But fundamentally saying, This is how I am. And since I am this way, too, I can't judge. I can only present with sympathy the way all of us are. This is not something that I manage to accomplish every time I look into the Aleph. But I think it is a useful, valuable codification of what to try for.