It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on themMy prior post was occupied with the second half of Borges' remark: that imagining vast novels and commenting on them is better than writing them. But, with extended reflection, I think the first part of Borges' statement may be more revealing: his conviction that novel writing is laborious and impoverishing madness.
Certainly, I agree with him. Writing novels has consumed the better part of five years of my life; the work wholly exhausts me; I don't think anyone who knows me intimately would argue too strenuously that I'm sane; and I'm teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, having succeeded in never having earned a dime from my fiction writing.
Still, my guess is that Borges was referring to some other "laborious," "impoverishing" and "mad[dening]" aspects of novel writing. I take my cue from this passage in his story, "The Writing of God":
[T]here is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say "the jaguar" is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth.Here Borges offers an extraordinary conception of a word, one that departs from our common currency. Each "Borges word" has almost unimaginable weight and resonance. The more "Borges words" one strings together, the more propositions one advances, the heavier and more unwieldy the work becomes, the more the universes conjured by each word clang against one another, creating cacophony and undecipherable complexity.
To write a vast tome from such components is truly laborious; hauling each "Borges word" into place must be on par with positioning the stone blocks that comprise a pyramid. And the task is also impoverishing - to the language. The vibrancy of each word is overshadowed, damaged and cramped by the presence of so many other words, by the weight of so many other universes. Borges was not exaggerating to say that composing a novel with "Borges words" would be maddening.
And, although Borges didn't mention this corollary, to read a novel composed of "Borges words" might be a similar laborious and impoverishing madness. Reading a Borges short story is so demanding that I read each of his stories twice . . . before I go back and "reread" them again. The weight and resonance of an entire Borges novel might very well reduce me to my atomic constituents.
Luckily - however much Borges described his choice as that of an "inept" and "lazy" man - Borges knew both his power and his métier. He spared me atomic disintegration and gifted me untold hours of pleasure in his stories, a balance that I can only describe as a prudential and laudatory use of "Borges words."
(Image of Jorge Luis Borges from The New York Times)