by César Aira
Two questions. 1) What might an ars poetica from César Aira look like? 2) How does Aira's nonfiction differ from his fiction? Aira, last seen in these parts in connection with his fantastic 1990 novella Los Fantasmas, inadvertently answers both of these questions during the course of this amusing, playful, occasionally reader-baiting Continuación de ideas diversas [Continuation of Various Ideas]--an 86-page long free association of ideas on reading, writing, art and etc. in which Borges, Kafka and Raymond Roussel get lots of love and in which both the conventional novel and Julio Cortázar get trashed on multiple occasions. A few examples. "El modo más común de describir o recomendar novelas consiste en decir 'es sobre...', y a continuación poner el tema o ambiente o personajes: 'una familia disfuncional', 'los refugiados de la guerra en Sudán', 'dos jóvenes que buscan su vocación'..." ["The most common way of describing or recommending novels consists in saying 'it's about...,' and in what follows referring to the theme or the setting or the characters: 'a dysfunctional family,' 'refugees from the war in Sudan,' 'two youths in search of their vocation'..."], Aira writes. "Las críticas o reseñas hechas por profesionales no son muy distintas" ["The criticism or reviews done by professionals aren't very different"], he adds. "Si la recomendación es muy enfática, el relato de la temática se extiende y detalla, y eso es todo" ["If it's a very strong recommendation, the discussion of the subject matter gets more drawn out and detailed, that's all"]. The problem with this approach? "Pero la literatura es forma. Esas descripciones o recomendaciones no dicen nada sobre el mérito o demérito literario de la novela" ["But literature is form. Those descriptions or recommendations don't say anything about the literary merit or lack of merit of the novel"]. The next part is the best in terms of Aira's insight as a critic of critics--let's just hope I don't muck up the translation too much for you to appreciate the subtle irony: "El hecho de que sea casi imposible hablar de una novela sin decir en algún momento 'es sobre...' debería significar algo sobre el género novela o la 'forma novela'. Ese algo puede ser o bien que la forma de la novela sea su materia, o bien que indique el triunfo de la materia sobre la forma, vale decir una derrota de la literatura en su formato más exitoso" ["The fact that it's almost impossible to talk about a novel without at one point saying 'it's about...' ought to signify something about the novel genre or about the 'novel form.' That something might be either that the form of the novel is its subject matter or that it indicates the triumph of subject matter over form--which is to say a defeat of literature in its most successful format"] (23). Elsewhere, Aira takes a more lightheartedly self-critical look at matters of reading tastes and the craft of writing when he admits that when "leyendo novelas policiales, buenas, apasionantes... me pregunto por qué yo no escribo así. ¿Qué razón hay para escribir estos vanguardismos que escribo yo?" ["reading detective novels, good ones, thrilling ones... I ask myself why I don't write like that. What reason is there to write these little avant-gardisms that I write?"]. Although he answers this question with what for me was a disarmingly simple proposition--the notion that reading and writing are "dos actividades radicalmente distintas" ["two radically different activities"] with corresponding "distintos objetivos" ["different objectives"] to match (54)--a much more colorful explanation comes in the form of an earlier passage in which he says that the Superman comics of the '50s and '60s were "la principal influencia" ["the main influence"] in his writing life. "Ahí estaba todo lo que yo después quise hacer escribiendo, y en cierta medida, hasta donde pude, hice" ["There was to be found everything which I later wanted to do in writing, and in a way, to the extent that was possible for me, I did"]. What was it about these comics that was so appealing? For one thing, "los argumentos tenían muy poca psicología, en su lugar tenían siempre un sutil juego intelectual" ["the plots had very little psychology; in lieu of that, they always had a subtle intellectual game instead"]. Along with that, the artwork. "Y los colores, sobre todos los colores, claros, hermosos como un amanecer o como el pensamiento cuando se enfrenta a la aventura de la inteligencia" ["And the colors, above all the colors, bright, beautiful like a dawn or like the mind when confronted with the adventure of intelligence"]. According to Aira, Borges and "las revelaciones posteriores (Lautréamont, Marianne Moore, por nombrar dos)" ["later revelations (Lautréamont, Marianne Moore, to name two)"] were the beneficiaries of how his comic book fandom prepared him for "el goce y el ejercicio pleno de la literatura" ["the enjoyment and the full exercise of literature"] as a result of the "el hechizo persistente de los dibujos, los colores, la visibilidad intensiva de las reglas de juego de la ficción de Superman" ["the enduring spell cast by the drawings, the colors, the intense visibility of the rules of the game of Superman's fiction"] (46-47). Having spent more time on this post than I'd intended without even once touching upon how the slippery Aira, self-described as "un lector muy precozmente intelectual, muy highbrow y no poco snob, muy literario" ["a precociously intellectual reader, very highbrow and more than a little snobbish, very literary"] who at the age of 14 already "quería ser un gran escritor, un genio, como Kafka o Proust" ["wanted to be a great writer, a genius, like Kafka or Proust"] but was troubled by how those writers "estaban cargados con la inmensa responsibilidad de mantener la calidad, de construir su Obra-Vida, de no apearse del monumental camello de lo Sublime" ["were charged with the immense responsibility of maintaining a high quality, of constructing their Life's Work, and of not falling off the monumental camel of the sublime"] (37-38) in contrast to the writers of the cowboy novels that his dad was a fan of who could write whatever they wanted and who had nothing to fear from the critics, differs in his nonfiction voice from his fictional voice, let me brief at last: not much. Here, for example, is just one fragment out of many sporting the same sort of trace of a conceptual slap in the face that you can also find in his novellas (85):
Uno de los varios motivos por los que me opongo a la promoción de la lectura es el más evidente de todos, y por ello el menos visible: los libros están llenos de vulgaridad, prejuicios, estereotipos, falsedades. Su frecuentación no puede sino embotar el pensamiento y la sensibilidad, distorsionar las ideas, falsificar la experiencia.
Se dirá que los buenos libros no son así, y que producen los efectos contrarios a éstos. De acuerdo, pero los únicos que leen buenos libros son los que leen desde siempre y no necesitan campañas de promoción de la lectura. Los que no han leído, y se deciden a hacerlo por una de estas campañas, necesariamente van a leer libros malos.
[One of the various reasons I'm opposed to the promotion of reading is the most evident of all and, because of that, the least visible: books are full of banality, prejudices, stereotypes, falsehoods. Frequenting them can only dull one's sensibility and thinking, distort ideas, falsify experience.
It will be said that good books aren't like that and that they produce effects contrary to these. Agreed, but the only people who read good books are the ones who have been reading them for forever and they don't need any publicity campaigns for reading. Those who don't read, but who decide to do it because of one of these publicity campaigns, are necessarily going to read bad books.]
I hope to share another Aira post or two with you later in the month. In the meantime, here's one more snippet from Continuación de ideas diversas (page 55) since who knows when or if it will ever make its way into English:
Lo difícil es escribir, no escribir bien. En los talleres literarios se puede aprender a escribir bien, pero no a escribir. Para escribir bien hay recetas, consejos útiles, un aprendizaje. Escribir, en cambio, es una decisión de vida, que se realiza con todos los actos de la vida.
[The difficult thing is writing, not writing well. In writing workshops, one can learn to write well but not to write. To write well, there are instruction manuals, useful advice, an apprenticeship. Writing, on the other hand, is a life decision which is realized with all the actions in one's life.]
No wonder I like him so much - I agree with Aira about everything. Especially about the monumental camel of the sublime. No, I mean especially about promoting reading.ResponderBorrar
I wonder where that "monumental camel of the sublime" came from, Tom. It almost sounds like something that another crackpot must have thought up.Borrar
Caption contest! What is Aira writing to the owner of that book?ResponderBorrar
Great stuff. How often does one see Lautréamont and Marianne Moore juxtaposed as influences?
The funny thing about your caption contest idea, Scott, is that Aira is writing with his left hand on the cover of Continuación and with his right hand in the autograph session author photo. Ambidextrous, a reverse image, or a "false" dedication to the owner of that book? Lautréamont and Marianne Moore, strange bedfellows indeed!Borrar
Various ideas from?
Before I sound like a spam comment ... I suspect his fiction are nonfiction too, and not entirely disguised. In terms of the Method, they're all like diary entries to him.
I am guilty of "the novel is about ..." I'm about to reconsider my use of it. Maybe it's about time.
Rise, I think you're probably mostly right about Aira's fiction being kind of nonfiction, too. At the very least, I recently came across something on the background to The Literary Conference that might put that suspicion to the test. The title of this 2014 book is mostly tongue in cheek, I think, but the "continuation" part also has something to do with the way that many of the fragments form a dialogue with previous ones. I ran out of gas before I could provide a good example of that alas.Borrar
Some have wondered about a supposed influence of Roussel on Borges, what seems almost certain is the influence of the middle episodes of Locus Solus over Bioy's The Invention of Morel (and possibly indirectly over Last Year at Marienbad).ResponderBorrar
Humblehappiness, I guess the Bioy Casares/Roussel/Last Year at Marienbad connections all make sense given the six degrees of separation literary/film culture thing and Robbe-Grillet's status as a fan of most (all?) of the other parties involved. However, I think I'd mostly missed hearing about Roussel being a possible influence on Borges. Thanks for sharing that--an interesting tidbit!Borrar
I loved that last passage that you quoted,
I have had, in a playful and mostly tongue in cheek way similar thoughts.
Of course I too have used the dreaded"The novel is about..." or some variation upon it. Unavoidable I thing but it usually it is the part of my post that I want to make as brief as possible.
Brian, one of the things about the "it's about..." style of reviewing as it pertains to the blogosphere is that it seems many bloggers only talk about plot and/or characters. When visiting blogs that I'm not all that familiar with, for example, I often find myself reading detailed summaries of books with almost no idea of what the blogger feels the writing itself is like. Frustrating! Aira's book is fun and thought-provoking in more or less equal measure.Borrar