Category Archives: cesar aira

Against the Short Novel, Even When Don DeLillo Is the Author

Lately I’ve been pushing Cesar Aira on people, which means I’m having a lot of conversations these days about how Americans don’t respect short novels. They’re insubstantial. They offend our sense of value, always measured by the gross poundage we get per dollar. Let’s just go ahead and say it: they feel European, like one of those pathetic little smart cars.

Cesar Aira seems almost designed to refute these culturally wired reactions against the short novel. Yes, his novels can be read quickly, but they’re so intricately crafted and clever in their ambiguity that any good reader will be pulled back to look back through them again and again. Their value is in the fact that they resist interpretation: they will challenge you far more, keep you thinking longer, and ultimately entertain you better than many a long work. I think of them as the literary equivalent of a beautifully built box that sits on your desk. Yes, it’s a box, that’s all it is. It doesn’t really “do” anything. But it’s so finely crafted and cared over that you’ll find yourself staring at that box for ages, noticing detail after detail, and you’ll love putting stuff in it and watching how smartly the lid slips out just so as you open it, revealing a beautiful inlay. And then one day you will discover the world in it.

Which all brings me to Don DeLillo, who seems to have once again offended many critics by writing another wee, dense novel. Forget that Falling Man is the best post-9/11 novel that I’ve read, dwarfing in stature many swollen collections of pages devoid of the lasting thought and value that you will find therein. Falling Man can’t be that serious because it’s “only” 256 pages, and anyone knows you need at least 400 to do justice to 9/11. (And when did 256 pages become so short? Good thing we weren’t judging DeLillo by pagecount back in the Great Jones Street days.) So with the precedent of Falling Man behind us (to say nothing of Cosmopolis, 224 pages (!)) you can imaging how ripped-off critics felt with the 120-page Point Omega.Only 120 pages? How could DeLillo have possibly said anything of importance with just 120 pages?

John G. Rodwan, Jr has a good reply:

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mathew Sharpe notices that critics of The Body Artist, Cosmopolis and Falling Man “seem to want DeLillo to be the Babe Ruth of novelist, to keep writing Underworld and Libra, those long, magisterial books about big events.” He correctly anticipated that such readers would not see Point Omega as “a literary home run.” Even though Sharpe is one of those people who reads novels as being only and ever “about” things, he discerns that Point Omega, even without Libra’s political assassination, White Noise’s airborne toxic event or Underworld’s cold war-era atomic anxiety, could still be “a splendid, fierce novel by a deep practitioner of the form.”

Readers who look to DeLillo as “a kind of secular prophet” (as Esquire’s Alsup describes him) seem to expect answers from him, but he prefers to ask questions. What causes people to surrender their individuality, to lose themselves in crowds or causes – or works of art? What convinces terrorists and dictators to disregard and destroy individuals in pursuit of their aims? How do artists retain and develop their individual identities, explore other people’s identities and persuade people that doing such things matters? Practitioners of both creative activity and political violence aim to make people looks at things in a certain way; what are the implications of this?

Indeed, DeLillo poses the kinds of questions that are worth asking, the ones that take a novel-worth of writing (even a short novel’s worth) to pose properly and that can’t be summed up with a nice little moral at the end. For some great responses to these questions, read Rodwan’s piece. For a lot of not-so-great responses to these questions, read most (though not all, it must be said) of the reviews he quotes.

Cesar Aira Interview

Very lengthy interview with Cesar Aira in Letras Libres. Aira is his usual irascible self, with some intereting thoughts on translation:

Quisiera ahora hablar de su papel como un muy buen traductor. Quizá ahí uno se acerca a una seriedad y un rigor…

A una corrección sobre todo. Pero yo siempre a la traducción la tomé como un oficio del que viví. Ahí sí lo vi con todo pragmatismo, hasta tal punto que me especialicé en literatura mala. Porque los editores pagan lo mismo por la mala que por la buena, y la buena es mucho más difícil de traducir. Entonces terminé especializándome, bah, más bien tomando estos bestsellers norteamericanos, que son facilísimos de traducir porque están escritos en una prosa estereotipada.

Essentially: any pragmatic translator would prefer to translate bestsellers, because they sell more and the prose is so bad that they’re much easier to translate.

For more on Aira, check out Marcelo Ballve’s excellent essay on him and our review of Ghosts.

Literature’s Ghosts

Ghosts Something I love about Cesar Aira–and a reason why we need more of his books available in translation–is his incredible range. This is they guy who can go from writing an off-kilter-but-clearly-realist novel to creating a Calvino-esque modern fable, and do an above-average job at each. (He's got 80-some more books left, and I'm dying to see them in my local bookstore.)

I just finished Ghosts, which seems to be a sort of extended allegory for the creative process in art. The book is about a half-finished high rise apartment building in Buenos Aires. A bunch of impoverished Chileans live in it while they finish building it, and some of them have a very casual relationship with ghosts that seem to live in the building too. They can see each other; they joke around; it's no big deal. For Aira, the ghosts are just another part of atmospheric detail, neither remarkable nor unremarkable.

Right in the middle of the book–right when you're starting to wonder–What's the deal with all these ghosts everywhere?–the action breaks off and Aira dives into an extended, 10-page digression on the nature of art. It begins with:

The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realization requires the remunerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: anyone can have an idea for a film, but then you need expertise, finance, personnel, and these obstacles mean that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the film doesn't get made. Which might make you wonder if the prodigious bother of it all–which technological advances have exacerbated if anything–isn't actually an essential part of cinema's charm, since, paradoxically, it gives everyone access to movie-making, in the form of pure daydreaming. It's the same in the other arts, to a greater or lesser extent. And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.

That "without ghosts" in the penultimate sentence is a killer, and I'm still trying to figure out just what it means.

As to the rest of Aira's legnthy digression, I won't even bother trying to summarize the range and twisted logic therein. Suffice to say, it ranges from Mbuntu and Bushmen societies to architectural aesthetics to the practice of the potlatch.

I will say, however, that Aira's constant invocation of structures–especially unfinished ones–is important in the context of Ghosts. The book, after all, takes place in an unfinished building, which (at least in this book) is Aira's favorite metaphor for the transitional area between the work of art as an idea and the work of art as reality.

I haven't quite gotten my head around the book sufficiently to have worked out a complete theory on what's happening in Ghosts. But I think the fact that the main character is a young woman who embodies a point between the world of the humans and the world of the ghosts is important. I also think the constant dramatization of daydreams and the aforementioned backdrop of an unfinished building all point to this book being about transitional areas between thought and reality–especially in regards to art.

I like what Aira says about "the made" and "the unmade" coexisting in literature. In my opinion, they coexist within the mind of the reader; that is, literature–in a very literal sense–is the imagination. The unmade we can take as the writer's vision, the made we can take as the words on the page, and the crossover occurs in that space within your head where the reading takes place.

Cesar Aira At Feria Internacional del Libro de Guayaquil

Nice write-up on Cesar Aira, who was speaking at the Book Fair in Guayaquil, Peru.

The piece opens with a typically modest statement from the Argentine author:

“Mientras más grueso es un libro, menos literatura tiene”. La frase fue una de las sentencias del escritor argentino César Aira (1949), durante un conversatorio desarrollado el pasado sábado en el marco de la Feria Internacional del Libro, en Guayaquil. Y el dictamen fue duro, cuestionable para muchos, pero ceñido a las convicciones del narrador no tan popular como otros de su nacionalidad, pero que en una de sus obras, Carlos Fuentes lo imagina como el primer premio Nobel de Literatura Argentina.

That is, the bigger the book, the less literature it contains (Aira's works being uniformly short). And as to the odd Fuentes reference at the bottom of that paragraph:

Sobre la referencia que Fuentes hizo en su novela, Aira comentó que se trataba de una réplica a un texto de su autoría titulado El congreso de su literatura, donde un científico decide hacer clones del autor mexicano a fin de dominar el mundo usando a un poderoso ejército de intelectuales, pero todo sale mal.

And I wonder yet again why Aira isn't bigger in the States.

Related Content

Cesar Aira Interview

With the U.S. release of Cesar Aira's novel Ghosts, it's a good time for an interview. As far as I know, though, no one Stateside has conducted (or at least published) one. But Argentina's La Nacion offers an apparently unrelated interview with the Argentine.

It's an interesting piece. Riht off the bat Aira offers the tidbit that many of Argentina's new presses inaugurate their list with one of his many novels:

-¿Has pensado alguna vez que es muy
complicado seguirte? Debe de ser muy difícil que te encuentres con
alguien que haya leído tu obra completa, ¿no?

-Hay algunos que han tomado esa actitud un poco de coleccionista. Yo he
editado en muchísimas editoriales. En la Argentina han proliferado
estos últimos años pequeñas editoriales independientes que son mi
terreno de juegos, mi playground
favorito. Prefiero publicar con estos pequeños editores que suelen ser
gente joven; algunas editoriales son unipersonales. Hoy en día los
medios técnicos permiten hacer un libro con cierta facilidad, y toda
editorial nueva que aparece en Buenos Aires o alrededores se inaugura
con un libro mío, porque yo siempre estoy disponible. Me encanta porque
me da una gran libertad.

Of course, in Aira's case this is more than just something he does. As Marcelo Ballve remarked in his essay on Aira, publishing rapidly and widely is aprt of the author's method:

According to Aira, he never edits his own work, nor does he plan
ahead of time how his novels will end, or even what twists and turns
they will take in the next writing session. He is loyal to his idea
that making art is above all a question of procedure. The artist’s
role, Aira says, is to invent procedures (experiments) by which art can
be made. Whether he executes these or not is secondary; Aira’s business
is the plan, not necessarily the result. Why is procedure
all-important? Because it is relevant beyond the individual creator.
Anyone can use it.

Aira’s procedure, which he has elucidated in essays and interviews, is what he calls el continuo, or la huida hacia adelante.
These concepts might be translated into English as “the continuum,” and
a “constant flight forward.” Editing is an abhorrent idea in the
context of Aira’s continuum. To edit oneself would be to retrace one’s
steps, go backwards, when the idea is to always move forward. To judge
yesterday’s writing session, to censor a lapse into the absurd or the
irrational, to revive a character your work-in-progress sent tumbling
over a cliff—all of these actions go against Aira’s procedure. Instead,
the system prioritizes an ethic of creative self-affirmation and, I
would say, optimism.

Later on in the interview, there's this exchange:

-La crítica te ha puesto el mote de escritor "raro"?

-¿Qué escritor no es raro?

I'd have to say they're both right.

Wimmer on Aira

Natasha Wimmer doesn't get too many words for her New York Times review of Ghosts by Cesar Aira, but she does make them count:

Aira likes nothing better than to probe the obscure workings of the mind, but he also writes scenes of great prosaic beauty. The modest, lovely New Year’s Eve party on the roof, complete with firecrackers and piles of fruit (“mosque-shaped apricots, bunches of green and black grapes, . . . bleeding strawberries”), is a velvety backdrop for the novel’s shocking final act.

At one point earlier in the book, we learn that Patri could have earned a blue belt in karate but never took the exam, “for various reasons, including her innate distaste for perfection.” That distaste is shared by Aira, and it is one of the keys to an appreciation of his novels. Any time an image, thought or scene is about to settle harmoniously, he jerks the floor out from underfoot.

As far as I know Aira, that nails him. See also our review of Ghosts and our interview with Wimmer.

Ghosts by Cesar Aira in NYTBR, Eventually

The Literary Saloon reports that the NYTBR is finally catching on about Cesar Aira. That's good for them.

And while you wait for them to roll out their review of Aira's recently translated Ghosts, be sure not to miss our review of the same.

You can also read our lengthy essay on Aira, covering among other things his place in Argentine literature, his peculiar method of composition, and his literary themes and obsessions.

And you can read our interview with Chris Andrews, where Andrews discusses translating Aira.

Ghosts by Cesar Aira Review

The Complete Review provides the first review I’ve seen of Ghosts, the newest translation from prodigious Argentine Cesar Aira.

It’s a curious little book (as many of Aira’s are), and we’ll be covering it in the spring issue of The Quarterly Conversation. But for now:

Ghosts is set largely on a construction site, a not-quite-finished apartment building. It begins with the future tenants all coming to have a look on the 31st of December, no one really minding that they can’t quite move in yet. The only residents at this time are the night watchman, Raúl Viñas, and his family, temporarily domiciled in what will be the caretaker’s apartment which they will be moving out of once construction is completed (indeed, they had already expected to move on earlier). The only other permanent fixtures in the building are … ghosts. Yes, they’re not that obvious at first (in the story, or the building) but: "the other characters, those bothersome ghosts, were legion". . . .

Also see Marcelo Ballve’s excellent overview of Cesar Aira in The Quarterly Conversation:

Aira has another idea of what a story is, and How I Became a Nun is a paradigmatic example of his simultaneously archaic and avant-garde ideas. Like the storyteller of prehistory, Aira is concerned not so much with verisimilitude or realism as he is with that bewitching kernel of mystery that is at the heart of a narrative. Aira’s novels are very much like folk tales in that they rely on paradox, disjointedness, and ruptures to carry the story forward. His works are fashioned not from sweeping modern visions but from a civilization’s odds and ends, shreds of meaning, the clutter of a reader’s memory and imagination. And like avant-garde visual and literary artists of the early 20th-century (especially the surrealists), Aira is obsessed with procedure and process, the actions at the mysterious origins of art. Also like the avant-gardists, Aira is interested in disrupting the normal workings of the cultural market in which his products are consumed, as his hero Marcel Duchamp did so famously with his ready-mades during the 1910s in Paris. In more than one interview, Aira has said he thinks of himself not so much as an author of novels, but as an artist who happens to write books.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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