The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

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A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Legacy by Sybille Bedford March 15, 2015
    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
    Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Gr […]
  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
    New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, wa […]
  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
    This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countr […]
  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura March 14, 2015
    The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter's translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an e […]
  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
    Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic compe […]
  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
    Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you'd expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we're still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collab […]
  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
    here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from […]
  • The Valerie Miles Interview March 14, 2015
    The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual […]
  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
    Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea "wine-dark" and the heavens "bronze." Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Th […]

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.

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  1. 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...
  2. 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...
  3. 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...
  4. 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...
  5. 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...

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2 comments to Literature’s Ghosts

  • Hey Scott,
    you should check out Aristotle’s metaphor on housebuilding (I believe he uses it in Metaphysics, to illustrate the mover who doesn’t move, and in Physics, precisely to discuss art -although there “art” is understood in a broader sense) pretty much the same thing. Also, it’s curious that the scholastic reading of Aristotle, for instance Thomas Aquinas, introduces the term “ghost” whenever they refer to “thought”.

  • Guillermo,
    These are very interesting points. Given the kind of writer Aira is, I find it hard to believe the resemblance to Aristotle is coincidental. Thanks for pointing this out!

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