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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The Tunnel

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.

Life Perec

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.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

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.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

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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More from Conversational Reading:

  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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