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.


  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

Six Questions for Katherine Silver on The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

Katherine Silver is one of the most talented, interesting, and dedicated translators working from Spanish today. She recently translated Cesar Aira’s novel(la) The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, her second Aira translation (it joins The Literary Conference) though definitely not her last (read on).

I asked her six questions about the particular challenges of translating Aira, her own interpretations of his oeuvre-in-progress, her discovery of Aira, and what lies ahead for Aira-fans in the English language. In addition to Aira, Silver has translated Almost Never by Daniel Sada (with two more Sada novels to come), three novels by Horacio Castellanos Moya, Battles in the Desert by Jose Emilio Pacheco, My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel, and numerous others. She also codirects the Banff Centre’s translation program, which is a fantastic program that all translators (not just of books into English) should apply for. Lastly, her translation of Martin Adan’s The Cardboard House has just been published by New Directions.


Scott Esposito: Like all Aira books I’ve read, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira will sound a bit strange in summation. It seems there’s Dr. Aira, whose archnemisis, Dr. Actyn, keeps trying to trick into performing one of his “miracle cures,” through the use of actors pretending to be doctors attending to dying patients. For some reason, it’s very important to Actyn to record this, and just as import to Aira not to be recorded. This may all be an elaborate metaphor for Aira’s method of writing novels.

One thing that stuck out at me as I read the book was the attention paid to acting vs being “natural” and the different ways Aira would distinguish between the two in the book. There are all sorts of things here about writing vs living vs acting vs performing one’s identity vs memory . . . the concept of the “blunder” is very important to the book; on page 22, Aira writes “blunders were a tributary of spontaneity.” I think this perhaps bears some relevance for Aira’s “constant flight forward,” his perpetually improvisational method of writing books. I’d like to ask you if and where “blunders” come into your practice as a translator, particularly with regard to your translations of Aira.

Katherine Silver: Your question points to an important “theme” in the book, perhaps in all of Aira’s work, as well as one principal difference between translating and composition. Nor is the fact that Aira made his living for many years as a translator, often of genre fiction, irrelevant to these considerations. The answer to your question is, simply put, that they don’t, that blunders, improvisation, and spontaneity have little to do with the method or the madness that is literary translation, which is, at least how I do it, picky, detailed, fussy, and painstaking. There are times, many, when I feel I am channelling the text, translating as fast as I can read and type. But what spills onto the page during those sessions is not what you, or any other reader, finds in a published book, which has subsequently been read, reviewed, and corrected at least five more times. Unfortunately, as a translator, my mistakes are much less whimsical, fanciful, or even excusable than blunders, as Aira defines such things. And having done lots of both kinds of writing, he knows of what he speaks.

SE: You’ve clearly read a lot of Aira and enjoy him very much. Can you talk a little about your introduction to Aira–how you first started reading him, and what about the books appealed to you so much as to make you want to begin reading deeply into his work?

KS: Aira was a gift, a precious and deeply appreciated gift, to me from New Directions. His translator, Chris Andrews, was busy translating something else, probably Bolaño, and they asked me to do one. I was thrilled, and suspect I will continue to be so, as long as there is more Aira to read and as long as I get to keep translating him. I think to read Aira is to gain a fresh awareness of what narrative is and can be. With all his supposed gimmicks and nods to genre, he brings the reader very close to the raw material, the original text, so to speak, that is, the primary experience of being human. He seems to write directly from that liminal state, half-dream, half-awake, that is precisely (see prior question) uncensored and so difficult for us mere mortals–who don’t make clones or work miracle cures or follow the walking dead–to hold onto. One feels one is tagging along behind his mind as it weaves and ducks and cross-punches. As a translator, and as a reader, one must trust him and not try to make “sense,” whatever that might mean, of it all. I appreciate that practice.

SE: At numerous points throughout The Miracle Cures of Dr Aira, Aira strikes a contrast between the “partiality” of writing and the “totality” of the present, as though writing is an act of cutting out parts of a “total” reality. This is reflected later in his “miracle cure,” which entails closing off possible realities in favor of the one preferred reality (in which the “cure” is successful), which Aira at one point directly compares to the act of writing a novel. Do you feel like something analogous happens when you translate?

KS: Here, I would answer quite differently, and give a qualified yes. Every word, every phrase, every syntactic construction, every lilt or pause or tone or twist of a translation is the result of a million decisions of exclusion and inclusion. This becomes evident when one compares various translations of the same, even simple, passage, which are never identical, suggesting that there are infinite ways to solve any particular puzzle and that the puzzles are endlessly multiple and overlapping. Sometimes, indeed, I feel language cascading into my office in the same way reality intrudes on the sickroom where Dr. Aira is working his miracle, and though I probably don’t actually do the dance of a madman while trying to hang screens that stretch and bend and slice through any onrush of parts of speech and possible lexical combinations, there’s a lot of picking and choosing going on behind the scenes . . . or is that screens?

SE: Was there anything in particular in this translation where you felt a sense of closing off options particularly strongly, or where you agonized over choosing just one of the many ways you might have translated a span of text?

KS: As you pointed out, certain concepts, expressed by specific words, are pivotal and recurrent in the book. I knew I would have to repeat whatever word I chose as often as he repeated its counterpart, hence they had to be words with a broad enough range without being too vague. Alternatives offered other nuances, but since Aira is, in a sense, defining the words as he uses them, I sensed that I had a little wiggle room. For example, “Blunder” may not have been the most natural choice, but it was the best available, in my mind, and I think it works quite well, in part because it is currently underused hence open to being swayed.

This does bring up another issue that comes up in any translation, but with a particular lilt in Aira. And a method I use for dealing with it. Aira’s prose is just barely off kilter, to my ear, slightly out of tune or off the beat. This is inseparable from the work’s sensibility, not some kind of imposed style. That same oddness comes through in my English, I hope. Upon each re-reading, I must resist making minor, mostly syntactic corrections that would tune it up, so to speak. Whenever tempted, I go back to the original and translate back, that is, check to make sure that Aira did not choose that other wording, or its close equivalent, in Spanish, that would have made me translate that passage in the first place in the way I am now tempted to correct it.

SE: Early in the book, during the first scene where Dr. Actyn’s agents are trying to trick Dr. Aira into performing his “miracle cure,” Aira reflects that “The trap consisted of making him think until he’d convinced himself that it wasn’t a trap.” I think this, obviously, can be read as pointing toward the act of writing a novel, as Aira implies at many points throughout the book. But I felt that one of this book’s strengths was that Aira leaves things schematic enough that you don’t need to reduce this to a book about writing novels. What was your own read of what this book was about, or trying to do?

KS: I’m always reluctant to say what a book is about because if a book can be “about” something that can be summarized briefly, why write or read it. And I usually only think about what a book is trying to do when it doesn’t quite manage to do it. This book, in itself and as part of Aira’s oeuvre, has changed the way I feel the world, being alive, reading and writing. Oddly enough, I felt the same way many years ago about his compatriot, Jorge Luis Borges, someone with whom I feel Aira is always in some kind of concrete or highly abstract dialogue. Borges, however, at least in his stories, isn’t half as funny, at least not to my bone.

But to answer your question more directly: Dr. Aira is a character who undoubtedly undergoes trials, tribulations, doubts, inspirations, persecutions, and tragedies that are, in some form, familiar to the author. I do not think I reduce the book at all by saying that I intuit in more detail something about how the author Aira writes and thinks about his writings by reflecting on the good doctor and his struggle with theory, practice, and humiliation. Also, I like to read his books as installments, parts of a large whole that is, under it all, a slow and stealthy plot for world literary domination. We already knew that outlandish scientific experiments were not beneath his dignity, and now we have miracles on top of it. All I can say is, beware!

SE: Have you read much Aira beyond what has been translated into English? Can you give us some idea of the treasures that still have yet to reach us in English translation?

KS: I have read some, but relative to what is out there, still very few. I picked up around ten slight tomes last time I was in Mexico. Several were brilliant (and some of those will be coming to your local bookstores within the next year or so), some less so, and some were downright awful. That is part of the charm and wonder that is his oeuvre: the treasures in the sand. According to Borges, G.K. Chesterton wanted to compile an anthology of the very worst poems in the world, as long as they were by the very best poets. If Shakespeare, he said, wanted to write a ridiculous page, he would have no qualms about doing so, but a mediocre poet would have no really bad poems because he would be too cautious, would watch over himself too closely.

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