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Tag Archives: cesar aira

Colin Marshall with Aira’s Translators

At The Marketplace of Ideas, Colin Marshall interviews all three individuals responsible for Cesar Aira in English. And it should be said, Aira has been blessed with some of the most articulate translators I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding with. So go listen to it.

And this is a good time to plug my interview with Aira himself in the current Tin House.

And some Aira links at The Quarterly Conversation:

Review of Seamstress and the Wind

Review of Ghosts

Marcelo Ballvé’s excellent essay on Aira

Interview with Chris Andrews

Six Questions for Rosalie Knecht on Cesar Aira’s Seamstress and the Wind

For more interviews, follow this link.

By now, readers of this blog (and I would hope readers in general) need no introduction to Cesar Aira, one of the most exciting authors to be making his way into English. Over the past couple of years, New Directions has done amazing work with Aira, publishing novel after novel. I think they’re beginning to make some headway in developing the kind of audience that this writer deserves.

They have just published The Seamstress and the Wind, the sixth title of Aira’s to appear in English from New Directions. (A seventh, The Hare, was published in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail but has since gone out of print.)

Perhaps New Directions is beginning to feel that an audience for Aira in English is somewhat assured, as this is the strangest Aira they have yet published. (Although, as this interview makes clear, there are much stranger things out there.) Although no Aira title I have read is conventional, this one goes further than anything I’ve seen in English in throwing out the traditional mechanics of plot and character to create something pure Aira-ian. It’s a strange book, albeit a powerful read. I interviewed its translator, Rosalie Knecht for some insight into Aira, his books, and his future in English.


Scott Esposito: Your bio accompanying Seamstress and the Wind indicates that you received a Fullbright to work with Aira on the translation of this book. Can you tell us a little about how Aira participated?

Rosalie Knecht: We met several times for coffee and talked about how the translation was going, and I emailed him drafts as I finished them. I was in Santa Fe, Argentina, and he lives in Buenos Aires. He had a pretty light touch on the whole thing–he translated mass market stuff from the U.S. for a living for years. He would read the drafts and say, “Sure, that’s fine.” Close to the end of the process I had a list of problems I couldn’t solve and we met in Buenos Aires and went over them. He approved the final draft and gave me the go-ahead to talk to his U.S. publisher.

SE: Can you discuss one of the translation problems from the list that you brought to Aira?

RN: One of them was the word acanastado. I’d had no luck in my dictionary or online–Google returned exactly one result, and it was the same text I was working on, which is apparently online in PDF form somewhere. Anyway, canasta means basket, and acanastado is what would happen if you could conjugate basket like a verb. It was referring to the backseat of a car that had been in a wreck. I asked him if I could use basketed, and he said that that was probably what he meant. He wrote the book in 1994, so some of it was reverse-engineering to something that he hadn’t needed to think about in a long time.

SE: It’s funny that you mention about Aira not having thought about the text since 1994. I conducted an interview with him in the spring where he essentially said that he writes so much that he more or less forgets what he’s previously written, to the point that it’s hard to talk about it with critics, interviewers, etc. Did this come up a lot with the translation of this book?

RN: It did come up, yeah. When I brought him translation problems he tended to approach them in a collegial way, as if the two of us were working on a third party’s book and he just happened to be more knowledgeable about it than I was. He doesn’t like to look back on his past work, and people often remark on that, but I think it’s actually kind of typical for writers. I write fiction too, and once I’m really finished with a piece, I kind of superstitiously avoid it. There’s a sense that once you let go of a piece of work, it may change into something you don’t recognize.

SE: I take it you’ve read a number of books of Aira’s. Can you talk a little about why this one was chosen for you to translate, as well as how you see this one fitting in with some of the better-known Aira books out there? For my own part, I found it a remarkably whimsical book from an author who, of course, tends not to spare the whimsy.

RN: I picked this book myself. It was the second half of a two-novella volume put out by Beatriz Viterbo in Argentina, the first half being How I Became a Nun. I was just pulled in by it. I think a lot of it is about loss. All the stuff you lose, all the stuff you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you try. But it’s sort of wide-eyed instead of being depressing.

It does fall more on the whimsical side–How I Became a Nun buries its weirdness a little deeper, messing with gender and continuity instead of monsters and cars made out of armadillos and that kind of thing. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter plays it pretty straight, by Aira’s standards, a lot of the time. I think some of the weirder stuff hasn’t been translated yet, like his short stories, for instance. Cerebro Musical is about a brain made from cardboard that plays music in a library, and then escapes and wreaks havoc on Aira’s actual hometown. Mil Gotas is about the drops of paint that make up the Mona Lisa, which escape (a theme?) and go into space and get into some kind of interplanetary showdown. But he’s published about eighty books, so I can’t claim to know his whole catalog.

SE: Seamstress has a strange sort of beginning. Aira discourses about the role of memory and forgetting in the creation of fiction, and then he starts telling what is ostensibly a true anecdote about when he was a boy growing up in Colonel Pringles and a boy named Omar went missing. This ends up being the first event in what is clearly a fictional story; and, throughout the book Aira casually injects himself into the narrative, seemingly per whim. How do you construe his relationship to this text?

RN: There’s a lot about things going missing and “disappearing” in the novel, which is a very loaded word in Argentina. I think Omar’s disappearance is kind of an oblique reference to the dictatorship years–something historical and specific turned into something abstract and personal. Maybe it’s that “personal” aspect that explains Aira’s relationship to the text, beyond just the fact that Aira tends to insert himself into his own books, either as a character or a commentator, pretty often. The memories described are obviously not real, because these things can’t actually happen, but they could be seen as a personalized, individualized interpretation of national collective memories that are traumatic.

I think if he heard me say this, though, he would roll his eyes.

SE: One final question about where translators might head next with Aira. Of the stuff out there to be published, there’s the story “Cecil Taylor,” one of my favorite Aira works. I’d love to see that published somewhere someday. Will you be translating any Aira in the future and what books of his you’d most like to see make their way into English.

RN: I’d be happy for the chance to work on another Aira book, and I’m also looking into some other writers. The challenge is finding the money to do it. Most translators are either grant-supported, as I was in this case, or they’re academics.

I was just talking to somebody the other day about Ema la Cautiva–one of his more popular books, and as far as I can tell, unavailable in English. It was sort of his breakout novel in 1981, after which his books started getting printed in Europe. Somebody should get on that.

For more interviews, follow this link.

Best Translated Book Award 2011 Shortlist

And then there were ten (plus five poetry finalists). Press release and whatnot here.

This is a real strong fiction list.

The 2011 BTBA Fiction Finalists (in alphabetical order by author):

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books)

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books)

On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)

The 2011 BTBA Poetry Finalists (in alphabetical order by author):

Geometries by Eugene Guillevic, translated from the French by Richard Sieburth (Ugly Ducking)

Flash Cards by Yu Jian, translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett (Zephyr Press)

Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu (Litmus Press)

Child of Nature by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi (New Directions)

The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry (BOA Editions)

Best Translated Book Award 2011 Longlist

25 translated novel-length books for your enjoyment. Most of them I can vouch for. Press release at Three Percent.

The Literary Conference by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, translated from the Czech by Andrew Oakland (Dalkey Archive)–One of my favorite reads of 2010.

The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti, translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales (Host Publications)–reviewed at The Quarterly Conversation

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (Small Beer)–reviewed at The Quarterly Conversation

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated from the French by Donald Wilson (Bitter Lemon)

A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (New Directions)

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (New York Review Books)

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Archipelago)

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (Grove)

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (New York Review Books)

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated from the French by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)–reviewed at The Quarterly Conversation

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New Directions)

Cyclops by Ranko Marinković, translated from the Croatian by Vlada Stojiljković, edited by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Yale University Press)

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amélie Nothomb, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions)

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund and the author (Graywolf Press)

A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch, translated from the Polish by David Frick (Open Letter)–excerpted and reviewed at The Quarterly Conversation

Touch by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar (Clockroot)

The Black Minutes by Martín Solares, translated from the Spanish by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker (Grove/Black Cat)

On Elegance While Sleeping by Emilio Lascano Tegui, translated from the Spanish by Idra Novey (Dalkey Archive)

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Tin House)–recommended on this site on the right-hand sidebar

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)–reviewed and translator interview at The Quarterly Conversation

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer by Ernst Weiss, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (Archipelago)–reviewed at The Quarterly Conversation

Cesar Aira in NYRB

Since 1975, the Argentine writer César Aira has published about seventy novels—it is difficult to arrive at an accurate count, and the number continues to grow at the rate of two per year. They are usually no longer than one hundred pages: dense, unpredictable confections delivered in a plain, stealthily lyrical style capable of accommodating Aira’s fondness for mixing metaphysics, realism, pulp fiction, and Dadaist incongruities. The sheer quantity of books has engendered a mini-industry in Buenos Aires, involving start-up presses as well as more established publishers that share the job of putting Aira’s work between covers. “Publish first, write later” was a dictum of Aira’s literary mentor, the late Argentine poet Osvaldo Lamborghini.1 This is just the sort of joke that Aira has embraced as a kind of aesthetic ethos. It was from Lamborghini that he seems to have developed his idea of an avant-garde literature that could combine the impossible with the real, a literature in which every statement of fact suggests its opposite and even casual observations and plot twists are turned upside down.

Aira’s work first came to North American readers in 2006, with a letter of introduction from his most celebrated contemporary, the Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño. In a short preface to An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Bolaño called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.” Coming from a writer known for his brutal literary assessments, this amounts to high praise. Bolaño’s importance rests, in part, on the fact that he was able to shift the axis of Latin American literature from the magic realism of the tropics, which had exhausted itself by the 1980s, to the more cerebral, European tradition of the Southern Cone.

More here, for subscribers only.

Favorite Reads of 2010: The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira


All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

If I could be King for one year, what I’d do is call together 10 or 15 of the best Spanish-languge translators I could find, and I’d set ’em loose on Cesar Aira. Between the translators’ skills, Aira’s naturally beautiful writing, and the fact that his novels tend to be very short, with any luck we’d get through a good quarter of the 80+ Aira titles that remain to be translated into English.

Maybe we could even establish the Cesar Aira Press and just publish Aira titles exclusively over the next 5 – 10 years. His books are all so different from one another that I bet we could cultivate different readerships for each one (plus the people who already know and love Aira and will read whatever he publishes). And given Aira’s continuing (even accelerating) productivity, he’d keep us busy after we polished off his backlist.

To see why I’m such an Aira adherent, go ahead the look at The Literary Conference, the one Aira title to make its way into English this year (New Directions has plans for more next year, one hopes, more thereafter). Reviewing it in The National, I wrote:

The kernel of the plot is the idea to take a cell from Fuentes and clone it into an army, a metaphor for Aira’s own status as a prolific writer, firing off experiment after experiment and conquering his rivals by sheer ubiquity.

Later on there will be further conflations of fiction and reality: a play-within-the-novel (authored by César Aira, of course, and performed at the literary conference in his honour) about Eve as a “clone” of Adam; a love story involving a beautiful woman from Aira’s past; and, last but not least, enormously destructive worms that make mincemeat of the Venezuelan army.

That’s a lot to fit into 85 pages, and Aira is indeed an author who loves to keep multiple balls in the air at once, yet he has a way of making his novels feel extemporaneous and fun despite the heavy metaphors and philosophical implications seething out of almost every sentence. Aira writes with what Italo Calvino called “lightness” – a quality the latter held in the highest esteem and which he likened to Perseus (the writer) beheading Medusa (reality) while viewing her through a mirror and standing on the “very lightest of things, the winds and clouds”. Aira is just the kind of writer to assault reality while seeming to dance about around it on a current of nothingness. His wispy books rarely run far beyond 100 pages, and he continually employs an ironic, bemused tone that can turn even the heaviest matters to comedy.

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Some Thoughts on e-Reading

I recently read my first complete electronic book on an e-reader. (The reader was Amazon’s Kindle, which I did not purchase and nor do I own, though I do have regular access to.) The book was Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference, and to make the experience a little more complex, it was a book that I was reading for a review.

I found the e-reading experience to be genuinely immersive, at least as immersive as I’ve experienced with similarly compelling printed books. (And I would imagine that The Literary Conference is hugely compelling in any format). I didn’t feel any temptation to leave the text and play around Continue Reading

John D’Agata and Cesar Aira

Two pieces of mine both went online elsewhere:

My review/essay of Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference at Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper The National

And about 6,000 words of mine on John D’Agata, centered around his About a Mountain, which I have deeply mixed feelings about

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.

More Notable Books You Won’t Find in the Times

Contributing editor Scott Bryan Wilson took me up on yesterday’s open invitation to pick some notable titles from this year’s coverage at The Quarterly Conversation. A few of these were actually published in late 2008, but they were books that I liked a great deal, so I’m leaving them on the list.

Ghosts – Cesar Aira (review)

This Nest, Swift Passerine – Dan Beachy-Quick (review)

The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolano (review)

Tracer – Richard Greenfield (review forthcoming)

Waste – Eugene Marten (review)
The Mighty Angel – Jerzy Pilch (review)

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon (review, essay)

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (review)

Imperial – William T. Vollmann (review)

Bonsai – Alejandro Zambra (review)

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

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 . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

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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