César Aira
December 15, 2014 7:51 AM   Subscribe

“I‘ve realized that the perfect length for what I do is 100 pages. In my brevity there may be an element of insecurity. I wouldn‘t dare give a 1,000-page novel to a reader […] My novels became shorter as I became more renowned. People now allow me to do whatever I want. At any rate, publishers prefer thick books. But with books, the thicker they are, the less literature they have.””—César Aira

To the memory of Felicity Rilke, whose enthusiastic recommendations of Aira led me to start reading his books.
posted by misteraitch (24 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks for this. I read the Picasso story when it came out in the New Yorker and was impressed. "To have a Picasso or to be Picasso?" is a great opening.
posted by Cash4Lead at 8:10 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


the thicker they are, the less literature they have

My immediate thought: Infinite Jest, 1100 pages -- neither infinite (though tediously long) nor much of a jest (oddball isn't necessarily funny)
posted by fredludd at 8:11 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Counterpoint: In Search of Lost Time, which is rarely less than really, really good, except in the parts of the book that were put together by editors after Proust's death.

I first heard of César Aira when I went through a Latin American lit phase after reading The Savage Detectives in my freshman year of college. I should get around to actually reading him. His books sound cool.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


I too encountered Aira in the New Yorker earlier this year - I'll definitely be picking up How I Became a Nun and reading the "The Musical Brain" later today. The Nation profile does a great job of putting him in the context of modern Argentina. Regarding the brevity thing - that's part of his style (as it was even more so for his countryman Borges). To expect the same of other, longer novels is to ignore the stylistic choices that make those pieces what they are.
posted by stinkfoot at 8:41 AM on December 15, 2014


My immediate thought: Infinite Jest,

My immediate thought - Tolstoy. Then Dickens.

Never heard of this guy.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:52 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


The older I get, the more I appreciate a good novella.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:06 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have read as many Aira books as I can get my hands on and I can't recommend them highly enough. I also have to give high praise to his English translator- the prose is so good that I often read entire passages to myself out loud, just so I can savor them properly. Imagine Dali, or Pedro Almedovar, as an author.

His books are enjoyable despite the lack of commitment to plot or continuity because they are beautiful first and foremost. You'll find that you don't care that the book has seemed to meander away from its point because you really like where it's taken you. And then- woah! The point was still there in the background all along. Or not. It doesn't matter.

Probably the most frustrating thing about Aira is how few of his 50+ novellas are translated into English. Anyway- obviously I recommend him.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:31 AM on December 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


I've read two books by Aira: Ghosts and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Of the two, I'd recommend the latter more highly, but he seems to be a reliable source of thoughtful imagery and atmosphere. Thank you for posting this!
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:46 AM on December 15, 2014


I like Aira's books a lot but the bit about length and quality is just plain silly. Given the silliness of some of Aira's plot twists, that's not so surprising.
posted by aught at 10:37 AM on December 15, 2014


Never heard of this guy.

One of my least favorite comments to read in any context.
posted by naju at 10:41 AM on December 15, 2014 [16 favorites]


Probably the most frustrating thing about Aira is how few of his 50+ novellas are translated into English. Anyway- obviously I recommend him.

On the other hand, and I'm paraphrasing a quotation whose author I cannot remember: "How wonderful it is to think that I'll have a new Aira book to read every year for the rest of my life."

But yes, I am firmly on board with Aira. If it weren't for Gary Lutz I would probably say he's my favourite author I've ever read. I recommend starting with The Literary Conference or The Hare. Although The Hare is an uncharacteristic 200+ pages.
posted by wyndham at 11:04 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


My immediate thought: Infinite Jest, 1100 pages -- neither infinite (though tediously long) nor much of a jest (oddball isn't necessarily funny)

Infinite Read, more like.
posted by Nevin at 12:26 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Never heard of this guy.

Neither have I. Let us toast each other, all the while ignoring the nagging thought that despite all outward appearances we may not be the universal arbiters of taste that everyone supposes us to be...
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:52 PM on December 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


Well, this makes me feel better about my NaNoWriMo submission. Especially since I've been told repeatedly novels really need to be 100,000 words.
posted by happyroach at 12:56 PM on December 15, 2014


Well, this makes me feel better about my NaNoWriMo submission. Especially since I've been told repeatedly novels really need to be 100,000 words.

One of my favorite books ever is the tiny little Black Blossom by Boban Knežević (thank you copy/paste). At 44,600 words (according to private correspondence with the author), it amuses me to no end that it would not count as a NaNoWriMo win, despite being better than what I imagine is 99% of the winning output of that event.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:06 PM on December 15, 2014


Well, according to the Hugos and the Nebulas, a novel is a story that is longer than forty thousand words. My first novel was forty four thousand words, and my second one is currently at thirty seven thousand, after a healthy amount of cutting, but will probably end up at around thirty eight thousands after I type up all the additions I've scribbled into the margins of the print out, which will make it about the length of The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (not the fully awesome one). Great Gatsby was about forty eight thousand words. Length isn't nothing. It's hard to call a story that you can read in one sitting without having to eat or go to the toilet a novel. Part of the joys of reading books like Anna Karenina, The Lord of the Rings and Wind-up Bird Chronicle is losing yourself in the world they portray. But length isn't everything. Some of the best novels I've read have been very short, even shorter than Heart of Darkness, but I'd still call them novels in terms of narrative genre.
posted by Kattullus at 2:03 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


If Moby Dick had been written according to this you could publish it in Penthouse Letters.
posted by Nevin at 3:00 PM on December 15, 2014


Counterpoint: In Search of Lost Time, which is rarely less than really, really good, except in the parts of the book that were put together by editors after Proust's death.


Even those parts aren't so bad. If I could write a book half as good as the prisoner/fugitive I'd be happy.
posted by milarepa at 3:19 PM on December 15, 2014


Oh yeah, no question. The bizarre arrest that happens and never gets mentioned again seems to come from another book entirely, and the obsession with Albertine deserves its infamy for repetitiousness, but the trip to Venice, the description of Vinteuil's masterwork, and pretty much every scene with Charlus are all unimpeachably good. And then of course Time Regained finishes the lift and locks out after all.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:52 PM on December 15, 2014


IndigoJones: “Never heard of this guy.”

naju: “One of my least favorite comments to read in any context.”

There's nothing wrong with admitting that you haven't heard of someone.

I have never heard of César Aira either. I hope that doesn't make me a bad person.

At this point, to me he's just a guy who said that all long novels lack literary value. So the only thing I know about him is that he's a guy who's wrong about a thing. Maybe he's an awesome novelist, though. I may check him out because of this thread.
posted by koeselitz at 3:59 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Nice post! I just finished a Sunday commenting on forty critical theory-driven essays my high school seniors wrote on Aira's Ghosts. My students... took some time to warm to his style, & some simply never did. He isn't for everyone. For instance, & to be spoiler-safe, you'll be reading along with the experience of Patri, a 15-year-old Chilean girl whose family seems to be annoying her, what with the kids scampering around & her elders talking to her about a "real man," & then she heads off to siesta, & suddenly she's dreaming *like whole chapters out of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane.* With extensive references to Aboriginal dream-time, etc. etc. etc. The metafictional conceits & authorial games can be off-putting, but I think he's a very smart & also a very compassionate writer. Ghosts gets my wholesale recommendation, even in full light of the chance that some readers will hate it: I think reading it betters the reader no matter the reader's opinion. Which is paradoxical, maybe: how can so brainy a writer still hit the heart? Aira does. Thanks for the post.
posted by foodbedgospel at 5:24 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Never heard of this guy.

How fortunate for you that there's an FPP to expose you to his work, then!

There's nothing wrong with admitting that you haven't heard of someone.

No, but the performative "Who is this person? *disdainful sniff* I've never heard of them!" is tedious as hell. (And that's absolutely what was going on with that comment, or it wouldn't have the self-congratulatory references to Tolstoy or Dickens.) Okay, you've never heard of this person? Try reading the links provided!
posted by Lexica at 7:17 PM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well, to be fair, Aira actually said that long novels are bad. That's crazy and silly. IndigoJones wasn't mentioning other authors to be self-congratulatory; they were pointing out that, uh, there really are great long novels, and it's nuts to say otherwise. An incredulous response to a ridiculous dismissal of a whole swath of great fiction is not the same thing as blanket condemnation of an author.

Anyway, some of my favorite writers tend to say ridiculous things, so maybe it's not a bad thing that Aira said something silly in an interesting way. It's still silly, though.
posted by koeselitz at 11:10 PM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Aira writes a little about Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust here - an excerpt:
In effect, once the ‘professional’ novel – if we limit ourselves to the art of the novel – had come into existence, in a state of perfection that cannot exceed its premises (the novel of Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Manzoni), it runs the risk of becoming congealed. One could say that if the only risk is that novelists might keep on writing like Balzac, then it is a risk we are willing to take, and with pleasure. But in reality it’s optimistic to talk of a mere ‘risk’ because this process of congealment has actually taken place. Thousands of novelists have continued to write Balzacian novels during the twentieth century: an unending stream of commercial fiction, fleeting, frivolous novels written for the purposes of either entertainment or ideology. To take even a single step further, as Proust did, requires a colossal effort and the sacrifice of an entire life. The law of diminishing returns comes into play: the innovator covers almost all the ground in his initial attempt, leaving his successors a space that gets smaller every day and in which it’s more and more difficult to move forward.
Once a professional novelist is established, he has two equally melancholy alternatives: to keep writing the ‘old’ novels in updated settings; or to heroically attempt to take one or two more steps forward. This last possibility turned out to be a dead end within a few years: while Balzac wrote fifty novels, and still had time to live, Flaubert wrote five, shedding blood in the process. Joyce wrote two, and Proust a single novel, and it was a work that took over his life, absorbing it, a kind of inhuman hyperprofessionalism. The fact is that being able to make a living from literature was a momentary and precarious state which could only happen at a determined moment in history. I would even say that it was only, and could only ever have been, a promise, in the process of being formed; by the time it had come into being, it was already time to look for something else.
posted by misteraitch at 1:12 AM on December 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


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