Artforum by Cesar Aira

In a collection of short essays, Cesar Aira discusses his love, bordering on obsession, for the American fine art magazine Artforum. Called, simply, Artforum, as a work of nonfiction it is something of an anomaly in the writer’s oeuvre. Written in the first person, the book carries all the markers associated with the writer — slim volume, short paragraphs covering a large breadth of territory, smatterings of magical realism, and stunning visual imagery. While, overall, they lack the magic of his fiction, the majority of the essays still manage to deliver on individual moments that delight.

The best of the bunch, to my mind, is The Sacrifice, which opens the book. Aira wakes up on a Saturday morning to the sound of rain. He experiences a sense of foreboding, followed by mild alarm, realizing that the windows had been left open overnight due to the heat…

The thing is, because of the heat, we left all the windows open day and night, and near the windows there were tables, chairs, and armchairs, and on these were books and magazines; there was an enormous amount of paper in the house. All of us in the family were readers, the bookshelves were overflowing, books and magazines were piled everywhere. It was inevitable that some would be within reach of the rain, which could come in through the open windows. It’s well known how destructive water is to paper.

He soon discovers his fears have come true and one of his precious magazines has been damaged… but also transformed. In typical Aira fashion, the story takes us somewhere we don’t expect to go. A trick he manages to pull off better than anyone else writing today.

Not every essay is about Artforum. There is one about clothespins, and the philosophical and metaphysical implications of their breaking, which is lovely. But on the whole, the collection is uneven and I found the majority weren’t particularly memorable. The fault, of course, could lay with the reader. I expected a rollicking and ridiculous adventure as we followed Aira on his single-minded quest to obtain issues of Artforum magazine (apparently hard to come by in Argentina). But this book is not that. At a superficial level, most of the essays are about waiting for the issues to arrive by International post and the mental games the writer plays in order to rationalize why they are late or fail to appear entirely. In one episode, Twenty Four Issues of Artforum, Aira learns from a friend about a windfall of back issues at a used bookshop. After he buys the magazines he has lunch with another friend, who gives him a surprise gift. The essay evolves into a meditation on the emotional and spiritual connections we form with both people and inanimate objects. It reminded me of Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, specifically the parts where he warmly recounted meetings and conversations with old friends. Of course, what Aira is really writing is a book about his development as a writer and an artist (nothing new there) and disguising it as a book about the magazine Artforum. Still, I can’t help wishing there’d been a little bit more about the magazine — its history, as an object — included in the text.

While not enough to label a genre or even a literary trend, — though one might be very slowly developing — I do feel there have been a number of books published and pushed over the past few years that engage in narrow examinations of one subject as the means of understanding another. I’m thinking about books like On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera (which I just reviewed at Ron Slates One the Seawall). In the review, I compared it to The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Both women are dealing with personal illness: Barrera with her loneliness and depression, and Bailey with a rare disease that had her confined to her bed for months. I also compare it to Eric Plamondon’s 1984 trilogy of novels about the actor Johnny Weissman, the poet Richard Brautigan, and Steve Jobs. And Nathalie Legers’ Suite for Barbara Loden, which I only recently learned is part of another trilogy (or, as the author calls it, a triptych) on feminist artists, which includes one book about the French Countess of Castiglione and another about the Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca. Are these books responses — conscious or otherwise — to the internet, Wikipedia, and our collective habit of diving down rabbit holes on obscure topics?

I’ve always been partial to Chris Andrew’s translations of Aira, but Katharine Silver won me over. The voice she uses is familiar — close enough to the novels but subtly toned-down so that we understand this is the writer speaking to us as himself, rather than through a character. Aira novels tend to grow on me over time. There are passages that individually dazzle but, on the whole, there needs to be a ripening period. In that way, Artforum is no different from his other books that I’ve read.

In 2014, Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos translated portions of “What Aira Says” by Sergio Pitol. It’s wonderful, a convergence of two of my favorite writers which I believe is still unavailable in its entirety in English. Pitol makes a distinction between “the highest expressions of Aira’s art and the more tedious or lesser ones”. (If you are an Aira fan the entire post is worth checking out). Right now I would classify Artforum as among the lesser expressions. But, that said, I like it better than I did a week ago. And a month ago I found it entirely underwhelming. So who knows what my feelings will be a month from now? That ability to linger and metamorphize in a reader’s mind over time is both magical, rare, and at the essence of why I continue to admire Ceasar Aira.

Title: Artforum
Author: Cesar Aira
Tranlator: Katherine Silver
Publisher: New Directions, New York (2020)
ISBN: 978 0 8112 2926 5

Korean Writer Hwang Sok-yong

There’s an emotional stoicism to Hwang’s characters that might be misconstrued as flatness, but should be perceived as an idiosyncrasy of the author’s prose. The lives Hwang depicts are not easy ones, and could have been twisted into distasteful melodramas. The pain and suffering that Bari, Woohee, Minwoo, and the two brothers experience is more powerful for being muffled, filtered, as if their spirits and psyches were protected by layers of cotton wool. 

The above is a passage from my March review of three of Hwang Sok-yong’s novels for Guernica. I love these books. I love Sora Kim-Russell’s translations, the humanity of the characters, and the seamless way Hwang Sok-yong weaves the supernatural into the everyday. (It reminds me a bit of Cesar Aira, despite these two writers being nothing alike). The title of the essay, which I didn’t choose, is A Country on the Cusp of Change (Guernica, March 2020)… and, to be honest, I feel like this review got a little bit away from me. It became too much about the political and economic, maybe because the author has a history as a political activist that I felt I needed to talk about, and too little about the emotional way I connected with the characters. The two brothers in Familiar Things, Bari and her dog, Jung Woohee from At Dusk — I’m still thinking about them months later. We care about the ideas in the text because we care about the characters.

You can read the full review here.

Title: Familiar Things
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe

Title: Princess Bari
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe

Title: At Dusk
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Translator: Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Scribe

The Sentence Is Death by Anthony Horowitz

I do love a good mystery. And I’ve been a fan of Anthony Horowitz, sometimes without even realizing it, for years. I’ve enjoyed his television series — New Blood, Midsomer Murders, and Foyles’ War. And I truly love his Sherlock Holmes pastiches: The House of Silk and Moriarty. His latest series, featuring a detective named Hawthorne, is wonderfully cheeky. Horowitz puts himself in a starring role and it works because he’s already a larger-than-life character in the real world. On the page it’s absolute magic. Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic are describing these meta-mysteries as great fun. I completely agree.

The Sentence Is Death is the second book featuring Private Investigator Daniel Hawthorne and his trusty side-kick Tony Horowitz. Click on the excerpt below to read my full review.

Part of Horowitz’s charm is that he, like his readers, is in love with books. It’s what makes him so appealing to literary estates. Page by page he builds a solid case against the murderer, using all the conventional methods and the occasional well-worn trope of the genre. His suspects are a well-drawn, motley bunch. The chapters are filled with reams of dialogue. There’s a bumbling, but conscientious, police detective in the first book who is replaced by a pair of equally bumbling, but this time openly hostile, police detectives in the second. Expect a barrel of red herrings and lots of corpses. Fans of Midsomer Murders will know that there’s never just one death. In fact, it’s often the cover-up murder that provides the clue that cracks the case.

Alix Ohlin’s Dual Citizens

My review of Dual Citizens, Alix Ohlin’s novel about mothers, daughters, and sisters, was my first review for Ron Slate’s On the Seawall. Plot- and character-driven novels can be difficult to write about when you’re trying to avoid a plot dump. It took more than one draft (or three) for me to figure out what I wanted to say about this particular book. Fortunately, I found Ohlin’s first-person narrator, a woman named Lark, problematic. I couldn’t decide whether the reader was expected to embrace or question her psychological motivations. Something which bothered me more than it should have. In the final review it didn’t matter. That complexity — of the character’s emotions, motivations and relationships, and their lack of resolution — are what ultimately made Dual Citizens a compelling read.

For my full review, click on the excerpt below.

Sometimes we forget that the opportunity to assert our own identities, outside of the traditional roles of wives and mothers, has been available to women for a relatively short time. And that the definition of motherhood, and all the expectations that cling to it, are only now subject to interpretation. The subsequent question of Lark’s suitability to be a mother is by far the most interesting element in what is otherwise a conventional novel. It is informed by all we know about Marianne and will learn about Robin. But, surprisingly, in a novel that reveals itself to be about the maternal bonds, it is a question nobody asks out loud.

Eventide by Therese Bohman, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Therese Bohman’s novels have fascinated me since I first read her English language debut, Drowned, in 2012. For a long time, I thought it was simply the ferocity of the stories that I admired. Her portrayals of love, and what passes for love, is intimidating. Reminiscent of Virginie Despentes, sex is a power struggle. There’s an undercurrent of violence and manipulation in all male/female interactions.

Eventide, her third book translated into English, maybe her breakthrough. It has received more attention than her two previous books combined, having arrived at the perfect intersection of the #MeToo movement and a demand for more books in translation by women. I always want to talk about Bohman during Women In Translation month… though I sadly didn’t manage to get this post done for WIT2019.

Karolina is Bohman’s first middle-aged heroine. She is an art historian and academic. Her last romantic relationship (which was characterized as having the longevity and monogamy of marriage) has just ended. Not because of infidelity, tragedy or abuse, but because Karolina decided she no longer loved her partner. She finds this new phase in her life both exciting and frightening — an emotional cocktail which leaves her vulnerable to the attention of a charismatic graduate student she’s been assigned to advise.

In many ways, Karolina is the logical evolution of Bohman’s previous female protagonists — all of whom are involved in some variation of a romantic triangle. In Drowned two sisters are seduced and ensnared by the elder’s husband. In The Other Woman, a twenty-something cafeteria worker begins a romantic relationship with an older, married man and, unknowingly, the man’s daughter. In Eventide it is Karolina, her student Anton, and Lennart Olsson (another professor in the art department), who form the novel’s emotional triumvirate.

Anton has made a fascinating — and possibly groundbreaking — discovery. He has uncovered a cache of work by a forgotten woman artist from the Mannerist period, which is Karolina’s particular area of expertise. Lennart Olsson has made his career on “discovering” overlooked and forgotten female artists. In Anton, he sees the possibility of advancement… should he become Anton’s advisor. But, of course, everything is not as it appears. Anton’s progress on his thesis is slow, his research haphazard, and Karolina quickly senses a problem.

Eventide is a type of quiet drama that centers around situations and challenges particular to the lives of women. The stakes might appear relatively low to us but, from Karolina’s perspective, they are everything. Is Anton a fraud? Will Karolina be helping him perpetuate an academic lie, thus endangering her own career and reputation? And, always, underlying everything is Karolina’s fears about being a single woman in her forties, childless and alone.

What would she be remembered for? She might end up with neither children nor a partner; what had she done to make an impression on the world? Her writing didn’t interest many people. Maybe she ought to write more, something really radical. Surely she ought to express her opinion when she had one, for example in the debate on the columns in the new subway station? If everything else was doomed to disappear into oblivion, the least she could do was to write what she really thought.

It’s difficult not to consider how different Karolina’s situation might be or appear if the character were a man. She has a reasonably successful career and is comfortable financially. Her work and social circle at the University remain unchanged after her separation. She is attractive, intelligent, and her life is very much her own. And, yet, Bohman understands how gender affects perception. Lennert is meant to function as Karolina’s male counterpart. He, too, is single and financially well-off. He is considered something of a ladies’ man, though Karolina doesn’t see it. The difference is that Lennert has been more successful professionally. He is an opportunist. He has benefitted from all the advantages of white, male privilege, and Karolina understands that, in contrast to her own sense of self, “Lennert thought he deserved the acclaim”.

Examinations of the lives of older women are becoming more common. The New York Times columnist, Gail Collins, even has a new book on that subject No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History (I’m buying multiple copies for Christmas this year). For those familiar with Minae Mitzumara’s, Inheritance From Mother — Karolina has more in common with Mitsuki, the book’s fifty-something heroine, than with the lost young women of Boehman’s previous two novels. Both characters, Karolina and Mitsuki, are used to explore what a fulfilling life looks like for a middle-aged woman existing outside of the societal expectations of lover, daughter, and mother. Karolina’s story, like Mitsuki’s, is one of persistence and continuity versus revolution and reinvention.

Because few people possess the courage to sell their belongings, cut off ties to their family and friends and move to an Ashram in India. Or have the luxury of spending three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Or the financial resources to eat, pray and love their way around the world. But, more often than not, these are the stories we are told. Bohman writes different stories. She portrays a woman’s life without resorting to extremes in characterization and reaction. Her heroines are allowed to misstep, behave badly and make morally questionable decisions. They are transgressive. Karolina is a refreshing respite from characters like Emma Bovary, April Wheeler and the entire literary canon built around women disproportionately punished, and/or made ridiculous, for aspiring to more. And while the stories Boehman writes are not as rare as they once were, they are still very welcome.

Title: Eventide
Author: Therese Bohman
Translator: Marlaine Delargy
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2017)
ISBN: 978 159051 893 9