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 two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening.” – Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively was born in 1933. She’s written over fifty books — novels for adults & children, plus some non-fiction. Life in the Garden is a collection of essays very like the series of gardening articles by the American writer Katherine S. White. Originally written for The New Yorker, White’s pieces were collected and published by her husband after her death in Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Both women, or should I say both gardeners, are refreshingly modern in their tone and approach. White wrote an entire essay dedicated to the experience of pouring over seed catalogs, while Lively isn’t above a sly aside on the influence Monty Don and Gardeners World have over the British planting public. I can’t imagine May Sarton ever being so gauche as to discuss the role of commerce in her garden – she never reveals where she bought her plants or what the local nurseries were stocking in their greenhouses that season. Sarton’s garden, we are expected to believe, was grown entirely from the clippings of memory left on the altar of her doorstep by friends and neighbors.

I’m being a bit unfair, but certainly Sarton expressed no interest in “the garden as a social indicator” — an idea Lively explores in suitably lively fashion. 🙂 She was in her seventies when she wrote Life in the Garden and had long since downsized from the Oxfordshire garden she tended with her husband Jack (who died in 1998 and whose memory is everywhere) to the more modest London plot she keeps today. Where before she and her husband employed Richard Taylor, who she calls “friend, collaborator”. “He and Jack would work together, in unceasing conversation; I would come out and find them paused, each leaning on spad or fork”. From Taylor she moves on to consider the preponderance of Scottish gardeners in literature. Wodehouse’s dour Angus McAllister waging war on the Blanding Castle slugs and Beatrix Potter’s fearsome Mr. McGregor, who Jack believed “to be a much misunderstood man”. These days Lively relies on a service which employs immigrant laborers rather than an individual whose calling has been passed down through the generations.

The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two have meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. I find myself wondering what is going on here. Is this garden deliberate or merely fortuitous? And it is nearly always deliberate, a garden contrived to serve a narrative purpose, to create atmosphere, to furnish a character.

Lively, more than Sarton and White, connects gardens and literature — something I’d been craving since the start of this project. She opens her essay The Written Garden, with a description of the dreamt garden introducing us to Manderlay in DuMaurier’s Rebecca. She also discusses the fictional gardens found in the works of Elizabeth Bowen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Carol Shields and several more writers I’d never heard of. Then, in the second half of this same essay, she switches to “the garden writing that is free of fictional purpose, concerned only with discussion, advice, celebration — the writing of those who garden.”

Life in the Garden is a short book, made up of six essays (seven if you count the introduction). Each reflects and is permeated with a lifetime of reading. This is distracting at times. The pages are filled with the names of authors and the titles of books, as well as descriptions of plants and planting schemes. Lively makes a seemingly endless series of connections and it can be a bit like reading a compendium or directory — each sentence opening up a rabbit warren of internet research. So much information comes at you and very little manages to stick. Fortunately, she has written the kind of book which you’ll want to pick up and re-read.

Books on gardening, whether they be practical how-tos, memoirs, or essay collections like this one, age well. Even when some of the advice has gone out of style, the components of the garden change very little over time or across regions — hardscaping, soil maintenance, planting beds, structural trees and shrubs, water features — these are still as much a part of our contemporary landscapes as they ever were. The same can be said of the plants.

Clematis appears a dozen times in Life in the Garden: in T.S. Eliot’s poems, on an Anna Pavord calendar, climbing up one of Vita Sackville-West’s apple trees and planted in a Giverny garden famous for its waterlilies. My clematis, which does not look particularly happy where I planted it (by the way), has inexplicably produced two big and beautiful white flowers. And in a weird way, it forms a tenuous connection between all those other gardeners and me. And when I think about that, about this love for and desire to interact with the natural world, I can’t help but wonder… how did they deal with the aphids?

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward, and forward, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next.

Title:  Life in the Garden
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: Viking (New York, 2017)
ISBN: 978-0525558392

Tech is playing havoc with my reading.

Lately, I’ve been having trouble focusing. I’m restless and nervous all the time. I’m constantly playing with my phone – jumping from app to app; checking my Gmail; posting on Twitter; should I be posting on Litsy? check Litsy; did my table sell on Letgo? check Letgo; new episodes of my favorite podcast? download; listen to podcast; put phone down. Jump on internet or turn on the television. Anything I want to stream on Amazon Prime/Netflix/Hulu? Watch trailers. No. Turn off the television. Pick up a book. Read. Think of something to Google. Maybe I should be writing? Put down book, pick up phone. Open game. Play game until out of lives. Begin cycling through apps again.

Tech is playing havoc with my reading.

I’ve become obsessed with de-cluttering my house. The truth is that my head is crammed full of information/to-do’s/desires/ideas/regrets. Like a Japanese Zen garden (resist Googling Japanese Zen Garden – success) that’s littered with trash, I need to devise a slow and purposeful way to rake the sand clean again.

My phone is trying to addict me. Not really the phone – just like not opioids, not meth, not nicotine, not caffeine. Drugs are not viruses. They do not consciously recognize that they benefit from my addiction. Companies recognize the benefits. It is in Google’s/Facebook’s/Twitter’s/Amazon’s/Instagram’s/YouTube’s best interest if I don’t disconnect from my screen. There have been articles and studies (resist Googling synonyms for “built-in” – success) explaining that tech companies build-in features to make their applications addictive, complete with psychological triggers and rewards in the form of likes, emojis, hearts, hearts that sparkle and pop (resist Googling articles and studies – fail) which make us feel seen. Everyone wants to be seen.

I like Star Trek’s version of the future. I bought a Google Home Hub because it came with two free minis. I already own a mini. Our house is small. A friend who works for a big tech company I’ve already mentioned doesn’t own any home devices. His social media footprint is small. He’s surprisingly analog outside of work. Should I be paying attention to this? Does he know something I don’t? The Matrix wasn’t intended as metaphor and yet, metaphorically, I can’t help thinking we’ve all voluntarily connected ourselves to the matrix. The film (resist Googling for “the matrix film” – fail), released in 1999, is no longer a convincing depiction of the future. The tech has aged badly.

Fortunately, my addiction isn’t wreaking havoc on or disrupting my relationships, other than my perception of them (FOMO). But if it’s interfering with my reading life, an activity that brings me happiness, can I still say tech has improved my life? (Google “breaking tech addiction”. Resist tinfoil hat paranoia – fail. Google “quit smoking”. Click on smokefree.gov. Substitute “screens” for “cigarettes”).

  • Make a Plan – Set limits in order to wean yourself off screens. This is something Cal Newport talks about in Deep Work (download audiobook from Audibles.com). Rather than schedule time off – the oft-cited tech hiatus – designate your time on. Beginner goal: keep screen surfing time to ninety minutes per day. Track in journal.
  • Stay Busy – Find meaningful projects to replace screen time. Plan things to do: books you want to read, write more, visit friends, go to the gym, work in the garden, take the dog for a walk. Gretchen Rubin recommends scheduling phone dates with long distance friends on her Happier podcast. I’ve tried and find it a satisfying alternative to Facebook for keeping in touch.
  • Avoid Triggers – Limit impetuous searches. Write down the things you want to search and go back during designated screen time. Delete games. Gradually delete social media sites, starting with the ones you rarely use. Set Forest phone app (resist Googling “phone apps to keep you off screen” – success) for maximum minutes to discourage picking up phone. Use internet blocks when writing. Avoid SNL videos on YouTube. 
  • Stay Positive – Limit Instagram & Twitter use. Identify the kinds of online activity that makes you sad or nervous. If you feel disconnected, find offline ways to connect (yoga class, browse a book store, go to the park).
  • Ask for Help – Ask your partner to hold your phone for blocks of time. Ask close friends and family members to call if they need to reach you instead of texting. Go somewhere. Be around other people. And, (resist cliche – fail) recognize that other people will probably be staring at screens of their own.

A Quick Post On A Day Spent Reading, Fake Fireplaces & Sergio Pitol

I’ve set aside today to read.  My usual routine for days like this is to make prodigious amounts of tea, put the “fireplace” video on the television and pretend I’m stranded in a Scottish Inn. The video operates under the same concept as the Yule Log.  Which, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is played during the holidays on public television – transforming television screens across America into burning fireplaces. Classical music plays as the logs burn down, though why they (by they I am of course referring to the visionaries who recognized the market demand a video of burning logs fills) can’t just use the crackling sounds of an actual fire is beyond me. The particular video I have access to also includes artistic close-ups of portions of the fire, further destroying the illusion of your-tv-as-fireplace.  We can only assume this (along with the music) is a balm to the filmmaker’s artistic integrity, or perhaps a way to pacify the Gas Fireplace Manufacturers of America who might view televised fireplaces as a competing market.

As usual there’s a stack of books I want to get to.  At the moment my focus is on finishing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. He has a remarkable authorial voice – and his personality shines through this and the first book of his Trilogy of Memory: The Journey. What I wanted to talk about, though, is the wonderful supplemental material Deep Vellum included with each book.  Two Introductions  – written by Enrique Vila-Matas (for The Art of Flight) & Álvaro Enrigue (for The Journey).  Álvaro Enrigue’s is your standard overview: explaining the author’s work and its importance in an essay called Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy.  Vila-Matas’ introduction is a bit more personal. He draws a wonderful portrait of Sergio Pitol in his own, very brief, essay entitled Pitol in the Rain.  The two men (Vila-Matas & Pitol) are friends; and Vila-Matas mentions the little details, the small quirks of personality, which true friends treasure. Thanks to Vila-Matas we discover that Sergio Pitol is a bit of a hypochondriac and is continuously losing (and recovering) his eyeglasses.

‘I remember the day because there was a pounding rain and Sergio was constantly losing his glasses; the latter was not at all unusual, his penchant for losing and then finding his glasses being legendary. That day he lost them several times, in various bookstores and cafes, as if that were the perfect antidote for not losing his umbrella. I recalled the day that Juan Villoro had found in Pitol’s tendency to lose his glasses a clue to illuminating new aspects of his poetics:  “Sergio writes in that hazy region of someone who loses his eyeglasses on purpose; he pretends that his originality is an attribute of his bad eyesight…”

Pitol in the Rain is only a few pages long, but every word is full of affection and friendship.  Readers are left in no doubt that Pitol is a man much loved by those fortunate enough to know him personally.

How often can biographies, let alone introductions and afterwards, make that claim? I often find that the more I learn about an author the more disillusioned I become.  But, from what I’ve read so far – The Journey in its entirety and a good portion of The Art of Flight – Pitol is far from a bad boy or glamorous member of the Literati.  Though he seems to have come in contact, and frequently developed lasting relationships, with some of the most important writers of the times his writing is amazingly scandal and gossip free.  His anecdotes are amusing because he finds them amusing, and always good-naturedly so. I get the feeling the members of the Algonquin Round Table would find him a bore and he would feel the same of them.  He lacks their sting, yet is as charming as any one of them could wish to be.

George Henson’s translation captures the author’s lightness and guileless enthusiasm for life and literature. He’s also done an admirable job of keeping the strand of Pitol’s prose from becoming tangled in the author’s convoluted labyrinth of memory. Henson, too, seems to have succumbed to Sergio’s charm despite their having never met.  In the translator’s note Henson describes the pressure of translating without an author’s collaboration.  Particularly when the author is a much celebrated translator, himself.   He explains the reason for the absence of authorial input (which I won’t go into) and ends the paragraph with an email he received from Pitol (which I will) – “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language I adore and in which none of my books exist.”

I found those two sentences incredibly touching, – particularly the words happiness, gratitude and adore. The more I read the more it becomes apparent that Pitol possessed a rare and self-effacing intelligence. Those three words are representative of the author, or at least how I’ve come to think of him through the his books. Many things seem to have filled Sergio Pitol with adoration, happiness and gratitude.  We can all be grateful that he took the time to write some of those things down.