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

Varamo by César Aira (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

My love affair with César Aira began at the Idlewild Bookshop.  A friend handed me a copy of GHOSTS and said “This looks interesting.  You read it and let me know if it’s any good”.  (These assignments occur more often then you might think).  And so I read it.  Afterwards, I began to hunt for other Aira books with the single-minded focus I’d previously reserved for obscure short stories by Faulkner & Salinger (4 hours and $25.00 spent at the NYPL making copies of Hapworth 16 1924 from the 1965 New Yorker magazine microfiche).  Fortunately New Directions publishes a nice selection of his translations, immensely simplifying my task.

Why my passion?  Because no one writes like Aira.  His small novellas  – usually under a hundred pages – contain line-after-line of sublime prose.  Each is a tiny, carefully articulated, universe.  Like a miniature diorama you can lose yourself in for hours. The plots, on the other hand, appear relatively straight-forward.  Deceptively so, in my opinion.

Varamo is “a third-class clerk” working for the Panamanian government.  In the year 1923, during the ten- to twelve-hours described in this novel, he will be inspired and write The Song of the Virgin Child.  It will be celebrated as a masterpiece.  It will also be the first and last thing he ever writes.  You never actually read the poem in its entirety… or even excerpts.  Instead, Aira recounts this unusual day in Varamo’s life – seemingly disparate events which will culminate in a single poem.

Varamo has a place amongst literature’s eccentric characters.  When we first meet him he is under stress, believing himself the recipient of counterfeit bills and convinced that he’ll be arrested if he tries to use or dispose of them.  Things just get stranger from there as our protagonist is joined by a cast of equally outlandish characters.  Their, and subsequently our, hold on reality seems more and more tenuous.  The story is filled with absurdities – a botched taxidermy experiment, a regularity race (it’s real!), mysterious Voices – all accompanied by seemingly rational explanations.  But as each strange event is explained away, another moves in to fill its place.

The races, said Cigarro, were fundamentally technical competitions, an opportunity for the fledgling automobile industry to test its innovations, and they appealed mainly to car fanatics rather than the general public, which made them rather esoteric.  The race underway was a special case, because it had been promoted by the Central Administration as part of the festivities for the inauguration of the linked highways running right across the isthmus, connecting the cities of Colón and Panamá.  In fact (and here he lowered his voice, as if revealing a state secret) the race had been planned, mainly, as a trap for anarchists.  To them, a regularity race was a provocation; it’s strict regulation of time and space was bound to prove repugnant to the libertarian spirit.

Part of the frustration in reviewing a César Aira novel is that anything I write will be inadequate at conveying the pure delight to be found in his prose style, the way he transitions in and out of ideas and the overall narrative rhythm.  How to fully appreciate “And the black sky crossed by streams of phosphorescent mercury was a vision worth the risk.  The stars were an overwhelming surprise.  But since each scene was linked to the one that had gone before, he continued to see the dominoes and dishes, twinkling among the constellations…”  without reading it in context? Varamo poses an even greater challenge than usual – the narrative is perplexing, the plot (most of it filtered through our protagonist’s mind) difficult to untangle and a little slow getting off the ground.  But – and I stress this –  it’s so worth the effort.  Every time I come to the end of an Aira novella I feel as if I’ve missed something important.  Varamo was no different.  Rather than finding it frustrating, I see it as an opportunity… a welcome excuse to go back to the first page and begin again.

Publisher: New Directions, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 0 8112 1741 5

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