Roberto Bolaño’s contribution to the Spanish issue of The Hudson Review is flattering. It’s a post I wrote last year, on the extraordinary riches of Argentine literature. His essay is maybe just a little different than mine, superior in terms of knowledge, skill, breadth, depth, humor, and every other virtue associated with good writing and good criticism, but is otherwise much like what I wrote.
Post-Borges Argentine literature has become, Bolaño claims, “the literature of doom,” a “literary nightmare, literary suicide, a literary dead end.” That sounds worse than he means – better literary nightmares than real ones. Bolaño thinks of Roberto Arlt, for example, as a great writer, but here’s his metaphor for Arlt’s anti-novels:
Seen as a closet or a basement Arlt’s work is fine. Seen as the main room of the house, it’s a macabre joke. Seen as the kitchen, it promises food poisoning. Seen as the bathroom, it’ll end up giving us scabies. Seen as the library, it’s the guarantee of the death of literature.
An aside – I would not want to argue that this is the way all literary criticism has to be written. No, not all of it.
The strain of doom that has only recently wandered into English is that of the mysterious Osvaldo Lamborghini and his disciple César Aira. Bolaño describes Lamborghini’s novels as “excruciating,” readable only two or three pages at a time, smelling of “blood, spilled guts, bodily fluids, unpardonable acts.” If someone could report back on this, I would appreciate it.
That is not at all how I, or Bolaño, would describe the compulsively readable Surrealist César Aira, author of dozens of little novel-like objects. Five have appeared in English, with another coming in June. I am surprised to discover that I have read four of them, all but The Hare. Tess Lewis, in The Hudson Review, has put together a fine and useful, if perhaps insufficiently skeptical* overview of Aira-in-English.
I have written elsewhere, briefly, about a single amazing scene from An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, easily the best Aira novellino I have read (Bolaño prefers the fluid How I Became a Nun), and also the most conventionally novel-like novel, suggesting that I am an aesthetic reactionary. I read someone – not Tess Lewis – who claimed that Landscape Painter was Aira’s deliberate parody of the well-crafted Modernist novel. Could be.
The Literary Conference (2006), Englished last year, is about a mad scientist – “the typical Mad Scientist of the comic books” (18) – who plans to conquer the world with an army of clones led by a clone of Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. The mad scientist is the narrator, and author, César Aira. Of course he is. Who else would he be?
Aira writes his fiction under a regime of self-imposed daily serialization. My understanding is that he can polish and refine his day’s writing, but can never revise an earlier day’s work. He deliberately inserts impossible, unsolvable situations to stymie his future self, who is stuck with whatever nonsense he had previously written. His novels are one-man exquisite corpses. A close canonical equivalent I can think of is The Old Curiosity Shop, a brilliant improvisatory flight, which often descends into Dadaist lunacy. As Aira (“Aira”) thinks, watching one of his old plays at the literary conference:
What was this all about? I didn’t recognize it, it was too Dadaist. Nevertheless, I had written it. (55)
Now I see my attraction to Aira. It is as if he is me, reading one of my old posts at Wuthering Expectations.
Another aside – if someone would hurry up and translate Aira’s only short story, “Cecil Taylor,” that would be great. Thanks.**
* Aira, like Bolaño, is a straight-faced prankster; their own claims about their biographies and methods should be taken as artistic creations.
** According to Bolaño, one of the five greatest stories he had ever read. No idea what the other four were. According to Aira, “No es un cuento” (“It is not a story,” translation by me). “Cecil Taylor,” accompanied by a perplexing allegorical introduction, can be found in an anthology titled Buenos Aires (1999, ed. Juan Forn). Someone should translate the whole book.