Friday, October 16, 2015

Surrealism is so beautiful! It changes everything! - César Aira embarks on the great avant-garde adventure

In one of the mad scientist stories, Leopoldo Lugones (almost) explicitly invokes Poe’s “imp of the perverse,” his greatest psychological insight:

The demon of scientific inquiry, which is nothing but the embodiment of the spirit of perversity, impelled me, nevertheless, to resume my experiments. (Strange Forces, “Yzur”)

I take this as a self-description, and also as a description of his countryman, future Nobel anti-Prize winner César Aira.

Surrealism is so beautiful!  It changes everything!  (“The Infinite,” 1993, p. 226)

As if Aira’s own fiction did not contain enough self-description.  That one is about a young Aira and a friend inventing a game in which the goal is to say a number larger than the previous number, children demonstrating a philosophical exercise about representation.

Daydreams are always about concepts, not examples.  I wouldn’t want anything I’ve written to be taken as an example.  (235)

My knock on Aira is that however inventive the surface variation he is always writing the same story, but perversely The Musical Brain (2015), a collection of short stories, mostly variations on the same handful of ideas, is the perfect introduction to Aira.  When surveying Aira, it helps to be able to triangulate, or at least easier to see Aira mention again and again, in story after story, the “fact” “that a piece of paper cannot be folded in half more than nine times” (“A Brick Wall,” 2011, 18) or to wonder about the surprising number of genies.

My friends and I had become experts in deciphering that perfect economy of signs [Aira means film narrative].  It seemed perfect to us anyway, in contrast with the chaotic muddle of signs and meanings that constituted reality.  Everything was a clue, a lead.  Movies, whatever their genre, were really all detective stories.  Except that in detective stories, as I was to learn at around the same time, the genuine leads are hidden among red herrings, which, although required in order to lead the reader astray, are superfluous pieces of information, without significance.  (“A Brick Wall,” 7)

The movies “seemed like a super-reality.”  Sometimes I wondered is Aira was being too bald, but can I blame him if once in a while he wants someone to understand him, or, speaking for myself, pretend to understand him, since it is more than likely that I have been distracted by the savory red herrings, so good on toast.

From outside, it [contemporary art] might have seemed like a meaningless eccentricity contest.  But when one entered the game, the meaning became apparent, and dominated everything else.  It was, in fact, a game of meaning, and without meaning, it was nothing.  (“The Two Men,” 2007, 272)

Aira was the impetus for and center of a week of writing about conceptual art I did a couple of years ago.  In a 2013 essay in The White Review that is only superficially distinct from a couple of the stories in The Musical Brain, Aira describes the avant-garde, his avant-garde, as “an attempt to recuperate the amateur gesture,” to “restore to art the ease with which it was once produced.”

We were embarking on the great avant-garde adventure.  (“Athena Magazine,” 2007, 38)

The result is, as in this story and often in so-called real life, not the creation of the thing itself, in this case a magazine, but the perfect idea of a magazine, which for Aira almost counts as a success.  Not quite, though.  Tomorrow, “Cecil Taylor.”


  1. What happened to the comments on this post? Your quip about "savory red herrings, so good on toast" alone deserves a much better fate than that! Anyway, after several Airas, I pretty much agree that the "knock on Aira is that however inventive the surface variation he is always writing the same story." Sometimes that bothers me, usually not.

  2. Aira is not really the conceptual artist he can appear to be, and sometimes pretends to be. He is more of a burrower, like Monet or Pollock (or Cecil Taylor).

    As for comments, the internet is a mystery,

  3. A book of Aira short stories sounds interesting. I have read the 3in1 box of novellas and although still not triangulating with ease I find myself impelled to read more. As Richard says above, 'red herrings, so good on toast' is a phrase worth reading a much longer post for.

  4. Yes, having a number of texts together is a big help with Aira. It also helps that several of him are among his best - or are likely to be among his best - I mean, how would I know, really - to the extent that the word "best" is useful with Aira.